During a residency in UQAM’s experimental room in November 2023, Albertine Thunier (student member, UdeM), in collaboration with Hubert Alain (UdeM), embarked on the memetic materialization of uchronic and fantastical utopias. @itsammemeworld is a multimedia scenography that interprets, imitates, actualizes and co-opts a graphic novel published in 1844.
Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations, ascensions, locomotions, explorations, pérégrinations, excursions, stations, cosmogonies, fantasmagories, rêveries, facéties, lubies, métamorphoses, zoomorphoses, lithomorphoses, métempsycoses, apothéoses et autres choses is a futuristic tale created and illustrated by Granville. It tells the story of three unemployed scientists who visit and study an imaginary world overturned by the sudden acceleration of industrial progress. Their stopovers set the scene for salient issues in 19th-century France, marked in particular by the rise of capitalist publishing, the emergence of a mass visual culture, the restoration of the monarchy and the appearance of the first universal exhibitions (Le Men, 2013). As these issues resonate with our respective doctoral research – meme cultures, queer ecologies, waves of industrialization and world’s fairs – we (re)explore Grandville’s Other World.
By mimetically imitating, and memetically hijacking, a selection of original scenes, we’ve created a playful, imaginary micro-world-of-memes. Just as Grandville did in the 19th century, @itsamemeworld comments on, plays with and pokes fun at current socio-techno-politico-economic events through satires, graphic allegories, (an)archives and whimsical stagings. In our approach, various artificial intelligence programs, new contemporary technologies, replace the illustrated edition and large-scale printing, which were the new technologies during Grandville’s time. Although these tools seem technologically different, their use is the subject of similar practices. They both enable us to create, relatively quickly, images conceived through the logic of punctures and grafts: mechanized (or automated) reproduction favors text-image compositions, intermediary references or allusions, and the diverting of “second-hand” materials (Le men, 2013 ). These practices of recuperation and imitation, common in Un autre monde’s illustrations and Internet memes, inspired us to create graphic paraphrases. The resulting narrative is generated by memetic remixes, transposing Grandvilles’ references into different thematic installations. By reinterpreting illustrations from Un autre monde in this way, we play with the iconographic codes of popular culture, advertising and kitsch to create visions of a carnivalesque, upside-down world. Each of these fragments acts as a prompt to participate in Grandville’s chain of détournements, recuperations, variations and imitations. Like internet memes, @itsamemeworld creations are collective, multimodal and resonant with other cultural fragments (Milner, 2016). They invite to be re-meditated and re-memed.
The Apotheosis of Dr Puff
Entering @itsamemeworld presents a first memetic iteration of Un autre monde. It is a space of transition that allows access to the status of observer and neo-god.
The apotheosis of the erudites, also known as the “god trick” (Haraway, 1988), is necessary to claim the global vision of disembodied scientific objectivity. This metaphysical elevation enables us to simulate, virtualize, mediatize, remediatize, affirm, neomaterialize, hauntologize, hyperrealize, gamify, homonormalize, anarchize, derealize and dataify, among other things. Grandville’s Un autre monde and our world of memes both show landscapes and creatures, hybrids and cyborgs, transformed by the new industrial spirit.
The Battle of the Cards
Like the illustrator, we question the hierarchy between text and image. The rise of the mechanized press, illustrated publishing and, later, optical and digital media, has led to the mass distribution of visual writing that gives free rein to an hallucinatory, associative imagination, similar to that of sleepy dreamers (Baridon, 2022). Visual writing works like card-drawing: a narrative emerges from the consultant’s situated interpretation. The consequences of this other (typo)graphic world, made entirely of floating images and abstract values, are questioned by our various scenes. Through the remediatization of retro-futuristic and hyper-realistic images, our approach questions the cyclical nature of socio-technical imaginaries.
The Love Story of a Puppet and a Star
In the same way that Internet memes circulate and are reproduced by Internet users, Grandville’s illustrations are regularly co-opted or imitated. The Love Story of a Puppet and a Star illustrates one of these movements. The scene presents the dissolution of an era when the arts captivated the eyes and desires of an audience gathered around a central figure, in this case, Venus. However, the technical reproducibility of images fragments and redistributes Venus’ mythical aura to the masses. This intensification in the dissemination of illustrated and animated images is accompanied by an unprecedented ability of the public to interact individually with the media and participate in works of art. As if by a game of communicating mirrors, the viewer becomes both the desiring gaze and the desired goddess.
The installation playfully reflects this changing relationship with the world, as expressed by the set design of the Family of Men exhibition, first shown at MoMA in 1955, then in Montreal in 1967. The scene exemplifies the neo-liberal utopia of the Self; it places the viewer between a dummy CAPTcha and an Edenic diorama.
Family of Men promotes global solidarity, fusing individual narratives into a photographic essay that bears witness to the universality of human experience. The aim is to materialize, through the interface of museum design, the techno-utopian renewal of Humanism, reformed by North American values. For 8 years, the exhibition toured the world. In 1967, it was shown at the Montreal World’s Fair (Anker, 2007).
To fulfill this mandate, we drew inspiration from Grandville, imagining an exhibition that reverses the hierarchy between text and image. In the design plans, we find a half-human, half-ocular creature imitating Grandville’s giant eyes. However, the optical creature is no longer to be found among the anonymous audience. It is alone and submerged in a diorama of images – the Extended Field of Vision.
This position, similar to that of the card player, embodies the neo-liberal ideal and manifests its ideology: that of a world where the individual, centralized and omnipotent, is pushed to make choices and create his own narratives by freely associating the mass of symbols available to him.
Standing in front of the simulated CAPTcha, we are placed in a memetic setting. The CAPTcha mimics the scenographic format of Family of Men, but the optical creature is fooled by the infographic machine. It thinks it’s interpreting, choosing and associating, yet it merely executes. The artificial intelligence programs’ desire for data collection both fools and takes advantage of the optical creature’s media-ocular desire. In the world of memes, she transforms from demi-goddess to artificial artificial intelligence.
The adjacent diorama superimposes retro-futuristic images. It hybridizes clichés from expo 67 and a micro-aesthetic niche, the Frutiger Aero, particularly popular with high-tech companies between 2005 and 2013. Museum and digital interfaces convert techno-pessimism into brilliant, flourishing utopias that appear to be just a finger or a click away. The graphic designs of Family of Men, and Frutiger Aero’s infographics, function as an affective mediation between users and machines.
The Puppet’s Louvre
The design of Expo 67 operates a mediation between commodity and material culture and their consumers, injecting a utopian aura into technological and scientific progress. While the screens present spectacular images of sites under construction, state-of-the-art homes, happy families and developing territories, the site and its brutalist, megastructural architecture embody the modernist ambitions of the time. These various devices sought to captivate, excite, move and fascinate the public. To this end, Expo 67 became a showcase for industrial nationalism, captivating those who saw it by saturating their fields of vision. It’s easy to imagine the Expo’s visitors experiencing an aesthetic overload similar to that of Grandville’s Puppets’ Louvre, where the abundance of images overwhelms the viewer while placing them at the very center of the museum’s simulated world.
Our reinterpretation of The Puppet’s Louvre rearranges the Expo 67 archives into a behind-the-scenes exhibition showcasing what is concealed by the event’s ideological shaping. To this end, a collection of films, photographs and Quebec erotic magazines produced after ’67 inspired the conception of the various images exhibited in the installation. These works, including photographs by Allan B. Stone and the films Valérie (1969) and Les chats bottés (1971), take a critical look at the pornification of national screens, challenge the social norms celebrated at Expo and preserve traces of wiped-out places and sexual practices disavowed by Expo administrators (via operations such as the “grand nettoyage” (big clean-up) of Montreal’s red light district). By reimagining The Puppet’s Louvre using a queer archive, this installation reveals the practices and ideologies obscured by the Expo’s spectacular mise-en-scène. The images produced from this archive in turn bear witness to the ongoing operations of control and concealment of non-reproductive sexualities, as the AI used to generate them refuse to work with the majority of prompt evoking sexual practices.
The Awakening of Plants
The other world is an upside-down world. The illustration The Awakening of Plants is an allegory of resistance, in which chlorophyll rises up and comes to life, defiant, in the face of the hand that sowed it. Plants, once mute and submissive, emerge as sentinels of a new front, fighting against the invisibility imposed by an economic order that reifies them and reduces them to the status of market garden resources.
In a short vlog post, the specter of Mark Fisher joins the grassy revolution. His otherworldly voice, cloned by a bot for the occasion, urges us not to succumb to the post-political temptation to believe that the end of the world is easier to achieve than the end of capitalism.
Through the medium of plants, Fisher’s mind recites a passage from Capitalist Realism (2009). He points out that the current political regime is, in fact, an iteration of the political misery that characterized the French Restoration. Contemporary with Grandville, this return to a monarchist regime is accompanied by widespread apathy towards revolutionary republican ideals. The inability to envisage an end to royalist economic domination led to a shift in popular hopes. Libertarian passions seem to be replaced by adulation for the presumed potential of the new technologies and commodities on the way.
Death of an Immortal
Grandville’s plant garden is a taxonomic space, governed by the ambition to classify and document the plant world. Like any herbarium or greenhouse, this garden is an inventory of technologically reproduced living forms, annihilated in the process of reproduction. At the heart of this great garden, a flower suffers from a burden peculiar to its class: the immortal is tired of not dying.
We reinterpret this scene through the prism of the ongoing hybridization of the worlds of biology and artifice. A housewife, comfortably ensconced in a greenhouse, seeks to learn more about this singular flower. She begins reading La Flore laurentienne, by Frère Marie-Victorin. As she recites the words of this notorious work of Quebec botany as if she were chanting a prayer, the artificiality of her features, the kitsch décor and the mechanical nature of her voice merge with the words she iterates, making it unlikely that we will join her in unraveling the mystery of this flower that just won’t die. Yet this process of hybridization is a common occurrence in archival institutions: the imperative to archive, calculate and conserve knowledge leads to the production of documents that replace the object of the archive. Like the immortal, tired of never dying, the housewife seems to be trapped by her own technological immortality, an existence programmed to never end. She is at once the guardian, object and imitation of knowledge, and thus, like the immortal, destined to remain trapped in her exchange value.
The Mysteries of Infinity
Even when infinity’s mysteries are unveiled by industry, an element of spirituality interferes with rationality. In the 19th century, the Saint-Simonians sought to unite religion and science. For them, religion had to be reformed to bring it into harmony with techno-scientific discoveries. They believed in human progress that encompassed both material and spiritual development.
In 2014, Time magazine featured a young blonde woman on its cover, promoting The Mindful Revolution. These days, through TV series, podcasts, YouTube videos and TikTok, it’s almost impossible to avoid messages advocating living in the moment, discovering and honoring your true self, and maintaining a positive mindset to succeed in both your professional and personal life. It seems that the boss mentality and mindfulnesses are closely linked.
One practice, popularized by mindfulness research, is affirmation. Affirmation is a personalized mantra in which a series of words, embodying a desired ideal situation, is repeated. They are an essential element in cultivating a winning mindset. They are also the promise and raw material of individual neo-liberal entrepreunerial success.
The Ballet Apocalypse
The Ballet Apocalypse takes place in a theater where the detritus of pre-industrial cultures accumulates. A corps de ballet composed of partial (legs, hands, crab claws) and modular (with bodies made of cork, cotton and stone) dancers presents a baroque choreography. Constrained by a classical syntax, the dancers execute precise jumps and figures; their constant bodily alteration optimizes their automatic steps.
In the shadow of inventions and industrial machines, Walter Benjamin discerned a glimmer of the past, echoes of a classless era. He saw, embedded in the concreteness of the new, imprints of a collective dream, fragments of utopia clandestinely interwoven with the present. These nascent technologies, laden with the promise of emancipation, awakened in the collective soul the memory of a pre-capitalist order, reviving techno-utopian aspirations which, though brand-new, carried with them the mourning of a lost world and the promise of a world to be reclaimed. The industrial flight, the apocalypse of modern ballet that Granville refers to, is transformed into an epochal dance in which partially human, partially mechanical bodies perform baroque choreography in a post-industrial setting. These figures, composed of heterogeneous materials, drift through a space populated by the spectres of mass visual culture, in a theater that collects the vestiges of pre-machine civilizations.
Our reinterpretation of Grandville’s ballet embodies this shift from the ritualistic to the reproducible. In this theater of modern ruins – a post-industrial city – the debris of mass visual culture is both medium and message, the remnants of a cult both broken and perpetually renewed by the hands of alienation. The choreography thus takes place in a world of diverse cultural fragments: architecture eerily reminiscent of 1960s Quebec, the music of Kraftwerk, affirmations recited by the cloned voice of Valérie (1969) and insurgent vegetables, among others. The soloists perform a repetitive sequence in the company of an artificial corps de ballet made up of leather-daddies and other retro-queer figures. Their perpetually mutating regalia invokes an imaginary aesthetic resistance to authority, where gestural mechanics intertwine with the dynamics of the automatic processes that shape their existence. Dance is thus inscribed in the cadence of capitalist machinery. The repetitiveness of the gestures performed contrasts with the continuous fluctuations of bodies and their environment: the dancing bodies, both human and artificial, perform an allegory of alienated labor.
- Anker, P. (2007). Graphic Language: Herbert Bayer’s Environmental Design.
- Baridon, L. (2022). De Grandville à Topor.
- Benjamin, W. (Posthume, 1982). The Arcades Project. Harvard University Press. (Original works written between 1927 and 1940).
- Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.
- Fournier, C. (Réalisateur). (1971). Les chats bottés [Film]. France Film.
- Grandville, JJ (1844) Un autre monde: Transformations, visions, incarnations, ascensions, locomotions, explorations, pérégrinations, excursions, stations, cosmogonies, fantasmagories, rêveries, facéties, lubies, métamorphoses, zoomorphoses, lithomorphoses, métempsycoses, apothéoses et autres choses. Paris : H. Fournier. Available on Internet Archive : https://archive.org/details/unautremondetran00gran/page/102/mode/2up.
- Héroux, D. (Réalisateur). (1969). Valérie [Film]. Cinépix.
- Le Men, S. (2013). Le jongleur de mondes. Les dessins pour Un autre monde de Grandville.
Special thanks to Hexagram, Jason Pomrenski, Maxime Boutin, Anne-Marie Santerre (choreography), Vincent Müla (assistance with scenography), Florence D Routhier (emotional support) for their invaluable help.
Albertine Thunier is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. Her work focuses on memes, both online and offline, looking at the games and playful attitudes that characterize them. Her research-creation aims to reveal the underlying logic of memes, past and present, by recreating and creating transhistorical playable media. Her approach is to recover and merge contemporary Internet memes with the popular culture surrounding 19th-century “artificial lives”, also known as automata. She is on the executive committee of the Hexagram network and a member of the Artefact laboratory. She also administers a reasonably popular Instagram meme page (@montreal.affirmations) and has just published an article on pre-industrial sleep and LOLcats for the journal Intermédialité.
Hubert Alain is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. His research explores the links between homosexuality, nationalism, territory and ecologies. It examines the (an)archives of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s and its relationship to the infrastructures of sexuality. In addition to his thesis, he is involved in research-creation projects aimed at extracting archival documents and traces of institutions through various artistic practices. His an/archivistic approach thus hybridizes historical archives and contemporary traces of places, to emphasize the interactions between sexuality, territories, politics and popular culture. Hubert is also a member of the Artefact Laboratory in Media Studies (UdeM) and the Grierson Research Group in Media, Infrastructure and Environment (McGill).
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