Case study: Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Humanites in a self-imposed crisis
End of October 2010 this document :
was sent to the mailing list of the Board for the defense of Higher education and scientific work by a professor of the Faculty of Arts. The board is a loose civil initiative consisting of academic staff, researchers, students and independent intellectuals.
It started as a response to the overwhelming marketization of our system of higher education. It is a Europe-wide trend. In Slovenia, a country with a long tradition of public education, the pressure of the global capital, supported by the local political elite and managerial leaderships of academic institutions, is particularly acutely felt: an immense pressure is being put on all: educators, students, researchers. The policy that all knowledge that does not lead to immediate economic benefits should die is now having very visible effects. Doctoral tuition fees rise, making the study inaccessible for those who lack the means to pay for education. Academic working conditions are being driven down and an increasing number of educators and researchers have to work under extremely low wages and in extremely precarious conditions. This are just some examples.
A further effect of this commercial culture is the new urge for strong branding of the educational institutions. PR, advertising and design are now being employed to make the institutions look attractive to the market. Marketing communication is expected to solve the financial and other problems. As usual, this is done in a shortcut manner. Instead of putting all efforts into the academic processes developed through history, a new facade should show a positive image and conceal the inner crisis. Behind this commercial facade, critical knowledge is disappearing, and authentic theory is being pushed out of the University. Long-term original research is giving place to industrial production of short articles competing for publication in journals indexed by the US bibliographic corporation Thomson Scientific.
This particular case was chosen for our debate for an obvious reason. It is a sad case of marketing based (visual ) communication. We all know that such processes work to the external as well as to the internal public of such an institution. Communication creates identity and institutionalizes (self-)perception. Values, as in this case – commercial can be only enforced through time if there is a institution that is their reproducer.
It is important to understand that this web site is the main medium around which the new visual identity is being built. Printed materials such as brochures with exactly the same identity are already being produced and distributed.
The whole process was done without any real involvement of academic staff and student community; the new overall design was presented to the members of the Faculty Senate months after the contract with the design agency had been signed. As a project coordinated by the managers of the school, it is not only a mirror of those people's aesthetic values, but reflects their intention to impose a new, commercial, identity upon the biggest, oldest and most important academic institution for humanities in the country, and to transform it into a standardized factory. It should be added that the Faculty of Humanities, its students and academic staff have historically always stood on the forefront of dissent, civil engagement and protest, playing a crucial role in the political movements of the sixties and eighties; even now, the two main initiatives opposing the violent erosion of the public education system are rooted in the Faculty of Arts.
This particular document with the new identity and web site concept/design was met with outrage on the mailing list. Many employees of the Faculty disapprove of it, but it could not be prevented from being implemented. One of the reasons is the naturalisation of the marketing discourse. The debate within the Senate (the main executive body of the school) was eventually reduced to the issue of personal aesthetic views, giving the managerial pushers the right and opportunity to dismiss anyone who opposed such a profanation of the institution. Again one thing is clear- in the minds of the big majority (even within a academic institution that claims to nurture open and critical thinking) there is only one possible form of communication: marketing communication. Nothing else exists. The case of one particular institution can be taken as a symptom of wider processes involving both higher education and the professional field of communication/ design.
This discussion should highlight concrete problems of this web site communication/design concept in the light of its applicability within the framework of Faculty of Arts in the context of current socio-economic and political conditions.
What is wrong with this type of communication?
About Faculty of Arts:
Current web site:
More information about it in English:
Mission (taken from promotional Brochure- few years old)
The Faculty of Arts produces highly-educated individuals with an open, questioning and progressive approach to the humanities and social sciences. Particular emphasis is placed on the straightening of national academic areas that help to shape Slovene identity. The faculty cultivates research work, supports inter-disciplinary, opens up new academic areas, and creates new educational programs for its students. The uncovering of new scientific and academic knowledge is included in the process of study in such a way as to develop the level of quality required for Slovenia's self awareness and the faculty's creative presence in the international sphere. To that end it also organizes international consultations, congresses and conferences, as as inviting eminent domestic and foreign guests whose lectures contribute to general Slovene public awareness (the lecture series Culture of Tolerance has included or will include Noam Chomsky, Adam Michnik and Bronislaw Geremek).
Bellow you will find thoughts on this from workshop mentors: Sandy Kaltenborn, Tony Credland, Jason Grant, Shoaib Nabi, Alain Bieber and Oliver Vodeb
Workshop participants will be invited to comment/reflect on this as well. Afterwords a wider Memefest public will be invited.
well well well…. my first reaction when i got the input from oliver on this new institute website and the process within the institution, how it came to shape and what the process mirrors from his perspective was:
this comes at no surprise and sometimes i feel a bit tired in repeating my critique on such things, on how i feel about seeing universities more & more serving market requests and not democratic culture/s in society and so forth...
ok. - but somehow i singed up for this curatorial work at memefest 2011 and so i guess its my duty - and of course also my interest ; ) to write a few thoughts down, as the other curators also will in order we have a bases to discuss during the meetings in Holland end of may 2011.
usually the weekends are my lazy days - and now even more, as a cleaning robot has moved into my house an does all the vacuum cleaning all alone, i can sit on my balcony here in berlin kreuzberg, with my laptop (macbook 15"/2,4ghz and 4GB ram) and type this:
i will stick to the PDF and not so much relate on what oliver has written to the process. i hope thats ok . i will basically try to underline what oliver already has stated in his lines, by just referring to the PDF:
ok - so lets jump right into this (leaked) presentation PDF of the new website and some design work.
graphically its quite catchy and i have to admit there is something i like about its visual gesture and concept.
i guess a big part is this cutted typography - which from my reading reflects on different ways of reading - the gap between the message sender and the recipient in communication - the layers of content and understandings etc pp...
it gave me big laughter when is saw the illustration of the person (student?) holding the poster with this quote on civilisation and not even thinking of throwing a rock. the person, lets call him or her a student, is not even visible. so even if we know this kind of showing posters very well (from numerous designer websites or student portfolios), we should keep in mind that this specific pose can at least say 3 things:
a) i am just doing my job here holding the poster so you can see it better - or b) i am not important - the poster and its "message" is important - or c) look what i did! isn't this a cool design?
a cat just came by on the balcony (she hates the new vacuum cleaner robot!)
guess ill quickly go inside an tell mr robot to move back to the docking station.
sorry for the interruption.
ok - the cropped photo of the guy - is this someone i should know? is it maybe mr s. freud? … or is it just again a "typical postmodern" young male representation: smart & deep looking, and body most likely well shaped as his face - malish and cool by beard - but soft, caring and intelligent at the same time. just as we see it on photos in advertising all the time - and also in students portfolios more & more?
so lets be "civilized" and not throw a stone - and continue the quote: "civilisation began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock - and ended when all humans became puppets of a marked formed public culture" (i agree its a bit superficial…but huh… reduce 2 the max?)
it even gets better when one sees the technical illustration of the citylight billboards: clean and 100% not accessible for ordinary people who cant afford buying the ad-spaces. this illustrations refers (positively) to privatized public space - rather than to ask what kind of communication we need. or at least ask what kind of discursive space an art institution should/could be in the wider context of a democratic society?
coming shortly back to the puppets: the funny thing is, that the puppets hold their own strings these days. govermentality… and the european understanding of civilisation? - well this is a whole story for it self, as the European civilization was build with the blood and exploitation of so called 3rd world countries as we know. and was it not Yugoslavia who shocked the Europeans of its uncivilized outbreak of violence?
dam- i am confused again - but i actually thought that the war in Yugoslavia thought us that there is no such thing as a civilised society when it comes to show?! only the ones who are happy about the power structures in democratic societies will differentiate between a stone and structural violence which is needed to keep things going as the go (…?!) it would be nice to have a talk with freud on the inaugiration day of this website i guess.
back to the illustrations: actually the image politics here are falling far far behind this self governance practice: as we can see on page 21 (big billbord simulation) the guy was just about to say something, but they preferred to shut him off by sticking the "" the foundations of knowldedge" right on his mouth. funny huh!? (i have the feeling i am throwing stones again)
so i am a bit surprised about this page 21 billboard image. is it a little to direct? simply because the design and the guys expression carrys in his face etc. is potentially open for anything, just as good products have the image to sell to everyone: empty and full at the same time.
this is marketing and market culture at its best: don't offend anyone (or critique) but be concerned about anything! be part of it - but dont ask to much. be concerned - but don't name the powers.
back to the PDF in general, which is actually quite direct and honest if you want so: first the merchandising products - then the website (as a product - and not a media for communication).
get your mug and t-shirt for free when register? how many ipads are sold in Slovenia? does this institution seek for ipad owners as students?
this is not about new media. this is just following some crude understanding of technical development without any social responsibility in design & communication at all.
so i believe this PDF presentation it is not seeking to discuss and research and question the needs of communication for an institution. it does not even talk about communication. it talks about a product and it will most likly work. just as 100.000 other websites and mugs like this work. just as the culture/s of markets work. nothing else. until someone spills the coffee.
ps. i am a bit disappointed by the mug. i like the idea to start my day with a civilised strong coffee in the morning. but i am disappointed that the designers did not manage to warp thy text/typo around the mug. or maybe this is concept? then i want one of these mugs!
ps. oliver - you are critizising that there was no participation in the process of shaping the new CD / website at all. well - i am not sure if participation is always good. its not always about participation. but about power. sometimes. but this is a whole other discussion.
It's noted that this process of commercialising higher education is Europe wide. But of course it is as far reaching as the market itself. Certainly in Australia the escalating competition between universities has fostered an environment where marketing messages have created institutions in their own image. One of our leading universities (Queensland University of Technology) calls itself 'The University for the Real World' - the implication is of course that the 'real world' is the global marketplace, and traditional academic concerns are at best quaint and at worse irrelevant wherever they diverge from market priorities.
So, as has been noted, these initially cynical advertisements become internalised as core mission statements. Public bragging about rates of graduate employment, for example, becomes the limited criteria for reputation.
It seems a critical problem is that the more an institution projects these values and therefore the more they are internalised, the less capacity they have to respond to vital issues of our time wherever they contradict these values. I'd guess then this is a reason for example we increasingly see universities urgently tackling the impacts and physical causes of climate change, while the underlying economic, social and political causes are not adequately addressed.
The University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Arts visual makeover is pretty typical. There is a predictable disconnection from the institution's culture and traditions. It's an admittedly potent quote by Freud, but a missed opportunity to relate directly to the faculty's history. Even seemingly marketable obvious achievements are forsaken in favour of a visual pose that could come from anywhere and stand for anything. Likewise, there is no real attempt to engage with the substance of the university's contemporary culture - no engagement with the cohort, or its social context. What a wasted resource.
Thus it came to pass, a unique institution is homogenised, trivialised and ultimately weakened.
A response to branding of academic institutes Shoaib Nabi Ahmad
I believe the essence of the document lies within this statement "Instead of putting all efforts in to the academic processes developed through history, a new facade should show a positive image and hide all the problems." I have had the advantage of being educated both in the British model and the American Model of education and through my personal experience I
have seen that emphasize on theory has been severely marginalized in the American model.
However this said recent Accreditation from the USA has made vital suggestions to our programs that we need to bring more theory to our programs. We have been conforming and implementing their suggestions. This is also a requirement for National Ministry Accreditation.
External funding in some regions is critically evaluated as it should be and a very high standard is applied to the acceptance of funds but I am well aware that although a non-profit, private organization education is still considered a state interest and responsibility lies directly on the founder of institutes and their mission and goals. So to hold any parallels might be unfair.
Recently an institute in the USA of which I am an alma mater Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) founded in 1877 had its own dissent with the current president John Maeda and how the governing of the institute under his leadership has been questioned. An extract from his response to the no-confidence vote: President John Maeda responded to the
faculty co-confidence vote last Wednesday via mass email today at 3:00 pm. Maeda claims that the changes he has implemented have benefited the school in the following ways:
• Increasing funding for scholarships and securing 6 and 7 figure gifts.
• Receiving significant grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
• Garnering increased national attention from policy makers and potential employers.
• Realizing the lowest tuition increases in decades.
• Welcoming the most diverse class in RISD’s history in 2010.
• Creating a vibrant space for student activities in Carr Haus.
What Maeda does not address is why his administration seems to be pressing forward with the consolidation of departments despite being deeply unpopular. It’s easy to see why many at RISD might find the presidents email grating. He talks a lot about the conversations he has had, but not
once does he cite the voice of the students or faculty. The omission is glaring according to the reports published online. For more information you can visit the website http://147to32.com/
1. An ability to have transparency in the electoral process - which leads to respecting the process
and its integrity.
2. The more difficult to implement is to evoke a response to what Dr. Oliver Vodeb keeps on referring to "Response-Ability" - take the initiative and action.
Teaching ethics and social responsibility should be part of every curriculum and reinforced in practical terms not just in theory. How we educate today breaks down to a simple thing what we expect from the next generation. What we need to pass to them to be successful and how is this success measured. I would like to believe that success would be measured in terms of your knowledge of Humanity through Liberal Arts and Sciences, through Theory and Practice. Perhaps a notion that is so simple that we find it unattainable in this age when education has become a model replicated through globalization without an understanding of the process of its
dissemination to a particular culture and the results it may produce.
The standardization of the University of Ljubljana website and its supporting collateral material marks a growing trend to package and promote education, its faculty and curriculum as a commodity that can be to par of a well orchestral product launch of a high-end brand. Where previously we used to see ads for job openings we now also see a growing trend of ads for students invited to seek admissions. One can argue as competition grows in the field of education it is almost required for educational institutes to have a desired ‘sex appeal’ to attract and boost their numbers.
The problem does not lie with the desire to achieve greater enrollment but with the erosion and undermining of institutional memory and the lack of inclusiveness of the establishment as a whole in the process. Which means its faculty, staff and students not to mention alumni and established research partners.
Institutions, especially an academic going through rebranding may have its purpose and adaptability challenged due to rapid changes in technology, however it risk losing its identity which in the first place established its name. Another factor, which is clear in the case study that the brand is now generic, and I can easily place this institute in Toronto, London, San Francisco
or even in Dubai or Qatar. Universities, Colleges and Schools are not remembered by its advertisement campaigns or it’s new buildings unless they have over time become iconic as a place. It is the faculty, the embedded programs, well serving curriculums and the graduates who have promoted through their success the institution, which makes a far greater impact.
An example that I want to bring to attention is the New York Times it is a brand that has build itself on loyalty and integrity. At one point it decided to include color in its pages and the outcry was such that it forced the publisher to revert to the classical standards one has come to associate with the publication. More recently the GAP, rebranding was rejected by its loyal
customers and the company was forced to rethink their initiative for a cosmetic change.
Which is what it is at the end of the day ‘cosmetic change’ bringing an alienation of its customer base. Change is often necessary and its impact should be measurable and quantified, it requires focus groups to be established from within in most cases and when use of positive synergy is at its best it often leads to acceptance of change through establishments across the board. I stand by my statement, which is also the focus of my inspiration day talk stated here:
Knowledge can be disseminated in no particular way. In my opinion it should not conform to a system but foster through set of challenges that crosses boundaries. An open exchange of ideas or set of opinions on a particular issue should be encouraging, constructive, and come with sincere dialogue building.
It looks like the commercial designers/agency did not really understood (or researched) the values of the university, nor the philosophy or the history. They propose a visual identity, starting with a typography and colour code and a picture format - without first thinking about for whom they really work. It´s more important to propose a merchandising collection (coffee mugs) and show an iPhone/Pad-Application then to really analyze the special needs, the unique requirements of the faculty, the values of the university or even the usability. As most designers the agency don´t think about how a good design makes a website more useful/usable or how the users really want to use this website. Conclusion: style rules - and ruins everything. The result is not creative nor innovative - the design looks like a 08/15-edit plate; there is no strong branding, no strong visual identity, the visuals/layout looks exchangeable and at the end the web design could have been for a assurance company, a hairdresser or a soft drink. Certainly a better result would have been achieved if the university would have worked together with their students and professors on this new identity/website - because they are inside, they know for whom they work (and imagine: what a great practical student project for a design faculty to do their own website), it would strengthen their own "allegiance" to their school - and it would have been a democratic, authentic and open way to communicate - and perhaps even a PR-scoop (see FUBU-Marketing: "For Us By Us").
I am afraid it is all too familiar here - but 20 years ago - we are now in a crisis phase of total privatisation of the university sector with very little opportunity of it not happening.
Our University saw a 80% cut in financial support this year - forcing the colleges to follow the money in which ever way they can - or close. In fact many will close over the next few years. This cut is in Humanities - the cut to Science is only 20% which illustrates where government thinks the money will come from - Science will be supported by business and will work for business through practical partnerships. They Humanities are no longer relevant to this business model and are being forced to find any funding through partnerships or student fees. As we are a humanities only University we will be effected badly - other universities can support their humanities with their science funding - for a while. (One Uni London Metropolitan is cutting its courses by 70%! and the student occupation was evicted yesterday.)
The student fees which were started by Thatcher in the 1990's continued and increased under Labour (left of centre?) government and now stand at £3000 / year are to raise to £9000 next year to fill this funding gap. The students (or should i say clients) do not pay this money lightly - they are increasingly less interested in academic ideas - and are now forced to aim only for high paid jobs to pay back their fees... So this is forced from all directions. From Government / management and students. The tutors have little option - we have had 20 years of gradual 'efficiencies' that have brought us to this point - none of the strikes / occupations/ riots have had any effect. Once you have a market in students - which we have now - teaching is a balance between fees / student numbers / quality - not a good position.
Next year when we have a market in courses - internally and externally - it is hard to not see many closures. We are now 'unofficially' in competition with our colleagues within our University of the Arts which includes Central St Martins and Chelsea. You can see where marketing and branding is going to take this - the language of business is already deeply embedded in our structure, for research and for teaching.
I can see why you are concerned about what is coming to your situation. We warned of these changes 20 years ago - but nothing changed - maybe we managed to slow things down, over the years but we are now quite close to the American model. The Bologna agreement of European Universities set years back - probably includes the start of this process in Europe - first aligning the standards - then the market.
In many ways the marketing of the college in this situation is the icing on the cake, so it is interesting that your institution is starting down this road. Hopefully we can intervene at some level and challenge the progress, but as the anti-capitalist movement always said - this is a system that we are working in - that system can contain revolt for a while, the question is how wide the challenge to it is in society. And on that level i guess there is still some hope in Slovenia.
The problem with the pdf of the University marketing strategy/style guide is that it does not relate to anything. It is a stylised design that references some current trends in European design (Dot Dot Dot magazine / http://www.manystuff.org/ etc) without saying anything about the subject. But that is what i would expect from a marketing department - and in many ways i am glad they get it so wrong.
There is a clear dependence in showing the 'hardware' that the university might like to offer the students; the ipad and iphone - the inbuilt desire to merchandise is set out clearly with the mugs and caps! This all makes this less like a brand identity than product around which desires need to be created.
An understandable desire to show the old and the new, through type, (which is also mirrored in existing texts) but it does seem like a design that has not attempted to understand its purpose. This leads us to the point of; Does a university need publicity? At what point does marketing and identity cross over, and where does the concept of a brand come in that students and staff might relate to.
From reading the existing site i see a strong desire to have a brand in terms of knowledge and history but then in this situation the brand is only for a small audience. This campaign seems to be required for a general public audience on the streets of Slovenia, speaking the everyday language of consumer culture.
I am presuming the existing logo of the flying 'f' books is the only item that remains the same - and of course this does not fit well with the new style. Having said that i cant imagine any modern design University in the UK that does not have a bad identity - as the design departments are rarely invited into the process.
I wont pretend to understand much of the proposed visual language - like the pattern/waves/maze/blinds, the colour blue in there or the desire for an unshaven model. They could relate to any product or advert. The quote is clearly pointing towards the idea that educated people don't fight so much the uneducated (they just find other forms of aggression).
The core ideas they seem to be pushing - Visibility / Software upgrade / Brand / Aesthetics - are quite odd to quote in a document like this and indicates the other type of work they are probably used to do. (i am a bit confused why this is stated so clearly, who are these pages aimed at - the managers of the University or just a reminder to the designer of what s/he needs to put in).
Overall it is hard to really decode beyond the point that is a marketing campaign that misses the mark - but then maybe i am not the intended audience and and missing some of the semiotics.
The role of the University and an institution as the Faculty of Arts, with all its history and official vision statements is (or should be) an active, or rather responsive one. The institution is not isolated in a hermetic academic sphere, but through its research and education actively shapes society. Humanities and social sciences- both being taught at this institution, are key for emancipation in our times of predatory capitalism. In this light the web site as a primary medium of the institution should reflect this emancipatory position of Faculty.
The proposed document is rooted in commercial culture. This is obvious in the slick advertising like designs which are in my opinion everything else than inspirational. They lack any artistic aura and are conceived to support an easy marketable brand. Symbolically the visual identity does not connect with the content, history or vision. It is in this perspective pretty decontextualized. Same as advertising. The fact that the whole process was made without a wider involvement of students and Faculty stuff is another typical feature of marketing culture. It is exclusive, not inclusive. Real participation is not part of marketing culture. Media that is shown as examples in the presentation speak the commercial language too. No tactical, no DIY, no publicly accessible media.
The brand is a typical standardized commercial signifier. What a shame, this institution has such a diversity, such a big range of colourful cultures. The quotations used work pretty much in the realm of what we know as »cool«. Critique as part of commercial culture used for the purpose of achieving distinction. A classic approach embedded in the heart of commercial culture. Such critical gestures are of course nothing else as empty phrases.
The communication does not take any position, any risk and it does not show any willingness for adventure. It is boring, because it is the same thing as all other commercial communication. Distinction through cheep anesthetization does not help. It is being different in the same way.
Another problem is the automatic use of Facebook. One of the dimensions of socially responsive communication is that it builds communities of collaboration. FB makes communities of instant communication rooted on commercial selfpresentation. Commercial, because social relations are created as part of market relations. Everyone is on sale and social relations are the best medium to get projects for making a living within precarious conditions. In my opinion a progressive educational institution needs to deal with the educational cultures of competition that we face this days. How can we create educational and academic cultures of collaboration? Not through commercial media, that's for sure.
It's funny to see the model used to pose in this visual disaster. Self confident look in his eyes. Very cool hair cut. The same stuff we see everyday on TV and in magazines. Isn't the role of such an institution ot question reality? To communicate outside of stereotypes?
I remember a nice remark of one mailing list member. He said something like this: »dont you see, they are using this quote, so they can dismiss anyone who will critique the institutions managers responsible for this disaster, as uncivilized«? It really is fascinating how this things work. In my experience a web site is a perfect medium to reflect of a institutions internal culture during the process of making. I am not sure how consciously intentional or reflected all this marketing manipulation dimensions were in this process. I would say not too much, but Its quite ironic that Freud was used. They were not reflected, because there is nothing to reflect upon. For reflection you need a (potential) alternative. You need imagination. What if there is only marketing communication that exists in the heads of the makers of this web/identity? I bet this is true. It is normal to make a commodity out of the faculty it is normal to create marketing based social relations. It is normal to create a commercial brand out of a educational institution. But this "normality" is inherently manipulative.
In order to achieve a state of potential for social responsiveness certain conditions have to be met. Socially responsive communication meets the following characteristics, where a communication concept and practice shall have beside characteristic 4, 5, 6 and 7 also the characteristics of at least one of the first three.
1. It shows hidden relationships of power in society
2. It establishes communities of cooperation
3. It opens a new communication channel
4. It participates actively in social-cultural processes
5. It pays attention to its own effects of communication on society and culture with the purpose to communicate in a socially responsible manner
6. It self deconstructs in the communication processes with the purpose to establish a critical distance of the public to the communicator
7. It establishes dialogue and/or conditions for the dialogue
There is still the question of process, of course. Analyzing a web site or brand or design as a end state, end product, end artifact is limited. But what we can read from this document shows that not even one criteria is met and one can be sceptical that things will change in the process.
The initiative to defend higher education and scientific work has started in this Faculty. Right now a new web platform for the initiative is being build. Let's see what will happen.
More about Sandy Kaltenborn:
More about Jason Grant:
More about Shoaib Nabi:
More about Alain Bieber:
More about Tony Credland.
More about Oliver Vodeb:
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