Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What's the Deal with GIFs?

I don't have to tell most of you that animated GIFs received a lot of press within the past several months. Most of the GIFs cited in said articles are gags, "glitter" GIFs, clips from TV and movies, and your typical Funniest Home Videos-type fare. The growing popularity of image-centric sites like 4chan and more recently Tumblr have encouraged a resurgence of public interest in a 24-year old file format because of the GIF's unique ability to endlessly loop animations. GIFs are very small files as compared to a modern digital camera photo, and all major browsers support the animation to a functional extent. However, it should be made clear that the GIF is not inherently kitsch, just like a roll of film is not inherently kitsch. It's a filetype, a medium, and therefore has several uses. The main two uses of GIFs right now online are in informal conversation, and as art/components of art. Let's discuss the division.

From a conversational standpoint, GIFs carry a lot of punch as images because the animation grabs your attention, and a short loop is suited for a "reaction image." Take the Seinfeld GIF above. The message is clear: if someone posts this in a discussion, they're saying "Eh, this is hooey and I'm not gonna bother. See ya." It's expressive, funny and fast, and it sets a tone; all necessary qualities for extended net discussions.

Ryu Punch, by noisia

On the other hand, a very small fraction of GIFs are intentionally produced as "art." Here is an example by noisia. Rather than using pop culture elements literally, the artist has used an animation from a fighting video game as a formal element. The fighter's identity is not the emphasis, the work is about motion, repetition, bold color and symmetry. The image is kaleidescopic and infinitely tileable. This is a radically different use of the medium, and requires a different sort of looking to interpret and appreciate.

Early Myspace photo?

Some have debated the legitimacy of GIF art in light of the popular culture associated with the format. Most recently, Twitter-based performance artist Man Bartlett took up a beef with the popularity of the format on his Tumblr. For those still wary of the GIF, let me offer you this: in the early 19th century, the camera was invented. For decades, artists explored the possibilities of the new medium of the photograph, but their efforts were not treated as "sincere" or "legitimate" by the establishment. This was for two reasons. The first was that the new medium had great appeal to amateurs and businesses who would otherwise have to employ illustrators for producing images of their work, and so most photographs were not intentionally made as fine art. The second reason was that photographs were generally evaluated by the art world under the definitions of art as defined by painting, the main form of visual art at the time. Paintings have been for the most part produced only as art objects throughout their existence, and so it was very difficult for some to grasp the idea of a medium being neutral. Eventually, by about the 1920s it was decided that the intention of an object's creator, not the medium, determined whether a work was art or not, and an artwork was to be evaluated by subject matter and formal qualities.

smile-camera-flash by ahem. Art or not?

GIFs are like photographs, in that the method of image production is unique, but the division between amateur and artistic intention is what differentiates both usage and evaluation methods. Context is key; the website that a GIF is posted on and even its positioning in that website alerts the savvy viewer as to whether the image is to be evaluated as art or not. Just like photographs, there are even those GIFs and sites where the lines blur, and it's hard to tell what is art. A viewer of digital art must learn how to look at a work by understanding context and formal qualities. I'll be writing a breakdown of formal qualities of popular filetypes in the next few days to aid those who want to explore the concept further. What's important in the big picture is that participators in the art world understand that digital filetypes are just types of media. A GIF is like undeveloped film; it's what you photograph that counts.


  1. I don't know if you saw me agreeing with Man Bartlett or not, because I'm not sure when he approved my comment and when you wrote this. Anyway, I'm sort of in the middle. The defensiveness of a couple of animated GIFs' biggest advocates is off-putting. I'm glad that you at least allow people to comment. I would like to ask TM & PJ more about why they think GIFs are so important, but they make discussions difficult or impossible.

    GIFs are like photos except for one important difference: making physical artifacts out of them is difficult. I suppose you can make a looped video of one and then project it on a wall like at that dump.fm exhibit, but that kind of distorts it, imo. They're supposed to be small and on a computer screen. I've thought about making a solar powered screen for video art, but of course I have no idea how to do that. That would make me happier about GIF art in particular and video art in general. I like for art to be able to just work on its own for the most part. And I think that physical art is still important. If no one documents a performance, does it make a sound?

    I like the Ryus. That's cool.

  2. Kamilah,

    The "immateriality problem" is an old one as well. Think about film, or performance art. Many artists such as myself are still exploring the ramifications of translating GIFs to physical objects; I don't find it alienating, rather it fascinates me. Just because the question hasn't been answered doesn't mean that the medium is worthless. I know what you're talking about regarding a work being desirably separate as an object, but the truth is that a large portion of existing art is much more complex than that. That difficulty in translation could even be a focus of an artwork or series of artworks.

    That said, I don't think that the fact that an artwork is best viewed on a computer or online makes it any less powerful or "legitimate." Take earthworks for instance. The work draws its power from its location, not from its presence on a wall or in a museum. The clever GIF artist acknowledges the personal experience of viewing a GIF on one's computer and uses it to benefit the work. Look back at the Ryu tile link - the webpage overwhelms your screen with the GIF's repetition. Your screen at your desk is briefly transformed into a work of art.

    Again, I'm going to go over this in greater detail in a few days with more info on formal qualities, but I hope this gets you thinking.

  3. K. Gill-- while I can sympathize with your anxiety about physical vs. digital media, I think we live in a time that precludes us from easy distinctions like "art [should] be able to just work on its own." Even for those who use entirely physical media, the work is often featured online and allowed greater access, at which point it ceases to "work on its own." Is the fact that something uses electricity enough to become skeptical of an entire medium?

    I think the best point Duncan makes here is noting that "the GIF is not inherently kitsch," something that most coverage of the medium ignores. I would go further to say that the GIF is not inherently tied to pop culture or evoking nostalgia, two other areas some commentators have overemphasized. Stripped to its bare essentials, an animated GIF is a file format that allows a certain color pallet, compression, and endless repetition. I look forward to more conversation about how this format might be better understood as an art medium based on its formal qualities.

  4. Maxwell, I agree with the second half of what you said, about GIFs not being inherently kitsch, but I have a problem with with the first part. Featuring a work of art online does not cause it to stop working on its own. It still exists as a physical entity somewhere. The electronic version augments the real version. Perhaps I'm getting too hung up on something being physical and not relying on electricity and computer networks. I think it's a real problem, though. I'm struggling to get my head around this. I know that music and film are art forms, and often they're no longer physical, streaming from services like Pandora and Netflix. Visual art seems different from those art forms, though. People will happily sit for hours watching a movie or playing a game or listening to music, but who sits and watches art videos much outside of a gallery setting? It's almost like visual art has to have a physical presence or special location in order to stand out against those other art forms. GIFs are kind of everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They're hidden on a server somewhere until a viewer calls them up with a web browser. That doesn't make GIFs not art, it just seriously weakens their position next to all the other objects and media that surrounds us. So I guess I'm wary of GIFs as art partly for that reason. I think they can be brilliant, but they're often so obscure. Artists end up talking only to themselves. Is that what we want? Should that be our goal? Sorry if I'm rambling. I'm trying to sort this out. I'll be looking forward to your next posts, Duncan.

  5. Clearly the problem with gifs as art is that "there are definitely some hipsters involved" O_o

  6. Yeah, I said that, grapeshasta. It's just an observation. Not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and true of other art forms as well. I reread what Man Bartlett said and I realized later that wasn't what he wrote. I thought I was agreeing with him, but I'd just misread things and couldn't edit my comment. He did compare GIF making to hipster activity. I think that's partly accurate, based on what I've seen and read online. But not especially important.

  7. Possible GIF-makers:

    'the horny'

  8. it looks like my most recent comment didn't make it, bummer. any chance that it's just somewhere in the "approve" box, duncan?

  9. Maxwell, I don't have any comments waiting to be approved. Perhaps your browser ate it? Anyway, please repost if you need to, I can clean things up if necessary.

    Kamilah, I think grapeshasta was being sarcastic. I'd love to talk about why hipsters are making GIFs if someone can explain to me what a hipster is and what their motivations are.


  10. Darn. Here's a less eloquent summary. Pretend the original was super eloquent...

    I mostly wanted to respond to K. Gill's comments on the "real problem" and "weakness" of work that relies on electricity and computer networks rather than the institutional framing of a gallery or museum to be relevant. My favorite contemporary art--for the most part--is the art that acknowledges the media-inundated world we live in. If you wouldn't want to watch the video you saw in a gallery back at home, was it really that good? Or was it just the feeling that it was "art," having been consecrated as such by an arts institution, that was compelling about it in the first place? I don't mean to say that museums or galleries are irrelevant, only that I experience way more art on a computer screen than within their walls, and I think that's something to be celebrated.

    As far as materiality goes, you say "the electronic version augments the physical version." If anything, it's the other way around for me. In a time when online "documentation" of art is sometimes being viewed much more than the "real" art, there is a breakdown in "authenticity of experience." How is my reaction to installation views of a gallery in LA any different to the reaction of someone who was phyiscally present?

    That's why a depiciton of gifs as self-obsessed and obscure is confusing to me. It seems that they are one of the more democratic mediums for artmaking at the moment. I can post an animation to my blog and have 100 people see it within the first few hours (and not just me, but ANYONE can!) This seems like a much better return rate than submitting something to a gallery or museum and hoping that a few people watch it for a while during business hours over the course of a five week run.

  11. I worked at an art gallery for 2.5 years. The vast majority of people who visited in rough descending order of frequency:

    artists looking for gallery representation
    organized tours ("housewives', etc.)
    artists already represented by the gallery
    interior decorators (who participated in at least half of all sales)
    gallery opening hoppers
    serious collectors

  12. Maxwell, that's a good answer, and I agree that it's good to have art seen by more people electronically, whether it's an animated GIF or a jpeg of an artwork that exists somewhere offline. In my own case, my blog is mostly made up of jpegs of drawings that are in my Moleskine journal, so they won't be for sale or accessible in a gallery as long as I'm alive. But I still make oil paintings to sell as well.

    One clarification... I said "physical presence OR special location". Special locations could be museums, galleries, and other institutions. But physical presence could be anywhere, in someone's house or on the street or anywhere. Most traditional visual art announces itself wherever you find it. It has a frame, it has a pedestal or vitrine or whatever. Or somehow you can just tell that it's "art" and not something else. Perhaps you addressed that in your original answer (sorry that got lost). Anyway, that's what I mean by "presence", which is more important to me than being in some institution. In my own case, my Moleskine jpegs are art, yes, and many people enjoy them, but they're ephemeral to everyone but myself until at least someone prints one out and hangs it on their fridge or something (which has happened to some of my jpegs). Only selling the oil paintings and similar physical work is going to pay the bills. So... I guess my point now is, GIF making can be fun and clever, but if that's the only medium that an artist works in, how can that artist make any money with their art? I know that "pure" art is not concerned with making money, but still... Lastly, are net artists at all concerned about impermanence? Do they save backup copies of everything in some form? I know it's unlikely that the whole internet would just up and disappear someday (The Horror!). I guess that's like performance art or things painted on a gallery wall only to be painted over after the exhibit. But usually people still have pictures after the fact. What would be a picture of a GIF? Sorry for talking so much about this. I'm just really trying to figure these things out. I'm glad I can talk to some of the people making this art finally. Thank you for the interesting answers.

  13. Something keeps eating my posts. Sorry if there's more than one of these floating around. I'm posting under anonymous to see if that's the problem, but it's Maxwell Paparella.

    In response to your remark about physical presence, frames, pedestals, vitrines, etc... I just don't think it's very important for something to be declared "ART" by the conventional trappings of the art world. My encounter with a piece of graffiti on the sidewalk can be just as valuable (I would argue significantly more valuable) as an experience with a framed painting. The same can be said for online work. Aside from art blogs with institutional backgrounds, like Rhizome.org, there isn't a real process for determining what is art and what is not on the web. I find that very freeing, an indication that traditional structures are no longer the final word on the manner in which art can be consumed, that good work does not need a gilded frame and a card next to it to be understood as art.

    As far as making money and preservation, those are real concerns of any artistic community, especially relevant to those working digitally. Most internet artists I know maintain a "day job," which, at its best, influences their work, and at its worse, just pays their server costs. I don't have a good answer for preservation except to say that its seems like a degree of impermanence and the ephemeral are constitutive of a digital medium, at least for the time being.

  14. To add to Maxwell's post - the ephemerality can be attractive, and reflective of the nature of the image as native to the Internet. I make these files, knowing that they're going out into the aether. Anyone can edit them, destroy them, reuse them, and so I make them with the hope that the image is strong enough - unique enough - to be noted by the viewer as separate from the normal flow.

  15. Issues of "electronic art" have been around at least since the beginning of video art in the late '60s--Hypothete and Maxwell shouldn't have to be explaining this at this late date (although you're both doing a fine job). Probably there are other websites K Gill can go to to discuss her business plan.

    Man Bartlett's concerns are also reactionary. You shouldn't have to justify GIFs to him since he has done almost no work or research to understand them. I asked him some basic questions about GIFs and so far he hasn't answered any of them.

  16. Tom, I don't appreciate your dismissive comment. I don't have any "business plan". Why shouldn't they have to explain these things? Just because you know all about the history of electronic art doesn't mean that everyone does. I went to art school and I have at least a bachelor's degree, and these things were not covered in depth. I sincerely want to understand these things, and all you keep doing is pushing people away and essentially calling us stupid for questioning in any way what it is that digital artists are doing. I'm not saying that painting is better in some way. I know that it can be stuck in the past and I'm looking for a way forward. Digital art might be that way forward, but I can't figure out how, and that's why I keep asking questions. You really are an annoying person. But I read your blog, anyway.