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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.
Since that awkward phase, the GIF has experienced a renaissance. Brown, whose work in film, photography, cartoons, and design spans over 30 years, is a recent convert to GIF art. He learned how to make them only four months ago from his daughter, and has since made nearly 30 of them. “When I started making them, I came to realize this is essentially a very short animation,” Brown says. “The flourishing I’ve had with making GIFs has reintroduced me to basic animation because it’s essentially frame by frame construction.”
For illustrator James Kerr, who has been making them for two years, GIFs were his first foray into animation. After learning how to make short animated videos using Photoshop, a friend recommended that he turn them into animated GIFs in order to avoid pressing play. “I gave it a shot, and I fell in love with it almost immediately,” Kerr says.
Though Kerr creates high-end GIFs featuring intricate animations, he acknowledges that one of the draws of the GIF form is the ease of creation. Video capture apps and other developments have made GIFs fairly easy to make and facilitated the proliferation of viral internet content.
“The GIFs that are out there for the most part [and that] most people see are Justin Bieber GIFs or GIFs from Harry Potter or cats,” Kerr says. “I think now people are more creative with it, more expressive with it, creating GIFs that are truly original pieces.”
Inventive GIFs such as Kerr’s blur the boundaries between the file format and traditional artistic media. Kerr’s work, which is showcased on his Tumblr, “Scorpion Dagger,” consists of digital collages made mostly from northern Renaissance and early Italian Renaissance paintings. But in spite of their motionless roots, these digital collages tell stories. One of Kerr’s GIFs features two horrified little girls looking at their drunk father, who lies under the Christmas tree, surrounded by beer bottles. All the figures are extracted from paintings; the father is from “The Last Judgment,” a triptych by German painter Hans Memling. “In that scene, he is very tortured,” Kerr says. “I thought it would be funny to throw him under the tree and make him a bad, drunk dad, and that was the reason he was being tortured.” The reference adds a layer of meaning to the collage, but it is Kerr’s carefully timed motion that gives the GIF a semblance of a narrative arc. The girls’ grief-stricken faces quiver to accentuate their horror. The Christmas lights on the tree flicker occasionally like a visual punch line.
By virtue of their shared file format, works like Kerr’s technically have more in common with clips of SpongeBob SquarePants dancing than they do with traditional collages or stories. But original GIFs expose how the medium lies at the intersection of multiple artistic media, from a philosophical standpoint if not from a technical one. “Essentially they are like visual haikus,” Brown says. “I think the word ‘semi-poem’ is accurate because you can make a whole mini concept in a short piece.”
SHORT AND SWEET
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.”
Escobedo’s comment on cultural connectedness underscores another tension at the heart of GIFs. Even though the GIF is a visual language that consists of gestures, the interaction seems to take place between a viewer and a screen. This raises questions about how GIFs might contribute to the social isolation that some believe modern technology can produce.
But the work being done at the MIT Media Lab suggests that it would be a mistake to dismiss GIFs as incapable of soliciting a valid emotional response. At this lab, MIT graduate students Travis Rich and Kevin Hu aim to map the emotional language of GIFs. Hu and Rich have created a website called GIFGIF, which presents a user with two GIFs and asks which GIF better expresses one of 17 emotions, including pleasure, disgust or surprise. “The emotive content of GIFs is very powerful, and people in our age group use them a lot, but they haven’t been approached scientifically,” says Hu, a first-year graduate student in the Media Arts and Science program. In Hu’s opinion, empathy is an essential component of the GIF’s unmeasured emotional potential. “How do we know that GIFs are an empathetic medium? Partially because people wouldn’t use [them] if they weren’t,” Hu says.
Rich, also a first-year doctoral student at the Media Arts and Sciences Program, concurs with his colleague about the potential of GIFs to bring empathy to the internet. “GIFs are great for that because there are sites like ‘What Should We Call Me?,’ which let you realize, ‘Oh there is another human who at some point felt this way,’” Rich says.
The pair’s first goal is to create a text-to-GIF translator using their data, but their work already shows signs of promise with regard to exposing the potential of GIFs to tap into fundamental human emotions. One of their latest projects, MirrorMirror, created in collaboration with MIT Media Lab researcher Sophia Brueckner, is an expression-to-GIF translator that uses data from GIFGIF and a facial-feature-tracking library to analyze people’s facial expressions and respond with a GIF that imitates them.
"How do we know GIFs are an empathetic medium? Because people wouldn't use them if they weren't," Hu says.
Hu and Rich let me play with the aptly named MirrorMirror. The desktop screen is mirrored so that until I make my first facial expression in front of the web camera, all I can see is my own reflection. I decide to make a surprised expression and find myself face to face with Cookie Monster, who has just been surprised with a giant chocolate chip cookie. I laugh, and MirrorMirror responds with a laughing cartoon character from its database. “If you tilt your face down it will think you’re angrier,” Rich tells me. But all I can do is laugh at my animated reflections.
Perhaps to an outsider this would resemble a haphazard, piecemeal exchange between a human and a screen. It certainly doesn’t resemble how audiences used to interact with their media and each other. “There was a feeling during the ’60s and ’70s before cable hit that…when you were watching television in your own home, what you were watching was being seen by millions and millions of people at the same time,” Hlynsky says. “You could look out the window, and your neighbor’s window was flickering at the same frequency as the light in your living room. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
But projects like MirrorMirror and GIFGIFs seem poised to magnify the power of the file format to simulate real human connection. Hu and Rich have found through color analysis that most of the GIFs at the top of the emotional categories are brown and pink in tone––in other words, flesh-colored. “The guess and hypothesis that we made from that was that the reason that the ones towards the top are more human is because humans more easily relate to another human in that GIF,” Rich says. “Whether it’s egotistical or not, we are wired to like ourselves and things that remind us of our species.”
Additionally, the way that GIFs portray gestures makes them inherently social. Most GIF artists say that their GIF art leads to unique exchanges with their audience. “There’s a little bread crumb trail with Tumblr and with GIFs so you can actually see who’s seeing it and see who’s liking it and appreciate it,” Fandango says.
For Brown, who has spent years making and producing graphic products, GIFs have provided a novel platform for sharing his artistic experiments with others. “I don’t know what to do with them except share them with friends,” Brown says. “I spent years [in] a business making and producing graphic products, and I can't figure out how you sell something that’s basically free once you put it on the internet.”
But Brown has another idea that will put his GIFs on a screen that is at once more and less private––one that seems to cast him as a traveling artist for the technological age, broadcasting a new and valid art form to the public. “I thought of taking a wagon around downtown New York with a generator and a projector and just showing them on walls.”
—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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