THE DISTRACTION HABIT
The laptop lab resembled nothing so much as a casino floor, LCD screens for slot machines in a glowing horseshoe of flickering loops drawing us into a pit of diversion. No handles were pulled, but something had set the images spinning and spinning, and they won’t stop until the power goes. Animated GIFS: the pornographic, the profane, the banal, the insider, the outsider, the art school, the SEO spambot… each a glowing shrine promising its own obscure prize. Eventually they flicker out one by one to leave their husks of metal and plastic inert as locust shells.
There’s still time to turn around and watch the projected loops of GIFS, each exploded
grotesquely beyond their optimal dimensions and resolutions, as they shudder across the walls of the gallery. It is like looking up at the optic nerve of the Internet from inside its swollen eyeball while its life flashes before its eyes. Stare at it long enough and the shuddering becomes a dance of deathless eternal recurrence, a zoo of the fragments of digital moments. We are swimming in memes familiar and foreign, unable to focus on that impossibly brief moment when one sequence ends and a new one begins. It means less with each cycle. Octagon Gallery has become an abyss of pixels, only seeming to change when it is we who have.
The Animated GIF has found a moment in the sun after years of growing wild in the crevices of the Internet, here sprouting a captivating flower there testifying only to its habitat’s disrepair. With very few of us taking the time to notice, the file format which did much work during the fabulously expansionary childhood of the world wide web: enlivening pages and gesturing towards interactivity when bandwidth was at a premium, differentiating a new digital environment from the physical one whose metaphors (site, page, etc.) it struggled to transcend, and celebrating the playful optimism of burgeoning online life. Before streaming video was feasible to embed or to download, the svelte GIF format’s efficient compression and affordance of animation enlivened the online experience in the form of icons, interface elements, learning tools, and pure diversions.
While they decorated many a home page, it may have been the Animated GIF strewn corridors of MySpace which showcased Animated GIFs most intensely to the widest audience, a blinky bedlam that gave the file format a bit of a trashy edge. As its use value has ebbed, the GIF’s ludic potential has been more demonstratively tapped. Easy to create, requiring no proprietary software and not much technical no-how, and easily transmissible thanks to their small size and the fact that practically every web browser displays them. Conscious art practitioners have explored the format for years in part because of its feeling of not-quite-obsolescence, and vernacular employments have erupted in countless variety: impactful moments of motion pictures or television, pratfalls and faceplants, or otherwise surreal or striking seconds of video are looped; GIFs of facial expressions or representations of emotional states are inserted into website comments and message boards for evocative emphasis; sporting triumphs become GIFs even before reaching televised highlight packages; the list goes on. Whatever it is you want to amuse or distract yourself with, there is likely a community of people making or appreciating animated GIFs regarding it.
Animated GIFs resonate because they are more than simply pictures that move. Though at their best they often evoke that approximation of universal visual language achieved by silent cinema, they are if anything more akin to the hand-cranked card animation machines such as the mutoscope which sprung up around the time of the first motion pictures. More spectacle than narrative, these early visual attractions were at home in the amusement park, not the theater. To say they are less than a motion picture is not illuminating, but even less so is to point out that they are more than a photograph. The photograph abolishes the distance between past and present at the expense of preserving forever its subject in stillness as if in death. It is not strictly the availability of animation which saves the GIF from this fate, but that change is among its ingredients. The Animated GIF is the rapturous spasm, simultaneously confinement in both space and time but drawing attention to our awareness of both.
In the browser windows within which we encounter them, on the LCDs and CRTs which project their light, the Animated GIF sits, usually embedded in a hodgepodge of visual information. Especially for a generation which grew up watching moving images more often on televisions, (and computers… and portable devices) the situation of the Animated GIF within a sea of competing distractions is no accident. They offer at once an offhand nostalgia for a time before the ubiquity of embedded video, before the uniformity of online personal expression which now seems improbably innocent, and a giving over of oneself to the bottomless chasm of distraction. The GIF alone posesses the aura of the Internet: distraction and concentration at once. Even abandoned GIFs are out there looping forever, bits on some spinning hard drive, waiting for you to follow a long forgotten link.