Though the brevity of GIFs allows the file format to occupy a unique place on the art form spectrum, their short duration also gives them a reputation for being easily digestible. “I think GIFs fit the national attention span of probably about eight seconds,” Brown says. “Maybe 10 max.” Brown wittily refers to some of his creations as “Giffy-Pop,” a spin-off the stovetop popcorn product with a homophonic name. This comparison of the file format to the snack item speaks to the widely held opinion that GIFs are a fleeting form of entertainment and not an art form to be taken seriously.
"The art form is finding that slice of time, locating a moment that has meaning. The file format isn't the art form," Hlynsky says.
But for GIF artist Andrew Fandango, who showcases his work on a Tumblr entitled “illustrography,” the immediacy of GIFs is part of the appeal. According to Fandango, GIFs are technologically optimized for quick consumption. This is especially true on Tumblr. Since the platform has a one megabyte file limit, GIFs are able to load quickly, and each GIF is 500 pixels wide—small enough to be viewed on a mobile phone. “It’s very, very immediate,” Fandango says. “It doesn’t waste too much of people’s time.” The convenience of GIFs allows the files to rapidly reach wide audiences but also raises questions about the art form catering to the ADHD mindset, as well as the ability of the art form to sustain a viewer’s attention.
Dennis Hlynsky, head of the Rhode Island School of Design’s film, animation, and video program, believes that while the GIF may be a condensed form of expression, it is able to prompt reflections that lasts longer than the actual sequence of frames. “If it were short attention spans, you would look at it and look away,” he says. “I think sometimes people do that, but there are interesting GIFs and uninteresting GIFs…. I think it actually takes a longer period of time to just sit and understand what the moment is.”
Hlynsky’s words underscore what is perhaps the most striking ability of the brief medium: the ability to put a moment under a microscope.
THE GIF THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
The looping nature of GIFs not only allows for an automatic viewing experience but also for a contemplative one. “Repetition is a way of amplifying something,” Hlynsky says. “A lot of times things go past us, and we think we know what’s happening in our minds because we have preconceptions, but when you repeat it over and over again, that repetition reveals details. And as you reveal more and more details, you begin to be able to study the gesture in depth.”
Hlynsky’s words provide an apt description of what it is like to view the GIF art of creative director and artist Christina Rinaldi, who in 2014 won the first-ever Motion Photography Prize, awarded by Google+ and London’s Saatchi Gallery. Rinaldi’s prize-winning GIF features a New York City window washer rapidly cleaning a window. According to Rinaldi, the GIF captures the vibrancy of the washer’s movements in a way that a still photograph cannot. “When you shoot in photography, you are trying to capture one specific moment,” Rinaldi says. “I feel like what he was doing, it was so much more important to capture a series of moments. The still image wouldn’t have as much of an impact as the rhythm in showcasing how quickly he was working.” Indeed, the washer in Rinaldi’s GIF wipes so quickly that it takes several repetitions to fully appreciate the intricacy of the suds on the window before they vanish in a matter of seconds.
Though Rinaldi’s motion photography and Kerr’s irreverent digital collages both fall under the category of GIF, they are united on a more nuanced level by their focus on gestures whose demand for contemplation outstrips their duration. For Hlynsky it is this concern, and not the file format of the GIF, that makes the form worthy of artistic consideration. “The file format isn’t the art form,” Hlynsky says. “The art form is finding that slice of time, a moment, in locating a moment that has meaning.”
The moment and its meaning is up to the GIF’s creator. Visual artist Kayla A. Escobedo ’13 (who goes by Kayla E. professionally) examines the tension between the infinitely looping nature of GIFs, and the brief actions depicted in the GIFs she creates. “One of the things that originally drew me to GIFs was the loop. The idea that this medium is designed to repeat endlessly, forever, is something that seems to be in dialogue with the cyclic nature of everything—specifically pointless, arbitrary things that manage to become the center of our focus and routines,” Escobedo writes in an email. “A spectacle such as a joke or reference (the most popular subject of GIFs) is repeated over and over within culture because it delivers some sort of gratification for the viewer that makes them feel connected to this culture.”
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Harvard Today: May 11, 2015
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