This exhibition from Tom Poultney explores the humanising aspect of the meme as folk-art object in building and defining online communities and in doing so, countering automation in the digital space.

It challenges automations to generate folk art in various forms using artificial intelligence, algorithms, and digital fabrication processes.

In November 2022, Chat GPT was asked by user negyvenezer to ‘create a humorous haiku about AI (Artificial Intelligence) replacing humanity.’ It responded with 'Robots take our jobs, AI takes our lovers too, we're left with memes sigh'.

At first glance, this appears to be a humorous poem reflecting popular anxiety around the increasing prevalence of Artificial Intelligence; however, it also provides an important insight into the cultural function of memes. In these 17 syllables, ChatGPT has identified memes as humanising artefacts in the digital space, putting memes in binary opposition to automation and artificial intelligence. As the volume of artificially and algorithmically generated content on social media grows, the ability to distinguish the content created by human users becomes increasingly challenging with memes playing a significant role in validating human authenticity.

There are many ways in which memes perform this function. AI cannot yet read or create memes successfully. Significantly, AI cannot reproduce the ‘Internet Ugly’ aesthetic of memes, which is characterised by misspellings, crudely edited photographs, image appropriation and sloppy freehand drawings. This aesthetic evidences the human labour that underpins meme production and authenticates the human made digital artefact.

Memes in this sense share many of their attributes and functions with traditional folk-art. They are both produced by amateurs, are naively made, and are used by communities to define cultures by reinforcing histories and sharing lore. Like memes, the historical and cultural significance of the folk artefact is evident in the object through its aesthetic, materials and production methods.

Poster for exhibition of work by Tom Poultney at the University of Leeds


About the artist

Tom Poultney is a practice-led Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Leeds. Tom’s practice explores social media and digital culture, particularly the humanising function of the meme aesthetic.

Tom creates work across a range of medium with a particular focus on the use of automated digital process to create artworks using artificial intelligence and algorithms.

Tom is also co-curator and editor of the BLANK_ gallery and publication.

Follow Tom Poultney on Twitter: @tee___pee


Project Space
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies
University Road
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

Opening times

Open Wednesday 26 July to Tuesday 1 August, 10:00am to 3:00pm (closed Sunday).

Preview night: Thursday 27 July, 5:00pm - 8:00pm. All welcome.


Tom Poultney, DeepFolk, 2021.