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Animated GIFs Invade The MCA: An Interview With TAGTEAM

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 14, 2012 9:00PM

2012_03_14_downcast_eyes.gif We're sure you've noticed the Animated GIF has come into its own. Long taken-for-granted as a flashy component of Internet infrastructure in its Web 1.0 incarnation, the format outgrew its roots as "under construction" graphics and spinning logos, then endured a very awkward teen phase by blinging out so many MySpace pages that it was banished from the Kingdom of Facebook.

Nowadays, even PBS is talking about them. They are employed in the service of fashion world banality, used to help tell stories, counted on to recover the past, and put to no shortage of other ends. GIFs can tell a joke, communicate a political message, or remix an old favorite. From 4chan to Tumblr to discussion forums everywhere, it's a GIF-wrapped world we surf.

All along there have been enthusiasts of the now decades-old file format. Net artists and message board artisans exploit their tiny file size and universal display among all graphical web browsers, ensuring the longevity of the GIF as a form of expression unique to the Internet age.

Last year, artists Christopher Smith and Jake Myers brought the GIF into the art gallery with a show called TWEEN, [Full Disclosure: This writer participated in this show.] where GIFs were projected and an array of laptops displayed found and originally-created GIFs for as long as their batteries lasted. This month, Myers and Smith (who operate under the name TAGTEAM) are joining forces with another local group of GIF-obsessed artists, twohundredfiftysixcolors to bring GIFs out of their Tumblr ghettos and into the museum with an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art called Downcast Eyes. In our first of two interviews with these animated GIF enthusiasts, we spoke to TAGTEAM about the upcoming March 20 show.

Chicagoist: What made you guys decide to showcase animated GIFs in an artistic context, first in a gallery and now at the MCA?

Christopher Smith: I approached Jake early last year about a show of animated GIFs at his space the Octagon. I had a set idea on how I wanted to present animated GIFs in a gallery context and I was really excited to get that idea out and see how it would resonate with people.

The rules were to have people show up with their respected laptops and play some GIFs of their choosing or creation until their batteries died. The goal was to point to the frame for production and reception of the GIF file format, that being the computer, as well as to create a kind of clandestine computer lab feel. Also, it was nice to see a digital medium take on a kind of physicality which shows my inclination as an artist who works a lot with sculpture/installation. I do view TWEEN and what will happen at Downcast eyes as a sculptural installation to a degree. It is this model that will be used at Downcast Eyes.

Jake Myers: Chris approached me with the idea of a show of GIFs and the laptop computer lab/weird basement. Because the medium was so portable, I insisted on including artists from around the world who could not bring a laptop but rather simply email a GIF they created. Some of these included papperrad (Pittsburg), hooliganship (L.A.), Mark Sansone (Okinawa, Japan) and a few more that emailed me. Similar to the project that 256 colors are doing, I wanted to see the animated GIF on a scale that you could not experience at home on a computer so I converted them to looping movie files and projected them at a cinematic scale. The combination of this epic proportion and the volume of GIFs in the computer cove was a strong visual and almost physical experience.

CS: I became interested in the GIF because of its many layers of trashiness. In my art practice I am interested in all varieties of garbage and having grown up with the advent of the internet I was excited to rediscover GIFs as a kind of exalted garbage always nearing the verge of obsolescence. Also, the show was a way to try to get a grasp on where people were taking the GIF. I am attracted to how GIFs are in an in-between state on a number of levels. That's one reason why we titled the show TWEEN. Also, the people invested in GIFs might not be artists, so the invite was to anyone that wanted to participate.

2012_03_14_gif.gif C: Animated GIFs are silent, and restricted in length and resolution. Given that online video is now widespread and bandwidth more plentiful, why does a format with so many limitations continue to thrive? Will that continue?

CS: I don't know. I was just talking to someone today about how some of us think in GIFs now. One example being when you see a movie and a tiny moment in it will force you to think "That would make a great GIF!" I think that the GIF sets up a certain set of parameters that offer so many possible creative solutions which appeals to many types of people. Its limits are its strengths.

JM: I think that GIFs will continue to be used because we love motion, it mimics how we perceive reality. Repetition and accessibility also tend to support the longevity of the GIF. If HTML 5 or 6 become super easy to program, then I could see a drift from GIFs but who knows.

C: These days you have widespread and easy-to-use tools for turning video into animated GIFs. Are we headed definitively towards a more sampled or appropriated based GIF aesthetic?

CS: Appropriation is the most accessible way of creating a GIF because you have the smorgasbord of the internet right there to choose from. I have a soft spot for the completely authored GIFs out there but ultimately it is the end result that matters. I would also say that if you are treating the GIF as a means of producing a totally authored animation then chances are you describe yourself as an artist who works with the GIF file as a medium. Which is different from the person who makes a GIF to make a GIF, as compared to making a GIF that the maker knows will later be viewed as an artwork.

C:Are there certain GIF makers whose style you can identify? Or certain schools or genres of GIF culture that you find particularly interesting?

CS: Part of what initially got my attention comes from being a fan of schlock horror movies. I was excited to find that a legion of like minded fans would turn their favorite micro moments into GIFs. I think fandom is a driving force behind a lot of GIF making and I find that pretty interesting. But ultimately I feel like I am still sorting through all the stuff out there. The GIF market is more than flooded. I feel like it is hard to have a stable footing out there.

I am excited to see where GIFs will be at in a couple of years. Hopefully some the genres of GIFs by then will have really crystallized. I say this because with the GIF, more than, say, a photo or video/film, your awareness of the affect of the images is heightened. That affect is subsequently altered with each repetition of the spasmic loop of the GIF in a way that is really hard to realize with photo or video/film. GIF makers that are aware of this and can use it to their advantage are going to be the ones who really shine. However, defining your standards for success, as it relates to the GIF is another story.

JM: I love how certain GIFs shrink time in a really interesting way. I had a student make a GIF that was a pregnancy condensed into a 2-second looping image. She took something so involved and important and encapsulated it into a 300kb file.

C: A lot of the people I know who make animated GIFs also seem to hoard them, be it on their hard drive or on Tumblr or elsewhere. How do those acts of collection or curating on the web relate to what happens at TWEEN or Downcast Eyes?

JM: The most specific curation that I did in TWEEN was the decisions in the cinematic TWEEN-SCREEN [a projected loop of several animated GIFs]. Chris and I had to collectively decide how many times to loop it. We also had to decide the order of the GIFs.

CS: Those are the people that Downcast Eyes needs to participate! If you fit that description and are reading this then bring your laptop to the MCA on March 20th at 6pm! Charge your battery! TWEEN was set up to allow for that kind of practice. Internet archeologists and cat lovers alike! The laptop screen then becomes a space to show off your collection, your creation, or both.

Downcast Eyes takes place at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago, on Tues., March 20, as part of the MCA's Internet Superheroes series. The public is encouraged to participate. TAGTEAM and twohundredfiftysixcolors will give brief presentations at 6:30 but participants should show up by 6 p.m. More information can be found on the MCA's website.