Four Thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style: Meme-ing as Activism

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Until recently, I hadn’t seen Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style remix, but I definitely heard about it.  Everyone on my social media feeds has been talking about, and people have emailed it to me.  I’ve seen hilarious-looking pictures and read the commentary. But I’ve just not been able to sit down and watch it.

Why is that?  It’s not for lack of effort.  Rather, I’ve been doing fieldwork in Uganda these past few weeks, and I don’t have regular access to the internet.  And when I do get online, the connection is rarely fast enough for me to actually download the video.  And that got me thinking about meme’ing as activism.  A few randomly hashed together thoughts that I’ve thrown together in my brief moments with internet access:

1. Even before I saw the Ai Weiwei version, I knew enough about the Gangnam Style phenomenon to appreciate why it’s funny.  I know that the video has been parodied and remixed countless times, so I generally have a sense of how it goes.  I know Ai is probably doing the horse dance and the cowboy dance.  I know he’s probably leaning back in a chair in the opening scene.  I figure there’s a group of people dancing with him.  I know it’s been remixed for political purposes, like in Puerto Rico.  I assume it’ll make me laugh, or at least smile.

The video isn’t actively blocked here in Uganda, but it may as well be.  And if I were in China, I’d have more or less the same experience.  It would be pretty hard (but not impossible) to find the Ai Weiwei video.  On the other hand, Gangnam Style has taken off in China just as it has around the world (including Uganda!).  If you do a short Weibo search for “江南Style”, the Chinese word for “Gangnam Style”, you’ll see remixes and commentary posted every few minutes.  PSY’s music and video are enormously popular, so much so that there’s even a Red Army edition.  And so it doesn’t matter if you can actually see the Ai Weiwei version; you just need to know that it exists, and you can probably guess how it goes. So why is that important?  Because it means you’re probably talking about Ai Weiwei again, which gets me to my second point…

2. Utilizing internet memes, whether creating them yourself or piggybacking off an existing one, is a particularly effective technique against censorship.  Sure, it’s easy to read Ai’s antics as mere attention-getting, but attention is precisely what the Chinese government doesn’t want him to get.  In the past, when the government wanted to silence someone, it could simply his or her name from the news media.  In the age of the internet, they try to do the same thing with keyword search algorithms and active human censors.  It seems like it should work, until, in some cases, it leads to exactly the kind of backfire that the Streisand Effect predicts.

To be sure, the video has been blocked on certain channels.  But as of writing this post, I’ve found that it is still viewable within the Chinese web (as pictured above). And yet even if every single instance of the video could be successfully blocked (not too hard: videos aren’t uploaded quite as quickly as Weibo posts), you’d still see pictures floating around, or, at the very least, quips and commentary.  Indeed, drawing from Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, it would be difficult to block searches for and posts about Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style video without also blocking other Gangnam Style videos and therefore upsetting the apolitical social media users who are simply posting innocuous videos.  And so Ai Weiwei’s parody video–and stories about the video–live on.

Memes are the antithesis of censorship and silence.  Despite the government’s best efforts to delete Ai Weiwei’s name within China, all you have to do is think about him wearing sunglasses and doing the horse dance, and suddenly he’s back in your consciousness.  This is something I’ve written about previously: memes are loud, unforgettable and viral, and they’re effective in both censored and free speech contexts.

3. Some have commented on how overly simple the video is, but in my view, the simplicity makes it accessible. After seeing the video, I have to agree with Molly Sauter (as quoted in Ethan Zuckerman’s post) that it has a twinge of sadness.  Short clips of Ai and fellow artist-activist Zuoxiao Zuzhou in handcuffs and a brief appearance by Zhao Zhao, who’s also been subject to scrutiny, add a measure of gravity.  But surely Ai Weiwei and his studio with all its resources and talents could have created a video with more of a narrative arc, with more production value, something a little more jocular.  And yet they didn’t.

The way I see it, the simplicity of the video sends a message to viewers: you can do this too.  And that’s important. In the aftermath of Ai’s arrest, we saw how his deceptively simple works–the Studies in Perspective, the obscene jumping Grass Mud Horse pun, and the sunflower seeds–became repurposed and owned by a variety of netizens.  The Chinese web and beyond were filled with middle fingers, grass mud horses and sunflower seeds as an act of online memetic protest.  Ai’s other works require vast teams of artisans and administrators to execute and a handful of jargon-loving curators and writers to interpret.  But the Gangnam Style video?  Nothing that’s too far out of reach: all you need is a basic video camera, some editing software, and a few friends who want to dance.

4. But I’m also seeing that many internet memes have another important feature helpful for activists: they’re absurd.  In a recent blog post about the Ai Weiwei remix, Ethan Zuckerman wrote: “As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.”  It’s an absurd image, but in the face of an absurd, totalitarian system that would disappear a man for 81 days, never officially acknowledge it upon his release, and then subject him to trumped up charges, travel restrictions and constant surveillance… absurdity is sometimes the only response.

But this is a random assemblage of thoughts in the midst of fieldwork in other areas (including looking at Ugandan memes!).  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What do you think?  Am I reading too much into this, or is there something to the meme’ing of activism that Ai Weiwei (and Pussy Riot and Daniel Maree and others) is pushing forward?