By Jason Foumberg
It seems like centuries have passed since the term “cyberspace” sparkled with hope for a technological utopia where we could zip along the information super highway direct to the future. That route, if you recall, was plastered with animated GIFs, those cartoonish website animations of such snazzy effects as rainbow text spinning on its axis and dancing emoticons. The Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, was a primitive tool, producing pixelated images in limited color palettes and, like many things that live and die on the Internet, was quietly replaced by more complex codes and software. Yet, as long as there is old technology there will be old-technology enthusiasts, and the animated GIF, like many other bad habits from the 1980s, is making a comeback in a big way.
Visual artists are on the front line of the GIF renaissance, and it’s not a big leap to consider animated GIFs as artworks. They can be entrancing, visually punchy, funny, strange or boring, and many have become iconic. Artists are not only creating new animations in the 8-bit format, but also constructing complicated GIFs using new software, and others are acting in a curatorial way to harvest classic GIFs from the early Internet, archive them, and re-present them in educational contexts.
Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus are assembling a curated archive of animated GIFs. Their project, titled twohundredfiftysixcolors (there are 256 colors available in a GIF), combines newly commissioned art GIFs and classic icons from GIF history, such as the ‘loading’ icon. The archive will not exist on a website but as an edited 16mm film, which Fleischauer and Lazarus intend to screen in theaters for audiences. The 16mm format, a technology more dated than GIF, is a widely used archiving medium, like microfiche, but it also nods to what many GIF enthusiasts consider to be GIF’s precursor—the cinema. Just as the film reel is composed of quickly moving still photographs, so too is the animated GIF a composite of several static shots. The GIF, then, is bolstered by this link to a prehistory, and it’s here that Fleischauer and Lazarus stake a claim for GIFs in the evolution of the moving image, from Muybridge’s horse to LOL cats.
Animated GIFs, beyond their entertainment value, often have commercial or promotional applications, such as corporate logos. They are also, now, luxury commodities. At the 2011 Armory Show, an art fair in New York City, the art and tech website Rhizome sold animated GIFs to art collectors in their booth, and at the Next fair, held in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, the artist Thorne Brandt presented GIFs in the Harold Arts booth. Like readymade artworks, GIFs are evolving from found, authorless digital detritus existing in the public domain to unique art gallery objects.
Jon Cates, a new media artist, has been collecting and making animated GIFs since 1996, and he’s gearing up to open his Institvte for the Animated GIF. Cates conceives of this private collection as beyond an archive; it is also an institution that will hold workshops and educate about GIFs through exhibits and interviews with makers. Cates, like Fleischauer and Lazarus, is interested in situating animated GIFs among early advancements in cinema and, more broadly, amid the entire digital revolution.
“It’s not ironic,” says Cates, who sees value in GIFs as cultural artifacts, and he is enthusiastic about creating new GIFs and sharing them. “They make me feel good,” he says. Is the animated GIF a form of digital folk art? Cates relates a story about cultivating his collection, where he contacted someone online who was making animated GIF self-portraits. It turned out she was seventeen years old and, like a self-taught artist, had little interest, at first, in contributing to a GIF museum, as she was simply, happily, creating her GIF portraits at home and posting them on her tumblr for anyone to see. This anecdote is not meant to reveal the strange power of the art world as it usurps every artifact in its path, but rather shows that digital art-making is a people’s movement. While technology has a tendency to be expensive, with a steep learning curve, it is simple methods such as GIFs that are readily accessible to virtually anyone. A positive attribute of GIFs, says Cates, is that they are “not innovative.”
In the studio, artists often self-impose limits and constraints on their materials and methods in order to explore every nuance of their medium and style. GIFs provide “excessive limitations,” says Cates. With limited color palettes, short looping cycles, and low-res image output, the inherent rules of the GIF format can empower artists to create. “It’s the new trompe l’oeil,” says Fleischauer. As a perfect blending of art and tech, GIFs push users through the medium, straight to the message.