I have nothing to say only to show.
towards an archaeology of the animated GIF

Graphics Interchange Format™
A standard defining a mechanism for the storage and transmission of raster-based graphics information

June 15, 1987
© CompuServe Incorporated, 1987

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)


“All we have is incertitudes — slip-sliding, straddling, flickering, hybridization, metamorphosing, transition and passages between what is still called cinema and the thousand and one ways to show moving images in the vague and misnomered domain known as Art.”

— Richard Bellour in The Battle of Images

In 1987, programmer Steve Wilhite built an open format that could directly display raster-based graphic information (like coloured weather maps), without taking up a lot of storage space and bandwidth: the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). This was two years before Tim Berners-Lee announced his World Wide Web project and six years before the Mosiac browser made the web accessible to non-technical users. Thirty years later, the animated version of the GIF (that found its structure in 1995) reigns supreme, while continuously adjusting its form, content and function to the rapidly changing demands of Web 2.0. After ‘GIF’ was honoured as ‘Word of the Year’ in 2012, Wilhite received a lifetime achievement award at The Webby Awards in 2013 in recognition of inventing the file format. According to the jury report, “the proliferation of the GIF within today’s meme-powered, Tumblr-driven pop culture proves it a lasting format still among the most celebrated on the Web”. This thesis examines this celebration by reflecting on the GIF’s endurance as a digital moving image that not simply managed to survive but actually found a way to thrive in a post-cinematic era.

While GIFs used to be graphic animations that had little or nothing to do with the practice of cinema, their main activity today seems to be the capturing and storing of snippets of popular TV shows, cult films, sports moments and major news events in small, shareable and endless loops. While we can set these fragments aside as inferior extractions that only exist for the sole purpose of entertainment, I will argue that, thanks to its technical, communicative and aesthetic qualities, this developed variant of the GIF established itself as a serious tool for visual expression and experimentation that is in need of further exploration. While there already circulates some insightful research on the relationship between the GIF and our emotions (see: Travis Rich and Kevin Hu, “MIT Media Lab: GIFGIF”), on the rich history of the format (see: Pioneering digital artist Olia Lialina’s “A Vernacular Web”, 2005, or Jason Eppink’s “A brief history of the GIF (so far)”, 2014) and on the political and social act of sharing the GIF (Katherine Brown’s “Everyday Iʼm Tumblinʼ: Performing Online Identity through Reaction GIFs”, 2012), this thesis unravels the different ways the format redefines, relocates and recombines cinematic techniques, aesthetics and cultural forms, in order to outline its contemporary conditions of existence. Since I am interested in how the GIF ‘remembers’ cinema as an influential mode of expression, I will scale down my field of research to the GIFs that we can recognize as moving images, the ones that are somehow, in their form, aesthetics or technique, related to the practice of cinema, television or video.

The post-cinematic discourse provides this thesis with an important and insightful frame of reference. As Shane Denson and Julia Leyda argue in the introduction of POST-CINEMA - Theorizing 21st-Century Film:

Post-cinema would mark not a caesura but a transformation that alternately abjures, emulates, prolongs, mourns, or pays homage to cinema. Thus, post-cinema asks us to think about new media not only in terms of novelty but in terms of an ongoing, uneven, and indeterminate historical transition (2016).

The GIF is positioned at the intersection of movement and stillness, database and narrative, and novelty and nostalgia. While it was created to act as a graphic file format, today it heavily quotes the material, aesthetics and techniques from older media. Its hybrid nature defies the modernist medium-specificity argument that insists upon the boundaries between one art form and another; it is the ultimate ‘in-between’. GIFs do not only introduce new possibilities outside traditional mass media to communicate and express both political and personal issues in shareable and low-quality images, they also recombine their digital possibilities with a cinematic sensibility that could outline new conditions for the moving image to thrive in the digital age. While post-cinema is a dubious and elusive discourse, it does remind us of the relationship between older and newer forms of media, instead of emphasizing their obvious distinctions. While the GIF came into existence as a ‘new medium’ that largely renounced cinema’s technology, structure and materiality, seeing how the GIF responds to or reflects on the cinematic regime of the twentieth century today could explain its persistence and popularity in the digital age. The discourse of post-cinema is closely related to media archaeology, a research method that investigates new media cultures and objects by examining mass media of the past, “often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions” (Parikka, p. 2012). This thesis sees the GIF not merely as a collection of numerical codes, but as a layered (visual) materiality in which the past might be rediscovered. By relating the format to allegedly 'dead' media like cinema, we can understand how it shapes future forms of new media that are inevitably still related to our mediatised past.

The GIF offers us, like cinema does, moving images through which we can reflect on our reality and our personal position within this reality. Like Francesco Casetti (2016) states: “Cinema has always been a way of seeing and a way of living—a form of sensibility and a form of understanding”. The GIF redefines, recombines and relocates this sensibility, but asks for a different form of understanding that includes its digital, shareable, volatile, elusive, repetitive, poor and open character. One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the GIF today is its persistence in keeping its doors unlocked: the GIF remains, at least for now, a copyright-free format. Despite the fact that, over the years, both artists and corporations became more involved in the practice of GIF-making, once shared in the digital realm, the GIF’s fate lies in the hands of the many users of the Internet. Its structure actively invites these users to spread, change and even destroy the image it holds; it evokes manipulation rather than contemplation. As a consequence, it has become almost impossible to trace back its origin. The GIF is not a stable object, but an elusive process. It is forever in motion, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to grasp it as its ‘true self’. We cannot look at these images from the perspective of its creation, since we can no longer distinguish the author from the spectator, the active user from the detached viewer, or the original from the copy.

While I recognize the undeniable presence of a ‘human being’ in the creation, sharing, editing, remixing and interpreting of the GIF, I will look at the format as an autonomous moving image that belongs to everyone, and yet to no one. It neither has a home nor a final destination; it just wants to move and exist in the ‘here and now’ of the digital realm. While, as W.J.T. Mitchell famously outlined (1996), the dominant questions usually asked in the domain of visual culture are of interpretive and rhetorical nature (what do images do? What do images mean?), I want to ask GIFs what they want, as if they are ‘animated’ beings in the most literal sense of the word. This means that I will constantly project an anthropomorphic layer over the digital images, imagining them to be physical and virtual bodies that have a will of their own. In his essay What Do Pictures Really Want? (1996) Mitchell proposes this shift of the location of desire from the producers or consumers of images to the pictures themselves. According to Mitchell, images desire equal rights with language and want to be seen as complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities. They do not want to be interpreted, decoded, worshiped, smashed, exposed or demystified. What pictures want, then, is simply to be asked what they want, with the understanding that the answer may well be, nothing at all (1996, p. 82). Mitchell searches for ‘a poetics of pictures’ that is, in contrast with a rhetoric or hermeneutics, a study of ‘the lives of images’ (2005, preface, xv). Seeing images as if they have a history of their own is related to the method of media archaeology: we want to look beyond the rhetoric of innovation and modernization and search for a way of looking that includes different layers of the image’s ontology. The question of what the GIF wants is therefore closely related to this thesis’ attempt to outline the conditions of its existence and transition in a post-cinematic era.

The GIF quite literally embodies the transition from older media to new media: it shows us the transformation from a linear constructed syntagm to a non-linear unstructured paradigm, from a story with an end an beginning to a never-ending fragment, from a rich and sharp object to a poor and compressed file format. This thesis reflects on and outlines these transformations by positioning itself in the middle, in-between the past and present, in-between the living and the dead and in-between the digital and the non-digital. It touches upon past-futures and future-pasts, as it outlines the GIF as a ‘living dead’ in today’s media culture in three different essays. Theodoro W. Adorno once wrote that “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal" (1984, p.159). The separate yet relational essays #ARCHITECTURE, #GESTURES, and #AESTHETICS provide us with the means to eternalize the transition the GIF embodies, while outlining the conditions that define the GIF’s existence in the contemporary media landscape. #ARCHITECTURE specifically focuses on how the GIF relocates proto-cinematic techniques in order to adjust its form to the structures of the database it lives in, #GESTURES examines how the GIF gives us the opportunity to wordlessly express our intellectual, emotional or physical beings by redefining cinematic gestures in never-ending loops and #AESTHETICS outlines how the GIF re-introduces the experience of an aura in the digital age by recombining the decay of dead media with its own digital disappearance.

This thesis does not claim to outline a complete inventory of the GIF or a stable overview of its meaning and behaviour. In stead, it offers its reader a collection of reflections in which the GIF is not a case-study, but an object of investigation that helps us think through the different layers of the format, in order to distinguish the complex transitions it embodies. The Internet seemed to be the only suitable platform to share these thoughts, since it enables cross-references, allows for non-linear and non-hierarchical structures and, most importantly, it displays the GIF as the moving image it is. Even if I do not directly refer to the many images that silently interrupt my reflections, they form an essential part of my thesis. The GIF is able to express a meaning without referring to a context, an author or an origin. This way, it is more than an illustration of my words; it speaks for itself and therefore adds a surplus to my thesis that we cannot grasp in words. In its silent movements, the GIF constantly seems to repeat the famous words of Walter Benjamin: “Ich habe nichts zu sagen, nur zu zeigen’”(1982, p. 574, N1a, 8). This thesis shares in many words what the GIF already shows us in its tiny but highly expressive images.




Like Theodoro W. Adorno wrote, this thesis “stops where it feels itself complete – not where nothing is left to say” (1984, p. 152). I could go on and on about how the format introduces new ways of seeing, sharing and editing, how it invites us to reflect on the old and new media that influence our mediated memories and how it gives us the opportunity to express ourselves beyond words, beyond narrative forms. While writing, thinking and reading, GIFs kept popping up everywhere I went. Not only in the conversations with my friends, on the Tumblr-pages that I visited during my breaks or in the endless scrolls on my Facebook wall, but also hidden in video-clips, commercials and artworks I saw outside the digital realm. A friend showed me an artistic HD video-clip of the British band Bonobo, which displays an advanced form of the animated GIF. It shows us that the GIF has moved beyond its technical format and transformed into a visual language that resonates in different media. By translating the repetitive, gestural and fragmentary character of the GIF into something new, the video displays an aesthetic that will probably resonates in many other cultural expressions from now on.

The GIF is a living thing: it desires and belongs, it thrives and it transforms, it constructs and it provides, it disrupts and it invites, it adds and it marks, it acts and it sells, it knows and it shows, it shares and it cares, it defies and it revives. While we cannot predict if it will endure in today’s rapidly changing media landscape, we can already discover traces of its influence. The GIF embodies the end and therefore the beginning of a cinematic language that is perfectly adjusted to the demands of the twenty-first century; it acknowledges the conditions of Web 2.0, while remembering a media history beyond its computer-based form. While the title of this thesis suggested otherwise, there is enough left to be said about this rudimental, soundless and poor image, that keeps haunting our many travels through the digital realm.

  • Adorno, T. W. (1984) ‘The Essay as Form’, trans R. Hullot-Kentor, F. Will, in New German Critique, No. 32. (Spring - Summer, 1984), pp. 151-171.


Iris Cuppen holds a BA (2013) in Graphic Design and a MA (2017) in Culture Studies. Her research engages with critical thinking on the nature, meaning and practice of new media, especially in a post-cinematic context. She is particularly interested in the intersection of academic research and artistic practice; according to her these fields of work are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Together with Roos van den Oetelaar (Wild & Thorny) she works on audiovisual projects in which the boundaries of the medium film are constantly explored and extended.

This website presents a series of essays on the aesthetics, architecture and gestures of the animated GIF and was originally published as a MA thesis.

webdesign / coding: Luuk Janssens