Excerpts from Hyperallergic: GIF Typologies and the Heritage of the Moving Image
by Jane Hu
Turner’s early films (courtesy of Hyperallergic)
EDMONTON, Alberta — When British inventor Edward Raymond Turner patented his color moving images in 1899, they were viewed as a failure: his clips often came out blurry. Undeterred, Turner continued with his arduous method — photographing successive frames of black-and-white film through colored filters — into the next century and up until his untimely death in 1903 (he was 29). Three years later, George Albert Smith released his Kinemacolor system, or what is widely acknowledged as the machine that made the first successful color motion pictures.
This month, the National Media Museum came out with news that recast this history, restoring Turner’s color films and proving them to be anything but a blurry failure. They are brilliant, and you can watch them in crystal clarity here!
Turner’s films are striking not only because of their relative modernity in their early context, but because these images — jerky, disjointed, and full of spilling colors — still manage to convey the liveliness of physical motions now long past. Do we view them differently than Turner’s contemporaries might have? Of course. We might also, however, find them more spectacular than his unimpressed viewers did.
This purposeful mash-up of the old and new, employing an old aesthetic in a new context, also takes place online. The now-ubiquitous animated GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) image has been revived on the internet 25 years after it was first designed by Compuserve. Moving GIFs express newness through the medium of the explicitly old. Seen as the quaint markers of a pre-Flash world wide web, GIFs’ ongoing renaissance over the past half-decade places them in an online context that marks their vintage aesthetic difference as a notable appeal rather than an intrusive deficiency.
GIFs have become so pervasive to have merited categorization, as well as explanation and analysis. So how to define a GIF today? Reddit is, for example, rather militant about keeping their “Cinemagraphic” GIFs in a rarefied cultural air. Cinemagraphs are described as “beyond just animated gifs.” They are “photographs with movement […] about atmosphere, not action.” In short, they are “artistic,” and should be carefully differentiated from the general category of frenetic action set on a loop. Should a GIF be something you can monetize, such as artist Kim Asendorf’s “GIF Market“? The implied currency of the GIF seems to lay in its being a shareable media, so I remain hesitant, if also curious, about what it means to mark a GIF’s source of value as its singularity.
The first GIFs had no pretense to being art. The first popular set of GIFs were moving images that signed (quite literally) that a site was under construction. “Under Construction” GIFs signaled, either literally or visually, a single message: http://www.cs.utah.edu/~gk/atwork/
GIFs have since evolved, now signalling a range of messages and affects. Such diversity is propelled not only by more online users ready to create their own clips, but also a greater variety of platforms ready to host them. The abundance of GIFs on the visually-oriented social network Tumblr might even seem obvious now, what with its capacity for viral sharing through endless reblogging. Tumblr incidentally launched the same year GIFs began to return to vogue, during 2007.
Whatever linguistic message is communicated, contemporary GIFs all emphasize a kind of aesthetic (and thus affective) dynamism by the sheer fact of their mobile quality. While glitch GIFsdon’t communicate much narrative content, through their endlessly interrupted movements they underline the irrationality implicit in any endlessly looping image.
“Pierrot Le Fou” glitch gif (courtesy of glitchgifs.tumblr.com)
It goes without saying that many GIFs are remixed from various image sources. The superimposition of aesthetically disparate shapes and images is even emphasized —the glitch writ large. It doesn’t have to look realistic to be a great GIF; in fact, it’s probably better the weirder its patchwork imagery is.
GIFs from Television:
Mad Men GIF (courtesy of tumblr.com)
GIFs on Television (on news sites, the most common GIFs are those pertaining to sports):
Gabby Douglas Olympics GIF (courtesy of atlanticwire.com)
Fashion GIFs (often used for advertising):
Calvin Klein GIF (courtesy of Calvin Klein)
3D GIFs (3D formats are generated by splitting the animation with vertical white bars in order to generate different points of focus):
“3D” GIF (courtesy reddit.com)
GIFs today are about the archive. They move to resurrect the past as much as finally to return to it; they focus on a moment, freezing an event while simultaneously trying to keep it living, as effervescent as ever. Sometimes the difference lies in a fraction of a second. The true GIF celebrates imperfection, where flickers and flawed loops maintain the possibility of something different — something alive — entering the picture.
NYPL’s sculpture hall GIFs (courtesy of stereo.nypl.org)
Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful and radical thinking about art in the world today. For more art news and commentary visit hyperallergic.com.