The influential philosopher Michael Foucault recognized, among many other challenges to epistemology, that it is not knowledge which drives power, but power which decides what is to be considered knowledge. In the Instagram world as the prevailing example, followers, admins, and influencers are codependent on each other to keep the community operating on its own self-referential fuel, with limited rules and enforceable member terms. Or as Foucault summarizes, “he is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” Is an expansive, global social media network intended to be a meaningful platform for intentional art and sophisticated community or are we just imprisoned individually, shouting at random into the centrally focused void? Memes offer, at worst, an appetizer of discourse, which is to say that their easily repeatable nature both inherently accepts (reposts) and denies (edits, tags, hashtags) with varying efficacy the original message.
I had the pleasure of chatting with one such artist, who shared with me the oftentimes gutting reality of living two simultaneously public lives—the tangible version of Noel Kirsch, bartender and graduate student, and her hyper-realistic persona on Instagram, @coolslutclub. Noel comments on the balance of managing essentially an unscripted, ongoing personal diary highlighted by well-crafted barbs against patriarchal tropes.
Question: I love the name of this account. And in the sea of similar accounts, I DM’d you partially because of the name itself. What’s the story behind it?
Answer: “The name is super important because it begins first with retaking control over the word ‘slut’, as well as normalizing the reclaimed, positive connotation of it. The various notions of [sic] sluttiness are broken down in my account through the challenging of the subjugation of ‘the slut’ and overall victim blaming, personally experienced since puberty. I’m glad it wasn’t taken, it was just too perfect.”
Q: How does your personal life shine through the subject matter?
A: “My personal life is the subject matter, but I just use both my experiences and those from friends that inspire me in the way that if they say something or tell me a story that I want to meme, I will ask them and we’ll make it together because the you, which is just a collapsed upon itself I in my memes, and is from their perspective in the narrative. And while I use my own experiences and emotions for my memes, I also allow myself a creative liberty with them. There is inherently always an element of performativity at play within these images and texts.”
Q: I think that is key, group vs shared experiences, but ultimately coming back to the individual’s final cut. Is there a fourth wall or anything off limits anymore?
A: “The notion of a fourth wall occurring within the space of Instagram is interesting because of the comments section as well as the relationship with followers as a public account. There isn’t anything off-limits in what I create but in what I will eventually post publicly. although one main thing I thought was off limits for me I finally began to post about, so I’ve really been breaking that down. I find that when I am writing, whether it is poetry or in a journal or making memes or even writing a philosophy paper, I am more honest with myself than any other time. Although at the same time there is always an a direct anesthetization of my experiences, and so to entirely conflate me with my account can be misleading. It is a version of myself that I am creating, I am inspired by my life and write in a candid fashion in which I allow myself to also play out fantasies or alternate ‘plotlines’ if you will.”
Q: There is no better place to invent yourself than online. I wear a wallet chain and have a goatee now in real life. I look at it every day and it confuses me.? Speaking of making it stop, is Harambe (the meme) dead (metaphorically)? Or in other words, what is it the life cycle of a meme in your own words?
A: “I think that what is so fascinating about memes is that they never really die, they are immortalized in all of their augments and reiterations, saved on desktops or smartphones, preserved in the depths of Reddit or Twitter. Although there are absolutely ‘lifecycles’ of popularity of memes, though I see many formats just have highs and lows in popularity, so their visibility within one group changes over time. I feel like when something is worn out in one form or in one sort of sect of the internet, it will just pop up elsewhere instead. There are also larger aesthetic trends you see in memes like interesting fonts (comic sans irony) and I think many of those follow a similar cycle of coming in and out of popularity. My memes are confessional memes, which I guess is a format but not one with a specific image.”
Q: I think that’s the idea, and I know you were a bit perturbed earlier when I mentioned that sometimes we are overthinking these memes, and quality doesn’t really matter. Anyone can jump in and participate but are some people just learning the game better than others? Comment on the creative process framework for the ideal meme or name your favorite type/example
A: “When I’m writing the “confessional memes”, I tap into a sort of automatic writing states but making memes has begun to slide into the place of when I used to write in a journal or just notes on my phone. Now when something happens to me that I know I want to write about, I open a note on my phone and just smash out a sketch of the text component and at the end if I already have an idea of the picture than I’ll jot down whatever it is. I very rarely make the meme right at once if I am around people, unless I am hanging out with my one friend who also makes memes. Basically, I don’t want to get too sucked into my phone and be present. Also, sometimes the brutally honest stuff takes me a while to pull together, and when I write when I am emotional and sometimes stuff doesn’t make sense or is full of typos. I think because I have always been a daydreamer, I tell stories in the same vein.”
Q: No other line from modern literature ever summarized a person’s duality more for me than Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” What does this mean to you?
A: “Plath’s human condition is all too real. Wanting everything and nothing, wanting what we cannot have. Although I realize that this is how I experience “the human condition” because that has been my experience, especially having struggled with mental illness throughout my life. I used to think that existing within this very tension Plath is referencing was what made me so crazy and unstable, but throughout my entire project with @coolslutclub I have realized that I am not the only one struggling with this. I think that this is also hugely because through my account and my experiences within the feminist meme-sphere, I have begun to see mental illness and its treatment or discussion heavily normalized. This impacts the way that I instinctually felt about this quote in that I identify with the insatiable neurosis and all its contradictions that it carries but I also now know that this does not have to isolate me either with the shared presence on Instagram.”
Q: So, again, the shared experience can be unique to just about any ideological niche. The important thing is getting it out there as it happens.
A: “The paradox of this quote is that these are mutually exclusive things, a push and pull between performative and autobiographical that I am constantly navigating with coolslutclub. In theory, you cannot be performative and painfully honest at the same time, yet I feel like that is somehow the space which I occupy. I think that the oscillation between the two, in the rapid cycling fashion that I am prone to, culminates in its own unique voice and space.”
Where Noel’s narratives often become enveloped in larger storytelling causes, my second interview with fellow Chicago resident and mixed media artist, Evelyn Wilde, hints at the meme as the effect, and not the cause of individual performance. Her inspiration for the private account @selfie_selfiesh_selfish was driven by an interest in how it the selfie is used in cultivating online relations and projection of ego.
Q: What made you choose Instagram as the home of this project? It doesn’t sound like it’s set up for the innate and ultra-valuable sharing ease if remains private.
A: “Because this isn’t a user experience, it is a private selfie account that exists primarily for the maker but will be eventually viewed by the general public. I wanted to keep the 4th wall down and leave no room for safe spaces.”
Q: Easy enough, I appreciate the mystery and fully expect to be the second approved viewer when it’s ready. Your work notwithstanding, the word ‘selfie’ seems pejorative these days, almost as grating as another cluster of words you probably loathe given your demographic and creative lifestyle– ‘millennial’, ‘hipster’, and ‘meme.’ To prevent even further tangents, let’s focus on that last term—meme. Am I making too much of these? I’m in dozens of IG group chats that people barely even comment on after sharing them. Like breathing at this point.
A: “Not at all. Meaning exists in everything because we make it up. This format is just an oversimplification of complex ideas. The audience gives it meaning but the ability for it to become a meme is not inherent. It’s up to the viewer/access point to open up the discussion about what is being asserted after its created.”
Q: So, in your opinion, it doesn’t become a meme until it spreads and if I add nothing to it but still share it, I’m just along for the ride. Do you think they have a programmed half-life? Built to continuously die like those sad captives on Netflix’s OA. Don’t watch it btw, I hate myself for doing it.
A: “Ultimately no one is going to see a meme and take away a new concept unless it is spread among a group that deems it worth of conversation. The meme lifecycle in its simplest form is ‘original meme > jacked meme > useless meme’”
Q: I’ve heard dank, but these terms aren’t set in stone. Basically, any of the ones I’ve created fall into the useless category, short of one liked by a former model turned Seinfeld enthusiast. My lone moment of stardom. Where else do you get your inspiration and what creative communities do you find help your work?
A: “The dead guys on book jackets, and in all seriousness, Pinterest.”
Q: As a trained mixed media artist, what do you find as the ultimate original content framework for an ideal meme? Is there even a process?
A: “There is a process in all meaningful creative work. But the ideal memes are those that are pairing new ideas with static imagery to pass on a poignant, sometimes dark, social remark.”
Q: Not to get into circular logic, but the meme becomes the meme only when it is passed down the chain. Then you really aren’t even creating a meme, it’s existing in a separate Terminator timeline constantly being picked at in one universe but being unchanged from the original mold in another. I am not wasted. This always makes think of our infatuation with nostalgia. Is iteration getting in the way or exactly what people continue to crave?
A: “We are nostalgic for a present we will never have and therefore a future we can’t actually exist within. We tend to break down generations, like Millennials, into groups based on youth. These generations then follow a specific group closely and we base that current culture off any particular group, repeating what is easily produced. Imagine if one human were to be born repeatedly for every generation, would they not have the identical experience in a different setting? Times change, people don’t.”
No one on Instagram is being championed as the living incarnation of Dostoyevsky, but the medium has opened the flood gates for new philosophical, existential, and spiritual perspectives, many of these voices coming from those who have spent more time online than off of it. We should not be shuddering at the thought of a new ‘slanguage’ they command that is steering us through the frontier, we should be refining it. We should not be opposed to nontraditional visual media amateur occupying the same feed as prize winning authors, we should be encouraging them to stay authentic. We should not label or critique our peer groups, we should seek to understand them, for they draw a breath that no brand masking as your friend can.
Corporate or agency funded messaging is not an implicit threat to ideas worth passing on. As a member of several for over a decade, these capitalist structures are often more forward-thinking than any sole intellectual because their very survival depends on external relevance. It simply shocks me how agencies continue to chide them for not addressing disruption, as if a thirty-something English major producing a viral video about renewable energy is suddenly also a chemical engineer. Can we even imagine the intellectual reservoir required to codify the Internet of Things without the resources of our global businesses?
If a meme exists by its ability to survive the channels, then the real risks begin and end with your fellow users. Tastemakers and social media managers offer no more value than stock brokers and toll takers, those who would prefer to keep the channel clogged with dispassionate advertisements and lazy mass appeal. Yet ultimately, the meme maintains its original value through its recursive usage and crowd-dictated preservation. The contributors I profiled create with intent, but are not blind to what guarantees engagement and reaction. We are all guided by an old question of digital morality—to take the creative high ground of the niche or feed the churn, endlessly chime in until the highest upvote, share, retweet is achieved. Self-respect isn’t easy when you require good and services that don’t come in a trash can, but making more of what the world doesn’t need and telling yourself you’re special is a toxic loop that needs to be cinched.