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Why look at animated GIFs now? They are one of the first forms of image native to computer networks making them charmingly passé, a characteristic that gives them contradictory longevity. Animated GIFs crystallise a form of the combination of computing and the camera. As photography moves almost entirely into digital modes, the fascination with such quirky formats increases. The story of photography will be, in no small part, that of its file formats, the kinds of compression and storage it undergoes, as they in turn produce what is conjurable as an image.
The Graphics Interchange Format was first developed through the computer network firm Compuserve. As an eight-bit file format it introduced the amazing spectacle of 256 colour images to be won over the thin lines of dial-up connections. Due to this, when a picture is converted to GIF, it’s likely that posterization occurs – where gradations of tone turn to patches of reduced numbers of colours. Such aliasing introduces a key part of their aesthetic, something described by the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression that lies at the format’s core. Characteristic of images in the present era its history is entangled with the imaginings and instruments of “intellectual property”. The LZW format was itself the site for a protracted and infamous attempt at patent enforcement in the USA that dragged on from 1994 until 2003 prompting the rapid development of the alternative PNG format.
The animated GIF simply combines several files, their sequence ordered by additional data stored in other parts of the file. It’s a way of making an animation that, compared to the later possibilities of say Flash or AJAX is relatively clunky, if simpler, but it’s a format that is light to load and, as when introduced as a feature of the second version of the Netscape browser, required only standard software.
The animated GIF provides a form of image that is in certain senses both still and moving. It introduces the form of the loop into the static image. As photographs are coupled with small snatches of sound, links to text, become video, or provide means of passing steganographically hidden code, they index the more general mutations in culture engendered by computation in an uneasy, exciting and catchy state. As well as being photographic, they can also be drawn as with many of those composed or gathered by artists such as Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenscheid. Their ongoing meticulous attention to digital folklore, exemplifies the most eye-catching things on the web in its years of genesis. More recently, platforms for video to GIF conversion or similar simple features in popular image-editing applications have hooked the format into the newer networks of phones and the economies of copying and sharing that keep the networks buzzing with eye-catching snippets. The animated GIF allowed pixels to dance. It turned compression formats into pop culture and, with its patent now thankfully expired, looks set to do so for a few repeats more.
Matthew Fuller works at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London.
The revival of the animated GIF marks a point in the history of the web when it finally became sufficiently advanced to take pleasure in its own obsolescence. Like the rusty engines and the leaking pipes of the derelict spaceship in Alien, the lo-fi jitter of the GIF signals a moment when the novelty of technology fades off and becomes the backdrop rather then substance. Technology, it seems, repeats itself twice, first as a breakthrough, second time as nostalgia. It is salutary to remember that until the first GIFs started to twist and flicker in browser windows the computer screen was a motionless and silent place populated only by columns and tables. These early experiments with frame-by-frame animation delivered the pages of the web from stasis and introduced the online version of neon lights. The current resurgence of the GIF is not only part of the nostalgic turn towards the blurred, the unsharp and the faded but it is also a marker of a moment when the history of the network becomes the material from which the digital image draws its living energy.
The content can be figurative or abstract, lyrical or macabre, but because the primary materials that the GIF artist uses are rhythm and repetition the resulting effect has something comical about it. It is the inevitable outcome of the infinite circular motion which combines in an economic gesture the pathology of compulsive reiteration with the cheerfulness of a carousel. The comedy however is constructed from a series of tiny affective shocks delivered every time the sequence coils back on itself and in so doing reveals the stationary nature of mobility that shatters the illusion of truthful representation. This is particularly so in the case of the photographic GIF that contains nano-traces of both movement and rest and therefore seems to question the very desire for an image to say something meaningful and so it acts as a reminder - for those who need reminding - that representation is only one system among others. The eternal return of the same might seem unproductive and impractical to those who are used to thinking of photography in representational terms, and yet this circularity suggests the possibility of an alternative structure sustained by the reversal of roles: It is not I who is looking at a still image but it is the blinking GIF that affords me the experience of stillness by flashing at me any number of times.
The GIF is a minor art form not only because it escaped – at least for now – the attentions of critics and collectors, but mainly because it does not owe its existence to the binary oppositions between image and matter or form and content that dominate the discourses of art and photography. Even the most realistic and life-like photograph is bound to lose its truth value as an animated GIF, hence the GIF evacuates the photograph of meaning; it destroys its cherished qualities of truth and memory and in so doing it opens up a space for photography to happen.
Daniel Rubinstein is the editor of Philosophy of Photography and senior lecturer at the department of Arts and Media at London South Bank University.