As part of our 2017 Insights Design Lecture Series, cultural worker Clara Balaguer and graphic designer Kristian Henson discussed the complex and fractured history of Filipino graphic design, as well as their publishing imprint, Hardworking Goodlooking (which they operate with Dante Carlos and Czar Kristoff) and Balaguer’s own social practice work under the alias Office of Culture and Design. Their talk touched on the intricacies of how cultural work can be used as a critical tool through various platforms, especially publishing, which they explore through a transnational collaboration: Henson works in New York; Carlos, in Portland; Kristoff and Balaguer in the Philippines. In this interview, I talk with Clara about her initial interest in design, insights on the Duterte administration, and how marginalized groups use the internet in dire political times for self-expression and resistance.
Amber Newman (AN)
How did you get into design, and what drew you in?
Clara Balaguer (CB)
I got into design by accident and necessity. I had learned some InDesign at an old job, enough to make presentation decks for clients. When the OCD started, I could not afford an in-house designer. Until Kristian Henson came along and we co-founded Hardworking Goodlooking, I was making the most of flier templates done by a friend from Barcelona, (Carol Montpart, who also designed the OCD logo. Later on with HWGL, I picked up slack on work that Kristian or Dante Carlos or Stefan Kruse Jørgensen didn’t have time for, again using their framework to expand my knowledge of how the design concepts (and software) worked. I eventually began to generate my own work. But I still like to design on Microsoft Word.
Do you consider design to be a tool, a mode of self-expression, a client-based practice, etc.?
From my experience with design—largely as a research practice as opposed to a commercial activity—it’s been a tool for exploring and expressing identities. Or at least a communicable experience of identities, which are subjective.
What is the coolest project you’ve made recently, and why do you love it?
The most absorbing topic since 2016 has been that of online ideological trolling. I’ve been observing gender-varied cyberdeviants who support current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte (DU30 ). You might have heard of him. He likes killing people and making rape jokes. I’ve also been following trolls on the anti-DU30 side, though the pro-DU30 ones are generally more toxic. The project seems timely, given the international rise of the alt-right.
Two factors that have influenced my fascination for the local landscape of political (or patriotic) trolls, both of which relate to our complex history of gender identity in the Philippines.
First, there are a striking number of women and gender nonconformist-fluid actors who cheerlead DU30’s misogynist authoritarianism. Their faith in the president is deep, religious. They often profess love for him in romantic terms, sexualized or filial. As a group, they embody elements of the Filipina matriarch archetype, entrenched in and subdued by Philippine-style patriarchy, presenting as the babaylan, a pre-colonial gender-fluid spiritual medium, yet infantilized by both the shallows of social media and unresolved post-colonial dependencies. If I had to make a Western comparison, try to imagine Milo Yiannopoulos exploding into a hundred South East Asian pieces. But even that is an insufficient comparison.
Second, the “alt-right” here erroneously self-identifies as the progressive or liberal left, exploiting the historical blurriness of local politics wherein left, center, and right do not really exist. I’m not even sure you could call them the alt-right. Maybe alt-wave? Right wave? Alt-atbp (Atbp is Tagalog for “etc.”)?
In the Philippines, when the left is invoked, the term is largely associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines (or CPP), to which none of the prominent pro-DU30 trolls belong. Everything outside of this far left is often lumped into an “everything else,” with few clear distinctions between social democratic left, center, right. Parties are mercurial alliances, changing with each election. This state of political grayness could be compared to the accepted practice of gender fluidity in Philippine society, a progressive, pre-colonial phenomenon made more curious by the fact that the country is also majority Catholic.
The DU30 regime as a whole cultivates fluidity through blurriness. By flip-flopping (or code switching), the president and his entourage are able to deflect criticism, obscuring their political gender within a false left, false populism, or false independent policy, as needed. Anti-West imperialism is waved around, with DU30 rejecting European and American influence to pursue an “independent foreign policy,” while on the other hand the Philippines yokes itself to neoimperialist China, which has invaded sovereign Filipino territory and commandeered natural resources in exchange for steep infrastructure loans. DU30 appointed leaders of the CPP to key government positions in an apparent overture towards peace with the communists, but months later they were removed from their posts by the Commission on Appointments, to his utter nonchalance. To the criticism suggesting DU30’s war on drugs was actually a war on the poor, the president has responded with statements like, “They say, ‘Duterte kills the poor.’ I haven’t heard of the children of [business tycoons] Lucio Tan or Gokongwei selling drugs. […] Of course it will be the poor people because the poor are ignorant and more likely to be hit.” And after having styled himself as a socialist man of the people, hailing from allegedly humble beginnings, DU30 declared, “Don’t look at my family if yours starved or is still starving. We are not as unfortunate as your family. We are also not poor.” The list goes on and on.
The DU30 administration actively memes the Hitlerian. The Nazi palm salute is adapted as a fist salute, given with arms extended horizontally. The fist is conveniently polysemous, calling also to mind the raised fists of (anarcho)communism, the Occupy fist, and, more obscurely, the Aryan fist, to name a few. The Duterte Youth exists as a civil society equivalent to the Hitler Youth. The similarity may have been accidental (benefit of the doubt), but it’s unlikely that its members are ignorant of this fact at present. The nation state is invoked as a parental, personified icon—Germany’s Fatherland transcribed as the Philippine Motherland, a catchphrase popularized by a transgender pro-DU30 blogger, a graduate of political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands. If she were not aware of the implications of this similarity, it would be a disastrous gap in her European education. President Duterte himself and his handpicked Ambassador to the United Nations, Teddy Boy Locsin, have publicly extolled the virtues of Adolf Hitler. Locsin famously tweeted his wish for a “final solution” to the drug problem, in the style of the Nazi Holocaust. Like the Jews under Hitler, DU30 and many of his followers have characterized drug users as subhuman and, thus, not eligible for human rights.
Beyond these “cosmetic” similarities, sociologist Walden Bello describes DU30 as a classic fascist leader: “a) a charismatic individual with strong inclinations toward authoritarian rule who b) derives his or her strength from a heated multiclass mass base, c) is engaged in or supports the systematic and massive violation of basic human, civil, and political rights, and d) proposes a political project that contradicts the fundamental values and aims of liberal democracy or social democracy.” This alignment, blended with lip service to socialism and populism, adds opacity to a very Southeast Asian expression of neofascism. Further reading: Benedict Anderson writes about the South East Asian region’s fascination with Hitler in The Spectre of Comparisons (Verso Books, 1998).
This is the complex landscape that informs my research into trolling and memes as a way to amplify ideology. It has entailed 18 months of gender-varied (t)role-playing, observation/documentation of troll behavior, workshops, and online performances, for now under the name Troll Palayan (rice paddy). With more than 60 participants in the Philippines, Canada, and the Netherlands, Troll Palayan has experimented with meme sweatshops, organic troll farms (non-automated, operated by humans), offline discussion groups, and online performances on Facebook and Twitter. The focus of these activities is to find collaborative ways in meatspace to dismantle toxicity in cyberspace. I am unsure of the final output for all this research, though a book seems likely.
As a designer, do you feel responsible for educating your clients about the media’s bias against people of color? Is this an extra burden?
I’m not sure if the Philippine media can be exclusively faulted for the white worship and shadism prevalent in our social psyche. I suppose my interest, as cultural worker, is less focused on crucifying an external “culprit,” such as the media or the North/West, but rather more focused on assuming a personal or even a collective responsibility for the cultural cringe phenomenon.
Note: This taking of responsibility does not imply ignoring or minimizing the role of colonizers and the generalized North/West in creating systems of inequality. It simply goes beyond only placing blame elsewhere. It looks for other forms of actionable investigation. Though the developed world certainly has a responsibility towards restitution, we the once-colonized must stop looking towards the North/West’s restitution as the only avenue towards decolonization.
“Cultural cringe” was first postulated by Australian critic A.A. Phillips. He asserts that, in post-colonial societies, local cultural production is seen as inferior to that which comes from the colonizer or any other country deemed more advanced. Though it is necessary to bring our former colonizers to task for centuries of subjugation, dwelling solely on culpability—on exacting a restitution that will never be enough, no matter what form it takes—feels, on some level and again, like waiting for permission from the colonizer or the patriarch to realize our potential.
Personally, I prefer tactics, unities, and possibilities that are prefixed with the “self-.” Self-awareness, self-identification, self-initiated self-exploration of the immediate landscape, self-assertion, self-worth. Retooling the collective cultural “self”: a contemporary form of identity construction that seeks to topple oppressive power structures and not just recreate them in reverse, with the once-Othered now doing the othering. I realize identity politics are considered passé in some circles. It is tiresome to see how easily they are twisted into exclusionary -isms. But a chilling fact remains. Perverse politicizations of identity are at the heart of today’s heightening intolerance. Refusing to engage with identity politics might be allowing extremists to hijack the discussion entirely.
In your experience, what opportunities/pitfalls does the online space afford designers of color and people of color in general? (For example: Black Twitter, independent publishing, visibility, surveillance vs. power, etc.)
From where I stand, there is an expectation that people on the peripheries of power should represent themselves in a manner that the power center finds acceptable. The dominant discourse on the representation of peoples of color still follows the experience of (those who experience marginalization while residing within) centers of power. Black America, Asian America, Muslim Europe. These are but some of the experiences on which we, on the outskirts of these tensions, find much reading and surfing material. Asian America teaches us many invaluable lessons but cannot fully represent color politics in geographically Asian cultural contexts. Though these lived realities of Western POC are relatable on many levels and undeniably important, they are not applicable wholesale to other locations. Yet those in other locations are often judged for revolutionary backwardness by POC allies in the West when their (very Western) morality is not adopted in its entirety. So there is a pressure to imitate the colonizer from the very same corners that are preaching decolonization! So weird.
The opportunity lies precisely in preserving this difference. There are many cracks, holes, special spaces, elbowed out nooks, and exploded spheres where other Other expressions of identity exist. These subcultures could inform struggles in the progressive North/Western mainstream. The challenge lies in acknowledging these South/East spaces (often vernacular, often developing their discourse in a slightly skewed direction) as equal in value as North/West views that may seem more polished or even politically correct. Perhaps politically familiar is a better term.
I can only speak of the spaces I know. Budots rural techno and teenage homemade action movies on YouTube, made in the Visayan islands. Homoerotic Middle Eastern alphamale greeting card memes on Facebook. Tropical religion GIFs. Philippine pulp romance fiction on Wattpad, where authors are often discovered by large publishing houses catering to the young adult market. Swoon-inducing titles include Midnight Rapist, Sadist Lover, His Hired Baby Maker, and The Four Bad Boys and Me—with 209 million reads, one of the most popular on Wattpad as of January 2018. Heterosexually surreal Tinder profiles in the developing world. The subversion of Scruff (a place for hairy gay men to find each other in the West) into a way for typically hairless Southeast Asian gay men to connect with mascs. The Facebook “deathfie” (death selfie) phenomenon in the Philippines, wherein mourners post smiling pictures of themselves next to comatose relatives tubed up in hospital beds or next to open-casket corpses at funerals. Like these, there are many other online phenomenological subcultures that defy North/Western—not necessarily white—expectations of what is normative behavior, valuable information, or dignified representation of the self.
Because the responsibility of those in the centers of power lies in identifying how they are similar (not superior) to those on the developmental outskirts, they often assume that those on the periphery should be engaged in the same exercise: becoming similar. From out here, moving inwards to the center, the more important task is to assert our difference. To not lose ourselves completely in the North/West’s controlling world view, which is rather seductive. In both cases, the process should be carried out with critical self-awareness, learning from each other’s and our own mistakes. The goal should be to meet in the middle instead of insisting on the perpetuation of polarized mistakes.
Note: I understand that “center” and “periphery” are contested locations. I understand that the use of “periphery” is not critically fashionable. Identifying the Philippines and other developing nations as peripheral doesn’t imply defeatism. It simply acknowledges a reality. For the moment, our access to standardized bodies of knowledge and other resources is limited in comparison to developed nations. This is neither an incommutable sentence nor an admission of inferiority.
What role do you think artists/designers need to play in politics, especially in this global climate? For example, a lot of brands before the election decline to get political but we have a lot now that are taking a huge role in educating masses like Teen Vogue, Balenciaga for Bernie Sanders, Supreme endorsing Hillary Clinton.
Artists or designers don’t necessarily have to do anything different. Nobody has to become political. Art or design can still be a completely sublime experience of aesthetic abstraction. Aestheticized forms devoid of social engagement can still influence ways of thinking and doing and revolting outside of the art world. What is true, however, is that (younger?) artists and designers are feeling a greater pull towards sociopolitical relevance. The ivory tower of high-stakes cultural production is, in many corners of the world, caving under tensions removed from the collector market, the client brief, the sacred institution, the capitalist motive.
These aren’t totally uncharted waters. It’s not like this generation has invented the wheel of social engagement or creative riot. This generation likely has the sensation that it can never invent anything new, as the supposed death of all sorts of histories, practices, fields of inquiry likes to assert.
In regards to this question, what do you think about brands beginning to take political stances and educating masses? A blunt way to put it, what do you think about brands becoming woke and profiting off that?
You’d be hard-pressed to find any source of funding or means of profit that doesn’t in some way drink from tainted waters. The problem with brands—or art institutions, artists, design studios—suddenly awakening to social justice is that they might do so without recognizing the contradictions intrinsic to their function. Their wokeness doesn’t include a mea culpa. It may come as a superficial, trend-based impulse rather than a systemic overhaul of the way they exploit resources and humans.
To relate this to the North American context: In 2009, PepsiCo decided to forego buying ad space during Super Bowl primetime television, investing the money that would have gone to buying that airtime into socially inclined programming. This move is a far cry from Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to riot cops in a TV advert. Not that the former isn’t also a form of whitewashing a corporation’s obscene wealth—by virtue of its size alone, we can conclude the PepsiCo is obscene in terms of how much power it concentratedly wields—but it does seem like a step in a more ethical direction.
Social movements (like Black Lives Matter) seem to develop their own visual languages organically, created by the context specific to each social movement. Do you think design can intersect with this phenomenon? Can design contribute value to these social movements?
A good case study: The typographic “controversy” (in quotations because it was only controversial for a small group of fancy designers) that erupted when NBA players wore T-shirts with “I can’t breathe” printed in Comic Sans on the front. It was a campaign in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by the NYPD for a minor infraction. Some designers were incensed by the initiative’s use of a typeface deemed ugly, inappropriate. They expressed their typographic disdain at a social movement as if it were a run-of-the-mill client that needed to be educated rather than a vehicle for real social impact that could, it must be said, even expiate design’s anxieties as an elitist profession.
Perhaps the professionally trained design world would benefit from a willingness to accept non-modernist, vernacular contributions to social design. This might construct visual languages that are grown by the movements (or marginalized communities) first and refined by designers in second instance. Reversing power structures by giving constituencies a say in how they want to be represented does not imply a lack of agency for the designer. It’s simply a different formula, one less imperialist.
For the Comic Sans, design-educated haters looking for political relevance, an exercise: Use Comic Sans, Curlz, Brush Script, Papyrus. Understand why people respond to it. Accept that social constituencies (not clients but constituencies) have made a choice that should be respected instead of ridiculed. Show what can be done to harness prejudice into a different language altogether. Challenge yourself to dismantle what the (Ivy League?) man has told you is ugly, uncouth, primitive, savage. Finessing popular voice into a missive of power, an aesthetic of revolution, doesn’t mean you have to dumb your design education down. It means you get to throw out the notion that the populace is dumb, that popular concerns can only lead to (design) populism, and that the formally educated have all the answers.
Many designers of color have not only made political posters but resort to circulating memes since it’s much easier to share something virtually. The first part of this question is more of how do you think these ideas will shape how designers interact with future political movements.
For designers making political memes, an important question to consider is whether we want these memetic messages to reinforce (possibly even radicalize) those already on our side or influence (maybe even reverse) the opinion of those who aren’t. Preaching to the choir is quite common, so the first point is covered. I’ll make a case then for the second option, which is just as vital: counter-indoctrination and depolarization.
Observing and interacting with political meme makers in the Philippines, I’ve noticed two main strategies in their memetic resistance: providing factual information and mockery as civil disobedience. A huge preoccupation for our opposition is how the DU30 regime is misinforming the public, with much of the tactics being rolled out on social media. If memes are taken by citizens as a legitimate source of information, then factual memes must be used to fight back. And if the fight cannot be won, then at least we have the satisfaction of antagonizing the regime (and entertaining ourselves) with jokes.
What’s notable is that anti-dictatorship memes in the Philippines, belonging to the minority opposition, often seek aesthetics of legitimacy. They want to look “aspirational,” to be classically effective (marketing) campaigns. “Aspirational” in the Philippine advertising community is often understood as “Western” BTW, which would explain why some of the opposition memes use Western cues (Tinder, Drake, etc.). This makes these digital campaign objects suspect, as errors and populist design features are at the heart of memetic success. If a gif, however, looks like it was made by a run-of-the-mill user with middling Photoshop skills and little to no preoccupation for millenial American pop culture, the meme is perceived as authentic. It can be trusted. Meme makers who prize effectiveness over insularity might find it useful to make design mistakes. Popular memes look wild, funny, not like the designer took themselves too seriously or got paid a lot of money to make them. Forget pristine. You can’t wage memetic warfare in an evening gown.
Attempting to clothe memes in the classic trappings of “proper” communication (think Bloomberg BusinessWeek–type data visualizations) is fundamentally misunderstanding their potential to infiltrate hostile environments. Confirmation bias leads us to reject any information that conflicts with our core beliefs. Employing some amount of language, imagery, and codes familiar to populist demagogues means there is one less element for them to reject. Identifying with the form might make them more receptive to the message included. It’s unlikely that contact with a single meme would make a difference, though repeated exposure might have more chances, particularly with those who may be on the fence as opposed to fully indoctrinated. The success of ISIS’s online campaign for radicalizing fighters from the West was in some part thanks to a careful restyling of their recruitment content. Production value of their videos resembled Western action movies and military recruitment material. Appealing also to Western women as possible brides for fighters, social media portals and glossy propaganda magazines such as Dabiq featured pictures of young, handsome male mujahideen and actively alluded to the promise of deep romance with them. They portrayed women as equal fighters of jihad with photographs of burka-clad ladies sporting machine guns, draped in belts of ammunition. This narrative was consciously skewed to Western feminist ideals and a misrepresentation of women’s colder reality under the caliphate. All of this is also memetics.
Though the nonsensical spectacle of internet memes are the result of post-modernism and post-structuralism—rooted in the Marxist thought—the right has learned to wield this tool way more effectively. They have skillfully co-opted the classroom theories of the left and applied them to real world situations with brutal success. The savvy left political memer will study the right closely, learn their tactics, and turn it all against them. It’s high time we took back the tools we created. (For more information, read Metahaven.)
One of the factors that amplifies the reach of a meme is humor, a constant weapon used to provoke and resist. The ambiguity provided by irony allows civil society to push critical views yet elude censorship—for a while at least. See: Cǎo Ni Mǎ (grass mud horse or llama) and Winnie the Pooh memes in China, unlikely joke symbols of resistance that were eventually censored.
Humor also allows both sides of an argument to create rapport. Making someone laugh is an effective way to defuse an argument and create a more fertile ground for consensus. It’s also a defense mechanism for the dissenter. Framing retaliation in the code of humor allows a small respite, a release of tension.
On the other hand—I know this point of view might be considered a bit problematic because the alt-right wields this argument continuously—political correctness seems to curtail the amount of humor we can inject into certain discourses. According to Freud, taboo and transgression intensify the humorous nature of a joke or situation. Comedy needs limits to push back against. And we need to laugh at the darkest sides of our nature, desperately so, as these times of dark history unfold.
In a society where many words and entire topics of conversation are off limits, the concept of humor has undergone a massive overhaul. This has empowered marginalized communities beyond just eliminating sources of harassment. Now, because there are certain topics only minorities can broach, a platform has been created that the racially, sexually, or economically privileged cannot hijack. That being said, this socially enforced restriction of non-minorities broaching sensitive topics—however innocuously, with or without comic intent—has bred resentment in the most radical extremes of these communities. This resentment has exploded into a resurgence of bigotry and hate speech. Hyperpolitical correctness has been effective at constructing safe spaces for minorities, but it has radicalized and multiplied the “undesirables” who then create their own “safe” (unsafe?) spaces in parallel.
There is a difference between malicious bigotry and political incorrectness, but the borders between the two are so tenuous and delving into these waters is dangerous. So most people refuse to wade into them. Many POC (or white folk or men anxious to prove they’re allies) police these borders with fundamentalist zeal, refusing to allow any prodding of these tensions with humor. Or any other discursive tool. Call-out culture has further fractured the already fragmented the left, pitting feminist against feminist, activist against activist. The frame of intention has been utterly lost. Any person of any color or gender who is ignorant of any of the rules guiding this extremely nuanced code of offense is undesirable, possibly evil. There aren’t even rules we can agree on. How could there be, if offense is a personal experience, too subjective to be governed by an empirical structure? Earnest questions that offenders may have on how to improve their behavior are often left unanswered (they should already know the answers), sometimes with instructions to “work things out in their own communities” instead. The blind are left to lead the blind. We shouldn’t be surprised that so many of them wander in the wrong direction.
In the Philippines, we have a completely different approach as our concept of political correctness is close to null. This is not the ideal situation either, as misogyny/shadism runs rampant here in the post-colonial way. Our battle passes through the exact opposite: more policing of public discourse to weed out hate speech. Funnily enough, both in the United States and the Philippines, we have arrived at a similar type of foul-mouthed, misogynistic, human/civil rights–averse ruler. It would seem neither approach has been successful in ironing out centuries of conflict. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
The second part of this question is a lot of designers of color (or just people of color in general) have been a little shafted in this movement considering how most people repurpose words/phrase that have been said by black creatives. How do you think designers of color can claim that conversation? How can people of color use their unexpected viral-ness to not only have recognition but to use that as a platform?
This viral-ness is not so unexpected! It seems logical that people of color would create online spaces of expression that become popular across the board, regardless of race or class. Our cultures are on the perceptive but not real periphery, since POC are the global majority population at the moment. Voices of color are still on the peripheries of power, but this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Even in biological terms, it is at the edges of any given ecosystem where the strongest memetic forms are born and multiply.
Judging by how much (social) capital is leveraged by tweets and likes, the internet is a formidable platform for us to own. We are only just coming to realize how much the internet already belongs to us. Not just in principle but in demonstrable fact. Filipinos, for example, are notorious for dominating top positions on crowd-sourced online polls for “best island,” “most powerful leader,” and “best cuisine” in the world. Whether or not the results of these polls concord with reality is moot. The takeaway is that Filipinos pwn internet opinion making.
As designers of color, it’s interesting for us to distinguish when we need to claim a space (increase power), when that space is already claimed (leverage existing power), and perhaps more controversially, when to accept that a space has been lost (conservation of energy). All this, while taking into account a cold reality. In the new cyberlandscape of diluted ownership and easy cooptation, the patent-protected author is dying. Perhaps she is dead already. Whether we like it or not, we have to constitute/reinforce sources of power other than exclusive usage of a design, idea, or term. This is not a concern that affects just the gender nonconformist, women, or POC, but perhaps because we have so many more years of experience with dealing, we’ll be much better at reimagining ways forward.
For active claiming of ownership, it is imperative to strengthen ties between communities of color, reinforcing each other’s messages and increasing each other’s volume, facilitating the proper adjudication of authorship or even ownership of ideas. This can be authorship/ownership of a collective nature. I talk often about how the “Filipino mafia,” the large community of Filipino diaspora working the cultural sector, has been crucial in the establishment of both HWGL and the OCD’s farther reach. Many of our early public engagements were the fruit of efforts by Filipino-Americans working inside Western institutions. They pushed us to the front because they believed in the importance of representing critical work from back home on a larger stage. In allowing us to be represented, perhaps they felt they were being vindicated in the process. These insiders leveraged the power they already had by sharing it. More of this generous reinforcement, not just within one monocultural group but across racial, economic, and cultural divides can only grow our collective influence. If one of us wins, that’s a victory for the whole group.
But the exchange of ideas, especially in terms of creating socially conscious movements, already implies the possibility of creolization, of a game of telephone wherein the original meaning warps eventually. The speed at which information is transmitted on the internet accelerates this process. To a certain degree, once a meme is successful, it ceases to “belong” to the owner, as it becomes impossible (or even unadvisable, for the draconian censorship it would imply) to enforce an idea’s copyright dues. Traditional understandings of exclusive, patentable ownership are also insufficient, as they were formulated long before the internet changed the game. It’s not a simple task to relieve ourselves of the notion of private ownership, to accept the possible death of authorship. We are, after all, steeped in exceptionalistic capitalism. But perhaps considering the legal right to copy on a moving scale, related to privilege rather than just economics, is worthy of discussion. The question of who copies is just as important as the how, what, and where of the copy and its financial return.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Note: Copyright as something that can be bought fails to take into account the violence this commodification can inflict upon indigenous (tribal) peoples, high-risk communities thanks to centuries of extractive colonialism. Because the weight of their plight is much greater, especially in places like Brazil, Australia, or the Philippines, concepts of indigenous copyright should be exercised on different, even stricter planes, taking into account indigenous justice systems when they are in active use.
Power can be increased through giving aggressive credit to authors that are being remixed by us or others, allowing them to build a reputation that could be leveraged into other opportunities. Not that exposure is a substitute for remuneration. It is, however, a mighty card to play, once you’ve had the right kind of it. Just as important is the task of remembering that one’s visibility is not a panacea and that one’s visibility inevitably casts a shadow on someone else.
Power can also come from disowning an idea that was ours but was coopted and cannot be retrieved. Relinquishing the need for ownership could also constitute “negative” power, exerted by ceding instead of conquering. By this I mean releasing a concept into the wild without any sort of restriction or need to be recognized as its maker, for the sake the idea (meme) itself.
Liberal or left wing meme makers are more likely to complain about others taking credit for their work. They might use watermarks, encourage cults around their personality, even make snarky memes that lament their memes being memed. As alt-right views are considered deviant (for the moment), they often prefer to conceal their identities, which gives their memes a better chance at survival. If ownership and the right to remix is collective, the idea proliferates better. In this way, accountability is also distributed over multiple heads. This is advantageous for political agitators, given the large amount of resources needed to prosecute all of them for dissent or infringement. This increases courage and builds a sense of community—transgressing together is a powerful bond. Alt-right memers seem to have built a good emotional economy: a sense of collective belonging that provides succor and motivation in the absence of financial return.
There is something to be said for the power that comes from authoring a nimble body of work rather than a single thing in a single place. Virtuosity as a fluid, not a solid. The ability to author incrementally and collectively, over time and space, is a method for contagion. It is a liquid reaction to power groups coopting messages that may come from the underrepresented. A continuous flow of object-ideas, strategically planted over multiple media, rather than one thing that cannot be equaled (or is not mobile) has more chances of shifting the contemporary gaze and commanding it. Eventually.
This is perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of cultural decolonization: It is hard labor that demands hyperproductivity with limited chances of immediate return. Change takes the time that it takes. Constant productivity is unsustainable because individual energy is finite. It also demands resources generally inaccessible to underserved communities. The challenge for those engaged in decolonization (or other as-yet unsustainable but necessary activities) is to ensure survivability. While we push back against the status quo and fight to stabilize the decolonial process, tactical options should be pursued. The goal, at least for me, is to keep ideas alive long enough, until collective effort shifts the paradigm. By staying alive at whatever cost, periods of dormancy included, we could prove decolonization is not a bandwagon futurism but an inexorable future.
A tiny toolbox: mutual reinforcement, aggressively crediting sources (or aggressively encoding the ones who desire anonymity), relinquishing authorship when advantageous, welcoming the artful error, workshopping the uncomfortable, idea echoing (memetics), asking for help, making time and making room for others, identifying existing local structures to be reinforced rather than alien ones to be imposed, smaller scopes but well-documented, grassroots qualitativeness, speed of execution and prototyping (to elude detection, control, co-optation), low fidelity, listening to the frontline, repeat tacticality, demanding the right to rest, shift labor, skill pooling, collective authorship, (domestic) space sharing, small-scale and/or ethical piracy.
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