Everyday on the Internet, a GIF is born. And everyday, a GIF dies a sad, not-reblogged death. GIFs were once an integral aspect of the Web 1.0 culture, actualized in novel pointed arrows and naughty adult-only signage of women flashing their tits. The tiny animated format fully came of age when social network users began adorning their MySpace pages with homespun GIFs. Today GIFs are everywhere, from the Internet’s animated cats to the world of high fashion. GIFs became a mainstay of net artists and remix culture, which also alludes to the birth of the read/write web, for which this site is named. Today nothing is safe from the mesmerizing hyper-fast cracked out aesthetic of GIFs, which are both minimal in style and instantly gratifying in consumption. The GIF is simple, trashy and strangely attractive. Anything can get GIF-ified in twohundredfiftysix colors or less.
The GIF indicates a full-fledged Internet culture transformation. It suggests the endless possibilities of making and sharing on the Internet. A single image slightly animated has the potential to catch eyeballs faster even than a 10-second viral video or stagnant single image. GIFs show the possibility of the now, as defined by users of the Internet.
Downcast Eyes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago began first with the GIF. For the one-night only event, twohundredfiftysixcolors (Eric Fleischauer, Jason Lazarus & Theodore Darst) and TAGTEAM (Jake Myers and Christopher Smith), invited artists and culture makers to show their GIFs in a two-hour computer-based performance art endurance show. Except the bodies on display were not human, they were indeed computer screens, iPads, iPhones, Androids and PCs. The idea here was to show up with a fully-charged laptop or other device that could play GIFs. Drop it on the long table located in the middle of the room, connect it to the museum’s WiFi network, play the GIF, and let it run till the battery dies a temporary death. Then power-up and start again, some other time.
“We asked a core group of people to come who we thought should be really involved – who were already invested in animated GIFs,” says Downcast Eyes co-organizer Christopher Smith. “Then we extended the call to the public, which I think really reflects the nature of the file format. It’s not just artists making this thing, but people who are really into cats and TV shows and movies.”
The randomness of artists in this show is purposeful, adding the serendipity element that is quite secondary to the social networked experience. But first, let’s get a few things straight. GIFs and GIF culture are nothing new. CompuServe introduced the GIF in 1987 with the aim of providing a color image format for file downloading. The previous format, run-length encoding (RLE), was black and white only.
GIFs, or graphical interchange format, are comprised of a 256-color palette. Limiting the number of colors available in the GIF makes it at once retro and endearing, focused on a sort of lo-fi aesthetic that contrasts the lush image capabilities of the JPG or TIFF. Tagteam began exploring the GIF in 2011, curating TWEEN, a physical installation of around 30 laptops playing GIFs from around the world. Today TWEEN lives on as a Tumblr blog. Taking that one step forward, artists Eric Fleischauer, Jason Lazarus and their curatorial assistant Theodore Darst started working on a 16mm cinematic film on celluloid about GIFs called twohundredfiftysixcolors. The film comments on the journey of the GIF, charting it “from an Internet page signpost, a tool of multiplying Internet memes, and finally a place for considered artistic gestures.”
The GIF, says Smith, seems to live in this weird in-between state of Internet life. “They’re something you can immediately dismiss as really silly, or like a really trashy meme,” he says. “But it does make you wonder and take a closer look.”
The 50+ GIFs that participated in Downcast Eyes could fill a small landfill of Internet trash. “This is GIF culture,” says Myers. “We just see so much in such a small area that you’re hyperaware of the various associations and solutions to the GIF.” Adds Smith, “I was really attracted to the kind of trashy quality of it and also being this file format of nearing the edge of obsolescence.” GIF culture does not have a single space for existence, though much of it now takes place on Tumblr. Darst spends a fair amount of time there blogging and re-blogging GIFs.
“I don’t think there’s really one GIF culture,” he says. “Basically at the risk of sounding kind of simple about it, I just spend a lot of time on Tumblr. In the new media community, it’s this good way to do stuff that’s not so serious, doesn’t involve extensive community modeling and all that. It’s not super complex system of feedback, it’s like you make something and it’ll get…maybe nobody will reblog it, and then 500 people will.”
One of the first artist collectives to actively engage the GIF, elevating it from pure Internet file format to an aesthetic level, is PaperRad, comprised of Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci and Ben Jones. Their lo-fi, DIY aesthetic relies heavily on cheap 1980s pop culture imagery, GIFs and the throw-away trash aesthetic that is so clearly apparent in the GIF. PaperRad’s outrageous aesthetic predates the reemergence of the GIF in art culture. Now it’s become this accepted, widespread Internet trash that people either tend to love or absolutely hate.
“I feel like in the past two or three years you have kind of GIFs taking this more art/new media role, where that kind of gets talked about as GIF culture as if it’s this new thing,” says Darst. “I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not.”
GIFs make for a visual explosion of Internet culture, a relic of what once was, a pile of trash that the Internet recycles into new and beautifully paralyzing momentary imagery. The animated GIF is a fixture of Internet pop culture. It’s one of those objects that anyone can make, so long as they have access to Google Image Search. The GIF itself plays on usually a short, three or four second loop, re-presenting a very brief animation over and over again. It is obnoxiously mesmerizing, and the subject matter within is usually short, pop-y bits of information – easy concepts to digest and spit out.
The performance at the MCA, which I’m likening to more of a happening and less of a theatrical, staged work of art persay, happened once and will never happen in the same format again. Like a moment of fast commenting and conversation on a social networking site, it happened in the now.
The show itself not only took place in the dining hall type area of the MCA. It was based on people showing up with devices for screening GIFs. It was not live-streamed to the Internet, but there was a quality of online community participation, as friends and strangers uploaded images to Imgur, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook in real-time. The Internet commented, liked, re-tweeted, re-blogged, and sent Downcast Eyes into digital landscape. This angsty Satan-esque look at Mark Zuckerberg appeared on imgur, as did this GIF of a flying eagle Internet Explorer. Other Instagrammed images of the show appear still and frozen in time, like stills from a video art show. Snippets of the show appeared on Jason Lazarus’ Facebook. But as for the GIF itself – in many ways, it is similar in nature to the silent, pre-cinema era.
“It’s like Edward Muybridge’s race horse animations, where you see a horse galloping,” says Myers. “You see something so many times over and over again, that that repetition ends up being funny or giving it a different meaning than seeing it once, like you would see in a movie.”
The Future of the Culture GIF: James Green, Jessica Westbrook & Kourtney Elam
James Green, Jessica Westbrook and Kourtney Elam are three artists representing a more nuanced look at the GIF today in pop culture. Westbrook’s work looks at the evolution of the GIF since those Web 1.0 days. Elam imagines a futuristic female cyborg who straddles today and the future, and Green looks at portrayals of black people in GIF culture. These felt most important because the majority of GIFs on view at Downcast Eyes were concerned with the aesthetics of the GIF itself, or a more mainstream pop culture. To be expected, really.
Chicago-based artist/designer James Green‘s fast-looping GIF of Kony2012 provides a moment frozen in Internet time of the actions that took place around Kony2012, the most viral YouTube video ever. An image of Jason Russell, a Facebook Like button symbol and Joseph Kony pile on top of one another, flashing in fast succession. It’s the rate at which this video became an overnight viral sensation. His JUST FOR FUN piece takes a smart stab at how fast our culture forgets the memory of pivotal Civil Rights occurrences, lumping them into the pop culture imagination. In FUN, he pastes Rosa Parks’ face onto a seat in the back of a bus, where she hangs with Rebecca Black. In another animated GIF, Green takes Jessie Jackson’s head and places it on top of Nyan cat, which he says “kind of plays off of Rainbow Push Coalition.”
Jessica Westbrook‘s GIF image stems from her experience working in the dotcom era, and serves as an homage to a memory of that time period. The GIF is called Lala.com, and Westbrook says that it’s “conceptually something I’ve carried for a long time, for the past 14 years. You might even describe it as an 14-year piece.”
“When I worked as a Web developer in 1998-2000, we’d spend a lot of time developing GIFs,” Westbrook says. “So I kept it [LaLa] in my cubicle with me, so there’s this association between her and timing and the dot.com experience that I had with animated GIFs, so it seemed like a natural intersection of those interests.”
As a disclaimer, Westbrook says that she is 38-years-old, and thus her first experience with the animated GIF took place 16 years ago.
“There was a timing intersection between Web development in the early days, animated GIFs as a way of passing time in the corporate culture I was involved with, and then Lala having a networked presence because she was still on television at the time,” says Westbrook.” The animated GIF, in its 256 colors, feels like an old blanket, saved from the trash heap for some unknown reason, and then reappearing anew on the screen.
Kourtney Elam‘s futuristic woman suggests the sort of mind-body disconnect that shows the way one feels living in a partially virtual space. The top portion of this woman’s body is directly connected to the television; her legs are positioned below, posed to the side, sits in front of a photograph of old-timey Chicago. A gold frame captures the entire image. The animated GIF suggests additional ideas of the futuristic woman feeling quite at home in this rich urban landscape.
In the world of Internet time and space, viral videos die, cats become famous and everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. The age of HTML5 is upon us, but that doesn’t threaten the lifespan of the culturally relevant GIF, a photo standard that is deeply embedded in the Web and the culture of the Web. While HTML5 may give shape and function to the Web, a GIF can live inside of that structure. But will GIFs live on as a mode of cultural expression in the Internet age, or do they have a shelf-life?
“Who knows, HTML5 might say GIFs aren’t necessary,” says Myers. “I have no idea what the future of the GIF is. They’ve been around for awhile, and they’re super small, and that lends itself to longevity.”
Crowd shot image via the MCA Chicago’s Instagram.