Amidst a desolate landscape, a man crouches low to the ground on his hands and knees. His back is turned but his face is probably filled with shock and awe. Against the perfectly flat horizon line, a mountain transforms from slopes into steep, angular pillars in a matter of seconds. The man is perfectly still as he watches the stunning transformation before him rapidly repeat from beginning to end.
This hypnotic repetition shows no signs of stopping, but with a few clicks, the man and the mountain disappear. The scene is actually an animated Graphics Interchange Format (better known as GIF) entitled “Day 4: Hallucination” by illustrator Clay Rodery.
Rodery’s creation represents a unique development in the file format: original GIF art. Most GIFs I have previously encountered are extractions from pop culture, television, or movies. Thanks to websites like BuzzFeed and Tumblr, I’ve enjoyed GIFs of grumpy cats that resemble me on a Monday morning and embedded cartoon GIFs in emails in order to grab people’s attention.
The popularity of these mainstream GIFs lies in their universal recognition and their user-friendly status. Original GIF art does not have the benefit of familiarity but instead illustrates the merits of GIFs as a medium, such as the allure of motion. “It’s that much closer to walking around with the rest of us, you know,” Rodery says of his animated GIFs. “When you see something that you’ve made that actually does have even a little twitch, you instantly become aware of the possibilities within it to do other stuff; you become aware of the emotional potential it has not just for you but for other people.”
The emotional potential of GIFs is not solely dependent on artistic intent but is also engendered by the technical aspects of the file format. The same seemingly banal characteristics that contributed to the GIF’s recent rise in popularity—such as continuous looping, brevity, and lack of sound—are also responsible for the file format’s artistic merits.
GIFS AS ART
“I used to think of GIFs as those annoying things that are usually attached to a website, and they [bumped] back and forth and did silly things,” artist Ken Brown says. Brown’s initial opinion makes sense given the genesis of the 27-year-old file format. One of the first image formats to be compatible with all browsers and to feature color and looped animation, the GIF became popular in the early ’90s. Consequently, the internet became oversaturated with cheesy images such as waving American flags and opening and closing mailboxes.
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