Animated GIFS On The Silver Screen: An Interview With Twohundredfiftysixcolors

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 16, 2012 7:30PM

2012_03_16_downcast_eyes.gif The culture of animated GIF is on the move, with thriving communities of artists working for decades in relative obscurity now earning more attention every year. Local artists like Jon Cates and events like the gli.tc/h/ convention on new media have made Chicago as interesting a perch as any from which to observe the advance of the GIF to the forefront of 21st century art.

Earlier this week we spoke with TAGTEAM about their project of bringing the GIF into the art gallery and, now, the museum. We also interviewed local artists Eric Fleischauer, Jason Lazarus and Theodore Darst about their ongoing project to produce and exhibit a 16mm film composed entirely of animated GIFs, twohundredfiftysixcolors. The three are collaborating with TAGTEAM to bring the vernacular of the message board to the MCA next week. We discussed the art world's ongoing re-contextualization of the Internet phenomenon that is the GIF.

C: What is twofiftysixcolors and how did it come to be?

Eric Fleischauer: I had been thinking about the Animated GIF in terms of its relationship to film history, and thought I was going to work on a project like that. Jason had kind of been thinking about it in other terms. We were actually just hanging out and decided to combine our interests and work on a grander project that we could not accomplish alone. That project is a film that's going to be on celluloid that is comprised exclusively of animated GIFs that we have asked people to submit or curate, and stuff that we just dredge up as we're going through daily life online, just hoarding and collecting. Then it's going to be edited into a cinematic experience.

Jason Lazarus: There are two shifts in [the film] that I think are very important. The digital to film shift, and what it is to just see one GIF after another, after another, after another. Obviously that can be done a million ways, but when you see them in volume I think a lot of the layers and possibilities of GIFs start to suss out. That in combination with the material shift, which besides all the other things it does, is a strategy to slow you down and to look at something with almost a sense of history in the present.

C: It's silent?

EF: It's silent. We're trying to keep their integrity, individually, but editing them together or juxtaposing them next to other things. We're using them as material, in a way, but at the same time just creating a barrage where you no longer have control over how long you look at one. You can't just easily pass one over. It becomes a new form of viewing.

Theodore Darst: The GIF is 100 percent attached to online culture, which is more participatory because you can click out of GIFs or switch them around. Switching the context to where the GIFs are just material animations for a longer project gives them, as art pieces on their own, a new added meaning.

C: How do you treat the variable frame rate of GIFs when transferring digital GIFs to analog film?

EF: That's something we've done a lot of testing on. The GIF frame rate is arbitrary. People just choose these random numbers when they build them, and it becomes more of a pace than a frame rate. So when we are editing them, they retain that same pace, but since it's film, it's going to be at 24 frames per second. We've done some tests but we haven't shot any film yet. It's going to be something that will transfer organically. The material transfer, as Jason has said, imbues it with this new meaning. I'm excited to see how it looks, aesthetically. The super low res, big crush-ness of these files versus the film, there's like two levels of mediation there.

JL: I think there are two things when we edit. We decide A goes well after B and all those third meanings are generated one after another. And the other is how long we linger on a GIF. Most of the GIFs don't make sense to happen just once, so there's this kind of arbitrary variable. We get to say "this GIF's really short and it's kind of potent if we let it run five times and then move on to the next one."

TD: That's what makes it really great. It's not that they dont' feel like GIFs any more, but that it re-contextualizes the way you view GIFs. Everybody who's been on Tumblr a lot, and you'll just be scrolling and scrolling through GIF after GIF after GIF and you go "Oh that's cool," and maybe you check it out. Not having that control when you're seeing a ton of GIFs makes it completely different.

C: With the GIF, there is that sort of distributed communal experience. You can send someone a GIF, and then you wait for them to look at it. Maybe they IM you back. Which is different than "We just saw several hundred GIFs. Which ones did you like?"

TD: One of the things that's really great with the film is that, in the same way that a found footage video project like Dara Birnbaum's Wonder Woman feels very much of its time, looking at all these GIFs in sequence you start to get a real feel for something. You'll see that look highbrow, art GIFs, but also lowbrow pizza GIFs that you've seen before and suddenly they're all popping up in this film. It's sort of telling a story of our experience of the Internet now.

JL: I think people's experience won't be "I liked that one a lot" or "I didn't like that one." Everyone's gonna have a meta-mindset at the end of this film. Hopefully. Your ordinary way of experiencing a GIF is maybe binary, I like it. Or I don't. I tag it, or whatever. The goal of this film in a way is that when it is ending, people have been pulled through this really intense history and mediation where everyone is having meta-questions or meta-answers about GIFs. We won't be talking about single GIFs so much as about the way this one talked to this other one, and how that was set up by the one next to it or by the one ten minutes before it. I look at our Q and As after these movies as the beginning of the next part, where we get to be in dialog with people about this project. Even for us it will just be a pleasure to see what this finally looks like and everything it can bring up.

C: You're getting submissions as well as finding GIFs yourself, and I imagine you've been collecting GIFs for some time. How do you hunt for the good GIFs? What are you looking for?

EF: After a while I was just becoming aware of this dynamic range of interesting stuff all around, just having a tumblr myself and starting to notice all of that. Even just noticing people using GIFs as an advertisement for a show flyer and I'm like "Oh, that's interesting, I'm gonna keep that." And here's this thing you don't even think about, this "loading" sign. OK, GIFs are like architecture or infrastructure, and they're just everywhere. So while we may be looking for these specific "art" GIFs, or these sort of kitschy ones, what we have dubbed "mom GIFs," our film is trying to present this thumbnail, just taking this spectrum of moving images that have been compacted into this amazing file format. If I'm hunting, I'm not really thinking about specific things, just following threads and falling into holes.

JL: All of us now, with this project hovering around us all the time, are kind of sensitive and primed, and we have our folders and our ways of knowing that something is representing an interesting part of the continuum. I think it's not a matter of hunting as just being really porous. Every time we're online we are working on the project, now instead of enjoying something or thinking it is interesting, we have a vessel, or a subfolder in a vessel to put things in. You don't need to hunt as long as you're working and active. Now you're just trying to capture these great moments you're experiencing.

TD: We maintain a tumblr for twohundredfiftysixcolors, so it's also a give and take. We post stuff to that tumblr, maybe it's a great submission that we got or something that one of us made, and people are reblogging those, and it's more give and take. Not so much an outsider looking in as much as it is being on a very horizontal level with the people who are submitting.

2012_03_16_rose_gif.gif C: You're more gatherers than hunters.

EF: Yeah.

TD: We are people who gather nuts and berries, and share them.

EF: All of a sudden in the past few years that we've been working on this there has been this emergence of sites that treat the animated GIF as kind of an art object, if you will. There's actually this gallery that these two guys opened that's based in the Netherlands, Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach. Because we're tuned into all these artist individuals, they pop up magically on your tumblr thread the way that Google and Facebook give us what we're already looking at. Then we get these prime examples of people who are really pushing the GIF. Those fall off the tree into our lap because others are working to promote this file format kind of like how we are in this other way. It becomes this community of people who are really pushing it and that's really awesome.

JL: We're some of many people who are curious and investigating what happens when you make groups of these, or think about storing them in some sort of online space. We're just exploring one way of unpacking this sort of congealing that's inevitable. What happens when you make (for lack of a better term) a movie out of this? What happens when you make a museum of these? What happens when you try to write critically about their uses in the past 24 years? On and on.

C: Right, people have been making GIFs for ever, but they're being treated as art more and more every year. In 2005 or 2006 I think Tom Moody is trying to show GIFs in galleries, there's the Paddy Johnson show a couple of years ago, there was the Armory Show last year. Where are we now? Is it on its own now as an artistic medium?

JL: Maybe a good answer is to point out what you just said. There's more self-reflexivity than ever. People are creating with more contextual awareness than maybe they ever have and the medium has been not only created and communicated and gone into fragmented communities, and people are aware of the other one and a sort of meta-awareness is more there than its ever been. So for lack of a better way to start to answer this question, I think what's interesting now is that more than ever people see themselves in context than they ever have.

Also with the Armory last year that the GIF has officially entered, whether everyone's on board or not, a "fine arts" #1 gesture, #2 commodity, and for us what made the film seem even more relevant is that once GIFs became salable objects, then they've run the gamut, and this is a good time to sort of get dirty, find meaning that we have many hunches that there's a lot of stuff there.

TD: I think there are multiple threads. As a file format, which is really all it is, it's used for a million different things, like email signatures for bankers. The rise of the GIF also has to do with the increased attention to new media stuff. I feel as important as the Tom Moody or Paddy Johnson stuff. The way I look at it, it's not all that different from video making. The way a lot of fine art GIFs are made, they're really just videos that are put into this format. What's cool about the GIF is that, since it's such a basic file format, such a small file size way to put things up online that it doesn't even matter at this point. Whatever attention it gets now has more to do with the artist than with the file format. The same way that nobody's concerned with the state of HTML, is almost how I feel.

EF: I agree, but I'll go on record with a bold prediction. The New York Times is the paper of record, and it's going to use it as a touchstone for things. But I think in like three years maybe, the front page image on nytimes.com will be an animated GIF. Or some other moving picture thing. It was a big deal when the New York Times printed color photographs on the front page of the print edition, and people were like "Oh my god, the New York Times is printing color photos!" I feel maybe three years you might see that front page be like a cinemagraph or something. To me that's just screen culture. Why have static images when you can have moving images?

JL: You know what an interesting foil for that is? Why did Flash become hot, and then the movement elements of websites started slowing. And the elegant way to do websites is just to click through and not scroll. Moving stuff was really big for a while. I think about post your prediction, like how Flash became less in vogue for making websites.

TD: On a tech level. The flash had to load and that was external software that you had to have. The GIF has always been native to HTML. That's why it's so durable. Unless they restructure the entire way that browsers work GIFs are going to be compatible. They're compatible even with crappy cell phones, anything that can go online can pretty much play a GIF.

EF: In the molecular makeup of the Internet, it's almost like an atom. I do see it becoming woven into a lot of things. I'm seeing animations that are embedded into HTML a lot these days and I wonder what's going on here, is it that people don't want their videos grabbed or is it just a new experiment with embedding images in the browser window?

C: How does the film project and the Downcast Eyes show come together?

EF: We've been working on our project since April of last year, so almost a year. We were invited by Amy Corle to do something in terms of the Animated GIF in this Internet Superheroes program. We were then thinking, what should we do? What would represent the film without showing the film, because that won't be finished and we didn't want to show excerpts. We just decided that the TWEEN show, that Jake and Chris put together was a great curatorial move, conceptually. It presented a lot of the ideas that are embedded in the GIF. Instead of trying to re-invent a mode of presentation, we should ask Jake and Chris if they would want to present their TWEEN architecture, and that's where we came to the Downcast Eyes idea. We met with them and they were excited about it.

I feel like that show that they did could end up being one of these model curatorial things, like BYOB or Speed Show, where it's an artist is like "here is this kind of thing and everyone's doing it, we just want to advance it. The Speed Show is great, just rent out an Internet cafe and show work that exists primarily online, is accessible via the internet. If you write Aram Barthol and say "I want to do a Speed Show here in Chicago," he'll say "Okay, here are the things that you need to do it." John Cates did one down the street at CopyMax. So I think it's the same idea. Great model, just move it over here and maybe someone will hear about it [at the MCA] and be like Oh, I could do this in that city or on that continent, because it's such a poetic gesture in terms of organizing an exhibition of animated GIFs.

TD: It's also super horizontal, which is reflective of a lot of GIF culture. Especially with tumblr, GIFs get posted and eventually you lose the source. It just becomes the Internet's property. By having this mass of computers without name tags underneath, it's reflective of that.

EF: The animated GIF is like this digital tabula rasa and you can put anything in there. You can take found footage and put it in there, you can totally use Maya-3D and put in there. And here we have the same sort of thing, just show up with a laptop and show whatever you want. I hope people are showing up with phones. Everyone's on the same page, there's no hierarchy. Just lay it out and it becomes this grand accumulation in real life of things that are still in their screen format, unlike the film which is removed.

2012_03_16_twofiftysixcolors.gif JL: One of the interesting things about this project, besides the celluloid part, sometimes GIF culture is sort of insular. At this point, the more avant-garde strategy for dealing with it is to conflate the high and the low, that's where the most interesting content for me is right now. Whereas there was a simultaneous-ness that was so pleasurable with TWEEN, just to be able to cruise a field of GIFs that were happening, and that's curated. Whereas the movie was an open call to the public, it was sent out virally where we had no control where it would end, and the Animated GIF night at the MCA is curated in how many people we can get in touch with but one of the great moments of it is that it's not curated in an overt way.

TD: Last night some kid introduced himself to me. Like 18. And he's coming with his laptop, which is great, because that's so reflective of the culture online. Especially in an institutional space like the MCA, that's perfect.

EF: We were all kind of excited to open it up to a public call. While we did curate and select a core group of people to be in Downcast Eyes, and the same thing with the film where we just directed invitations, but then please spread this to the people that you know, who are your peers doing stuff that we don't know about. People want to have opportunities to share with others.

C: There are so many GIF communities, you'll stumble into something online and there will be all these GIFs of some TV show you've never even heard of, and you're like "I have no idea what's going on here, yet it's amazing." Or there are sports GIFs, or tragically watermarked GIFs that I've seen a million times. It doesn't matter, it all gets mixed up on the page and then in my brain.

EF: What happens is you open this box, and people come in with stuff you've never seen and you get to actually, maybe, engage. And it becomes this community of people working in a similar way that actually gets to meet in a physical way. Maybe people know each other's work and they're going to meet for the first time. That's a romantic vision of it, but maybe it will happen.

JL: I hope it's just a big romantic comedy.

TD: "You've Got Mail." Another thing is that, despite the slight commodification of the Armory show or showing a GIF here and there for a show, GIF creation has to be one of the few mediums left where there aren't a lot of career minded GIF makers out there. Even people who have flourishing studio art practices, when they're making GIFs and posting them, people like Ryder Ripps or the high end of GIF culture--he's still not making money off of GIFs. So people are more open to share, rather than doing a show of photographers. You get this nice, open thing, sort of untainted by the art world a bit.

JL: It's sort of more an art for art's sake thing.

TD: Most people want to have their thing spread. That's the highest goal.

JL: Think about if normal art were that way, if it was like everything the market wasn't. You just want to have your ideas in people's homes or communities or wherever they spend time.

TD: To know that it's being seen is enough with GIFs.

C: People can show up day of with their laptop?

JL: They should show up with their charged laptop, because we won't have power. An easy way of saying it is they should just curate their screen with GIFs. You can do one or many. They can be original or found. There's a lot of flexibility. Think of themselves as curators of their own laptop space, and then embed that in a way that they find interesting in a public installation, and it will be enough just long enough for everyone to see.

There's a kind of synergy that happens with the movie and the event kind of gets at the same things. What happens when you take a big armful of people and ideas in the same format and put them together, what are all the things that we can see now that we might not see as easily. They're essentially the same goals but different techniques, this one specific to the museum. We want to get people to come but also to get their posses to come. The shame of the show would be if it were under-attended as opposed to over-attended. The format is so public and democratic anyways, I think it's all about making it this huge amalgam.

EF: We want to encourage anyone who wants to participate to come out and, as Jason said, curate your screen. Or if that sounds like bizarre terminology, just show up and share. Your own or others. It's about the love. Everyone visually sharing, not just copy/paste sharing.

Downcast Eyes takes place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 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 p.m. but anyone wanting to take part should show up by 6 p.m. More information can be found on the MCA's website.