Memes On Trial

Mon 08 Jul 2013

What does it mean to go viral? And what becomes of an Internet sensation many years after its success?

So asked our AND 2012 commission Meme Junkyard: Technoviking, created by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal.

Inspired by a viral video known as KNEECAM No. 1 (or, more popularly, Techno Viking), the commission is an airfilled avatar that inflates and deflates according to how well it is trending on Twitter.

Here it is in action in Manchester, with a few words from Bilal himself:

It seems timely to restate Bilal’s questions as a recent court judgment in Germany has asked a few questions of its own regarding meme culture.

The plaintiff seeking the judgment was the unintentional star of KNEECAM No. 1, an unidentified man filmed dancing at Berlin’s Fuckparade in 2000. Christened ‘Techno Viking’ by the Internet community, he has spent several years wrangling with the video’s maker, Matthias Fritsch, over the use of his likeness.

The case drew to a close in June – coincidentally, at the same time that Bilal’s pneumatic sculpture was visiting Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival in Chicago – with Fritsch ordered to pay damages and to remove the video from Youtube. He has also been banned from using the video for commercial purposes.

As Bilal states above, a side effect of social media and connectivity may be that we have started to think of ourselves as memes, in need of sharing and being shared in order to sustain our being.

Based on his decision to litigate, it seems likely the mysterious Techno Viking would reject this principle. Yet in attempting to choke off his own meme he has only given it more oxygen: even as the original video was removed from Youtube, Fritsch sympathisers were uploading copies elsewhere.

Censuring Fritsch for publishing the original video seems like trying to control an epidemic by only treating – or killing – Patient Zero. Could this be another example of the law struggling to understand the Internet’s essence? Another part of the judgment would suggest not entirely: in acceptance of ‘fair use’, the court refused a request to ban art works, fan films, re-enactments and parodies inspired by KNEECAM No. 1.

It only remains to see what precedent the judgment sets: could we see David After Dentist legally disowning his parents in years to come?

We Make Money Not Art has the full story and an interview with Fritsch:
‘The Technoviking documentary. Or what happens when your internet Meme gets angry’.

Fritsch’s next project is a documentary about the court case. He’s hoping to crowdfund the documentary via Indiegogo.

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