So you thought GIFs were the exclusive preserve of the message board geek? Well it’s true that the animated image files are ideal for use as a zingy retort, but if one looks past the gurning celeb clips and backflipping kittens, there’s something more substantial at work. In a nutshell, for the purposes of communicating over the internet there’s nothing we are thinking or feeling that hasn’t already been more vividly or humorously expressed on film, and the GIF is the embodiment of the adage that a picture tells a thousand words. In cyberspace, why waste time fumbling with our own inarticulate thoughts when a GIF sums it up so much better? The heart of a good GIF’s appeal lies in its ability to distill an emotional reaction into a couple of instantly accessible seconds. When viewed that way, it’s clear to see the medium’s appeal to artists, and an increasing number are working with them as an art form. No longer on the periphery, the genre is being recognised through awards such as the Saatchi Gallery/Google+ Motion Photography Prize. Hello, establishment acceptance.
Street artist INSA is one artist exploring GIF art; in his “GIF-iti” work, he paints a series of murals and photographs each one, combining the series into a sort of stop-motion animation in GIF format. But the scope of his latest project pushes the boundaries of what is possible – a GIF that can only be seen from space (and now, of course, on the internet). INSA recruited a team of 20 local helpers at his Rio de Janeiro location and, over the course of four days, painted and over-painted four murals in the same spot which were photographed by satellite and stitched together. The result is a 14,000+ sqm GIF of pink and yellow hearts which now holds the record as being the largest ever.
The animated GIF is the natural meeting place for a number of visual art disciplines, and photographers and illustrators are doing some interesting things with the format too. Mexican photographer Jaime Martinez has worked with a host of commercial bands as well as being a regular collaborator with M.I.A., who he shoots in static poses from slightly shifting angles. Illustrator Joe Maccarone is also getting involved with the music scene, producing animations for producer Todd Terje and London musician Lex Low. Kevin Sukho Lee is the editor behind the innovative music/video GIF interface GIF-Jam 2014, which saw animators submit work “blind” for an already-recorded but unheard music track by Paul Fraser.
Over in Chicago, everything in Lille Carré’s hand-drawn GIF world seems to be either busting out, popping, or falling apart in a riot of motion, while Mr Gif’s more abstract artwork uses an experimental mixture of digital and analogue source material. Turkish artist Haydiroket is firmly in the digital sphere, revisiting home computing’s early days of floppy drives and bedroom coding with a fantastic retro-futuristic collection subverting the technology of yore with nods to today’s online culture.
If INSA is experimenting with possibilities of scale, Zack Dougherty (aka Hateplow) is doing the same with visual sophistication. Hateplow comes at the medium from a background of composite imaging picked up from his studies in astrophotography, and a meticulous approach to image making, coupled with equally obsessive post-production work, is the key to his extraordinary output which returns to themes of shifting time and shape. The Portland artist, and much of the art world besides, is reticent about using the term GIF art, though; while the majority of his work is “dumped on the internet” in GIF format, it’s more about what, rather than how, he is presenting.
Hateplow refers to his work as digital collage, which owes an important debt to the pioneering work of husband and wife Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg – the pair behind the “cinemagraph” variation of GIF art. These clever composites could be described as living photographs, achieved through the fusion of a section of moving video image with a static photograph from the same moment. Noting that technological advances has given rise to the hybrid camera – one equally at home producing still and video images – Beck and Burg hit on the idea of merging the two. Each image takes a couple of days to produce (much hastened now they have trained their eyes to “see” in cinemagraphs), with their great impact paradoxically born from an economy of movement. Things only move when they need to.
Andrew and Carissa Gallo love hanging out in Iceland to recharge the batteries, but the Portland duo (known professionally as Sea Chant) still find time for some experimentation even when officially off duty. Their landscapes dwarf figures whose garments flutter in the wind in breathtakingly elemental cinemagraphs, and the beauty of nature is also evident in the brooding, foreboding work of 24-year-old Frenchman Julien Douvier.
Japanese collective rrrrrrrroll are altogether more upbeat, and their quirky style – with a rotating theme reminiscent of old-fashioned music box figurines – has been nabbed by a number of commercial and fashion brands. Dutch media professional Daniel Dalton makes his mesmerising cinemagraphs in his spare time. He began learning to make them in 2011 after being blown away by an online gallery, and concentrated on memorable shots from films which he now brings to life with increasing mastery.
We’ve touched on a couple of artists and collectives who have been involved with commercial work, and it’s easy to see why marketeers are keen to tie their brands in with this exciting and immediate medium. As Hateplow points out, the fact that these animations autoplay, without the need for further prompting from viewers with an increasingly short attention span and even less time. In artist/brand GIF art collaborations the trade is as it ever was: the brand taps into something current, and the artist gets some money to play with. Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader are one such partnership putting the gloss on GIFs with fashion commissions from the likes of Chanel and Farfetch.
The ability of cinemagraph to seemingly freeze moments in time is also appealing to thrillseekers as much as aesthetes, leading to firms such as Ladbrokes employing the technique to capture the heart-in-mouth moments of gambling – moments when the world itself appears to slow and skip when the roulette ball is bouncing between red and black, or the river card is mid-turn.
Even commercially-reticent urban artists recognise the important role corporations play in funding art projects. Take INSA’s space GIF, for example. Renting satellites and a huge patch of harbourside land doesn’t come cheap, and the mural was made possible by a partnership with Ballantine’s Scotch whisky. One suspects the anonymous INSA won’t be the last GIF artist toasting the interest of a big brand looking to get its name in the frame with this internet phenomenon turned high-art medium.