Hyperallergic reached out to two well-respected researchers of social media and online visual culture to reflect on the recent Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un and the imagery that surrounded that event, as well as the now infamous G7 meeting in Canada. They decided to have a dialogue about the topic, reflecting on some of the most viral images and the emergence of the “new propaganda.”
An Xiao Mina should be no stranger to Hyperallergic readers, as she first explored the topic of memes on these pages back in 2011 before launching a professional career in the field. She gave a TedGlobal talk in 2013 on the importance of memes.
Ray Drainville is a researcher on iconography and social media at the Postgraduate Arts and Humanities Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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An Xiao Mina: There have been a lot of interesting images coming out of geopolitics this past week. The most viral, perhaps, was the one released by Angela Merkel’s team, which so many people compared to a Renaissance painting. What do you think was going on there?
Ray Drainville: Oh definitely. I think it’s a combination of the angles and the intense interaction between the figures. Italian Renaissance art has very clearly-defined spaces; Baroque art eschews that and heightens the drama. To me, there’s something of Rembrandt’s “Academy Lesson of Dr Tulp,” specifically with the drama and the people looking in different directions.
What’s interesting is the German press’ reaction to the photo: “this is the moment in which the West broke.” It’s not too much to equate the western alliance with the corpse in between the figures in the painting.
AXM: And then it kind of paled in comparison to the images that came immediately after the G7 Summit. For the Singapore Summit, Trump’s team released what looks like a movie trailer about Trump and Kim meeting for the first time. It looks epic and exciting, almost like a superhero film.
RD: I think that photo will be remembered more than any single point in the Singapore Summit. Nevertheless, the video introducing the summit — made by the White House — was an astounding monument to ego.
AXM: Whose ego do you think it’s feeding? It seems to me like it’s boosting both DJT and KJU, and I’ll be curious to hear how it’s received, for instance, in the Koreas and if it ever becomes accessible in North Korea, either via official channels or their underground media market.
RD: I’ll be curious, too. I’m sure the Trump team thought it boosted both their egos, but it definitely boosts Trump’s.
One thing really leapt out at me about it: take away the [admittedly important] political clips, and that video was virtually indistinguishable from many corporate promotional videos. I’d wager that much of it was built off of stock video footage: the clouds seen from an aeroplane, the construction materials lifted up past the skyscraper, the images of cranes, etc. This isn’t a standard Silicon Valley promotional with lots of happy people coming together to create a better world: this is old-school, 80s real-estate promotional material, and as such it is pure Trump. This is enforced by Trump’s comments post-summit about the potential of putting “the world’s best hotels” on North Korea’s beaches. The video dangled the trappings of prosperity in front of KJU: the question is whether KJU wants North Korea to be a clone of South Korea.
So I agree that this is propaganda, but what does it say that corporations have fed us this type of material for decades, and that it only seems weird and inappropriate only when it’s used for political ends?
AXM: Yes, that’s super interesting. It reminds me of Edward Bernays advocating for politicians to learn from corporate marketing back in the 20s. Chinese Communist Party also studies modern marketing techniques. Corporate marketing is very effective so we shouldn’t be surprised when states use them.
There’s another set of images I thought was interesting: the photos release of DJT and KJU shaking hands, and of the NK and US flags in an array. A lot of folks critiqued those as legitimizing the NK government and putting it on an equal level with the US. I’m curious what you thought of those.
RD: My position is probably different from your standard American, because I’ve lived half my life away from the US, and that’s changed my perspective. North Korea is unequal to the US in that it has no economic power. It is sufficiently equal in that it has the capacity to destroy American cities (maybe). That’s a real threat to the US, and the old ways of dealing with the regime haven’t worked. North Korea has killed many, many of its own civilians. And yet there isn’t any hope of changing it from within. Do these images it legitimize the regime? Certainly. But it’s been around since the early 1950s. It doesn’t appear to be withering.
So placing the flags on an equal status confers some legitimacy to a regime that already had “legitimacy on the ground,” and wasn’t going anywhere. Sanctions and isolation haven’t worked; it [reputedly has] nuclear weapons anyway. It’s been argued that sanctions and isolation are often unsuccessful and often only cause misery for the people, and not for the regime that rules over the people.
An alternative way of dealing with a threat is engagement, much like West Germany did with East Germany under Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. By the 1980s, East Germany was dependant upon the West. I can’t pretend to understand Trump or his cohort, but perhaps the thinking is along these lines, and the propaganda video — with all its dangling of material prosperity and investment (electricity! building! medicine!) — can thus be seen as evidence of that.
AXM: I’m also very curious about the selfies with KJU. Do what do you think motivates folks to want to take selfies with him? And what does it say about selfie culture that he seems to willingly participate?
RD: I think the motivation to take selfies with KJU is probably related to his fame as someone who doesn’t travel much — it’s like being photographed alongside a rarity. And maybe it’s also a form of participation — however remote — in an historical event. Even if the summit agreement fizzles out, which is a real possibility, it is an historic moment. I’m more surprised by his willingness to participate in the selfie. It suggests to me that he understands the value of PR than one might otherwise guess. What do you think of them?
AXM: Yes — I think we saw during the Olympics that NK does understand PR and spectacle, and here we are with their own leader taking selfies. It’s a reflection, I think, of the global importance of selfies in political culture now. Even a dictator is willing to take one in a certain context.
RD: Yes — and dictators often adapt to new practices. The paradigmatic example is the Nazis’ use of broadcasting and cinematic techniques. I wonder if using the term “dictator” makes us less able to see moments when these people aren’t merely dictating to media, but adapting newer media practices in their attempts to position themselves.
Have you seen many of the memes? I think they’re always fascinating. Sad and Useless has collected some of the best. I love the radical resituation of meaning by the simple means of a caption.
AXM: Those are all pretty amazing. In some ways this is now something to expect as a given — for any event we will see the memes. And people have fun not even with remix but simply by reframing the image. For historic events like this, sometimes the images themselves are so unbelievable that recaptioning is enough.
RD: All very true. But I’m still impressed by the fact someone can take an utterly standard picture of two leaders standing in front of an array of flags and utterly change your reception of it in 140 [or 280] characters.