The Barbican’s new exhibition is bringing memes to the chronically offline

Whether it’s making jokes about NFT artists, white cube galleries, or burgeoning art trends, Freeze Magazine is the go-to meme page for young, internet-savvy artists. With 120k followers, the Instagram account – founded in 2019 by German-Turkish artist Cem A – is known for its satirisation of the industry via cuttingly accurate quips that highlight the concerns of those working on the peripheries of the art world. The page is so popular that when the account hosted an online dating service back in 2021, so many people entered that Cem was forced to close applications after less than 12 hours.

Now, reinterpreting memes for the real world (looking at you, offline partners), Freeze Magazine has taken over the Barbican with a series of site-specific interventions that go to the very heart of what makes a meme. Combining elements of art, art history and internet culture, Hope You See Me as a Friend is Cem’s first UK exhibition and sees the artist take over the institution’s information screens. “I see memes as visuals that are site-specific to smartphones,” he explains. “This observation made me interested in finding alternative mediums with similar social and digital qualities. Information screens are a good example of this. The exhibition became an exercise in how memes can be reworked in this new medium.”

With phrases such as “I hope you don’t see me as a screen, but as a friend” and “Birds aren’t real” – a reference to the 2021 Gen Z conspiracy theory – the screens take elements of online memes (AKA the text) and apply them to a physical context. The intention is not to challenge the idea of memes as digital-first creations, but rather to share online jokes in offline spaces in the hope that these esoteric references find their way back to the URL via IRL onlookers.

“The defining factor of a meme is not what’s in the image, but how the image is shared,” he explains. “Situating a meme in an IRL environment is not an attempt to challenge the dominance of digital memes but rather to deconstruct them, appreciate them and give more credit to memes we see every day on our smartphones.”

In addition to the texts, there is a crack that stretches across each screen. “This is a reference to the crack on my phone where I make all my memes,” Cem grins. “Plus, a cracked screen is not something you would see in an art gallery. What happened here? Is the screen actually broken? Should I tell the staff? I hope the visitors running these questions in their heads make them more engaged with their surroundings during the rest of their visit and they become more critical of the exhibition, concert or film they have planned to see at the Barbican.”

Hope You See Me as a Friend is on at the Barbican now


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