Even if GIFs are objectively one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to the internet, not everyone gets them. Humorless turds say that these grainy, animated loops are a passing fad, and a medium that’s prone to idiocy. Haters will continue to hate, but one criticism actually feels a bit true: GIFs lack nuance and are far too fleeting to communicate anything of substance. They’re the perfect metaphor for the kids-these-days refrain that our attention spans are shrinking. One recent and oft-repeated study conducted in Canada found that 2,000 participants, on average, measured a mind-bogglingly brief attention span of 8 seconds. Supposedly this means that in a competition between humans and goldfish, we’d lose to the fish.
Don’t go running off to flush your lil’ guy down the toilet just yet, though. As it turns out, statistically speaking, that study was probably BS. But even if our attention spans are shrinking, GIFs shouldn’t be regarded as the enemy– in fact, as demonstrated by Loop Dreams, an “IRL exhibition of GIF” held downtown last weekend, GIFs hold a whole lot of potential to engage us far beyond their usual 15-second threshold. Maybe we have a chance at coming out on top of those goldfish dicks after all.
GIPHY, the internet GIF hub and image sharing site, teamed up with new media arts non-profit Rhizome and Viacom Labs (which is involved in a lot of these fun fantasy-to-IRL art shows and immersive experiences) select 25 artists whose work traverses the boundary between the physical and digital realms. The easy thing to do would have been to throw some screens up in a white-walled gallery, maybe throw in a few projectors and show some GIF loops, but the curatorial selection went far beyond what we’ve come to expect from translations of digi-art to IRL.
Showing a diverse array of experimentation with form and inventive ways of presenting “contemporary GIF art” was an important goal for the show’s organizers, as Simon Gibson, director of marketing at GIPHY, explained: “Bringing the experience to a physical space let the ewers explore each piece in a new dimension and timeframe than one would typically do online.”
The result was an art show that didn’t feel too much like an art show– which I think we can all agree is actually a fine way to be. An abundance of interactive pieces injected even more loose juice into Loop Dreams, and games in particular lent the show some playground appeal.
The curators clearly knew how to please a crowd with the inclusion of a GIPHY booth which did the selfie legwork for you and snapped a series of flattering photos–slightly from above and light on detail– and turned them into a readymade GIF. Without curtains and an actual, physical booth, however, the piece made you feel sorta exposed. I mean, if I’m not given the necessary privacy of an old-fashioned photobooth, that means I’m not getting partially nude, which means I’m not having a good time.
The artists preferred to stick to more subtle expressions of participatory GIFs. It took me a minute to figure out that yes, in fact, Katri Tikkanen’s piece, among other lenticular prints all in a row, were animated, in a way, they just required you to move back and forth like a dog completely enthralled by a tennis game. Which made everyone look just super cool. Tikkanen’s “♪♫•* ̈♡ Cross my heart and hope to die. ♡ ̈*•♫♪” depicted a perfectly manicured hand clutching a phone bedazzled in gorgeous cursive script reading “BFF”– the perfect visual expression of a teenage girl’s id.
Most pieces stretched the traditional boundaries of GIFdom far beyond the confines of the browser box. But a few pieces, like Lauren Pelc McArthur’s “Pell-Mell Drum None” combined recognizable GIF forms– the kind that we’re used to seeing on the reg now as a part of our everyday internet experience– with unusual imagery. McArthur’s piece was only banal in terms of its shape (roughly the same elongated rectangle as an iPhone) and the choice to display the animation on screen. I was strangely hypnotized by the use of churning abstract forms typical of net art but not so much something we see applied to GIFs.
Nicolas Sassoon took that vibe a bit further with “INDEX,” his enormous panoramic view of what looks like a fancy hotel retreat. It’s a flattened architectural layout in black and white, and rendered from a boxy, almost primitive perspective. Truly, it was straight out of the ’80s, and I could easily imagine it appearing on an old-school Macintosh computer screen. It was maybe the most pleasing piece to watch at Loop Dreams. It was almost soothing, like the digital equivalent to one of those mini plug-in fountains– the ones at Natural Wonders that I guarantee you also thought were pretty darn neat circa 1997. That blissful trickling over (plastic?) stone formations was irresistible, really.
Of course, Loop Dreams had to include LOL-worthy GIF work or they’d make themselves out to be plain and simple liars. Yung Jake’s brilliant loop, “when the loud is too loud,” shows a guy inhaling an enormous cloud of smoke before violently coughing it out and distorting the entire frame as he does so. It’s, in a word, brilliant.
And you can’t get away with doing anything at all these days– (um, especially an art show)– without mentioning the elections, looming over us like some violently drunk dude you unknowingly hopped in an Uber Pool with before you realized he’s about to vomit in your lap.
Jess Mac’s “I ate you” flashes several images on an infinite, dizzyingly fast loop. These include a decorative plate, a pink flower, a pair of dentures, and either a snake or some raw-as-hell human intestines– oh, and Putin’s face. The artist implies in his statement for the show that he was inspired by the newfound cuddly relationship between Putin and Trump and cites two touching quotes:
“He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it.”- Putin on Trump
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond, I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.” – Trump on Putin
Mostly, though, Loop Dreams wasn’t so much creepy as strangely comforting, a playful, easily consumable, and brief escape. Let’s be real, that’s something we all need right now.
“GIFs can convey more than a static image, while also being much more accessible and quicker than video, making them the perfect type of content to communicate with,” Gibson pointed out. “As for the future of GIFs, I think we’re just now at a point where everyone and anyone can easily make a GIF of their own. Creation tools for GIFs and digital art in general are becoming more and more accessible and easy to use which will only lead to more creativity within the medium.”
That quick distraction can act like a sort of reset button, a tiny cigarette break without all the cancer and stuff. It’s perfect for a life on the go, and a time when we should remain vigilant and aware but, you know, sane at the same time.