See the Memes, Cancel the Rent

An internet meme is information ballistics. Fast, impactful, and easily weaponized, memes are often esoteric instructions directing ways to perceive and think about the world. When politicized, memes can have propagandistic power over the imagination, especially if there is a message that aligns with one’s own political beliefs.

Rent strike memes became a force on social media platforms around the third week of March—the same moment the effects of the pandemic palpably set in.  I had just been laid off from my job, my roommate had bolted to his home country, and April rent was seeming dire as ever. 

I lost my primary source of income on March 15th—a gig editing and designing a magazine that features images of contemporary art. Throughout the three months prior I had been combing gallery and museum websites for images that might invigorate the imagination of those reading the psychoanalytic theory that the magazine is dedicated to. My mind was hardwired to think about the way images influence our emotions, desires and dreams.

The images that dominated my experience the day I lost my job—the same day the museums began to close due to pandemic—were memes that were actively promoting a city-wide, nation-wide, possibly world-wide rent strike—a politically-impossible, utopian idea that nonetheless filled me with excitement and hope. Unemployed and without a safety-net, all the anxieties that could be potentially caused by an eviction notice were made visible with image macros, or memes.

Memes, in this context, are nothing more than a form of digital art that contains an image and text formatted to be easily read across social media platforms. For instance, a photograph of a young Brintey Spears suggestively smiling with the text  “what if we all just stopped paying rent?” photoshopped above her head by Instagram user @teenagestepdad, was one image macro that brought my attention to a budding social movement. As a person who can relate to the tenants struggle in an unjust housing market,  an image of the teen-idol and sex-icon paired with cultivated graphic design skills, and text suggesting a rent strike, creates an explosion of information, singaling sensations related to humor, sex, and  poltical comrardrie. As I watched this meme, and many more rent strike memes like it, get shared across social media platforms, my hope that there would be real action addressing inequalities of the rent markets in the midst of the public health crisis, grew.

In terms of personal finances, my situation was not unique. Like many other tenants in New York City, I had been here before, with many nights of sleep lost to fears of homelessness after a job loss. A survey about COVID, art industry workers, and personal finances put out by Art Handler magazine in late March, states that 69% of respondents were concerned about their ability to pay rent. One of the reasons why the rent strike memes work so well is because many of them are made by remarkably skillful artists or designers. This makes sense, given that the job market in New York City is flooded with artists and designers, many of whom in precarious employment situations much like my own. 

Indeed, this initial rent strike messaging led myself and many others to places on the internet where real organizing was happening. Soon I was watching a U.S Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, join the New York tenant coalition Housing Justice for All, as they called for a nationwide rent strike during a live-streamed meeting. In terms of both media studies and politics, Spring of 2020 was a  unique moment in American history where a rent strike movement could find its way into the halls of Congress with such tremendous speed. 

With the best  of the rent strike memes there is an aura of magic about them because the tools used to create them are occluded from the majority of the population. Take, for example, an image macro created by @spilledmyjuice (Instagram):four giant women with a gradient of hair color and skin tone—a sort of  New Age coven—are passing energy balls through outstretched arms as they hover around a depiction of Earth in front of a gray horizon.“Me and my friends summoning a worldwide rent strike” is written below the women’s feet. This image is magical not only because it references whirling balls of electricity passed between women who stand as tall as a planet. The real magic comes with the ability to render an image that depicts such women. While the depiction of Earth as seen from outer space may have been taken from the top of a Google search, the four women are each uniquely crafted using software that is unknown to me. Only within the last couple of years has free and open-source 3D computer graphics software, such as Blender, become stable and user friendly. While most people aren’t paying attention, artists are gaining powerful tools that can easily mimic reality and alter the way we see the world. 

As the rate at which we develop graphic design software increases, memes have become a way for artists living beyond the end of culture to work. Disenchanted by utopian visions of the internet from previous decades, the meme creators are self-reflexive about a perceived afterlife of culture—image-making in a wasteland of images at the end of capitalism, end of climate change, end of the world. Graffiti for millennials and gen Z. They are often made of the most basic material in our image-making environment, so they give way to degenerative, repulsive, hilarious, or ephemeral subject matter. But sometimes memes touch on issues that kindle the level of emotion that Beeldenstorm rioters must have felt as they smashed Catholic imagery during the iconoclastic fury of the Protestant Reformation. In the context of art history, the potential power of internet meme imagery should be considered no less salient than the image of Christ on the Cross.

Never before has the ability to overcome geographical distances been as influential as during the coronavirus pandemic. The speed at which our quarantined lives became reliant on telecommunications should signal drastic changes to come, and likewise, politics are racing to keep pace. In major cities from Montreal to Melbourne, there has grown  a common message from a chorus of tenants: suspend rent during the pandemic or landlords shall face a strike. A call for a multi-building rent strike has never taken hold so quickly—not in a single neighborhood, never mind citywide rent strikes across multiple nations. 

Memes and similar image-based mediums, are helping radical ideas on the right and the left gain popularity in ways that are not possible within the traditional mediums of liberal media built on the foundations of the first amendment. Within the few weeks since the rent strike memes started appearing on the internet, it seems a handful of leftist with smartphones assisted in influencing the thinking of enough people to legitimize the threat of massive strikes. Previous rent strikes typically only made the local news. The most successful rent strike in the history of New York City occurred in 1907 when a 16-year-old Jewish immigrant named Pauline Newman banded together a group of 400 young garment workers from shop floors in the Lower East Side to make picket signs and pamphlets, and then canvas door to door. That rent strike began with a small group of women camping on the banks of the Hudson to escape the inner-city heat of summer 1907. By January 1, 1908, Newman’s band convinced 10,000 tenants to agree to withhold rent and some 2,000 families had their rent reduced by as much as 20%. By mid-April,  Housing Justice for All was calling for 1 Million tenants to join the rent strike. 

With the potential intensity of sensation created in a form as compact as the image macro, the meme consumer undergoes an experience that is isolated from other information in our communications environment— if you happen to agree with the subject matter of the meme and have some prior knowledge that relates to it, memes can do what one of Michael Moore’s ninety minute documentaries might do in less than three seconds. Because there is so much information compacted into a singular experience, memes often  reaffirm an ideological belief while isolated from opposing viewpoints, and the militant extremes of the political right and the left frequently appear amidst controversial meme campaigns. Some rent strike memes suggest violence. Illustrations of weapons accompanied by threatening words for landlords are common when #rentstrike is searched on Instagram. Other rent strike memes are didactic, offering information that can be useful for a broad range of tenants, since the particulars of withholding rent pursuant to a strike will vary greatly, not only between cities because of local laws, but also between each landlord and tenant.

One visual signal that stood out among the viral transmissions of rent strike imagery has been that of a white sheet hanging in a window. This sheet is said to show neighbors that you have joined them in withholding rent from the landlord. It is rumored to have originated in Montreal, however Iranians were doing a form of sheet messaging as the pandemic ravaged their cities during the vernal equinox holiday of Nowruz. In Iran, poetry that celebrates Norwuz was written on sheets and hung outside windows to demonstrate togetherness during a time when being together was impossible. Even without the writing, sheets still imply something as intimate as poetry.  

The bed sheet exposes the world to numerous, private struggles linked to the difficulties of paying rent, while transgressing social customs that suggest we keep the ups and downs of personal finances out of public conversations. Picturing a bed in an apartment that is behind on rent, imbues the sheets with vulgarities that further transgress the barriers separating economic classes. A paycheck-to-paycheck sleep ritual, in which rest is frequently disrupted by the torment of a financial reality clashing with fantasies of self-actualization, stains the sheets with a mark of anxiety. During the pandemic, with the incessant drone of news reporting about victims dying alone in beds, bed sheets are a sign of ultimate suffering. Lastly, sheets are also a sign of surrender, and in this case, a surrender that implies the ultimate liberation from rent, perhaps most aptly represented by the mythical American hobo. A rent strike requires some tenants to risk losing their homes, and to begin a strike implies some willingness to become homeless. 

It is a difficult time to make sense of our shared reality. During the first weeks of the pandemic, I met over Skype with  a reading group in which we primarily discuss Sebald, psychoanalytic theory, and techniques for memorializing humanity’s greatest atrocities.e We tried to make sense of the pandemic while peering at each other on screens for the first time.,discussing how, in psychoanalytic terms, living during this pandemic was akin to psychosis because the most familiar things, such as canned beans typically found at the corner store, have taken on an entirely different meaning in the context of shelves emptied by panic buying. A psychoanalyst in the group pointed out the danger of such an environment—how small things can easily become pregnant with meaning in a way that is perhaps detached from reality, much like how it might to a paranoid person in the throes of psychosis. 

The suspension of our economic system did, in fact, prove to be both dangerous as it brought outbreaks of violence during the spring and summer of 2020. The ill-effects that a world suddenly made unfamiliar can have on the psyche can be seen on the most intimate levels, with rises of unhealthy drug and alcohol use, suicide, and domestic violence; the effects of the psyche are also evident on the societal level, with rises in police violence, protesters on the right and left becoming militant in ways that seem less tactical and more symbolic, if not purely ignorant, such as the young BLM protestor who threw a poorly-made molotov cocktail at a police car in front of citizen journalists eager to catch the act for their social media feed, or a right wing militia charging into the Michigan state house with assault rifles in front of TV cameras. However, much like vivid descriptions of psychosis, the coronavirus crisis has enabled visualizations for how our economic systems, our global society, and other realities may appear that are vastly different from the realities we shared before the pandemic. For the image-makers of the world, this environment is ripe with opportunity to make new meaning in the emptiness revealed by failing systems. Even if it is only temporary, this pause of our economic system has  revealed that many can form images for the world we wish to come, and focus on what we can collectively agree is real. For example, we can say with certainty that death is real—we don’t need Bernie Sanders to tell us that the healthcare system is broken as we watch the coronavirus death count in the United States climb. Property is real; an art gallery with three Manhattan locations and $500 million in annual revenue is real. However, the rent laws, the rent markets, and the art market, are symbolic and, being symbolic, they can be reordered. This global event has created a space in our culture devoid of symbols or meaning, and the images that emerge from this void will shape our future. The contingent of society that must initiate a reordering of symbolic systems are, in fact, the image-makers. 

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About the author

Forrest Muelrath is a news reporter, artist, and critic who lives and works beyond the end of culture.

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