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#I GIF, You GIF, a-They GIF

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Gustaf Mantel

Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year is finally here: GIF. Not the noun, but the verb. In fact, the noun is boring, old hat. The first GIF (the first file ever formatted as a graphic interchange format, with lossless compression) dates back to the mid-‘80s; the first GIF posted to the Internet is now twenty years old. And contrary to what you think you know, GIFs don’t have to be animated. That first picture, for instance, featuring girlfriends and friends of a bunch of CERN scientists (yes, the Higgs Boson CERN), isn’t.

But “to GIF” is something different: not just to create a GIF file (as Oxford defines it), but to animate – to appropriate – cultural detritus in a unique fashion. And, like any medium, some artists are better at working with it than others, using it as a tool to challenge their audience to think in new ways. In reality, the GIF is just another part of a long lineage, from the collage to the ready-made, on through the Pictures generation and toward the mashup. If Cindy Sherman, Sherry Levine, Richard Prince and Jack Goldstein had been born millenials, their medium (or action) of choice may well have been the GIF.

It’s eerie how closely Goldstein’s looped films resemble GIFs, especially “MGM,” which features the MGM lion roaring over and over against a red background, or the illustrated birds in “Bone China,” which come alive and ceaselessly circle a dinner plate. Like many popular GIFs, the constant repetition of Goldstein’s films makes the normal abnormal and the bizarre laughable.

In my opinion, however, the most effective GIFs (beyond those that embrace a slapstick humor) offer an antidote or counterpoint to Goldstein. Take the work of Gustaf Mantel, for example, whose Tumblr, If we don’t, remember me, features animated gifs paired with quotes, snipped from films as diverse as The Conversation (1974), Suspira (1977), Ghost World (2001), and Sedmikrásky (1966). The most successful and haunting are those with only a whisper of movement, which somehow evoke the mood of the film without completely reanimating it.[1] Slowly but surely, Mantel and others seem to be playing with the form’s potential for something I can only call “suspended animation”: inviting us, as viewers, to occupy a single frame,[2] yet maintain an awareness of the image’s motion, and of passing time.


[1] According to Temo Chalasani, the founder of Cinemagram (an app that allows you to turn scenes from your favorite films into GIFs), most people aren’t using the app to create “true” GIFs, in which a portion of the image in masked and kept still, but are simply creating short video clips. http://allthingsd.com/20121023/what-hypergrowth-looks-like-inside-gif-creation-app-cinemagram/, accessed 11/13/2012.

[2] Interestingly, the average length of an animated GIF, at least with Cinemagram, is about two seconds, or the “normal limit for the length of a shot you’d see in a movie.” http://allthingsd.com/20121023/what-hypergrowth-looks-like-inside-gif-creation-app-cinemagram/, accessed 11/13/2012.

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