Death ad Infinitum:
Towards an ontology of the gif Tom McGinn
A New Temporality
New Media, again?
Death ad Infinitum
Gif and Objecthood
List of illustrations
Preface This essay sets out to initiate a sustained theoretical discussion on the subject of the gif. It is, to my knowledge, the first document to have done so. Faced with a dearth of critical source material with which to begin such an analysis, and yet driven precisely by this absence, I have necessarily been compelled to generate my own composite theory. Predominantly indebted to Laura Mulvey’s seminal text Death 24x a second, to which this essay in part owes its title, I therefore borrow from histories of the gif’s sister mediums (cinema and photography) alongside accounts of new media, semiotics, aesthetics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, Minimalism and contemporary theories of the image. I have worked critically to formulate a flexible theory of the gif in the hope that the results can be applied to heterogeneous instances of the popular digital image format, including those made for leisure as part of contemporary visual culture at large. As such it refuses, like the format, to impose a distinction between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of culture.
NB: Many images embedded within this document have been obtained directly from online sources, hence their often-poor resolution. Owing to the limitations of print and the multiple frames of the animated gif, in the majority of cases only single frames have here been reproduced.
A tumblr of gifs and images accompanies this printed document, accessible here: <http://deathadinfinitum.tumblr.com/>
Beginnings, Returns Introduced in 1987 the animated gif, or Graphics Interchange Format, is one of the oldest forms of computer image. It is distinguished from other image formats in its capacity to encode several images into a single file. This unique deviance allows for these images to be played automatically in looped, animated sequence in web browsers. Due to the need to accommodate large amounts of visual information, the format often compromises on image quality, limited to an 8-bit colour spectrum (256 individual colours). Compared to the 16,777,216 colours of 24-bit ‘true colour’, the gif is therefore a grainy, disposable image, yet the short, simple, animated clips it produces manage to transcend the material limitations of colour depth to become dynamic units of cultural exchange. The exhibition Born in 1987 at the Photographers’ Gallery, London in May 2012 was the first major public exhibition in England dedicated to the gif. The format officially entered the public lexicon as a verb as well as a noun in 2012, when it became selected as Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year.1 Since its inception and especially since the advent of Web 2.0 in the early years of the new millennium, the format has
Christian Purdy, ‘Oxford Dictionaries USA word of the Year 2012’, <http:// blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/us-word-of-the-year-2012/> [accessed 6 March 2014].
experienced a viral growth in popularity, with increasingly more effective tools and platforms for the production and distribution of images and video clips online. Turning 27 this year, the gif is therefore an important entity, helping us to understand processes that are coming to shape aesthetic and social engagement in the opening decades of the 21st Century.
The gif exists today as both technological and sociological expression. 2 It is both a unit of digital material and a unit of memetic activity, inhabiting a world of sharing, of ‘likes’, of boredom and distraction, of leisure time and its reconfigured surpluses, because of which the re-distribution of material is as valid if not more so than the generation of it. It is thus that the gif as a form of contemporary culture may come to stand allegorically for many of the defining practices and attitudes established by the Digital and the Network in contemporary life, such as a 140-character psyche.
Sites such as tumblr.com, giphy.com and buzzfeed.com host vast quantities of gifs produced by designers, photographers and artists alongside more amateur gif makers, making for a dense accumulation of animated content. There are gifs of animals (fig. 1), ‘fail gifs’, ‘reaction gifs’ (fig. 2), gifs made by ‘gif artists’ (fig. 3), gifs endorsed by gif sites as ‘gif art’, gifs of your favourite TV shows, porn gifs, even gifs of the American presidential election debates in 2012 (fig. 4). Therefore seemingly limitless in application, the gif, and its digital material, find a curious yet suitable analogy in Roland Barthes’ account of plastic in his text Mythologies.
Whilst integral to the gif, this essay lacks the space necessary to conduct a thorough exploration of the gif as a form of social praxis. This essay chooses to focus rather on its technical and philosophical dimensions, in the hope that the resultant ontology may be applied across the spectrum of gif practices occurring throughout history.
Writing in 1957, 30 years prior to the debut of the gif, Barthes is staggered by the infinite possibility plastic presents. For him it is ‘ubiquitous material, infinitely reconfigurable and malleable.’3 His account of plastic’s variability matches a sense in which the digital is a universal abstract system, with ideological implications extending beyond its material properties: ‘More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; […] it is ubiquity made visible’.4 Its political, utopian dimension is implicit when he states:
historically bourgeois in origin […] Plastic has climbed down, it is a household material. It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic5
Likewise for developed societies, digital media is a mythical household presence; the most ubiquitous of mediums permeating lived experience, enabling new forms and new conceptions of productivity and consumption to emerge. Writing 57 years ago, Roland Barthes therefore gives an account of plastic that forms a convincing analogy for the particular malleability and omnipresence of digital media today. Returns like this to older theories in order to shed light on the new recur throughout this essay, structuring much of the discussion. In a similar way to Lev Manovich who seeks to analyse new media by ‘placing it
3 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. by Dr Annette Lavers (London: Vintage Classics, 2009), p.117. 4
within the history of modern visual and media culturesâ€™,6 I work to situate and define the gif in a broader historical sense, widening the scope to include practices and theories occurring centuries before the advent of computer technology as well as modern artworks and texts. Laura Mulveyâ€™s seminal text Death 24x a second presents one such opportunity to indirectly grasp the excitable gif, since it works to analyse cinema through a slowing down of its contents, to the level of its individual death-ridden photographic frames. Death 24x attempts to unravel the material and philosophical implications of both the photographic record and the moving cinematic image; allowing for the gif as an imagebased medium to be defined in contradistinction to, and in continuity with, these two different yet related forms. As shall become clear, the gif appears to inhabit a space both between and outside these two media, in an historical and ontological sense. In particular I have chosen to focus on three separate yet interrelated strands to Mulveyâ€™s discussion that correspond to the gif and its particular attributes: temporal relationships, technological developments in media, and mortality. Following such an analysis of the gif in the context of image-based media, I explore the ways in which the gif can be seen to counter-intuitively produce a sense of the sculptural. I end with a discussion of the gif as it occurs in the work of Sturtevant.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), p.8.
A New Temporality The adjective temporal refers to time. More specifically it refers to time that occurs in this life, or this world, and is used to indicate worldly and secular affairs. It figures lexically in opposition to eternal- a word that summons ideas of spirituality, or time after death. Closely related to infinity, this antonym to temporality expresses a sense in which something exists without beginning or end, is everlasting, perpetual, or even outside of time. In Death 24x a second, Mulvey articulates a sense of the original ambition of analogue photography and cinema to bridge these two fundamental concepts of time â€“ the temporal and the eternal. As I explore in this chapter, the gif confuses more fundamentally this distinction.
Unlike the photograph, a movie watched in the correct conditions (24 frames a second, darkness) tends to be elusive. Like running water, fire or the movement of trees in the wind, this elusiveness has been intrinsic to the cinema’s fascination and its beauty. The insubstantial and irretrievable passing of the celluloid film image is in direct contrast to the way that the photograph’s stillness allows time for the presence of time to emerge within the image 7
Here, Mulvey implies that stillness enables time to be evident, or that stillness in the form of a snapshot in some way works to reify time, making it more graspable, more palpable. This presence of time in the photograph is elsewhere conjured in bodily terms, likening the use of chemical baths in analogue photography to the preservation of corpses with resins and ointments: ‘time is embalmed in the photograph’, enabling the past to be fixed and carried into ‘innumerable futures as they become the present’.8
Cinema by contrast is referred to as having a slippery quality, unable to be grasped due to it being a representation of time within time. It is almost as if for Mulvey there is no space or time to feel the presence of time in the cinema, as a direct result of its intangibility, its ‘insubstantial and irretrievable passing’.9
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, (London: Reaktion books, 2006), p.66.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.56.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.66.
It would appear that the gif, as an example of constant animation, works in opposition to Mulvey’s conception of the still photograph and in alliance with the cinema, effacing the ‘presence of time.’10 In the context of cinema, the represented elements in a gif are indeed equally ‘elusive’.11 It is interesting to note that Mulvey selects images of ‘running water, fire or the movement of trees in the wind’12 to support her argument since these elements suit a continual animation where the break between the start and the end of the repeated clip is invisible (figure 5). However the gif is markedly different to cinematic time and cinematic representation since it posits an endlessness; an eternity.
Generally, an analogue photograph attests to a concrete presence and interaction with the world, and a film watched on a screen generally denies this sense of tactility, accounting for a potential lack of a sense (not sensation) of time or a particular time. But that does not mean to say that moving images per se lack a sense of physicality equivalent to the photograph, allowing for time to be both experienced and felt.
A gif is effectively a digitised flick-book animation. The absence of the need for a hand to initiate and perform the sequence of movement removes the bodily engagement that Mulvey alludes to in her description of analogue photography; there is no obvious soothing comfort or sensuous tactility to be derived from the impersonal pixel. The gif cannot be grasped, even less so than the ‘celluloid film image’13, thanks to its digital material. However the repetition of the gif does in some way
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.66.
render time palpable. In contrast to the irretrievable passing movement of trees in high definition, a grainy, poor resolution gif consists of a short video fragment on loop, whose recurrence has the effect of layering up to such an extent that the image itself becomes felt in a retinal and also embodied sense, incorporating ‘tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive functions’14 and becoming thus more palpable (fig. 6). I take up these ideas again in more depth later, and in the chapter Gif and Objecthood, when I discuss the relevance of Sylvia Martin’s analysis of Paul Pfeiffer’s Race Riot. For now it is enough to say that the eternity implied by the gif’s unrelenting loop paradoxically produces a certain stasis, and it is this stasis emerging from continuous movement that allows the presence of time contained to emerge from within it, potentially aligning the gif closer to photography than cinema when it comes to temporality.
Narrative Convention Time in Mulvey’s analysis of film and cinema relates to more fundamental narratives than just those contained in the diegesis. She draws a parallel between the material structure of film and universal life processes, from movement towards stillness again:
For human and all organic life, time marks the movement along a path to death, that is to the stillness that represents the transformation of the animate into the inanimate15
Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesotsa Press, 2002), p.2.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.31.
Mulvey relates the end of a film to the finality of death, pointing to a parallelism between the narrative ending and the halting of the film form itself: ‘of all the means of achieving narrative stasis, death has a particular tautological appeal, a doubling of structure and content.’16 This is made even more explicit when she states ‘at the end [of a film], the aesthetics of stillness returns to both narrative and the cinema [as form]’.17
Film form mirrors the structure of narrative and vice-versa. On a material level, Mulvey draws a parallel between the ‘filmstrip’s forward movement on the projector reel’ and the forward motion of the narrative. She also twins illusory ‘image[s] of embodied movement’ with the ‘metonymic drive of narrative itself’18
This for Mulvey constitutes the narrative convention of cinema; the progression of a timeline from start to finish, from a beginning, through a middle to an end, experienced in ‘absolute isolation of absorbed viewing (in the dark at 24 frames a second, in narrative order without exterior intrusions)’.19
Having established the convention and its conditions of engagement Mulvey proceeds to illustrate the profound temporal changes that occur
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.72.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.70.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.74.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.27.
in film as a result of digital media. Digital video in the form of the DVD comes to supplant the celluloid filmstrip and Mulvey locates the visibility of this difference for the viewer in the ability to pause the action, to extract the still frame from an ‘insubstantial and irretrievable passing.’20 As a result;
a movie’s apparently horizontal structure mutates […] symmetry or pattern can be detached from the narrative whole or a privileged moment can suddenly take on a heightened quality of a tableau. 21
At this point glimmers of the gif can be detected. It is not hard to imagine the gif as ‘the privileged moment’22 ripped from the narrative convention of ‘linearity and causality’.23 However we are not quite at the gif as the ‘tableau’24 to which Mulvey refers is motionless. Nevertheless it is interesting to consider the gif as working in a similar way to a still frame and with similar effects, as an interruption in the conventional, continuous and linear experience of moving images.
Mulvey makes us aware that ‘watching films digitally has contributed to a sense of narrative disintegration’.25 Mulvey is here speaking in reference to the temporal liquidity of the DVD, but this is no more evident today than with the advent of ‘on demand’ technologies allowing
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.66.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.28.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.69.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.28.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.29.
television to be paused, rewound, and subsequently fast-forwarded. Mimicking the interruptive processes afforded and encouraged by the DVD, these televisual practices similarly alter the temporal integrity of the moving image. Here Mulvey again touches on the peculiar effect of the gif in the context of traditional moving image habits: ‘Return and repetition necessarily involve interrupting the flow of film, delaying its progress’.26 As an extreme instance of this return and repetition, the gif represents an affront to the history of narrative convention in the moving image, which rests on ‘linearity [and] causality’.27
Subversive Power As a particular reconfiguration of linear time the gif, like the ‘delayed cinema’ for Mulvey, is thus capable of attaining a ‘political dimension, potentially able to challenge patterns of time that are neatly ordered.’28 In its brevity and looped-ness the gif can be seen to undermine the dominant structure of cinematic narrative, posing a forceful challenge to narrative forms of broadcast culture.
The gif is an inversion of photography, since it allows for an animation of the inanimate, and is simultaneously an exaggeration of the cinema since the animation it presents is perpetual and tight in structure. With the appropriative gif it is possible to chart a more nuanced movement from inanimate to animate states that goes beyond cinema, which simply
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.8.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.69.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.23.
‘animates its still frames’29. The source of the appropriative gif is what Mulvey defines as cinema: real-world movement, recorded and distilled into a sequence of still images in order to reproduce the illusion of movement and become a moving image. With the gif, a short sequence from this initial sequence is isolated, and taken back to its ‘repressed stillness’30 in order to constitute new frames for animation, which are then re-animated again ad infinitum. The forward movement of film form and the narrative content it carries is thus fundamentally altered with the arrival of the intensely looped fragment, extracting abstraction from the narrative condition.
Mulvey alludes to this in her exploration of the complex interrelation of the photograph and the filmstrip in Michael Snow’s 1967 film ‘Wavelength’.31 She notes how the film works ‘towards a level of abstraction that is, itself, searching for a beyond to “irreversible duration”’.32 Although permeated with stillness, this film achieves something similar to the excitable gif in its generation of an abstraction through sustained engagement or scrutiny. In fact, the ‘beyond’33 to which Mulvey refers here is more forcefully achieved with the return enacted by the gif.
Repetition and looped-ness cause the sequence of the gif to morph and become meaningless, in so far as the original content no longer retains its semantic ties. Just as intense repetition causes a spoken word or
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.18.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.79.
Wavelength, dir. by Michael Snow (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 1967).
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.83.
phrase to lose anchorage to its signifieds, to slip from under its original signification to become not a signifier but something more akin to a chanted, abstract echo of what was once a word, intense repetition in the gif causes the sequence of movement it contains to shed its original meaning. The gif thus adopts subversive power, posing a threat to logocentrism and the order of things. In other words, sustained experience of a gif over time induces a sublime moment in which the terror provoked by a loss of anchorage to the real world, and its sequential linear time, becomes apparent.
The gif therefore appears to introduce an alternative temporal relation since it exists simultaneously as a passing and a return. Rather than efface the presence or reification of time in the still photograph, the gif appears to efface the narrative continuity of cinema. Conforming neither to the conventions of the still image nor to those of the moving image, the gif appears to inhabit a space between the two.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the gif inhabits a space outside of the two. Referring back to my initial points regarding the lexical placing of the word temporal, in relation to eternal, we can see that the gif is aligned more closely to considerations of infinity, since unlike the cinema and other forms of the moving image, with the gif there is no â€˜inertia to which it returns â€™34 since it has no end, and implicitly no beginning.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.70.
The gif is therefore fundamentally anti-narratological. Derrida, writing of the temporal and epistemological dilemma of the returning spectre, goes some way towards articulating a sense in which the gifâ€™s repetitious nature confers upon it the status of an event, occurring outside of linear models of time: Repetition and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question of the ghost. [â€Ś] Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes it also a last time. Each time is the event itself, a first time is a last time35
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, ed. by B. Magnus and S. Cullenberg (London: Routledge Classics, 2006), p.10.
New Media, again? Having discussed the unique temporal status of the gif in the context of cinematic and photographic media, I now turn to the gif as technological expression in order to explore the way in which it both extrapolates and breaks away from preceding and contemporaneous technological forms. With recourse to Lev Manovichâ€™s treatment of digital technology in The Language of New Media I discover the significance of the loop in the gif and its role in birthing technological developments, giving a sense of the micro and macro looping structures that seem to work across history.
As has already been mentioned, Mulvey’s move away from the narrative coherence of the moving image (towards stillness) is marked by the introduction of ‘the digital’ into her analysis: the digital, as an abstract information system, made a break with analogue imagery […] sweeping away the [direct] relation with reality, which had, by and large, dominated the photographic tradition36
A momentous shift in practices is therefore implied as a result of new computational and mathematical means of communication. This shift is framed as a certain fragmentation or severance occurring in a heretofore natural and continuous relationship with the material world- it is a ‘break’.37 This is in line with her discussion of the ways in which older media such as photography established an indexical connection to an external reality. Now, rather than photosensitive surfaces meeting the light reflected from a world of objects and phenomena to become ‘inscription[s] in and of time’38, images exist as ‘numerical representations’.39 What was once a continuous flow of data is now composed of discrete units written in a binary code of 0s and 1s:
The conversion of recorded information into a numerical system broke the material connection between object and image that had defined the earlier history40
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.18.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.18.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.65.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.27.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.19.
Mulvey also indicates something of an historical debt of the image to the object, a ‘connection between object and image’41 carried over from her evaluation of indexical photographic methods where photography is likened to the fixation of material traces in an image. This is a debt that feels outdated in the context of modern image systems where ‘images proliferate’42 to produce ‘ubiquitous image saturation’.43 In his book After Art David Joselit proposes a convincing argument for the way in which objects become effaced as a result of this ‘population explosion of images’.44 He tells us that images become currency due to digital technology’s ‘capacity to transpose any work in sound, image or text into numerical sequences’.45 Thus working as a ‘universal translator’, the digital establishes ‘heterogeneous configurations of relationships or links’.46 Joselit works towards a definition of the way in which the image, as a component in a web of links, precedes the object in modern societies, pointing to a potential redundancy of the object in contemporary life:
image power- the capacity to format complex and multivalent links through visual means- is derived from [digital] networks rather than discrete objects47
David Joselit, After Art, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) p.1
David Joselit, After Art, p.88
David Joselit, After Art, p.15.
David Joselit, After Art, p.2.
David Joselit, After Art, p.94 .
The gif belongs firmly to this ‘population of images’48 posited by Joselit, in which emphasis is shifted from an economy of objects invested with exchange value towards networked relations where value emerges as a result of the efficacy of communication, the volume of shares and likes a visual unit receives, rather than any objective content.
Devices Old and New Mulvey reiterates a sense of the unnatural, superadded intervention of digitisation, gesturing towards the existence in digital media of images constructed without direct external referents (fig. 7): No longer derived from the chemical reaction between light and photosensitive material, these [digital] images lost their “natural magic” and the painterly character of the illusions of the magic lantern, the tradition of human ingenuity returned to visual culture49
Thus the arrival of the digital signifies a loss of the photographic image’s unique aural power. However Mulvey is able to indicate how the digital brings with it the creative potential of processes that go beyond photography’s direct relationship to reality, and bring about a return to more rudimentary means of image-making. Visual digital media appears ‘painterly’50, a synthesis of the graphic and the photographic, and operates in a way similar to a 17th century device designed for the projection of images manipulated by analogue means - ‘the magic
David Joselit, After Art, p.83.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, pp.19-20.
lantern’51. Here Mulvey refers the digital back to antique imaging methods and makes reference to how Lev Manovich is elsewhere able to detect a parallel sense of the digital occurring in connection to much older systems of representation. She quotes him thus:
The manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to nineteenth century pre-cinematic practices, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated.52
It is interesting to note that Manovich indirectly reinstates the hand into digital media, so often thought to have been eradicated by the pixel and the screen. Digital image editing software such as Photoshop and Final Cut Pro do indeed exist in a space that is untouchable, yet the processes they require nevertheless involve a physical movement of the hand that is met with a corresponding visible manipulation of data on the screen. The screen and its digital medium can consequently be seen as simply an intervening system, or substance. In fact it seems the digital more than any other medium lends itself to manipulation. The digital postproduction film technique of chroma keying for example, developed from the older matte method, allows the compositing of multiple images or moving image realities to co-exist in the same space. Collapsing the spatial and temporal boundaries that posed a limitation for older media, such a technique testifies to the malleability of the digital that renders everything ‘a sub-genre of painting’53 permitting the creation of similarly illusory realities.
Lev Manovich, ‘What is Digital Cinema?’, in The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, ed. Peter Lunenfeld (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), p.175
It appears that nineteenth century practices describe the manual fabrication of images in digital media.54Following Manovich’s argument it becomes evident that the loop, a characteristic initially thought to be unique to the gif, in fact resides in analogue animation devices occuring centuries ago. It is important to quote Manovich verbatim at this point:
Cinema’s birth from a loop form was re-enacted at least once during its history. In one of the sequences of A Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov shows us a cameraman standing in the back of a moving automobile. As he is being carried forward by an automobile, he cranks the handle of his camera. A loop, a repetition, created by the circular movement of the handle, gives birth to a progression of events55
This complicates Mulvey’s assertion that the ‘filmstrip’s forward movement on the projector reel’56 provides correspondence with the forward movement of narrative in cinema, since linearity is compromised with the introduction of a loop. Manovich continues:
[…] all nineteenth century pro-cinematic devices, up to Edison’s Kinetoscope, were based on short loops.57
In light of such an account it therefore seems more appropriate to discuss early motion picture devices as having a more substantial internal parallel, one that exists between the looping movement of the
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.316.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.74.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.315.
handle or device, and the loop of the image. Manovich nevertheless locates the loop in a narrative of cinematic progress. He tells us how despite originating the dawn of cinema and enabling its development, the loop was subsequently excluded from the mainstream in order for the linear, causal narrative of cinema to establish its hegemony: As [film] began to mature, it banished the loop to the low-art realms of the instructional film, the pornographic peep-show and the animated cartoon. In contrast, narrative cinema has avoided repetitions; as modern Western fictional forms in general, it put forward a notion of human existence as a linear progression through numerous unique events58
And this, only for the loop to be revived at a later date for popular widespread use with the advent of digital methods of video playback in the early 90s: the introduction of QuickTime in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: both were used to present short loops, […] both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition59
Introduced in 1987, the animated, looping gif therefore destabilises any sense of a clear, historical, linear narrative between the technologies of moving image practices. Instead an attempt to construct a history of the loop feels more like a performance of the loop itself, as we appear to witness the recurrence of older forms from history in the present. Take for example the gifs produced by fashion and music photographer Jaime
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, pp.315-16
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.313
Martinez, in which objects and people flicker from side to side, made using a stereo or multiple lens camera (fig. 8). These gifs manage to open up the image spatially as well as temporally to create depth, a practice that can be traced as far back as the 19th century with the invention of the stereograph and stereoscopy (fig. 9). Citing Manovich in this way it becomes evident that the digital computer gif is a throwback to a technologically more primitive era of cinema, sharing its characteristically looped structure with its analogue ancestors: the Zoetrope (fig. 10), the Praxinoscope, the Phenakistoscope (fig. 11) and the Kinetoscope. Furthermore it appears there is a fundamental looping system integral to the digital medium:
It is relevant to recall that the loop gave birth not only to cinema but also to computer programming. Programming involves altering the linear flow of data through control structures, such as “if/then” and “repeat/while”; the loop is the most elementary of these control structures. Most computer programs are based on repetitions of a set number of steps; this repetition is controlled by the program’s main loop. So if we strip 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 a loop as its conveyor belt.60
One may wish, given the apparent immateriality of the digital, to argue that the computerised loop is simply the illusion of a loop generated by a code presenting a series of fundamentally unconnected images in quick succession, which returns to the first once that action has been
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.317
completed. This could perhaps be referred to as a simulation of the continuous mechanical loops that structured the experience of previously mentioned analogue animation devices. Manovichâ€™s recourse to a metaphor of a conveyor belt in the above citation does imply that the loop in digital discussions can only exist symbolically as an image, without concrete expression. However, despite the discrete units constituting digital code that would seem to support such an argument, a metonymy exists deep at the core of looping gifs, that matches more closely the animated-ness of the form. This metonymical presence (to use the term metonymy as Mulvey does in Death 24x) is fundamental to loops as they exist in computer machinery, and in fact computers themselves: closed loop electric circuits. The loop is thus embedded in a material history of the moving image and has its digital origins in the foundational principles of computer technology.
Staggering Automatism One of the most major and obvious differences between the gif and its related forms or predecessors is its automaticity. In Baudrillardâ€™s System of Objects, he instinctually describes the psychological effect of automation as witnessed through technological products: For the user, automatism means a wondrous absence of activity, and the enjoyment this procures is comparable to that derived on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level61
Jean Baudrillard, in Richard J. Lane, Jean Baudrillard Routledge Critical Thinkers, ed. by (London: Routledge, 2008) p.32.
Baudrillard’s intuitive analysis touches on the childish pleasure of the recurring gif, whose action is determined by a pre-written program and the repeat/while command of a computer. It is possible therefore to say that the gif regresses the viewer into a premature, childish state, effectively inducing in the viewer a return of sensations. This intuition adds weight to the idea of the gif’s loop not only effacing the conventional progression of time but capable of generating further, broader loops.
Many artists choosing to work with the gif find ways to extract a sense of humanity from the computer-based format. In his series ‘One Loop Portrait a Week’, the French photographer Romain Laurent selects particular fragments of movement and subjects them to infinite repetition (fig. 12). Seemingly sparked by an awareness of the limitation of the format, the results exploit the small, partial, quasi- loops occurring in analogue material encounters. Waves, breathing, repetitious actions, and the effects of the wind are all documented and isolated to create endlessly recurring moments in otherwise static images. The effects are amusing and often poetic, revelling in the gimmickry of the medium whilst working to go beyond it to convey something of a dilemma unique to the digital age, of existing as simultaneously physical, real-world body, and locked in a virtual, eternal presence. Here the seamlessness between the last and the start frame is key to the success of the animation, achieved elsewhere in purely flat graphic space, and for many years, in the work of Julian Opie (fig. 13).
Writing of the loop’s complex relationship to ‘authenticity’62 in situations such as this, again Manovich provides valuable insight:
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.321.
In the case of a field of grass, a close-up of a plant or a stream, just a few looped frames become sufficient to produce the illusion of life and linear time. […] As the few frames are looped over and over, we see blades of grass shifting slightly back and forth, rhythmically responding to the blow of non-existent wind.63
Such is the effect of the Laurent’s gifs and, to a certain extent, Opie’s animations. They appear to fulfil a fantasy of both photography and cinema since their inception- the desire for perpetuity. However Manovich notes that:
The computer periodically staggers, unable to maintain a consistent data rate. As a result, the images on the screen move in uneven bursts, slowing and speeding up with human-like irregularity. It is as though they are brought to life not by a digital machine but by a human operator, cranking the handle of the Zoetrope a century and a half ago […]64
Thus the gif, and metonymically the loop is taken to be analogous to a ‘human desire which can never achieve resolution’ and a ‘comment on cinematic realism’65.
It appears the gif occupies an uncertain position in the historical development of media, since it is effectively a throwback occurring in digital technology to more primitive modes of cinema. As a subtle
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, pp.321-22
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.321
anachronism it points towards an ahistorical treatment of forms that transcends temporal boundaries. It is tempting to locate the gif mid-way between two technologies and practices, as something of an extended photograph and an abbreviated cinema. But more than just an ‘archaic leftover, a reject from cinema’s evolution’ the looping gif can be seen to establish a ‘new temporal aesthetics’. 66
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.320
Death ad infinitum The photograph’s freezing of reality […] marks a transition from the animate to the inanimate, from life to death. The cinema reverses the process, by means of an illusion that animates the inanimate frames of its own origin67
As a format for images, the gif shares a history with the photograph. Like the cinema, it also exists as an animation of still frames. Neither a ‘freezing of reality’68 nor a ‘narrative whole’69, the gif exists interstitially. In Death 24x, the abrupt stillness of the photographic record and the cinematic simulation of life lend themselves to a discussion of death, as technological statuses (animate/inanimate) find parallels in organic life processes (living/dead) and vice versa. As I explore in this chapter, the gif belongs to and further complicates this morbid preoccupation.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.15.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.28.
Mulvey charts the role of two crucial texts in the intellectual and aesthetic formation of the photograph - Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, and Andre Bazin’s The Ontology of the Photographic Image. She notes how for each writer the photographic image holds a different significance:
For Bazin, it is to transcend death, part of the process of mourning; for Barthes it is “the dive into death”, an acceptance of mortality70
It seems photography, as a medium, has a time-honoured affiliation to death. It is not surprising therefore to see that Mulvey’s analysis is driven by ‘the resonance of death that culture and the human imagination have associated with photographic images’71.
Simultaneously a ‘recording of absence and presence’72 the photographic image allows for the past to become visible in the present, confusing the borders between grammatical tenses, and causing an epistemological rupture of sorts in the ancient continuous passage of time- the past is no longer purely intuitively known, but concretely documented. The psychological impact of the photographic image is alluded to as Mulvey, via Barthes, describes the way in which the image implicates religion and straddles material and immaterial distinctions:
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.60.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.58.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.57.
Barthes moves from the material (the photograph as index, its inscription in and of time) to the immaterial (the photographic image as a “return of the dead”, the hallucination) to a resonance between photography and religion itself. In the process he takes his argument from the photograph as the material trace of the natural to the photograph as the site of “intellectual uncertainty”.73
However Mulvey goes one step further in her analysis. Taking as self-evident the transcendentalism of Bazin’s interpretation, and the philosophical depth of Barthes’ assertion, Mulvey discovers death occurring at a material level in the photographic image, in the instant life is fixed into a representation on a chemical surface:
The photograph’s freezing of reality […] marks a transition from the animate to the inanimate, from life to death.74
Thus the stillness inherent in the photograph is, for Mulvey, equal to death. Her subsequent introduction of cinema into the discussion gives a sense of the way in which this finality is overcome through a quick succession of still frames: The cinema reverses the process, by means of an illusion that animates the inanimate frames of its own its origin75
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, pp.64-65.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.15.
Since what was once declared dead now has the appearance of life, this animation is more akin to a re-animation and thus cinema is framed as potentially even more ghostly than the photograph: it ‘brings back to life, in perfect fossil form’ the contents of its ‘still frames’76. Here, however, Mulvey makes reference to archaeology and therefore to apparitions of a material kind- retaining a sense of the indexical relationship to reality (the physical trace) that is integral to her theory of the photograph.
Since gifs possess no index, having converted their contents from continuous information into discrete units of data, the ghostly presence that emerges from their reanimation of still frames is a translation. The content of gifs can therefore be seen to have already crossed a threshold, constituting a fundamental change in raw material, and thus potentially a double death. More like ‘the hallucination’77 than the photograph in Mulvey’s analysis, the encoded gif cannot be accessed in any tangible material sense, existing, as it does, on a screen or as projected light (posing something of an epistemological obstacle). This incorporeal quality could indicate that gifs achieve a purer sense of the ephemeral, required for an image to be classed as ‘ghostly’.78 Furthermore the digital gif complicates more fully a sense of the present moment, since it denies the ability to ground the witnessed sequence fully in the past- it exists and performs contemporaneous to us and is yet thoroughly archival in nature, uploaded at a certain point in time. As I go on to explore in more depth in this chapter, this has the effect of opening up the gif to alignment with other figures occurring at the imagined border between life and death.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.18.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.65.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.26
Mulvey observes a shift in the ability to pause and halt the flow of film as a result of digital technology, a process that reintroduces in video a sense of ‘the ghostly presence of the individual celluloid frame’.79 It is this presence of stillness in movement that for Mulvey accounts for a:
confusion between the animate and the inanimate, most particularly again associated with death and the return of the dead80
Death, it seems, permeates the image in all its manifestations, lying dormant in both analogue and digital cinema, under the surface. Yet there is a further way in which Mulvey’s analysis engages with death.
Mulvey invokes Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the death drive, arguing for a parallel ‘between the death drive and the movement of narrative towards a final halt’.81 Turning to Freud via Peter Brooks’ essay ‘Freud’s Master Plot’ she considers how
Throughout ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, the stimulation to movement, inherent in the death instinct, jostles with its aim to return, to rediscover the stillness from which it originally departed82
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.60.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.70.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.71.
For Mulvey the death drive is a ‘desire to return to an “old state of things”’83. She attempts to find an analogy for the theory in cinema’s formal constitution, and the narrative it conveys: ‘beginnings and ends are […] characterized by stasis. Narrative needs a motor force to start up, out of an inertia to which it returns at the end.’84
In this way linear narrative progression becomes ‘death-drive narrative structure’,85 compelled to achieve its own demise by dint of its explicit ending, and realising something of a loop in the process.
Repetition compulsion and Death drive or Death compulsion and Repetition drive For Derrida, the death drive is ‘diabolical […] an aggression or a destructive drive: a drive, thus, of loss’.86 However it appears Mulvey overlooks this violent and negative dimension, instead finding affirmation and pleasure. It is in her analysis of The Red Shoes that Mulvey locates this death drive. For her it contains the ‘movement of the dance that can only stop with death’.87 But she indicates a shift from repetition as indicative of ‘the
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.75.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.70.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.84.
Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever’, in The Archive: Documents of Contemporary art, ed. by Charles Mereweather (London: Whitechapel art gallery, 2006) p.77.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.74.
will to power and mastery […] sadism’88, towards an ‘unceasing flow of repetition and return that works to renew rather than destroy the movement of the ballet’89. Repetition is therefore conceived as a life force driving the narrative forward. For Freud however, it is in situations of ‘repetition characteristic of traumatic neurosis, [appearing] in the form of dreams reliving the original trauma’90 that the death drive reveals itself, internalised and working against the subject. Instances such as ‘obessional rituals; fixation; inhibitions and phobias […] representing as they do situations not-to-be-repeated’91 are posited as scenarios in which the psychoanalysand is directed towards activity which is counterproductive to the pursuit of pleasure, prompting Freud to formulate a death drive to account for them. Writing in 1995 of the archive Derrida reminds us that: Repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction.92
Given this inseparability between the repetition compulsion as pathology and the death drive as a ‘desire to return to an “earlier” state’93 Mulvey’s reinforcement of the vitality in repetition implies a wilful acceptance of the inevitability of death or potentially an ignorance of the full ramifications of Freud’s original theory, since the true co-existence of the repetition compulsion and the death drive is missing from her treatment of film.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.75.
Robert Rogers, ‘Freud and the Semiotics of Repetition’, Poetics Today, 8 (1987), 579-90 (p.581)
91 Ibid p.582 92 Derrida, ‘Archive Fever’, in The Archive ed. by C. Mereweather, p.79. 93 Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p. 70
Despite Mulvey’s insistence throughout on an ‘aesthetic reflection’94 between ‘narrative beginnings and endings’95 and the ‘mechanical, prosaic quality of the projector’s start and halt’96 Mulvey fails to find any convincing analogy for the repetition compulsion in the cinematic form, relying instead on the stillness represented by the still frame at the end of a film to imply the death of the film and thus a drive towards it. In the process she neglects to address a sense in which the film is self-destructive or self-defeating, necessary for an analogy to the death drive proper, with its manifest compulsion to repetition, consenting instead to reinforce the animation of the film so as to illustrate a driving path towards formal and narrative demise.
Mulvey does write of sadism; ‘the sadism that Freud also saw in the death instinct.’97 However she locates it in the diegesis, attributable to the choreographer Boris Lermontov as he takes the role of ‘the dominating dancing master, the manipulative puppeteer’98. In this way it is located within the narrative of The Red Shoes, but Mulvey is unable to find a correlative in the film form to match this. As such there is no metonymic relation made clear between form and content, which structures her argument thus far, and at a critical moment in Mulvey’s analysis, revealing a potentially superficial engagement with Freud’s theory that does not take into account the wider ramifications or requisites for its usage.
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.74
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.74
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.75
The sadism detected by Mulvey aligns itself with external aggression, since it is directed ultimately at the dancers and not the choreographer himself. A death drive rooted in the compulsion to repeat conversely necessitates a certain sado-masochism. Mulvey attempts to indicate this in the ‘constant, circling movement’99 of the dancers, but yet again this is rooted in the diegesis, and thus any reflexive conclusion about the potential death drive of the cinema as a form is unable to be made.
A compulsion to repeat does find more compelling resonance in the looping animated gif. As has already been discussed in the previous chapter in the context of automation, there is a basic, primary pleasure to be derived in the perception of the gif. Considering the gif as an integral unit, however, independent of our interaction with it, there is an inescapable sense in which it is condemned to repeat, suffering a debilitating addiction or obligation, that fulfils more readily a parallel to the compulsion to repeat and thus the Freudian death drive.
The gif’s loop performs something of an effacement of the content it contains, as the sequence takes on an abstract quality and meaning mutates or becomes nullified through repetition, transforming or cancelling itself out with each iteration. This can be thought of as self-defeating, and therefore fulfilling simultaneously the inwardly-directed destructive impulse of the death drive and the repetition compulsion. However there is a fundamental absence in the gif of a finality. Whereas cinema has an ‘inertia to which it returns at the end’100 the gif continues ad infinitum. Therefore the gif appears to fulfil
Ibid. Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.70
those elements of the death drive which are lacking in cinema, and the reverse appears to also be true, with the cinema fulfilling the finality of a drive to death, lacking in the gif. Without a final destination, the presence of the death drive in the gif therefore takes on something of a status. Rather than being driven by a destructive impulse, the gif is that impulse, exemplary and infinite.
Having invoked Freud’s death drive we can see how a pathological sense of the compulsion to repeat exists in the gif. But before we consign the gif purely to darkness, it is relevant to cite the writer Robert Rogers, in order to locate a sense of the more positive connotations to repetition that Freud himself describes:
In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud mentions children’s natural desire for the repetition of pleasurable experiences. In his book on jokes he calls attention to the function of repetition in play: that of practicing [sic] newly developed capacities, an idea echoed when in the fort-da anecdote, Freud discusses repetition through play as a way of mastering anxiety. Also in the book on jokes Freud mentions the contribution repetition makes to comedy and the way comic situations precipitate a repetition or re-discovery and hence a catharsis – of negative self-images101
Thus the compulsion to repeat effected by the gif corresponds as much to Freud’s sensational death drive, as it does to the blind, unedited joy described by Nietzsche in 1885, that wants nothing more than itself; eternally:
Rogers, ‘Freud and the Semiotics of Repetition’, p.581.
All joy wants the eternity of all things, wants honey, wants dregs, wants intoxicated midnight, wants graves, wants the consolation graveside tears, wants gilded sunsets | what does joy not want! it is thirstier, warmer, hungrier, more fearful, more secret than all woe, it wants itself, it bites into itself102
Here Nietzsche invokes in some sense the mythical Ouroboros, the self-eating serpent that consumes itself so that it can reproduce itself, a pictorial shorthand or glyph for infinitude and cyclical recurrence, and, coincidentally, the gif (fig. 14). The self-sustaining auto-cannibalism Nietzsche describes here also evokes a sense in which the joyous finds itself to be counterproductive, an exaggerated extreme turned self-destructive.
Rogers has some interesting things to say about the wider significance of repetition, with implications for a theory of the gif. Speaking of the repetition compulsion, Rogers asserts ‘repetition is meaning’103. With a background in semiotics, for him it is the content of the repetition that holds significance, rather than the ‘apparent power of its drive-like attributes’104. Rogers eschews the notion of a drive to instead begin talking of repetition in the context of ‘structures of information, such as attitudes, expectations and defensive preferences, rather than psychic forces’105. This logocentric view, when applied to the gif, falls flat.
102 Friedrich Nietzsche, in R.J Hollingdale, ed. and trans., A Nietzsche Reader, (London: Penguin Group, 2003), pp.257- 58. 103
Reading Rogers seems to reinforce a sense of the non-sense of the gif, its affront to language. Unlike repetition for Rogers, meaning in the gif does not accrue with each subsequent clip, there is no deviance constituting a difference, which then requires analysis, and then insight. In contrast the gif feels very much like a dumb medium, condemned to repeat its mistakes. Yet the power of repetition in the gif lies precisely in its â€˜digital kind of duplicationâ€™106.
The unrelenting, irrepressible recurrence of a sequence of images in an animated gif attains a rhetorical dimension, capable of assisting in the creation of meaning precisely through the force that Rogers is so quick to sideline in favour of information.
The looping format alone is capable of signifying a whole range of ideas, including fantasies of eternity, of immortality, the machine, the human inevitability of mortality, stasis and its lack, Fordism, assertion and its absence, endurance, time, futility, the absurd, the comic, childish amusement, conviction and its lack, the list goes on. Furthermore the gif has a felt dimension; its relentless re-presentation of the same sequence embeds itself on the retina, becoming heavy.
More than anything, the gif articulates a certain post-humanism, or at least a beyond to human existence, attaining a spiritual dimension. Mulvey, speaking of the uncanny effect of cinema touches on the liminality of the gif:
The blurred boundaries between the living and the non-living touch on unconscious anxieties that then circulate as fascination as well as fear in the cultures of the uncanny. This shudder, however consciously experienced, is a symptom of the unconscious difficulty that the human mind has in grasping death and its compensatory capacity to imagine an afterlife.107
The cinema and the photograph are predicated on the presence of stillness, stillness in the moment (photography) stillness as constituent (cinema) and stillness as framing device occurring at the start and end (cinema). In a similar way to the cinema, the gif collapses distinctions between stillness and movement. Each still frame constituting the gif is at times made more visible due to the technological primitivity of the format, as it ‘staggers’108 on the screen. Yet the gif refuses any lasting stillness of its contents and ultimately denies any sense of finality, since the termination of the narrative in cinema is here avoided.
In light of Mulvey’s assertion that the increased presence of the still photographic frame in cinema highlights the question of mortality- ‘the ghostly presence of the individual celluloid frame’109, the unrelenting, looped animation of the gif can thus allude to a perpetual death, or an infinite resurrection.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.321
Manovich highlights a sense in which the gif as an image file is incapable of dying since it exists as digital material:
decay is not tolerated […] once a file is created, it never disappears except when explicitly deleted by the user. And even then deleted items can be usually recovered. Thus if in “meatspace” we have to work to remember, in cyberspace we have to work to forget. 110
However Laura U. Marks is able to detect a sense in which the digital does deteriorate. She talks about the digital image undergoing an almost physical transformation as a direct result of its accelerated distribution through networks, something which elsewhere Hito Steyerl is able to identify as images being ‘squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution’111. With reference to William Gibson, Marks likens a disintegration of analogue video to a parallel occurrence in the digital, as a result of this process of redistribution:
While analog video suffers from bodily decay as the tape demagnetizes, digital video decays through “bit rot” […] information loss that renders images in increasingly large and “forgetful” pixels.112
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.63.
Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012) p.32.
112 Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.157. The phenomenon of ‘bit-rot’ or ‘software rot’ can also occur as a result of successive upgrades rendering the material redundant and ineffective. Decay in digital terms therefore refers to both image compression and a sense in which web content deteriorates as a result of a lack of maintenance or responsiveness, becoming stranded and stale in corners of the web.
This allows Marks to formulate the conditions for a tactile experience of the image, as a consequence of the image’s inability to communicate as effectively as intended. Pixellated and posterized images ‘frustrate optical knowledge and instead, invite haptic speculation’113, that is, in their affront to purely visual ways of knowing these images take on the quality of that which is not-fully-knowable, a constitutive Other. For Marks this encounter becomes ‘intersubjective’114 leading to an embodied experience that invites dissolution of ‘subjectivity in the close and bodily contact with the image’115.
Marks’ analysis seems to introduce a body into the digital ‘poor image’116. In this context the limited 8-bit image format of the gif has a dilapidated body, suffering as a result of its own compression, its ‘acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism’117.
At a different point in her text Touch, Marks alludes to the vampiristic quality of this recirculation, as bloggers and sites feed off the productivity off the products already existing online: ‘They make information that normally would have a limited lifespan Undead’. I would go as far as to say that the dumbness of the gif, its looping re-enactment of its own recirculation leads it towards the status of an unthinking and undead zombie, saved from death but enduring as fundamentally
Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.10.
Laura U. Marks, Touch, p.13
Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, p.44.
Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, p.32-33.
altered from its original, staggering through the world locked in a state of permanent, suspended decay. There is a satisfying quality to this image that communicates something of the â€˜kinesthetic, and proprioceptiveâ€™118 physicality of a gif, in contradistinction to the purely hallucinatory and ghostly visions afforded by cinema and photography, where the content aims to approximate as closely as possible a visual, optical reality.
Marks, Touch, p.2.
Gif and Objecthood Having formulated a somewhat essentialist theory of the gif via Mulvey and Manovich in the context of image-based media, I now turn to two examples in which the gif and its particular characteristics appear to work counter-intuitively towards an approximation of the sculptural.
Paul Pfeiffer via Sylvia Martin Sylvia Martin’s essay The Sculptural Potential of Multi-Media Works goes some way towards articulating the latent sculptural assertions of the looped moving image. Focusing on the presence of the tight loop in Paul Pfeiffer’s Race Riot (fig. 15), in which a short looped moment of a basketball game plays on the monitor of a hand-held camcorder (fig. 16), Martin references the ‘notion of a classical sculpture with its
uniform form, to be viewed frontally or from all sidesâ€™.119 Martin expands the perception of digital video to include a sense of its felt, material presence:
The moving image, constantly repeating itself at the shortest possible intervals, comes close to the qualities of a statue in its visual/structural nature. The short sequence of images burns its way into the consciousness over and over again, in every detail. 120
Thus Martin interprets the intense repetition of a short image sequence as an accumulation of sorts, with each iteration working to solidify or reify the moving image. Whereas Laura Mulvey is able to highlight the still frame (responsible for the illusion of movement) to account for an uncanny stasis residing in the moving image, here Martin sees the static emerging from the moving image, almost as a form of condensation or crystallisation. This paradoxical relation is made even more bizarre with the choice of sculpture: classical representations of the human body. These concrete fossilisations of living, breathing bodies seem the exact inverse of the lively, almost hyperactive electronic image. Yet as with the conjuring of bodies in the screen for Mulvey, a sense of the uncanny resides in the near perfect rendering of human physicality in stone, capable of provoking fear as well as awe in the viewer.
119 Sylvia Martin, â€˜The Sculptural Potential of New Media Worksâ€™, in Anonymous Sculptures: Video and Form in Contemporary Art, trans. by Malcom Green and Michael Robinson, ed. by Sylvia Martin and Beate Ermacora, (Munich: Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nurnberg, 2011) p.113.
120 Martin, p.112.
Martin defines a specific temporal condition for this ability of video to transcend its specific material properties and become trans-medial: ‘the video image can […] take on sculptural form, if it is operating in succinctly short, repeating intervals.’121
Therefore it appears only the gif is able to conjure this sensation of the sculptural. The usual division between quick images and slow sculptures is loosened. This location of the sculptural in multi-media is potentially a forced fantasy on the part of the writer, provoked by the novel sculptural object of the camcorder and the context of the exhibition’s curatorial premise, but it nevertheless goes some way towards suggesting the unique palpability of the animated gif. Invoking the cinematic installation in opposition to a ‘short repetitive video sequence’122 Martin also alludes to how the gif is perhaps preferable to cinema: These short, time-limited pieces liberate viewers from the fate of [having] to plunge in and out of an experience of uncertain duration on the basis of their own decision […] they are able to grasp the [...] narrative structure from beginning to the end, so that there is no uncertainty about whether they have seen everything or not123
Thus there is the possibility that the gif can exist and hold sculptural quality independent of any material object or surrogate form, simply as a result of its hyper-condensed and tight repetition; its defining material characteristic.
Minimalism via Michael Fried In his seminal text Art and Objecthood, first published in 1967, Michael Fried also gestures towards a particular objecthood applicable to the gif. Fried invokes the artist Tony Smith and his recount of a ‘car ride taken at night on the New Jersey Turnpike before it was finished’124 (fig. 17) in order to add weight to his argument for the ‘theatrical character of literalist [Minimalist] art’125. The experience is likened to that of video or performance art, since it is an aesthetic experience without a frame or definite object: it is experienced ‘as it happens, as it merely is.’126 Fried’s reading of the recounted journey finds an explicit relationship to objectness (for him closely allied to the theatricality of minimalist sculpture): the object is […] replaced by something: for example, on the turnpike by the constant onrush of the road, the simultaneous recession of new reaches of dark pavement illumined by the onrushing headlights127
The perpetuity of the gif is detectable here, in the apparent ability of the witnessed scene to ‘go on and on indefinitely’128. Fried is able to find an analogy for the experience of minimalist art in the endlessness of the road and, by extension, the gif:
Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd edn., ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood (London: BlackWell Publishing, 2003), p.840. 124
Fried, in Art in Theory, p.841.
What replaces the object—what does the same job of distancing or isolating the beholder, of making him a subject, that the object did in the closed room—is above all the endlessness, or objectlessness, of the approach or on-rush of perspective. It is the explicitness, that is to say the sheer persistence, with which the experience presents itself as directed at him from outside…that simultaneously makes him a subject—and establishes the experience itself as something like that of an object, or rather of objecthood.129
Thus Fried adopts a logic that permits him to discover the object where it appears to be lacking most: since an experience induces subjectivity in the viewer, in the same way a work of art can, it renders that experience an object. He makes this relationship more explicit with reference to artworks by Smith (fig. 18), Donald Judd and Robert Morris:
Like Judd’s Specific Objects and Morris’s gestalts or unitary forms, Smith’s cube is always of further interest; one never feels that one has come to the end of it; it is inexhaustible, however, not because of any fullness […] but because there is nothing there to exhaust. It is endless in the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example.130
It is interesting therefore to apply this sense of inexhaustibility to the gif. A gif’s continuous looping image sequence can be seen to exhibit ‘the
sheer persistence’131 of the Turnpike, since it never reaches a catharsis or end point. In a similar way the inexhaustibility of the gif is not so much owing to the digitally programmed recurrence of its frames as the abstract effect its repetition has on its contents, rendering them banal and potentially hollow: like ‘Smith’s cube […] there is nothing there to exhaust’132. Thus, as the tale of the Turnpike finds a mirror for Fried in Minimalist Sculpture, the experience of a gif is similarly likened to a sculptural experience of objects in space. It is no great leap to see how both Minimalism and the gif conflate opposing ideas of wholeness and emptiness, of presence and absence, and of boundlessness and limitation.
Fried concludes it is ‘Endlessness, being able to go on and on’133 that is crucial for the designation objecthood to hold. He notes also the way in which infinity is implied with ‘the repetition of identical units […] which carries the implication that the units in question could be multiplied ad infinitum’134. In addition to this possibility for spatial infinity Fried mentions a temporal infinity, ‘the endlessness not just of objecthood but of time’135 which recalls the assertion of an endless present moment:
It is this continuous and entire presentness, amounting as it were to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness136
Implicit in this exploration of seeming endlessness in sculptural form is the inverse relation, that the sculptural is present in endlessness. Therefore in light of Modernist aesthetic analysis, the gif can likewise be seen to possess the qualities of an aesthetic object, by dint of its repetitiousness and its allusion to infinity.
Sturtevant I refer at this point to the work of Elaine Sturtevant, since the artist is able to fold the gif effortlessly into her practice whilst retaining a sense of its origins in moving image history and popular culture. It features prominently in her work in recent years, in installations that expand the formal properties of video projection. Sturtevant’s own oeuvre has historically been predicated on the loop of re-production, as cultural products become replicated via another’s hand: hers. The writer Stéphanie Moisdon effectively summarizes Sturtevant’s oeuvre thus: ‘illusion and fear, simulacrum and truth, confusion and the loss of content […] the power of art, its aura of infinity’137.
Stéphanie Moisdon, ‘Sturtevant: The Silent Power of Art’ in Parkett, 88 (2011) p.116
In Dillinger Running Series (fig. 19), Sturtevant exposes some of the historical lineage of the gif, working backwards from the format as it exits today towards Eadward Muybridge’s pioneering photographic work revealing the sequence of natural motion in still frames.
Typically she inserts a rogue element of culture into the mix. Here Sturtevant is dressed as the notorious American gangster John Dillinger from the 1930s, via Joseph Beuys. In terms of content the work therefore already contains a chain of replications, making for a fitting, albeit protracted parallel to contemporary repetitions of the image. However this is not as relevant in the present instance as the metaphorical relation Sturtevant establishes between the revolving platform on which the projector rests and the looped sequence of images.
Sturtevant’s looped purposeful strides are matched by an animatronic, analogue loop in real space, causing the black and white photographic images to circulate across the entire gallery space, fleeting and ghostly, conjuring the illusion of a walking figure. Here, the physical circling of the motorized platform corresponds to the looping of the imagery projected from it, compounding Sturtevant’s central idea of self-referentiality and circuits of meaning. Sturtevant makes us aware that a restaging of the past is also a form of (re)animation, and vice-versa.
Furthermore the light beam itself is no longer static and actively implicates the entire gallery space, including the viewers, in an embodied way. Unable to be held in its entirety, the work is emphatically durational, and experiential, comparable to Michael Fried’s re-presentation of Tony Smith’s recount of his experience on the New Jersey Turnpike. As the projection comes into contact with the gallery and the viewer, it becomes temporarily distorted, opening up the set, repetitious predictability of 57
the gif to chance operations introduced at the display stage. Yet it also provides a fitting visual representation of how content can never truly escape distortion when accessed through the intermediary medium of public contexts for display.
In Finite Infinite (fig. 20), the looped projection of a running dog is mapped to the dimensions of the gallery wall, implicating the physical structure of the space and all its invisible structures of interpretation and meaning-making as a cultural institution. The scale of the work seems to have expanded in inverse proportion to any meaningful content- what we witness is a dog, chasing an unseen, unknown, something, infinitely. As a gif, the work recurs on a loop, suggesting the impulse to repetition is animalistic and primal, until we realise it is perhaps a metaphor for the chase after meaning we invariably slip into as gallery-goers.
What occurs in these works is similar to what Baudrillard mentions in his writing about the implosion of meaning in the media- an â€˜implosion of contents, of the absorption of meaning, of the evanescence of the medium itselfâ€™.138 This erasure of meaning has already been detected in the gif elsewhere in this essay, yet it achieves clarity in the following citation, in which the previously noted ability of the gif to confuse or blur distinctions becomes the reason for its potential impotence:
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994) p.83
The absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuiting between poles of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions […] Hence the impossibility of meaning in the literal sense of a unilateral vector that goes from one pole to another.139
Unable to be placed concretely the gif can perhaps deny similarly concrete meanings. However this constitutes precisely the gif’s power, since it is capable instead of generating felt, visceral experiences leading to more intuitive bodies of knowledge, whilst signifying salient aspects of cultural communication and lived relations today.
It is therefore fitting for Sturtevant to somewhat presciently employ the gif, since it enables her to directly quote the current cultural mediascape, of which she is tirelessly critical. In effect it reproduces her oeuvre on a micro and macro level, as consumer-producers re-blog, re-tweet, re-post, re-distribute gifs and other units of visual information on an unprecedented and yet individualised scale. As such Sturtevant’s use of the gif injects a further loop to the mix, loop-on-loops, to create ‘dynamic repetitions, short circuits in the great historical narrative of the spectacle and its avatars’140 exposing more forcibly the invisible looping machinery of contemporary cultural exchanges where a seemingly endless accumulation of the present moment constitutes its own self-sustaining loop, feeding itself…
Stéphanie Moisdon, ‘Sturtevant: The Silent Power of Art’ p.119
Summary The gif, it seems, is a-temporal, a-historical, and beyond mortality, existing as Death ad Infinitum. Infinitely recurring as tireless movement in the digital screen, it has subversive power in its deviance from narrative, calls for an ahistorical media history, and complicates conceptions of reality.
Mulveyâ€™s moving image theory unwittingly illuminates many ideas allowing for an ontology of the gif to be explored, and goes some way towards revealing how the gif is at the core of debates surrounding the moving image. Having witnessed Lev Manovich describe the loop as
giving ‘birth not only to cinema but also to computer programming’141 and as one of the ‘most elementary’142 of operations occurring in computer functioning, it seems there is something extreme and originary in the relentless, looped movement of the gif, that prefigures and underlies much of the cultural production we see today.
As the ultimate embodiment of Nietzsche’s ‘idea of eternal recurrence, the highest formula of affirmation’143 the vignette of a gif declares an ‘aspiration to stories without end’144 and can be seen to introduce a form of eternity into dialogues of the moving image, challenging orthodoxies.
With the invocation of Sylvia Martin’s reading of Paul Pfeiffer and Michael Fried’s discussion of minimalism, it appears the gif as a unit of digital material is capable of reinstating old media codes of artistic objecthood that were thought to have been shed with the conversion of analogue data into digital code. Reading the gif through the work of Sturtevant enables an evaluation of the format’s supposed implosion of meaning, and its critical power as a medium in the hands of an artist.
Thus the gif possesses a strange ontology, existing between media, and between states; between ‘life and death, the animate and inanimate’145, the new and the old. Or, to phrase it differently, the gif exists in the middle ground between certain binary opposites, occupying more convincingly
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, p.317.
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Eternal Recurrence’, in A Nietzsche Reader, ed. and trans. by R.J Hollingdale (London: Penguin Group, 2003), p.261. 143 144 145
Mulvey, Death 24x a Second, p.81. Mulvey, Death 24x, pp.60-61
its role as a contemporary medium of expression146.
In this way the gif can be seen to mirror a ghost in a Derridean, deconstructive, hauntological sense, existing between and across the two poles that constitute a binary opposition. Writing of the ghost in Hamlet, Derrida goes some way towards articulating the uncanny experience of the gif, animated electronically on a screen
one does not know: not out of ignorance, but because this nonobject, this non-present, this being-there […] no longer belongs to knowledge […] One does not know if it is living or if it is dead. Here is- or rather there is, over there, an unnameable or almost unnameable thing: something147
The gif, as a social, technical, and aesthetic medium, feels ghostly, stranded between earlier distinct forms and formats, lost in perpetual cycles of redistributed living and lacking any substantial grounding. It also feels something of a dumb zombie, peripatetic, poor, and productively cannibalistic.
In etymology medium finds its root in the Latin ‘medius’, meaning ‘middle’ Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, p.5
List of Illustrations Figure 1: Infinite corgi (stills), gif, <http://giphy.com/gifs/TabwFck9vEt44> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 2: Beyoncé Laugh (still), gif, <http://giphy.com/gifs/ QgVdpT0URYpYA> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 3: G1ft3d, The Fifth Elephant (still), 2012, gif, <http://g1ft3d.com/ post/25679744154/the-fifth-elephant-animated-gif-2012> , [accessed 5 March 2014] Figure 4: Live Giffing The Presidential Debate: The Final Chapter (still), gif, <http://gifwich.com/post/34101411264/ live-giffing-the-presidential-debate-the-final > [accessed 8 March] Figure 5: Fireplace (still), <http://giphy.com/gifs/UUjeTtRXZggp2> [accessed 8 March] Figure 6: Lorna Mills, Untitled (car crash), gif, Born in 1987: The Animated gif, The Photographers’ Gallery, http://joyofgif.tumblr.com/tagged/gif#!/post/23159596799/ lorna-mills> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 7: Hateplow, Untitled (rotating geometric form), gif, <http://hateplow.tumblr. com/post/27652152256> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 8: Jaime Martinez, Cooming [sic] soon MIA and versus Versace, gif, <http://fuckyoudraculas.tumblr.com/post/63569294523/ cooming-soon-m-i-a-and-versus-versace> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 9: I helped to build Pike’s Peak railroad myself, Stereogram, Colorado, U.S.A. c.1894, New York Public Library <http://stereo.nypl.org/view/218> [accessed 8 March 2014]
Figure 10: Richard Balzer, Tophat lucifer, gif, <http://dickbalzer.tumblr.com/ post/46354396823> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 11: Richard Balzer, Green Monster, Phenakistoscope [sic] England, c.1833 <http://dickbalzer.tumblr.com/post/48135611604/phenakistascope-englandc-1833> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 12: Romain Laurent, Loop portrait a Week #4 Yue Wu and his CarrĂŠ HermĂ¨s, gif <http://romainlaurent.tumblr.com/page/2> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 13: Julian Opie, Shahnoza dancing in bra and pants, 2007 Computer animation, LCD screen, PC, 110 x 66 x 12 cm, Edition of 4 <http://www.julianopie. com/#/artwork/film/2007/1037> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 14: Theodoros Pelecanos, Ouroboros, 1478, drawing, late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript, < http://www.flickr.com/photos/ouroboran/2288405597/> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 15: Paul Pfeiffer, Race Riot, 2001, digital video loop, camcorder, wood, glass, linen, <http://www.thomasdanegallery.com/artists/47-Paul-Pfeiffer/works/> [accessed 8 March 2014) Figure 16: Paul Pfeiffer, Race Riot (detail), 2001, digital video loop, camcorder, wood, glass, linen, <http://www.thomasdanegallery.com/artists/47-Paul-Pfeiffer/ works/> [accessed 8 March 2014) Figure 17: New Jersey Turnpike, 1950s, New Jersey Department of Transportation, <http://places.designobserver.com/feature/tony-smith-new-jersey-turnpike/38084/> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 18: Tony Smith, Die, 1962, Steel, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, <http://whitney.org/Collection/TonySmith> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 19: Sturtevant, Dillinger Running Series, 2000, Video Installation on rotating platform, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg <http://ropac.net/exhibition/ dillinger-running-series-1> [accessed 8 March 2014] Figure 20: Sturtevant, Finite Infinite, 2010, Video Installation, Moderna Museet,
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