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.
“I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin (…) Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.”
— George Perec in Species of Spaces
“I'm something quite different, a quite different thing, a wordless thing in an empty space, a hard shut dry cold black place, where nothing stirs, nothing speaks, and that I listen, and that I seek, like a caged beast born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.”
— Samual Beckett in "The Unnameable" in Three Novels
The introduction of new media marked the end of an era in which cultural objects could be interpreted as finished and sequential works of art, or as cultural theorist Lev Manovich (2001) notes, new media is not “something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions (p. 36)”. As a result of this transformation, Manovich famously (and quite provocatively) predicted a replacement of the narrative genre with the database genre as the most important cultural form of our time. In his work, he develops an aesthetic for new media by connecting the history of media to the database’s unique possibilities to generate, organize, manipulate and distribute data. The GIF, I argue, embodies both a reflection and an evolution of Manovich’s ideas. Leaning on a non-linear and non-hierarchical structure, the GIF found a way to survive in an era in which the narrative slowly makes way for the database. As outlined in the second edition of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2002), a narrative should, in its bare medium, “represent an event or a series of events (Abbott, p. 13).” While some GIFs do show us minimal events or even a series of events, most of them show instances rather than stories; independent scraps of larger narratives that repetitively move in circles. GIFs are always in motion, not only inside their own loops but also in the space they live in: the database. They are influenced by this context that is ever-changing while circulating in alternating constellations through the evolving space we call the Internet. These constellations ask for modes of interpretation that not only consider the complex time-based dimension of the GIF (the loop), but also its spatial construction of meaning (interaction with other images/texts).
While the GIF is a relatively new format, its current form re-imagines and reframes two proto-cinematic techniques: the loop and spatial montage. Manovich pointed at the potential of these enduring techniques in an age in which the importance of narrative diminishes. While both have been in existence for centuries, I will examine them in relation to the context that re-empowered their existence: the database. In the first part of this essay, I will (both literally and figuratively) dive into the database, in order to outline its growing importance as a cultural metaphor in the age of information overload. Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2001) will be my guide in doing so. In the second part of the essay, I will unravel the minimalistic architecture of the GIF (the loop) and the ways it constructs meaning inside different databases (spatial montage). This way, I will show the complexity of the seemingly rudimental format and the ways it has adapted itself to the database it lives in, as a pioneer of a larger cultural shift. The GIF, as I argue, is the embodiment of the new possibilities that Manovich outlined, pointing at an exciting and sustainable future for the moving image in a database culture.
Information highway, cyberspace, global village, tidal wave, infinite cloud, or simply the ocean: the complex information network we call the Internet is given many metaphors over the years. Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols” (2017). It gives us a rather technical definition that emphasizes the functional base of the network, while its metaphors seem to grasp the spatial dimension and the massive distances among the Net’s nodes. Like a rhizome, the Internet is positioned in the middle, “between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 25). It neither has an end nor a beginning and its form is liquid. As the introduction of the intriguing bundle The Internet Does Not Exist (2015) outlines: “Networks are all edges (…) We thought there were windows but actually they’re mirrors” (p. 5). While we try to draw maps of the web from an overview perspective, these remain representations of an undefined territory (p. 49). The web is always in process, as its materials are constantly added, modified, updated or erased. Marked by an endless connectedness, the movements among interfaces and databases produce an infinite web of information that surrounds our daily life; it is part of our consciousness.
While the unfathomable, all-encompassing and evolving space described above seems to far exceed any type of methodological organization, we cannot examine the GIF without exploring its surroundings. Wandering around like a traveller in the digital world, the meaning of the GIF is defined by its ever-changing contexts and users. This rotation of signs asks for a semiotic process that is not only based on the GIF as medium/image, but one that changes with its rhythm: we have to follow its movements through the unstable space we call the Internet. To prevent myself from getting lost while doing so, I imagine the web as a kaleidoscope, a chromatic meme wheel where GIFs come into focus and then blur into obscurity, over and over again. This essay explores the spinning of that wheel and, by acknowledging that velocity, intensity, and spread are characteristics that are inextricably linked to the GIF, it is primarily based on snapshots of the ‘front-end’, on the surface where the GIF moves from one place to another while being stuck in the same short loop. While the codes that float underneath the GIF navigate it through the web (and therefore decide when and in what form we see it), I am unable to decode this computer programming language. Instead of going into the ‘deep’ web, I will therefore examine the GIF on the surface, where it is disguised in a visual appearance that I can read and understand.
O pening the homepage of the GIF database GIPHY, I see Beyoncé cheering at an awards show next to a dancing skeleton cartoon and a monkey throwing away a laptop next to a bored-looking politician. While I recognize the form and content of these various images, I do not engage with the data that flows underneath them. As Manovich summarizes: “the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e. software driven) in its logic” (2001, p. 180). While GIFs appear to me as moving images, they are actually based on invisible digital codes, and therefore characterized by an endless modularity and variability. The GIF has two identities, as Manovich explains, one satisfies the demands of human communication (e.g. the cinematographic appearance) another makes it suitable for computer-based practices of production and distribution (e.g. the invisible codes) (2001). The interface given to my senses is nothing but an unanticipated, momentary form. “The interface is a fiction, a form that pretends that data can be held steady”, as Italian media theorist Vito Campanelli describes it (2010, p. 103). Binary codes are translated into moving images that allow me to process a reality that is otherwise too complex to understand. The interface shows me the ‘front-end’ of the data-wheel, before it turns away from my eyes again. Still, a part of me is always aware of the data behind the data, even though I cannot engage with it. While algorithms have selected the GIFs I see on my screen, the data that has not been highlighted is still close to the surface. I only have to click on the hash-tag that accompanies the GIF to open up a new screen that will show me hundreds of related ones.
While searching for the right GIF, my eyes constantly have to process a multitude of separate yet coexisting temporalities in just one glance: the wheel that spits up the GIFs keeps on turning and changing. Already in 2001, Beatrix Colomina pointed at this condition of attention and how it has become more and more habitual over the last decade:
We are surrounded today, everywhere, all the time, by arrays of multiple, simultaneous images (…) The idea of a single image commanding our attention has faded away. It seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate, as if we — all of us living in this new kind of space, the space of information — could be diagnosed en masse with attention deficit disorder. (2001, p. 7)
Kristin Veel explores in her article “Information Overload and Database Aesthetics” (2011) the popularity of the archive as a cultural metaphor that is able to manage the endless streams of digital images in this age of ‘information overload’. Rather than regarding the Internet as a fiction that completely resists inventory, she argues that it turns to a specific kind of inventory, i.e. that of the database. Recognizing that the archive is not a fixed object but a process (see: Derrida, 1995, p. 109), Veel points at the adaptive quality of the database and its preference for simultaneity over selection:
More than any form of organizational structure, the archive, in particular in the form of a database, contradicts the inclination to privilege one connection between two pieces of information over other possible connections, enabling multiple simultaneous constellations. (Veel, p. 308)
As a result, GIFs do not have a permanent place to be, hence their wandering character. In order to manage these homeless images, we need a system that considers all their possible meanings and connections, a system that is based on inclusion rather than exclusion. At the same time, however, these images need to be ‘findable’ by a user that wants to (temporally) adopt them. Information access is the new key category of our culture and, as Lev Manovich has argued, “we must deal with it theoretically, aesthetically, and symbolically” (2001, p. 217). A database like GIPHY is capable of fully adapting to, and anticipating, the constant state of distracted concentration in which we move through the digital age, by recognizing our ability to process different sets of images (and all their possible meanings) at once in a short amount of time. At the same time, this preference for simultaneity over selection meets the elusive character of the GIF, a format that does not even exists outside the database as a computer-based form. In other words, in order to see the GIF, we have to go through the database. Manovich extensively explored this metaphorical space in his famous work The Language of New Media (2001) and will therefore be my guide in exploring the space in which the GIF constructs meaning beyond linear narrative.
“After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate – the database” (Manovich, 2001, p. 218). With this sentence, Manovich opens its chapter on the database, exploring it as a form of cultural expression beyond its computer-based origin. Like literary or cinematic narrative, the database is capable of presenting a model of what the world is like, and in the age of information overload in which “the world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database”, as Manovich argues (p. 219).
I n the most literal sense, the database is defined by Manovich as a structured collection of data “in which the user can perform various operations – view, navigate, search” (2001, p. 218). While GIPHY’s homepage overwhelms us with dozens of moving images (view), we can narrow down the input by clicking and scrolling through the different layers of the database (navigate). For more specific results, we can go through the numerous categories that the database offers us, like emotions, actions, TV-shows, celebrities, decades or interests (search). Since new GIFs can be added over time, a database like GIPHY is always in transition. This way, it contributes to the anti-narrative logic of the web and the new media objects it holds; it is always open and never ‘finished’. In Manovich’s definition, the database functions as a structured ‘list’ of separate yet relational elements, theoretically endless and always in progress. Its structure is non-hierarchical; items constantly affect and change each other’s meaning by interacting in ever-changing constellations. Its frame persists while its content evolves; its initial construction is built to host an ongoing process.
The GIF is a new media object that resembles the ‘endlessness’ of this process, while being a separate yet relational element in a structured collection. Like the database it lives in, the GIF lacks a beginning or end. It therefore refuses to serve as a fixed element in a larger development, making the necessity of a sequence redundant. Instead of asking for a linear imagination, it asks for a spatial imagination and, according to Manovich, it is because of this difference in imagination that the database can be seen as the ‘natural enemy’ of narrative: “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)” (Manovich, 2001, p. 225). Seeing them as competing imaginations, Manovich argues that database is the unmarked term in the digital age, dethroning narrative as the most important cultural metaphor of our time.
In order to understand this shift in a larger cultural realm, Manovich brings in the semiological theory of syntagm and paradigm that was originally formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure to apply to different sign systems (like narrative, but also food, fashion, etc.). This model divides each of these systems in two dimensions – the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic dimension. In language, for instance, we can discover the syntagmatic dimension in producing an utterance by the stringing together of elements, word after word, in a linear sequence. The paradigmatic dimension points at the set of related elements with which the chosen elements are associated; the language user selects each new element from a group of related elements. While this group of elements in the paradigmatic dimension are related in absentia, the chosen elements that form the syntagmatic dimension are related in praesentia (Manovich, 2001, p. 230). In other words, the group of choices from which the narrative is constructed is implicit (virtual paradigm), while the chosen narrative is explicit (actual syntagm). Manovich argues that new media reverse this relationship: the paradigm (the data) is given material existence, while the syntagm (the narrative) is dematerialised. “Paradigm is privileged, syntagm downplayed” (Manovich, 2001, p. 231). The database represents an actual given, while the narrative becomes a virtual possibility.
Manovich’s formulation captures the overall sense that the temporal ordering that is crucial for linear narrative is only virtually present in the database, whereas the spatial display of the data is actually present. This does not mean, however, that we are no longer in need of an interpreting human being that assigns meaning to this spatially presented data (and therefore, consequently, constructs a syntagm again). Manovich’s assertion points at a separation of objects (data) and the assigned meaning of these objects (narrative), while, in reality, they need each other in order to exist at all. GIFs live outside linear narratives, constantly moving around in changing spatial constructions: their meaning is highly variable since it depends on these evolving contexts. The GIF is not capable of interpreting itself: it needs a human being to position them in political discussions, personal conversations or online collections like Tumblr-pages, in which (temporal and multimedial) syntagms are explicitly constructed. Rather than seeing narrative and database as natural enemies, it can therefore give us more insights looking at them as natural symbionts1, as Katherine Hayles suggests (2012, p. 176).
IIn her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (2012), Hayles convincingly argues that Manovich’s division misses a symbiotic relationship that sustains both the narrative and the database form: “Because database can construct relational juxtapositions but is helpless to interpret or explain them, it needs narrative to make its results meaningful” (p. 176). Manovich’s theory of the database maps an unlived and static space, but as Hayles argues (and many others with her), this space only truly exists in theory. In Manovich’s definition of a database, data is presented as if they speak for themselves, though in fact they constantly beg for our interpretation and deconstruction. Even if narrative dissolves into database, as Manovich predicted, database demands narrative reappearance as soon as interpretation is required. As Sharon Daniel summarizes in “The Database: An Aesthetics of Dignity” (2007), “a database incorporates contradiction; it is simultaneously recombinant and indexical, precise and scalable, immersive and emergent, homogeneous and heterogeneous” (p. 150-151). Its aesthetic dimension therefore only arises when a user traverses this field of contradictions. Any meaning attached to the database requires the direct activity of combining the different elements, transforming the dead space of data into a lived space of meaning. Even if these combinations do not have a fixed form (like traditional narratives), they make the syntagmatic dimension explicit once again. If we want to interpret the GIF we have to consider this dimension, even if (at first sight) it seems to only exist in absentia.
Remarkably enough, Manovich did outline several techniques that could possibly combine the narrative imagination of creating a syntagm (and therefore meaning) with the spatial and non-linear character of the database. While the competition between narrative and database turns out to be more of a symbiosis, Manovich does recognize the importance of an active user in the construction of meaning in the digital age. He argues that new media follows, or runs ahead of, a post-industrial society, in which individual customization becomes more important than mass standardization (2001, p. 30). Manovich’s work therefore still provides us with a necessary framework while examining the animated GIF. In fact, behind his provocative claims lies the suggestion of combining the database form with a narrative imagination. In the last chapters of the book, he searches for an aesthetic of new media by looking at the history of visual culture and media, in particular, cinema. He states that, while dealing with the above outlined database/narrative problem, we can learn from cinema, as it “already exists right in the intersection between database and narrative” (2001, p. 237). Manovich outlines two cinema-related techniques that could be sources of possibilities for new media: the loop and spatial montage. Two possibilities which are, as I argue in the second part of this essay, re-born in the digital age in the form of the animated GIF, outlining a database future for moving images that exist outside narrative structures, but still need a human being with a narrative imagination to keep them alive and running.
AAs Manovich has argued, the connections between the GIFs in a database seem to, in the first place, only exist in absentia. The ‘author’ of the GIF – who stays anonymous, in most cases – seems to have no control over the semantics of the GIF and its connections with other elements. The user has the possibility (and therefore the ability) to interact with them in numerous ways. As outlined in the first part of this essay, the database refuses to order the list of elements in a sequential form. The user is therefore in need of a spatial imagination, in order to make sense of all the different elements and their possible connections. Looking at GIPHY, we see hundreds of loops that are locked in small, rectangular frames of different sizes. None of these frames is superior, nor are they ‘hard-wired’ by an editor in one possible sequence; they appear in different, ever-changing constellations to our eyes. This database form asks for a mode of interpretation that Manovich called ‘spatial montage’, which involves “a number of images, potentially of different sizes and proportions, all appearing on the screen at the same time” (2001, p. 322).
While the cinematic screen was designed for a single image, the computer screen introduced a bit-mapped display; “the one image/one screen logic was broken” (Manovich, p. 324). This new development introduced a form of montage (in the cinematic sense) in which moving images no longer replace each other but constantly remain on the screen. The (narrative) logic of replacement (characteristic of cinema) gave way to the logic of addition and coexistence (characteristics of database). Time became spatialized, distributed over the surface of the screen. As a consequence, “the diachronic dimension is no longer privileged over the synchronic dimension, time is no longer privileged over space, sequence is no longer privileged over simultaneity” (Manovich, 2001, p. 326).
GIFs are autonomous moving images that are capable of speaking for themselves outside narrative structures. However, they still need to be guided in certain directions in order to perform this ‘speaking’ outside their internal loop. As Hayles outlined, the user has to actively engage with the elements (making connections) in order to interpret them. While Manovich outlined the database as a passive space that refuses ordering, it still outlines several trajectories (suggesting possible connections) that this user can follow. These trajectories are based on so-called ‘hash-tags’, labels that are assigned to the GIFs by its authors and the creators of the database. Being in a constant mode of distracted concentration, the user does not search for a specific loop, but for a specific hash-tag. Not one, but thousands GIFs are capable of expressing her current mood, she therefore needs to be guided through the endless streams of data by trajectories that will lead her to the GIF she is unconsciously searching for. These trajectories are suggested by the database and are, for instance, categorized by assigned emotions (e.g. awkward), shared origin (e.g. a TV show) or a specific action (e.g. dancing).
Searching for #excited, GIPHY shows me over 23.000 results. One of the most popular ones displays the character ‘Kip’ in the film Napoleon Dynamite. While I am aware of this original context, its hash-tags (#tv, #excited, #yes, #score, #fuck yeah) do not mention this information. It apparently does not matter where the scene comes from, who this character is, or why he is excited. The only thing that matters is what the GIF could possibly ‘say’ and how it is connected to the 22.999 GIFs that surround it. Searching for #Kip #Napoleon, I get the same image in different editions, belonging to different trajectories and shown in different combinations. One GIF has thousands of possible labels, while its loop shows us the same action, over and over again. Labelling is therefore one of the most important skills for image-makers in the digital age, it is the only way they can have some control over the possible connections, and therefore the visibility and ‘findability’, of their images.
In contrast to linear cinema, the editing of GIFs is based on their possible (spatial), not sequential (linear) meaning. As a consequence, they always remain autonomous, holding on to their separate identities while constantly being part of relational probability. Manovich summarizes:
In spatial montage, borders between different worlds do not have to be erased; different spaces do not have to be matched in perspective, scale, and lightning; individual layers can retain their separate identities rather than being merged into a single space, different worlds can clash semantically rather than form a single universe. (2001, p. 158)
In other words, GIFs can be combined into larger syntagmatic dimensions, without losing their independence. They can be part of hundreds of trajectories, without losing their autonomy.
In his book on montage, Sam Rohdie (2006) discusses the work of Takeshi Kitano, who designed a game that was based on sixty-nine photographs, set out horizontally on two pages, without apparent order and common themes. Kitano invited other filmmakers to compose mini-narratives (syntagms) using any combination of four photographs from the sixty-nine images. Rohdie describes these images as: “fragments of hypothetical narratives, potential, undefined, unfinished, crossing each other, folding, partitioning, tracing, touching, a universe of virtual, incomplete narratives that never cease occurring” (2006, p. 9). A description that we can easily link to the sets of animated GIFs we see in a database like GIPHY. While GIFs present themselves to us as simple and shareable formats, their actual substance is as elusive and ungraspable as their contexts. Rohdie summarizes this interchange of shareablity and elusiveness as a:
play of constraint and openness (…), making every resolution irresolute and the definite uncertain. While each image is a document (objective), the narratives are pure contrivance (subjective), real without being true, belonging at once to fact and to imagination. What gives the narratives their momentum is not linearity or causation but this double play, lucid, simple and very complex. (2006, p. 7)
The GIF is the absolute master of this play of constraint and openness. Its rudimental form embodies endless possibility (paradigm), but this form also prevents the GIF from ending up in a definite combination (syntagm). The GIF does not only live in databases, it also mimics certain characteristics of these databases. While it looks like a (proto-cinematic) moving image, it behaves like a new media element. These two identities make the GIF the perfect format for the non-linear and non-hierarchical environment the database outlined: one satisfies the demands of human communication and interpretation (e.g. the cinematographic appearance) another makes it suitable for computer-based practices of production and distribution (e.g. the invisible codes of the database) (Manovich, 2001, p. 181). Furthermore, GIFs refuse to be merged in one single sequence, holding on to their separate identities while constantly being part of different combinations. In order to get a grip on this refusal, we have to analyze the GIF’s distinctive time-based form. A form that resembles another characteristic of both the database and proto-cinematic cinema: the loop.
Manovich suggests that the loop is “a new narrative form appropriate for the computer age”, as it occupies a liminal, anti-narrative space between story and instance (2001, xxxiii). While nineteenth-century proto-cinematic devices were already based on short loops, twentieth-century cinema banished the technique in favour of the forward-moving act of storytelling: the dominance of narrative as a cultural form seemed to have signed the loop’s death warrant. However, as Manovich notes, the loop returned on our radar while giving birth to computer programming: “if we strip down the computer from its usual interface and follow the execution of a typical computer program, the computer will reveal itself to be another version of Ford’s factory, with the loop as its conveyer belt” (2001, p. 217). This technical framework of the digital world is translated into visual output in the form of, for instance, the playback function in QuickTime or the infinite moving limbs belonging to Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. “Rather than being an archaic leftover, a reject from cinema’s evolution” (Manovich, 2001, p. 320), the loop suggests a new temporal aesthetics for computer-based media. The GIF could be seen as the epitome of how the moving image adjusted its structure in order to fit the above outlined database, while holding on to its cinematographic appearance. An appearance that we know and understand (as a visual language), but that is in need of a new mode of interpretation (on that is based on the database structure). We should therefore not consider the loop to be a restriction (like it was in the proto-cinematic era), but as a possibility for the new media age.
Manovich predicts that, “when digital videos appear on small displays in cellular phones (…) they will once again be arranged in short loops because of bandwidth, storage, or CPU limitations” (2001, p. 217). Seeing it from this perspective, the revival of the loop could be explained as a way of dealing with the restrictions of new media. Today, however, this issue of bandwidth is no longer a problem2. While HD-video’s can easily be spread, watched and stored, they did not replace GIFs. We can explain this persistence of the GIF by considering the state of distracted concentration in which the user traverses the Internet once more. A video asks for certain efforts of its viewer in order to be seen (time, concentration, the act of clicking, the willingness to put in earplugs), the GIF just shows up: we can remain in a passive mode and still emerge ourselves in its movements. Or as Daniel Birnbaum put it: “[loops] convey a meditative, almost somnambulist, form of pleasure: nothing really happens, yet it's hard to stop watching” (1999). We are constantly confronted with the format, while we distractively scroll through our virtual lives, being physically present in the bus, on the escalator, or at the office. They appear out of nowhere in these endless scrolls, only to be seen for a short moment of our time. But even in these few seconds, their minimalistic looped frames are sufficient to produce the impression of presence, of life. While some create the illusion of an infinite loop by merging (and therefore diffusing our clear understanding of) the end and beginning of a movement, others simply repeat a single moment over and over again, erasing our reliance on fixed waypoints that usually lead us through a linear narrative. Consequently, GIFs evoke the idea of a continuous present, giving us the impression that, the moment we have stopped looking at them, they still continue to ‘run’, to live.
While a film usually unfolds a narrative system, the GIF denies traditional storytelling by establishing constant reappearance. By constructing this mesmerizing state, it touches on a fundamental conception of time: the eternal. While the GIF exists as an actual, temporal object, it is at the same time locked in a virtual, eternal presence. The infinite loop therefore embodies a movement beyond narrative, a statis. Tom McGinn (2014) argues that the endless repetition of the GIF transforms the moving image in a meaningless morph, “in so far as the original content no longer retains its semantic ties” (p. 19). The GIF resembles the mythical figure Ouroboros, the self-eating serpent that consumes itself in order to reproduce itself, a symbol for infinitude, cyclical recurrence and endless process. This absence of catharsis destroys our idea of progress, of accomplishment, pointing at the radical shift that Manovich outlined: the notion of beginning and end becomes redundant, the linear narrative as cultural form diminishes.
The seemingly rudimental format of the GIF symbolizes a large and complex transformation that is inevitably linked to the rise of the database as a symbolic form. We can describe the format as a reflection of the possibilities that Manovich outlined in 2001, and we might even go one step further and consider this format to be an evolution of his ideas. Like the frame of a database, the GIF’s construction is build to host an ongoing process (the loop), but this process does not allow for new elements to be added over time. While we can step in at any moment, the loop is without ends, a closed unity, evoking the opposite of a dead unstructured collection. The GIF is always in the ‘here and now’, and therefore it constantly escapes a unified and univocal meaning. To see a GIF, is to see it again. Every time we are confronted with it, we see it differently, opening up numerous possibilities for its future meaning in new contexts. Like the database it lives in, it has a preference for simultaneity over selection; it adapts to its (often temporary) habitat, selling itself as a flexible and therefore shareable tool of expression. Its user can assign its personal mood, ideas, meaning to it, marking the post-industrial society in which we live that emphasizes individual customization above mass standardization.
However, beyond this open and editable form, an uncanny resistance reveals itself. The GIF is always on loan, but never ours to own. Like its user, it is characterized by a ‘distracted concentration’. It seems like the GIF has no destination (fragmentary distraction), while it actually follows the same track: the never-ending loop (the epitome of concentration). Chris Baraniuk (2013) wonders in his article “The Wheel of the Devil”: “What if all media naturally looped like gifs? What if the notion of teleology and of beginning and end was really redundant; a feature of past media now considered archaic?”. By asking these questions, he does not only point at the significance of the loop as a technique, but also at a larger loop in the history of media, in which cultural forms are not replaced, but coexist, constantly shifting in weight. Like the GIF’s eternal return, this sense of history resembles an infinite loop. It reminds us of the first sentence of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything occurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? (1984)
While the GIF may be insignificant as a format (in a few years, it will probably replaced by another version that better suits the technological developments of that time), its distinctive features point at a larger cultural shift that we should not underestimate. In this shift not only narrative structures are being overthrown, but also the comforting ideas of constant progression, of catharsis. GIFs undermine these ideas by reminding us that everything we see happened before and will happen again. The only way to deal with this eternal return is to recognize and embrace it, even if it feels useless and uncanny. As Samuel Beckett famously wrote in his play “Endgame”: “the end is the beginning and yet you go on” (1957). The GIF has, like Beckett’s plays, the ability to transform the normal into the absurd by endlessly repeating it, constantly challenging and disrupting the status quo.
“I'm an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I'm in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse's mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations.”
— Dziga Vertov as quoted in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
“That bodies speak, has been known for a long time”
— Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sense
The GIF is a file type that is characterized by its restrictions: it is soundless, has a small frame size and is only suitable for a few seconds of action. These features remind us of the beginning days of cinema, in which, by creating the illusion of motion in photographic sequences, the capturing of movement was extensively explored. Nonetheless, the GIF was originally born in 1987 not to examine and capture movement but to create graphic animations on the first web pages. By combining several frames in a single image file, a web page could display a brief animation without taking up a lot of storage space and bandwidth. This was in the pre-YouTube days, when video was not yet part of an online experience. When more and more videos appeared on the net, the GIF seemed to be on the brink of extinction. Today, however, the graphic, coloured and simple GIFs are replaced by more sophisticated photographic images that endlessly repeat fragments of popular TV shows, cult films, sports moments, home-made videos and major news events. The file type is in a Renaissance and, despite its reputation as the Internet’s all-rounder, the GIF 2.0 seems to focus on one overarching theme: the moving body.
The Internet is an elusive space in which we cannot (yet) be bodily present. The GIF turns out to be a powerful communicative tool that allows its user to still carry out meaning outside the realm of text through the depiction, sharing and editing of bodily action. This focus on bodily dynamics is as old as the beginning days of cinema. This essay argues, based on theoretical concepts like Walter Benjamin’s ‘optical unconscious’ and Giorgo Agamben’s ‘notes on gesture’, that the GIF is, like cinema, gestural by nature. Cinema introduced a technology that was capable of capturing, quantifying, and reorganizing bodily dynamics, marking a considerable transformation in how we comprehend the human body and its gestures. This way, film transposed “the living being, its affects and actions, into its mechanics by automating its functions” (Väliaho, 2010, p. 17). I argue that the GIF is a culmination of this transposition. This essay examines the manner in which the (human) body, and particular gestures, are pictured and experienced by and through the animated GIF. The distinctive features of the GIF not only allow for the depiction and examination of human gestures but also invite us to use the format as a gesture in itself. Vilém Flusser’s definition of gesture, Roland Barthes’ reading of the third meaning in film stills and Laura Mulvey’s analysis of Marilyn Monroe’s delayed gestures in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) will help us to interpret the GIF not as an objet d’art but as a communication tool, an hybrid that escapes the grasp of words and therefore asserts itself as a medium that is concerned with a particular kind of meaning that is inextricably linked to the gestures it depicts.
Before I will dive into the influence of cinema on the ways we picture and experience the human body in and through the animated GIF, I will shortly introduce gestures as a scientific field of study. In a general sense, gesture may be defined as a specific movement of a body (usually, but not necessarily, a human body) that can be read as part of a system of signification. A gesture is often characterized as ‘expressing’ something; it indicates something about its mover’s physical, emotional, or intellectual being. Philosopher Vilém Flusser defines gesture as: “a movement of the body or of a tool connected to the body for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation” (2014, p. 2). This definition suggests that the discourse of gestures should not end with giving a causal (‘scientific’, in the strong sense of the word) explanation. “A gesture is one because it represents something, because it is concerned with a meaning”, Flusser writes (p. 4). It is therefore in need of a theory that searches for an interpretation beyond the point in discourse after which “any further discussion is superfluous” (p. 4).
According to Adam Kendon (2004), there has been a steady multiplication in the studies of gestures since Flusser wrote down his ideas half a century ago. ‘Gesture studies’ is now emerging as a recognized field of study, especially in social psychology, linguistics, and performance studies, and largely in terms of non-verbal communication. In Gesture: Visible Action as Utterence (2004) Kendon describes this recent grow of interest and shows how gesture is organized as an activity in relation to speech. Gesture, in Kendon’s definition, is a deed that is used in conjunction with or as a complement, supplement, substitute or alternative to spoken expressions (2004, p. 2). Willingly or not, humans constantly inform each other about their intentions, interests, feelings and ideas by means of visible bodily actions. These “utterance uses of visible action” are treated as communicative moves, turns or contributions by those co-present and constitute the domain of gesture in which Kendon moves.
While Kendon’s definition is especially useful in ‘real-life’ interactions, I want to look at gestures outside the domain in which an interpreter has to be ‘co-present’ in order to read them. With the advent of cinema, gestures could be witnessed through the eye of a camera, allowing the viewer to return her gaze backwards in time. Influenced by the framing and cinematography that captured them and the editing that mediated them, gestures could be read by an interpreting audience that was not present during the actual movement. The moving body we see in an animated GIF came a long way: it was originally captured by the camera, edited and framed in a sequence (often a narrative), before it was selected by an Internet user that locked it up in an endless loop. In order to interpret the expressive meaning of this loop of gestures, we have to go back to the beginning days of cinema, in which the moving body was explored from a distance – e.g. through a screen – for the very first time. By exploring the influence of film on the meaning of gestures, we can analyze the gestures in and through the animated GIF beyond the point in discourse after which “any further discussion is superfluous”, in this case the point where the power of language ends and a new, more elusive, realm of communication begins.
I n his famous piece The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction(1969), Walter Benjamin introduces the idea of ‘the optical unconscious': the notion that the world that opens itself before a camera is different from the nature that the naked eye is capable of seeing. Benjamin argues that, before the moving pictures existed, people were locked up in the spaces they lived, worked and travelled in. But then film came along and it “burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second” (p. 15). The camera revealed aspects of reality that were already registered in people’s senses but never got processed consciously:
With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. (…) Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride (Benjamin, p. 16).
The technology of film made it possible to turn moments of unnoticed gesture into objects of inspection. Already in the late nineteenth century, Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography, Eadweard Muybridge’s split-second photographs of human and animal motion, Jean-Martin Charcot’s photographic analyses of hysterical tics, Gilles de la Tourette’s indexical charts of the footprint, Alphonse Bertillon’s comparative photographic charts of the physical features of criminals and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s analyses of and prescriptions for efficient industrial production, all broke down images into their smallest possible constituent parts and reassembled them as a series in order to focus on the human body – and on human gesture in particular. In all these studies, gestures were divided, systematized, analyzed and classified, in order to reveal aspects of movement that could not be seen by the naked eye. Benjamin believed that these new technologies would provide human beings with unprecedented acuity, out of which “a less magical, more scientific form of the mimetic faculty was developing” (Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 267).
The movement in these studies was in fact an illusion: movement was not actually seen, but imagined in the gaps between instances of stillness. Muybridge, for example, started capturing human models in a variety of action sequences, including walking up or down stairs, hammering on an anvil, carrying buckets of water, or throwing water over one another. He put these still images on a disc and then ran them through a zoopraxiscope to give them the impression of motion. As an effect of these filmic experiments, familiar movements were isolated and decontextualized, which allowed for a new understanding of human embodiment. However, as Sam Rohdie argues in his book on montage, “these reproductions, though sequential, were composed of intermittent, discontinuous immobile units, in effect, a series of snapshots. Nothing moved, no body, no animal, no stick, no ball, no hand nor eye, nothing went from here to there” (2006, p. 3). Muybridge had his models imitating rather than enacting movement while posing for a sequence of gestures; it was all about making the illusion of movement believable, rather than scientifically accurate. Muybridge’s work was therefore “not an analysis, but a spectacle”, as Rohdie concludes (2006, p. 4).
Benjamin believes that film offered a healing potential by the slowing down of time through montage, creating “synthetic realities as new spatio-temporal orders wherein the fragmented images are brought together according to a new law” (Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 268). Industrialization shattered the capacity for experience and not only caused a crisis in human perception due the speeding up of time and the fragmentation of space, it also caused a crisis in human gesture. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben famously argues in his short essay ‘Notes on Gesture’ (2000) that, referring to de la Tourette’s observations of walking disturbances and Muybridge’s action sequences in the 1880’s, the Western bourgeoisie lost their true gestures at the end of the nineteenth century. The shocks suffered by patients with Tourette’s syndrome interrupted their gestures, and these therefore remained unfinished, open-ended: “a proliferation that cannot be defined in any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures” (2000, p. 50). In Tourette’s observations and Muybridge’s sequences of movement, Agamben noted a mode of vision that “is already a prophecy of what cinematography would later become” (2000, p. 49). These sequences both reified and obliterated gestures by fixing them, in the first place, into static images: the model’s body was decomposed, before it was recomposed in a sequence of discontinuous cuts. By linking the gestures this way, the static images did preserve the dynamic force of movement (the so-called dynamis). According to Agamben, this dynamis needs to be liberated from the static spell of the image in order to lead it “back to the homeland of gestures” (2000, p. 55). “In cinema”, Agamben wrote, “a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss” (2000, p. 52).
Referring to Deleuze’s coupes mobiles (images in movement), Agamben argues that in cinema the mythical rigidity of the image has been broken as a consequence of the liberation of the dynamis. Therefore, the main element of the mending of stills (i.e. cinema) is gesture and not the image (2000, p. 54). For Agamben, this gesture is neither a means to an end nor an end without means; it is means as such, the manifestation of pure gesturiality. The gesture is therefore characterized by a state of constant suspension; it exists in between desire and fulfilment in “a sphere of pure and endless mediality” (Agamben, 2000, p. 58-59). This ‘mediating nature’ is in the first place physical. The simple movement of waving a hand mediates, or transitions, between two static states: the orientation of the hand before the waves begins, and after the motion of the wave is completed. The cinematic gesture ‘displays’ this mediating nature by focussing attention on the process or nature of the transition, rather than on the starting or ending point of the hand. Film director and essayist Jean Epstein recognised this refusal of gestures to be limited to a beginning and ending by suggesting that “on the screen, the essential quality of a gesture is that it does not come to an end” (Epstein, 2012, p. 273). This way, cinematic gestures inform the narrative without being bound to it, a characteristic that brings us to one of the main features of the animated GIF.
Like the cinematic gesture, the GIF ‘displays’ a mediating nature by focussing attention on the process (the loop), rather than on the starting or ending point of the movement. Most GIFs do not focus on important scenes that define the narrative from which they are extracted from but show ‘in-between’ moments: the turning of a head, the wink of the eye, the pointing of a finger or the wave of a hand. By repeating these movements over and over again, the tiny animations isolate and decontextualize the gestures that Agamben earlier described as ‘the manifestation of pure mediality’. We could therefore say that his diagnosis of the potentiality of a gestural motion in cinema, returns, in a concentrated form, with the birth of the animated GIF. Its temporal scope is so limited that it is just enough to carry a dynamic, captivating movement (Agamben’s dynamis), while its short duration and infinite looping still invite us to closely examine and analyze this movement outside its original narrative (its gestural nature). In “The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs” (2012), Hampus Hagman argues that the GIF is characterized by the attempt to make movement ‘strange’ again. The loop is “liberated from the responsibility of making it mean and carry out narrative goals” (2012). He claims that the GIF performs a sort of decontextualization whereby cinematic movement is given a second life outside the structures of the narratives from which it originates. Its existence as a fragment therefore does not serve as a prelude to the restoration of the whole: it eternalizes a continuation of the fragmentary. As accentuated by its endless looping, it does not desire to belong to another stream of narrative; it only wants to exist for its own moment.
The GIF constantly hovers between stillness and motion; while its main features are similar to those of any moving image (motion and duration), the gestures it depicts are indifferent to or even contradict the cinematic movement. GIFs behave like independent quotations that mediate movements in different contexts, outside the narrative they originally derive from. They therefore belong to what Raymond Bellour called ‘l’entreimages’: the in-between-images, or the images in between (1991). These images constantly deal with the aesthetic and ontological tensions between photography and film, while positioning themselves outside the original critical cinematic program that was based on the materiality of celluloid that, with the advent of digital cinema, has lost some of its initial urgency. Instead, they move in a cross-disciplinary field that asks for new concepts in order to analyze them in a more complex aesthetic environment. Referring to Bellour, Ervind Røssaak (2011) points at the emergence of the ‘still/moving’ discourse in the aftermath of the 100th birthday of cinema and reconsiders what the moving image is and can become in an era that is marked by computer-generated imagery. A key reference point in this stillness/motion debate is Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Third Meaning’ (1977), in which he asserts that the essence of cinema − the so-called filmic − can only be found in the still, which is another form of quotation, as he argues.
In this, quite paradoxical, essay Barthes argues that the still holds a meaning beyond the two-levelled model of the French semiotics:
I read, I receive (and probably even first and foremost) a third meaning - evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can clearly see the traits, the signifying accidents of which this- consequently incomplete - sign is composed (1977, p.53)
He proposes to call this third ‘meaning’ (if we can even call it a meaning) ‘the obtuse meaning’ as opposed to ‘the obvious meaning’ that comprises both the two first levels of semiotics (annotation and denotation). The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘obtuse’ as: “Annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand” or “Not sharp-pointed or sharp-edged; blunt”. Barthes explains the term having something “derisory” about it, “it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure. Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival” (1977, p. 55). Barthes searches for a meaning that is not situated structurally, “a semantologist would not agree as to its objective existence”, as he explains it (1977, p. 60). He therefore uses different terms, words and metaphors in order to (try to) grasp a meaning that seems to resist being grasped. The reader can only indicate the third meaning by ‘pointing’ at it, rather than representing it in words. This is why, according to Barthes, the ‘filmic’ resides only at this level: the part of the film that escapes the grasp of words and therefore asserts itself as a wholly different medium:
The filmic is that in the film which cannot be described, the representation which cannot be represented. The filmic begins only where language and metalanguage end […] The third meaning – theoretically locatable but not describable – can now be seen as the passage from language to signifiance and the founding act of the filmic itself. (1977, p. 65)
In the translation’s notes of Image-Music-Text (1977), Stephen Heath states that the Barthesian term signifiance is sometimes (wrongly) translated in English as ‘significance’, but this is, according to Heath, “exactly what it is not” (p. 10). “Contrary to signification, signifiance cannot be reduced (…) to communication, representation, expression: it places the subject (of writer, reader) in the text not as a projection (…) but as a “loss”, a “disappearance”, as he explains (p. 10). This (rather ‘obtuse’) description of signifiance agrees with Barthes’ attempts to explain the third meaning. It is something that exists outside the realm of language, as an accent that is discontinuous, indifferent to the narrative and to the obvious meaning. It exists, like the true gesture, beyond the point in discourse where further discussion becomes superfluous. The only way to reach this point is to grasp a fragment, a moment in time that reveals a meaning beyond language,
To search for the obtuse meaning in film is to search for the filmic, as mentioned above. Very paradoxically, the filmic (according to Barthes) cannot be grasped in the film “in situation”, “in its natural state”, but only in this major artefact, the still (1977, p.65). The specific filmic lies in a third meaning that neither the simple photograph nor a figurative painting can assume since they lack, according to Barthes, a diegetic horizon. That’s why he focuses on the still, a medium which functions not as a sample but a quotation. It “is the fragment of a second text whose existence never exceeds the fragment” (1977, p. 67). For Barthes it is clear that the obtuse meaning is “the epitome of a counter narrative” (1977, p. 67). It is set to its own temporality; it is reversible. The still scorns logical time and offers us the inside of a fragment. It throws off the constraint of filmic time and is able to “teach us” how to dissociate the technical constraint from what is the specific filmic and which is its “indescribable” meaning (1977, p. 68).
‘On the back’ or ‘over the shoulder’ of articulated language, we can unravel a particular kind of meaning in the animated GIF that is related to Barthes’ third meaning and the gesturiality that Agamben outlined; it is discontinuous, behaves indifferent towards narratives and, above all, escapes the grasp of words. In a still from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Barthes found the obtuse meaning in a ‘low headscarf’, ‘squinting eyelids’ and ‘the convex mouth’ of a grieving old actress. While Barthes had to actively search for these details by pausing the film, the GIF effortlessly presents us the same type of details by repeating them in a never-ending loop. Like Barthes’ still, this loop scorns logical time and offers us the inside of a fragment. It records a precise moment in time outside its natural state, not by the freezing of time, but by the repetition of movement. Unlike the still, it shows us the unfolding of a gesture that once belonged to a living human being. The GIF therefore not only preserves the ghostliness of the past (like a still or photograph), but is also experienced as movement, as life, a presence. This way, it zooms in on the stillness of a moment without giving up its dynamis.
In “Cinematic gesture: The ghost in the machine” (2013) Laura Mulvey confronts this fundamental paradox by re-reading a fragment of the Hollywood classic “Gentleman Prefer Blondes”, in which Marilyn Monroe hovers between movement and stillness while moving towards the camera in four distinct gestures. The original fragment takes only thirty seconds, but Mulvey stretched the movement into three minutes. She argues that this digitally derived ‘delayed cinema’ has a special relationship with the cinematic gesture:
Delayed cinema creates fragments that exist in limbo (…) extracted from their larger filmic continuum but residually tied to it; similarly, a frozen frame is always part of a series and differs essentially from the temporal self-sufficiency of the still photograph. This “in-betweenness” that charaterises the fragment or the freeze-frame has a parallel in the aesthetics and significance of gesture. (2013, p. 6-7)
Mulvey discovers two forms of gesture while analyzing the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” sequence. In the most literal sense, Monroe’s gestures are mime-like, “a recognisable signal proffering a supplement to the verbal, reducing the abstraction of language to bodily, material expressiveness” (Mulvey, 2013, p. 7), which echoes Kendon’s definition of gesture. The moment Monroe reaches close-up, however, the meaning of her gestures becomes excessive, elusive and ultimately ineffable. Referring to Agamben’s theory on gestures, Mulvey argues that, the moment this part of gesture turns into the subject of the fragment, it becomes detached from narrative linearity or the logic of cause and effect. This relationship between the fragment and gesture reminds us of the third meaning that Barthes searched for and the definition that Flusser outlined, in which gestures hover on the brink of meaning and introduce a whole new medium of which the GIF seems to be the descendant.
Like Monroe’s gestures in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, the GIF displays two (often intertwined) forms of gesture: a recognizable one and an excessive, elusive and ineffable one. In the most literal sense, the GIF is a meme that reduces the abstraction of language to bodily expressiveness. It shows us recognizable gestures that seem to point at obvious meanings, like laughing, dancing or shouting. These movements are used as communication tools on online forums in response to textual information. We call these meme-like-loops ‘reaction-GIFs’; through the depiction of gestures, these animations are able to communicate more nuance and concision than their verbal translations. While many GIFs are created, deployed, and rarely seen again, some have entered a common lexicon after being regularly reposted in online communities. One of the most famous examples is the ‘slow-clapping’ GIF. This ‘Slow Clap’ or ‘Golf Clap’ is a sarcastic type of applause that is used to heckle a speaker or performer. If we search for the slow clap on GIPHY, it gives us almost 10.000 results, ranging from a mean-looking Joker to a crying Mariah Carey to a smiling gorilla, all clapping their hands in a dramatic slow way. No text, no sound and no other movement involved; the meaning of this gesture seems clear. We do not need to know the Joker’s motifs to clap; we do not even need to know the character as a symbolic figure. We only have to, unconsciously, notice the sarcasm of his applause, the fierceness in his eyes and the rhythm of his hands to understand the ‘obtuse’ meaning of the movement. While the ‘claps’ of the ‘slow-clapping’ GIFs differ from each other in execution, they share certain characteristics. We can only point at these specificities, and agree on their suitability as a gestural response.
Despite the recognizable and meme-like character of the animated GIF, it refuses to act as a vehicle for achieving a particular goal (for instance narrative closure). Instead, it circulates and exists in multiple realms, re-inventing itself in every new context. It therefore remains in an in-between state of desire and fulfilment, in a sphere of pure and endless mediality. It has been suggested that this ever-changing nature of the GIF corresponds to our contemporary culture of distraction. According to this view, GIFs do not communicate any ‘real content’; they are simply written off as pure entertainment in our post-modern society. This idea matches the broader concept of ‘phatic media’ that Vincent Miller (2008) describes in his essay “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture”. Phatic communication is a term first used by Bronislaw Malinowski (1923/1936) to describe a communicative gesture that does not inform or exchange any meaningful information or facts about the world. Miller used a modification of the term to describe the ‘flattening’ of communication on the Internet towards the non-dialogic and non-informational.
While I recognize the collective ‘sharing’ of GIFs as the sheer act of phatic communion, I disagree with the ‘postsocial’ society that Miller describes. Rather, Malinowski reminds me that we should not underestimate the importance of seemingly unimportant social activities. The GIF is the living example that popular culture plays a leading role in the construction of our reality. In order to meet the challenges of the altered world that digital images are constructing one pixel at a time, we have to look at the animated GIF beyond its reputation as vehicle for pure entertainment. Gestures in the animated GIF do embody a uselessness but it is inside “the trivial, the futile, the false and the pastiche” (Barthes, 1977, p. 55) that we find the true essence of the GIF. The accessible and democratic character of the file type opens up an optical unconscious that Benjamin could only have dreamed of. Its digital features allow us to manage the unfolding of time, to slow down and endlessly repeat movements. The physical and virtual bodies that are exhibited in the GIFs speak to us in many ways, while we, at the same time, constantly speak through them. Agamben wrote: “the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language” (2000, p. 58). The endless digital gestures the GIF depicts and embodies, give us the opportunity to wordlessly express our intellectual, emotional or physical beings, without using our actual bodies (except for the finger that controls the mouse). The GIF therefore belongs to everyone and yet to no one. Since there is no author that claims to own them, the freedom to exist for their own moment is given to them by birth.
“A civilization that is prey to the nightmare of its visual memory has no further need of cinema. For cinema is the art of destroying moving images.”
— Paolo Cherchi Usai in The Death of Cinema
“[A] drive, as it were, turns failure into triumph—in it, the very failure to reach its goal, the repetition of this failure, the endless circulation around the object, generates a satisfaction of its own.”
— Slavoj Žižek in The Parallax View
Born in the (post-modern) age of the unreal, the false and the simulated, I used to watch the same VHS tapes filled with children’s films over and over again during the many rainy days of my youth. Today, snippets of these same films appear on my screen while being captured in animated GIFs, evoking a vague feeling of nostalgia and, interestingly enough, authenticity. These feelings seem not only to be triggered by the recognition of scenes, but mostly by the preservation of the medium-specific noise of the VHS tapes. Other than digital films, these tapes were visually inscribed by time, showing a physicality (and decay) that I still seem to long for. As if I could uncover traces of other (hyper) realities within the simulacrum of the tape, traces that I can no longer find while watching the same films on Netflix. “What is lost in the move to the digital is the imprint of time, the visible degradation of the image”, writes Mary Anne Doane (2007, p. 144). The GIF revives the visible decay of the so-called ‘dead media’ (Sterling, 2008, p. 80) by copying their aesthetic qualities in remixed, low-resolution images. The format could be seen as a counter-reaction against the clarity of new digital recording technologies and the myth of immortality (and spuriousness) of the digital image, aiming for the recurrence of an ‘authentic’ media experience in a society of digitised perfection.
The term ‘authenticity’ has ambivalent and complex meanings for those whose reality has always been influenced by major media transitions and increasingly mediated life environments. Already with the arrival of photography and its reproducible character, the usage of the term became controversial. In 1936, Walter Benjamin was deeply concerned with what he called the ‘aura’ and ‘authenticity’ of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1969). For Benjamin the reproducibility of ‘new’ media as photography and film changed the value of the original completely. Later on, he recognized the important role of time in these changes. In a footnote of the third version of “The Work Of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” he states:
Precisely because authenticity is not reproducible, the intensive penetration of certain (technological) processes of reproduction was instrumental in differentiating and graduating authenticity […] To be sure, a medieval picture of the Madonna at the time it was created could not yet be said to be ‘authentic’. It became authentic only during the succeeding centuries, and perhaps most strikingly so during the nineteenth. (2006, p. 271, n. 4)
Today, in the twenty-first century, we consider the analogue media that Benjamin earlier described as new, to be authentic.
While the question of authenticity in the arts used to be a battle between the original and the copy, the GIF’s attempt to revive the authentic aesthetics of obsolete media by copying them into new images, represents the changing notion of how we receive ‘the original’ and the ‘copy’ in the remix culture we live in. This essay examines how GIFs remediate and appropriate the decay of both analogue and digital media by creating thousands of ‘original auratic copies’ (Davis, 1995). How do these copies reintroduce authentic or ‘auratic’ experiences in the digital age and how do they influence the ways we remember and store the media that illustrate our daily lives and (future) memories? In order to answer these questions, I will briefly discuss the definition of authenticity in the context of the work of art (or objects) in the age of mechanical reproduction and the nineteenth century industrial revolution. The work of Walter Benjamin will be, as a matter of course, the leading theory in this discussion. Furthermore, the longing for mediality as a form of authenticity will be examined by discussing the concepts of analogue nostalgia (as outlined by Laura U. Marks), aesthetic ruins (as defined by André Habib) and remediation (as outlined by Bolter and Grusin). The definition of the remix culture that Lawrence Lessig outlined will be used to define the morphing of the mechanically reproduced original copies with the digital recombined copy. The GIF is a ‘poor image’, as Hito Steyerl would name it, that adds an aura to technical imperfections that would otherwise be condemned to become obsolete, constantly defying an immediate and controlled representation of reality.
To get a grip on a term as divergent as ‘authenticity’, especially in the digital age, it is necessary to scale it down to the subject of this essay: the authenticity of GIFs, of images. When we speak of the authenticity of an image in the artistic sense, we mostly refer to its physical originality: its uniqueness and historical originality and thereby its (monetary) value (Lowenthal 1999). The uniqueness of these kinds of images, however, changed tremendously in the nineteenth century, when mass production found its way into our society. The reproduction of objects by machines was expected to endanger the concept of the ‘original’ since it produced replicas of a non-physical prototype. Lionel Trilling writes in Sincerity and Authenticity (1974):
The anxiety about the machine is a commonplace in nineteenth-century moral and cultural thought. It was the mechanical principle, quite as much as the acquisitive principle – the two are of course intimately connected – which was felt to be the enemy of being, the source of inauthenticity. The machine, said Ruskin, could only make inauthentic things, dead things, and the dead things communicated their deadness to those who used them. (p. 126-127)
Because factory workers no longer had to make something from start to finish but would repeat a single, isolated gesture over and over again, the industrial revolution intensified the idea of a lifeless mechanical assemblage versus the authentic object (or mode of production) that is marked by an organic wholeness. Therefore, according to thinkers as Charles Taylor, Lionel Trilling and Charles Lindholm, the longing for the natural, real and authentic have simultaneously grown with the vast rise of modernity, falsehood and inauthenticity. It put the natural craft against the unnatural machine, the true artwork against the forgery and the real subject against the unreal object. Not only the worthiness of human existence was at stake, but also the worthiness of things.
T he most famous addition to the authentic paradigm of images (and especially works of art) is the first edition of the earlier mentioned essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969) by Walter Benjamin, in which he states: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (p. 3). Benjamin points at the ‘aura’ of an artwork, the part that represents its originality, authority and authenticity: that which cannot be reproduced. In the first chapter of the essay, Benjamin admits that “a work of art has always been reproducible” (p. 2), but he continues that a: “mechanical reproduction of a work of art […] represents something new” (p. 2). These ‘new’ technical inventions produced works of art and objects that had no ‘aura’ (anymore). According to Benjamin, the whole sphere of authenticity was “outside technical […] reproducibility” (p. 3) because of two reasons: firstly, technical reproduction allows the viewer a closer view of the art in a way not allowed by manual construction. Secondly, it gives the work the ability to be seen outside of the spatiotemporal situation in which it was created or historically tracked. At the end of that same chapter he concludes: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (p. 4).
While Benjamin speaks about the “contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind” (1969, p. 4) when addressing the processes that lead to the disappearance of the aura, he at the same time salutes this development. With mechanical reproduction, which appeared in its most radical forms in film and photography, millions of images could be circulated among many different people. This process affects, and is the effect of, changing social conditions in which all previously unique and sacred institutions had become equal. In Benjamin’s ideal world, the general willingness to accept a reproduction instead of the original signifies an unwillingness to participate in the ritualistic aesthetics and politics of earlier times. This development could transform the former role of the participant into that of a spectator or possibly a detached commentator (1969, p. 19). According to Benjamin, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would be able to mobilize the masses. Especially film would make the “public is an examiner” (p. 19), he concludes. The new forms of mass media helped to shift the aesthetic gaze from contemplation to distraction, a gaze that found an advanced state in the digital era.
While Benjamin could not have predicted the major media transformations that took place eighty years after he wrote his famous words, his essay is still credited with developing an insightful interpretation of the role mechanical reproduction played in shaping aesthetic experience, even today. The digitization of the first decades of the twenty-first century has resulted in a radical transformation of the mobility of images and it could be argued that this transformation is somewhat tantamount to the revolution of the nineteenth century mentioned earlier. In her lecture “The Resuscitation of Authenticity” (2015), Erika Balsom describes how the concept of authenticity has emerged as a way to triangulate a relationship between subject, image (or object) and society, in the nineteenth century but also today. As mentioned in the introduction, Benjamin acknowledges in a footnote of the third version of “The Work Of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” that the aura of a piece of art not only withers in the age of mechanical reproduction, but is perhaps also born in this same age. Balsom describes the longing for authenticity, on the basis of Benjamin’s footnote, “as a sort of diachronic evolution that will especially take shape at moments of massive technological novelty” (2015). According to her, authenticity is always non-contemporaneous: what is authentic seems to be defined against that which is new.
Today, we live in the age of ‘new media’, an elusive term defined by Lev Manovich as translations “of all existing media into numeral data accessible through computers (…) graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, spaces, and texts that have become computable” (2001, p. 20) It is against these digital ‘new media’ copies that mechanically reproduced copies are currently re-defined as ‘authentic’. In other words, the appearance of ‘new’ copies produced originals as such, not the other way around. With the birth of a new medium, we nostalgically mourn the obsolescence of the old ones. The newness of ‘new’ media, however, is constantly being challenged in the digital age. Already in 1995, the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling proclaimed that we live in the “golden age of dead media” (2008, p. 80). Back then he referred to media formats with strong traditions (like the book or cinema) that were constantly threatened by obsolescence. More than twenty years later, we seem to live in an era of planned obsolescence, “turning yesterday’s appraised new gadgets into today’s decrepit devised and tomorrow’s waste”, as Dominik Schrey writes (2014, p. 27). He states that we live in an age of nostalgia for the allegedly ‘dead media’ and he considers the ‘mediality’ of this nostalgia as “an integral aspect of our culture of preserving and storing” (p. 27). This longing for preserving the aesthetics of ‘dead’ media is described by Schrey as ‘analogue nostalgia’, a term borrowed from Laura U. Marks, who described this phenomenon as an expression of a “desire for indexicality’ and “a retrospective fondness for the “problems” of decay and generational loss that analogue video posed” (2002, p. 152). Basically, this nostalgia is not about the refusal of digital technologies as such, but about the digital remediation of analogue aesthetics within the digital. Marks (2002) states:
In the high fidelity medium of digital video, where each generation can be as imperviously perfect as the one before, artists are importing images of electronic dropout and decay, ‘TV snow’ and the random colours of unrecorded tape, in a sort of longing for analog physicality. (p. 152-153)
While almost every digital (visual) medium claims to provide a more ‘authentic’ experience of reality by introducing a sharper and smoother image, the digital format of the GIF captures the technological flaws of ‘older’ media, assigning an almost organic quality to their physical decay. “Aesthetics of ruin”, as André Habib has called this capturing of material traces (2006). He analyses so-called found footage films, which give the “faded colors, washed-out tints, dust deposits and blots and stains” of analogue footage a new form (2006, p. 124). Habib argues that the traces of decay on the footage singularized each still of the film, giving the “impression of a rediscovered aura at the intersection of its disappearance” (Habib, 2006, p. 124). He echoes Marks again, who wrote: “Disappearance restores aura to the work. Mechanically reproduced images supposedly lack aura, but as images decay they become unique again” (1997, p. 97). The GIF captures this decay, by endlessly repeating it in a digital format.
Marks describes our love for a ‘disappearing image’ as a form of identification, as “a bodily relationship with the screen; (…) when we witness a disappearing image we may respond with a sense of our own disappearance” (1997, p. 95). The nostalgic emotions that mark the ‘authentic experience’ of a disappearing image, are not only evoked by the material traces of decay, but also by the representation of a reality that once existed in front of camera that, together with the actual film, slowly fades away. According to André Habib, it is this multiplicity of temporalities that evokes the ‘aesthetics of ruin’:
To the first layers of historical time (the profilmic time, the time of the image’s construction, the time of the image’s projection) has been added another time: time’s passage. This time, eroding the film material, does away with the interval between the (man-made) filming process and the (natural) chemical process that subverts and transforms the initial imprint. (2006, p. 134)
Habib argues that, in film, both temporalities follow the same time pattern and participate in the same temporality as human time – “one oriented towards finitude” (2006, p. 135). The same way as we recognize the profilmic time as represented memories of our own history and mortality, we embrace the material decay of film as a temporality that is close to the passage (and finitude) of our own time.
The GIF stores and repeats the fragments of our mediated past in which the multiplicity of temporalities that Habib outlined presents itself to us: it eternalizes the process of disappearance by citing the once mechanically reproduced copies in their current state of decay. These fragments, however, are fundamentally different than the predecessors they quote: they are re-written in code. The GIF’s decay is therefore not only based on time, but also on its possible manipulation; GIFs are, like other digital copies, not mechanically reproduced, but mechanically recombined, as Jos de Mul argues (2009). In his essay, de Mul reflects on Benjamin’s prediction that the ‘cult value’ of classical forms of art (like paintings) would give way to the ‘exhibition value’ of mechanically reproduced forms of art (like photography and film) and argues that, in a database culture, this ‘exhibition value’ is again replaced by the ‘manipulation value’ of digital images in a database context (p. 95). Since the database is always in transition (data can be added and edited over time), it opens up for an infinite recombination of images. De Mul therefore states that, “in the age of digital recombination, the value of an object depends on the extent of its openness for manipulation” (2009, p. 102). By being open, digitally recombined images regain something of the ritual dimension of the aura, “now no longer located in the history of the work, but in its virtuality, that is: the intangible totality of possible recombinations” (2009, p. 104). Every recombined image will serve as a source for further recombination, transforming them in unstable, unique and infinite processes rather than static, mechanically reproduced copies.
The digital structure of the GIF does not only allow us to store and cherish our mediated memories3, it also gives us the opportunity to repeat them, to zoom in on them, to reflect on them, to recombine them. With its fragmented, non-linear, repetitive and open form the GIF allows for an appropriation and deconstruction of the (often tightly constructed) mass media that illustrate our daily life and are sites of our memory, like films, TV-shows, sports coverage, major news events, etc. By zooming in on and repeating the in-between moments of these images, we can rediscover glimpses of a profilmic reality that otherwise would remain unnoticed. This way, it seems as if we can recombine a representation of life that is closer to reality than the controlled mass media provides us with, not by mirroring this reality directly, but by endlessly repeating and reflecting on the (decayed) traces of other media. While the introduction of film offered us the means to capture a reality that was different than the one that appeared for our eyes, the GIF introduced the means to unravel these media that slowly became intertwined with our reality. This ability to zoom in on and manipulate the mechanically reproduced images gives us the impression that we can demystify them, as if we can look through their physical appearance. At the same time, however, we keep assigning an authentic quality to the physical decay of the material, constantly nurturing our love for the disappearing image by emphasizing its material noise. This way, the GIF diffuses two different visual representations of reality that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1991) famously defined as ‘immediacy’ and ‘hypermediacy’.
Benjamin believed in the possibility to get (through film and photography) to an aspect of reality that was free from all mediation. In Remediation – Understanding New Media (1999) Bolter and Grusin address the same desire as a part of our complex and seemingly contradictory relationship towards media today. They define a medium as “that which remediates. […] A medium in our culture can never operate in isolation, because it must enter into relationships of respect and rivalry with other media” (1999, p. 65). Every new device for visual representation has to position itself against older media, such as film, television and other various forms of digital media. The real or authentic must be redefined in favour of these new devices. Bolter and Grusin reflect on the famous essay by Benjamin, stating: “remediation does not destroy the aura of a work of art; instead it always refashions that aura in another media form” (1999, p. 75). They agree with Benjamin that one of the driving forces of media history is the desire for ‘immediacy’ or the “transparent presentation of the real” (1999, p. 21). This desire finds expression in media’s attempt to erase all indicators of mediation and present their representations as ‘life itself’ (or, at least, as a direct window onto it). At the same time, however, there is another tendency working in the opposite direction. The logic of ‘hypermediacy’ enjoys the opacity of representation and highlights or even multiplies the signs of mediation; its goal is to remind the viewer of the medium (1999, p. 272). According to Bolter and Grusin, these two strategies of remediation do not only coexist; they are mutually dependent. While immediacy gives the impression of reality by removing traces of mediation, hypermediacy insists that the experience of a medium is in itself an experience of the real. Both strategies are opposite manifestations of the same desire: the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve an authentic experience through media. Bolter and Grusin argue that it is this appeal to authenticity of experience “what brings the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy together” in new media objects (1999, p. 71).
On the one hand, the GIF satisfies our desire for a transparent presentation of the real, not by providing us with a direct window onto it, but by giving us the tools to remediate and appropriate the media that once captured it. This way, the GIF provides us with a developed and active form of visual acuity that film already evoked more than a century ago. On the other hand, the low-resolution and shareable character of the GIF constantly draws attention to the medium itself – both to the decay of the material it cites and to its own ‘unstable’ digital nature. The GIF is build to ‘borrow’ existing images, giving its users the opportunity to explore and cite both the cultural implications (historicality) and the material and technological components (physicality) of these images. Both representations of reality are closely linked to the act of manipulation that de Mul outlined, transforming the detached commentator that Benjamin mentioned in an active editor, translator and even (co)author. As outlined above, the GIF combines the once mechanically reproduced material and the uniqueness of its physicality with the possibility of endless digital compositing in one digital format. The emotional bonding with this format is not only based on the recognition of the material or its physicality, but also on the sense of shared ‘ownership’ it allows for. The GIF invites us to appropriate existing material, to make it our own. Its open structure gives us the impression that we can ‘touch’ this material, that we can get a grip on media that seemed ungraspable before. While we could only passively ‘consume’ the mechanical reproduced copy and its visual decay, we are now actively involved in the sharing, editing and ‘remixing’ of its digital recombined copy, marking an era in which the copy and the original and its viewer and author become increasingly intertwined.
In Remix - Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008) Lawrence Lessig details a hypothesis about the societal effect of the Internet, and how this will affect production and consumption of popular culture in a so-called ‘remix culture’. The remix utilizes the (multi-media) language through which we communicate, quoting content from various sources (from TV, film, music, and music video) to create something new, a form of writing that is “the vernacular of today” (2008, p. 68). Lessig breaks down the media of any culture to Read/Only (RO) or Read/Write (RW), referring in these analogies to the permissions that might attach to a particular file on a computer. If the user has “RW” permissions, then he is allowed to both read the file and make changes to it. If he has “RO” permissions, he is allowed to only read the file (p. 28). RO media is largely the media that Benjamin outlined when discussing mechanical reproduction. The objects reproduced in a RO culture are supposed to be consumed in a singular direction: the viewer (or user) absorbs the medium. While reproduction can create thousands of copies, it does not change it by adjusting, developing, or even subtracting from it. While the ‘aesthetic ruin’ of the piece may grow while it duplicates, the look of the image stays essentially the same, apart from its visual traces of decay. The remix, or a medium that uses something existing in a way to create something original again, is part of the RW culture. Lessig states, as he compares the RW culture to the RO culture:
RW culture extends itself differently. It touches social life differently. It gives the audience something more. Or better, it asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains (p. 85).
While Benjamin saw the democratization of art as the diminishing of the aura, Lessig’s idea of a RW culture echoes Bolter and Grusin’s idea that the digital aura can be reborn in every new format. Unlike media in RO culture, there is no longer a distance from the ‘original’: the original copy morphs along with the digital copy. The animated GIF cites the original copies, but does not exactly replicate them: by altering the copies or place them in a new chain of meanings, they reproduce originals in the initial environment of their own creation. Like de Mul has argued, the uniqueness of the digital image therefore lies in its ability to be recombined into new ones, in its willingness to be edited and therefore to be degraded into a smaller copy of itself. As Hito Steyerl (2009) notes: “The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance”.
Like Benjamin, who concludes “The Work of Art” with his concerns about the democratization of art in the face of fascism, Lessig wonders if the RW culture can ever fully thrive in a corporatized world. The GIF embodies an interesting answer to his concerns. While high-definition images overwhelm us with spectacular and seductive representations of reality, the GIF does neither hide its technical flaws nor does it deny its possible disappearance. The unstable nature of the format recognizes two dimensions of degradedness, it stores the physical decay of the films and videos of our past, presenting them as ‘aesthetic ruins’ on the brink of their disappearance, while simultaneously displaying its own digital disappearance as it is constantly shared, ripped, and recombined by its users. This way, it provides these users with the possibility to (visually) reflect on the transitory character of the (both analogue and digital) mediated memories that mark our sense of belonging. The GIF therefore is capable of demystifying the fantasy of digital immateriality, a fantasy that promises us “an escape from time, entropy, degradation” (Doane, p. 143). In stead, the GIF reveals its traces of time, embraces the entropy of its material and celebrates the degradation of its image. It therefore attains a sense of livelihood, of reality.
While the GIF is a convenient tool for preserving our mediated memories, it even goes a step further than evoking the nostalgic remembrance of old media and its decay. While, on first sight, the aesthetics of the GIF seem to emphasize its inauthentic character (a copy from a copy from a copy…), it is this digital appearance that symbolizes its auratic quality in the age in which every image seems to appear to us in a sharper and richer, but also more distant and closed form. The GIF is a format that dares to be ‘poor’, that embraces its own mortality by inviting us to treat it like a process instead of a finished work of art. In her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” (2009), Steyerl describes the ‘poor’ image as “a visual idea in its very becoming” and “a copy in motion” that “mocks the promises of digital technology”. Like this poor image, the GIF is highly compressed and its genealogy is dubious, to say the least. Furthermore, it defies patrimony, national culture, or copyright, for that matter. In her manifesto, Steyerl makes it clear that thinking about the poor image could help us understand the multiple impacts of digital technologies on how the digital image lives and what role it has in a digitized society. She states: “[The poor image] insists upon its own imperfection, is popular but not consumerist, committed without becoming bureaucratic” (2009). Steyerl describes the dream come true of both Benjamin and Lessig and apparently also of the many users/viewers/authors of the GIFs that keep them circulate in the digital no-mans land we call the Internet.
Despite the many attempts to create a ‘transparent presentation of the real’ and our desire for ‘the authentic’, the mediated age we live in asks for a definition of ‘authenticity’ that is no longer connected to originality or time. As Steyerl concludes her manifesto by the following words:
The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation.
In short: it is about reality. (2009)
While the authentic image once was associated with the historical originality of an object, we now have to deal with images that refuse to reveal their origin, making the definition of originality superfluous. By considering the GIF as a dynamic process instead of preserving it as a static object, looking for the differences of the copy instead of fearing sameness, and start appreciating velocity, intensity, and spread instead of avoiding speed, we can discover a form of authenticity that is linked to the floating, forever changing digital image the GIF is. An image that preserves our mediated memories in an unstable format, a ‘poor’ image that provides us with an escape from the controlled space the Internet slowly becomes.
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.
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