A Meme Is Not a Monument But Can It Make a Myth of a Man?
In the Philippines, the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic were utter chaos. A militarized lockdown in the country’s capital was declared in March of 2020 and was combined with vague quarantine protocols. The disorder was exacerbated by conflicting directives from the interagency task force assigned to manage the government’s pandemic response. Public transport, public gatherings, and public aid were all either suspended, restricted, or difficult to come by, further highlighting the absence of public spaces and institutions, as well as how fraught the very concept of a public is.
In the midst of the deeply felt precariousness, the country’s commander-in-chief would appear in public late at night, delivering rambling addresses that did little to provide clarity for the over 12 million people living in Metro Manila. As the lockdown dragged on and COVID spread to other Philippine cities, then President Rodrigo Duterte’s proclamations were loosely interpreted on social media: circulated first as a series of screenshots before being reduced to the memetic communication that characterized his regime.
The titular question A Meme Is Not a Monument But Can It Make a Myth of a Man? pertains not only to Duterte, but to populist movements in the digital age, where the political is often diminished to the glib and lo-res (as in low-resolution humor) of meme culture. The political meme in particular traffics in thought-terminating cliches, quelling arguments and clipping any potential for meaningful critique, while in itself demanding more thorough investigation for its capacity to distort narratives and divide communities.
Through conversations with artists and organizers, reading groups, and a publication, I will be developing previous case studies on the social life of monuments online and offline, and how they sway political opinion and alter power structures. I hope to create venues for surveying the wreckage of the post-truth landscapes that are remaking our future. Crucial to these conversations is the role of ephemeral digital media: Can a meme be monumental?
Alice Sarmiento (*1985; Manila, PH) is a writer, independent curator, and animal welfare worker. She has written extensively on topics such as the representation of the Filipina labor diaspora in contemporary art, the cultural ramifications of Duterte’s war on drugs, and how these phenomena relate to a feminist future. Alice was an awardee in the 2015 edition of the Japan Foundation Asia Center’s curatorial development program and a 2019 fellow in Cultural Journalism at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. In 2021, she was among the residents of the Young Curators Residency Program of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Torino Italy.