At the ‘Anti-Woke’ Film Fest, Meme Artists Memorialize Internet Mayhem

It was around 10 p.m. last Friday and I was seated on the floor of a packed downtown art gallery watching a poorly compressed video of a man pancaking headfirst into a wood-paneled wall. 

That video quickly cut to another absurd piece of internet detritus, and then another, and then another. The process went on for around an hour. I was at “Me, Me: an art show for the internet age,” a screening presented by the roving film festival and curatorial nonprofit New People’s Cinema Club (NPCC) at Foxy Production in Chinatown

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The concept of the show was fairly straightforward: NPCC asked a group of meme artists, many based in downtown New York, to select their all-time favorite internet videos. The submissions were then handed to the editor Bobby McCoy; besides a few earmarked favorites, McCoy received limited instruction. He could cut up the footage as he saw fit. The final product was a chaotic flattening of the past two decades of internet video: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“I’ve definitely trained it,” the filmmaker and photographer Leia Jospé told me before the show. We weren’t talking about pets but rather TikTok’s famous content algorithm, which Jospé uses to help cull footage for her Instagram account @favtiktoks420. She contributed videos to the screening. “If there’s a thing that I want to see, if I [watch] it like ten times, it will only show me stuff like that,” she said. “Mostly, it’s shirtless people.” 

Though she focuses on a narrow band of TikTok’s content—it’s a lot of masculine young American men—Jospé told me that her account is popular with millennials who refuse to engage with the popular video platform. “I’m like, OK, I mean, it’s a very small part of TikTok,” she said, of her account, which is the result of something like three hours a day of research, mostly while she works out. What’s the longest she has spent on the platform? “Oh my god, probably an entire day,” she told me. “Like, hungover, not being able to do anything kind of thing.”

The meme aggregator and internet culture forum @memetides factored duration into their contribution to the screening. The brains behind the account submitted 10,000 videos culled from the now-shuttered short form video platform Vine, itself a major precursor to TikTok. “I did not sort through them at all, I gave them all 10,000,” the @memetides administrator told me that night. “I was hoping I could get [NPCC] to display them in chronological order.” How long would that take? “It’s only three hours.”

A person named Forrest runs @memetides. Their last name, like many involved in the night’s proceedings, was not readily available online. In the meme game, mystery abounds. 

“There’s all these sort of shitpost accounts that I’m used to experiencing as a flurry of psychedelic nonsense,” the artist and educator David Goalnn said, as we chatted early in the night. “It’s very enjoyable, but to actually see a human face and body behind it, it’s very strange.” 

One notable absent face was @themasterofcum, also known as Peter Vack, an actor, writer, and director behind the controversial film Actors. He was set to host, but I couldn’t seem to detect any formal introduction to the night’s programming. At some point, the lights went out and a video started playing.

After an intro filled with a barrage of inside baseball references—for the purpose of this article, it doesn’t make sense for me to wade in the solipsistic minutiae of the downtown scene surrounding these events—the video started in earnest with a series of D-List celebrities reading text from the Unabomber Manifesto. The celebs in question, which included Chris Hansen, longtime host of the Dateline NBC program To Catch a Predator, Sarah Plain, and Violent J from the rap group Insane Clown Posse, were procured via the website Cameo, a service that allows you to pay famous people to say pretty much whatever you want.

The rest of the piece was intense and nonlinear, like an internet-era version of old media collagests Animal Charm and Negativland. Here is a list of moments that stood out to me: animated Legos engaging in intercourse; frat boys fighting; the rapper Lil B talking about the definition of the term “based,” which has morphed from rap slang to something appropriated by the far-right; a young man showing off his collection of Polo shirts; a ska band consisting of tiny frogs; a screen recording of the website the Wayback Machine deployed as a vehicle to search for old Isis livestreams; a slideshow of different skull ornaments on stick shift cars set to the song “Bad To The Bone” and made using primitive video editing software; a man who talked and rapped at length about hating himself; Vine videos; TikTok videos; YouTube videos; vape videos; conspiracy videos.

The footage was in a variety of resolutions and dimensions. They charted changes in media fidelities as much as changes in culture. As time passed, the room started to clear out, somewhat. It reminded me a bit of attending a noise show. 

“It was nice, it was like being on my phone in my room alone, except not,” Ana, who is behind the meme enterprise @neoliberalhell, said. No last name, naturally. 

Attendees of “Me, Me: an art show for the internet age” at Foxy Production in Chinatown. 

After the screening, a performance and meme artist by the name of Crackhead Barney was DJing. Her face was painted white, and her chest was bare and covered with tape. What are you playing? “Everything and anything. I’m trying to get these white people to dance, but they’re not dancing,” Crackhead Barney said. She suggested that it might be time to put on some Nirvana. This wasn’t the first NPCC event she had performed at. “They always do great things,” she said, of the group.

NPCC is currently anchored by a trio of curators: Kate Levitt, Kennan Ryan, and a third person whose first name is Casey but whose last name is, again, redacted. It was the theme of the night. Though NPCC still takes a focus on “transgressive and discounted art and film,” their brand has shifted.

For a time, NPCC was known colloquially as the “anti-woke film festival.” When the festival arrived on the scene, in the fall of 2021, they courted controversy (and press) for accepting funding from notorious Silicon Valley right winger Peter Thiel’s organization Thiel Capital. They programmed events that captured the spirit of Lower Manhattan in 2021: the prodding of liberal pieties; the celebration of the dark fringes of internet culture; the championing of unfettered free speech.

But that was well over a year ago, which, in downtown time, might as well have been last decade. The group has since reconfigured their membership, found other forms of funding (they lost the Thiel money; Friday’s event had drink sponsors), and built a body of programming that puts them more in conversation with the history of boundary-pushing art and cinema than anything explicitly political. They threw two other events that weekend.

“There’s a direct linage between the underground film festivals of the 60s, with Jonas Mekas and all those early midnight movies and the stuff that Ken Jacobs and those people were doing at these little theaters,” the man simply known as Casey told me that night. “They would get shut down by the police because the work would maybe have too much nudity or too much violence.” He called an early event they staged with the legendary director John Waters “a very intentional statement.”

Michael Gillespie of Foxy Production, itself an influential gallery with two decades of programming under its belt, a fair amount related to digital art, shared that sentiment. We were talking just feet away from Foxy’s current show, a suite of generative code-based works by the artist Travess Smalley. “I’m not in the meme scene—I just heard that phrase—but, I mean, people send me memes,” he said. He spoke of Kevin McGarry’s legendary New York Underground Film Festival and mentioned that NPCC had collaborated with the artist Petra Cortright, whom Foxy has shown in the past. “There seems to be lots of connections,” he said.

“I thought it was funny, I felt a little uncomfortable,” a woman who in the spirit of the event chose to stay anonymous said. Though she was weary of certain strands of contemporary downtown culture—she pointed to the podcast Red Scare, whose co-host Dasha Nekrasova got a fair amount of screen time that night—she couldn’t help but light up when viewing certain outmoded pieces of media.

“I liked seeing a lot of my favorite Vines,” she concluded.

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