If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make sound? Updated for the 2016 crowd, this thought experiment should read: If a GIF loads on a webpage and no one is around to see it, does it keep looping? That’s because the trusty image format that beckoned in the era of internet memes with a dancing baby in the late 90’s has gone from a novelty to a versatile visual medium.
GIFs might even edge out the emoji as the dominant form of pictographic online communication. Giphy, which amasses the animated works of millions of contributors, storing and cataloging them like a new age Library of Congress, recently launched a keyboard plug-in for various messenger apps that allows users to easily search and send GIFs from a vast and ever-expanding library. And tech titans like Facebook and Twitter have given the GIF movement a huge nod with Giphy integrations on Messenger and in Tweets. “Anybody can speak in GIFs,” Giphy’s director of brand strategy Julie Logan told Wired. “They’re made for the mobile messaging world that we really exist in now.”
Nothing is better suited to the fast-refreshing culture of the internet-age than the uninterrupted motion of GIFs. Yet, while such animated images have been kicking around the internet for almost twenty years now, it’s only recently that some artists have taken them up like paint and brush.
If pop culture and reaction GIFs are becoming the lingua franca of internet users, the online communities dedicated to more artistic endeavors can be thought of as the GIF underground, where the abstract potential of that language is explored. The aptly named GIF Artists Collective (GAC) is one such virtual gallery space gaining steam ever since it appeared on Tumblr in late 2014 as the brainchild of the much–profiled GIF artist known as Pi-Slices. The Collective features a monthly curation of GIFs submitted by various artists creating on a loose theme like this month’s “rainbows,” or March’s “glitch.”
According to Philip Intile, the 17 year-old artist behind the Pi-Slices moniker, the idea for the collective came from his own personal dabblings in GIF art in early 2013. “My initial attraction to GIF art as a medium was simply because of its accessibility” Intile said. “GIFs are short and sweet, they require essentially no effort from the viewer to view; it’s just something they can simply enjoy.” Poke around the GAC or Intile’s own Tumblr and you’ll quickly see what he mean, as one minute of scrolling becomes five, then ten, as loop after hypnotic loop plays out in front of your eyes. And, just as GIFs offer viewers some low beta-wave enjoyment, the requirements on the artist’s side are similarly relaxed according to Intile, who feels that “GIFs have a pretty low barrier for creating something decent looking.”
That low barrier of entry is what allowed Intile to go from a “sporadic” presence on Tumblr to the steady GIF-a-day clip that he’s operated on for the last two years. That consistent creative output also brought him into contact with the few GIF artists already burgeoning on Tumblr. Intile “wanted to be able to connect and collaborate” with this vibrant but decentralized GIF art community, so he established the official GIF Artist Collective in November 2014. While the collective is slowly gaining traction online, Pi-Slices’ own profile is rising on pace with the ever-increasing popularity of GIFs as an online artform. “I’ve already seen an increase in commissions related to GIFS on my end” he says. Though the Vancouver native is still in high school, he’s occupying his free time with freelance work while thinking up ways to take his craft to the next level. To Intile that means “long form work,” ideally in the wide-open realm of concert visuals, a field that seems perfectly suited to the hypnotic loops and abstract creations that he makes his business.
For Pi-Slices and most of his compatriots in the Collective, GIF art represents more of a creative outlet than a means of steady income. But for others, the medium is also a meal ticket. French illustrator and artist Cécile Dormeau, whose work has been featured by outlets like Vice and the Huffington Post among others, is increasingly exploring GIFs to add a layer of multidimensionality to her portfolio. “It’s definitely a plus for many clients when they see you are able to make GIFs.” she told me, “It adds a little something.”
Dormeau began her career in illustration and design through conventional means, “but I realized that many of my ideas would be stronger or funnier animated” she said. And she’s spot on: Dormeau’s colorful illustrations deal mostly with body image issues and female empowerment, but they do so in a decidedly witty and buoyant fashion that meshes perfectly with the self-contained dramas of a ten-second loop. “I like to spend time finding the right movement, the right speed, and the right expression to make my GIF funnier” she said. While all the thought and effort may not be fully appreciated over the course of a five-second GIF, the end result is often right on the mark.
Representative of yet another style is German-born illustrator Thoka Maer, who brings her minimal crayon and pencil drawings to life in understated and beautiful loops that have appeared in publications like Medium and The New York Times. The character of Maer’s GIFs range from sly social commentary to simply pretty and weird. In any case, they all showcase the versatility of the format (as well as her considerable talent) when considered alongside the digitally-flavored, geometric creations of artists like Pi-Slices, or the comic-inspired drawings of Dormeau. GIFs are not only spawning their own subculture of art and visual creations, but also adding a layer of dynamism to old-school illustration that could breathe new life into pen-and-pad illustration as more artists take their talents digital.
It seems only natural that illustrators and artists would have a field day bringing their art to life, immortalizing their hard work in perpetual locomotion. Pi-Slices remarked on this aspect of the art form; “I love how GIFs have a very infinite quality to them” he explained, “I do my best to make everything I create loop seamlessly, and many of my animations reflect the theme of infinity through cloned objects and camera motion.” This infinite quality is an almost unavoidable hallmark of digital art and GIF art in particular. Less intuitive however, is the reimagining of centuries-old works through the lens of GIF art, as Japanese artist Atsuki Segawa has done in his animated adaptations of classic Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
— 瀬川三十七 (@s07741657) May 6, 2016
Ukiyo-e is an form of artwork that flourished in 17th and 18th century Japan, often featuring bright colors and scenes of nature or urban, Edo-period Japanese life. Segawa uses Adobe Photoshop and AfterEffects to introduce 21st century elements like trains, lasers and segways into prints of famous Ukiyo-e works like Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa. The result is bizarre and comical juxtapositions of new and old, especially given that the project itself is a marriage of traditional and ultra-modern methods. Even if you’re not sold on the concept of GIF-aided reimaginings of classic artworks, Segawa’s work begs the question: Can GIF art ever break into the realm of fine art? Nigel Hurst, CEO of London’s famed Saatchi Gallery sure seems to think so.
Speaking to the BBC, Hurst said “almost any medium can gain currency as serious art because contemporary art practice is so diverse.” Saatchi Gallery is helping GIFs gain traction in the world of established art with an annual prize for what they call motion photography. To quote from the Saatchi Gallery’s official page, “In recognition of the exciting potential of this new technology, the Saatchi Gallery and Google+ present the Motion Photography Prize, the first global open entry competition celebrating this new creative art form.”
The award recipients thus far have all been worthy of the prize for their individual aesthetic and approach to motion photography. But if you feel like the artistic round-up of gallery-worthy GIF art is missing the weirdness that pushes it over the top and into real contemporary art territory, that’s where Serbian artist Milos Rajkovic, aka Sholim comes in. Rajkovic’s GIFs are unnerving digital concoctions that prove the creative limitations of GIF art are truly few for a format that at 29 years-old, is likely older than most of the artists using it.