The Affect of Animated GIFs (Tom Moody, Petra Cortright, Lorna Mills)
[Images by the artists mentioned can be found here:
Since the early 1990s, artists have chosen the internet as a medium, an environment and a forum. While some internet artists also maintain a gallery practice, the conditions and conventions that inform meaning in online art remain in many ways distinct from those of the off-line artworld. Internet art — inherently ephemeral and infinitely reproducible — eludes commodification and largely operates independently of the art market. In the online environment where acts of creative self-expression are the norm, the boundaries between artists and not-artists that confer status and hierarchy in the gallery and museum system are largely immaterial. Even among niche groups of online practitioners who self-identify as artists, the culture of internet art regards the agency of the viewer on a par with that of the artist. In most cases, viewers are also producers. Many online artists, such as myself, operate through the medium of the blog format, which allows for a hybrid practice blending art production with art criticism, cross-promotion and dialogue.
Most criticism about internet art takes place online in comment threads on individual blogs or on institutionally supported websites such as Rhizome.org that provide discussion forums. The discourse tends to revolve around debates (often heated) about the appropriate use of various technologies in relation to both formal concerns and political issues inherent to open source ideology. There has been very little critical discussion about the affective qualities of various digital media.
What do I mean by affective qualities? Most theorists who deploy the concept of affect draw from Brian Massumi’s definition of affect as a physiological state of intensity. Following from Massumi, affects are understood to be fluctuations of the body’s autonomic response system — precognitive, asignifying and distinct from the qualifying, meaningful stages of emotional response. As a quantifiable function of physiology, then, the concept of affect has a potentially essentializing and universalising role in its application to cultural critique. But at the same time, affect retains a dimension of contingency, because the term is derived from theories of consciousness that refuse the Cartesian dualism of the mind/body split. Massumi explains,
- [V]olition, cognition, and presumably other ‘higher’ functions usually presumed to be in the mind, figured as a mysterious container of mental entities that is somehow separate from body and brain, are present and active in that now not-so- ‘raw’ domain. Resonation assumes feedback. […] The body doesn’t just absorb pulses or discrete stimulations; it infolds contexts, it infolds volitions and cognitions that are nothing if not situated. Intensity is asocial but not presocial…
Affect is of the body, but the body is conjoined with mind, and the entire organism is understood to be entangled with its cultural contexts. So, while any specific affective response is particular to the moment and the person who is having the experience, affect can also be theorized at the level of the collective if it is taken into account that cultural conditions have a normative function that may exclude certain modes of response from collective models. Affect is particularly applicable to the online art environment, where relationships between body and mind are fraught, and where dynamics between individuals and collectives are both immersive and politicized.
How do the affects of software technologies inflect interactive online art experience? In this paper, I will specifically examine the affects of the animated GIF (short for Graphic Interchange Format), a ubiquitous graphic file format used by artists and non-artists alike. If any website contains an animated element that is self-contained, chances are high that it is a GIF. GIFs are small, simple files, easy to create and quick to download, making them widely accessible to a range of browsers and system speeds. I propose, however, that it is the affective qualities particular to animated GIFs that make them truly popular.
Massumi describes affective intensity as a temporal sink, a moment of incipience before action is taken. In GIFs, such moments are looped, extended and repeated between every frame. For Amy Herzog, the suspended moment of affect is potentially political, allowing for intuitions to emerge that cut across the grain of cultural norms. Do animated GIFs facilitate such agency? In order to address this question, I will discuss the affective qualities of three GIFs by internet artists Tom Moody, Petra Cortright and Lorna Mills. I will briefly delineate the cultural context surrounding GIFs and I will then analyse the three artists’ GIFs according to Richard Dyer’s theory of non-representational codes, Margaret Morse’ poetics of video installation, Brian Massumi’s notion of affective intensity as a temporal sink, concerns about affect and agency raised by Susan Buck-Morss and Sianne Ngai, concerns raised by Elizabeth Wissinger about affect in an “attention economy,” and concerns raised by Michelle Henning about the reification and standardization of persons in a technologized society.
The GIF is an image format designed by Compuserve and released in 1987. Controversy over GIFs arose in 1994, when Unisys, the patent-holder, unsuccessfully attempted to regulate their use. Because GIFs have been around so long, their contemporary use has a “retro” feel, as opposed to more glamorous programs such as Flash. In addition, the GIF controversy has meant that their use is also somewhat political and can indicate a commitment to the long-standing open source, anti-copyright activism of online producers. Artist Tom Moody explains,
- Animated GIFs have evolved into a kind of ubiquitous ‘mini-cinema,’ entirely native to the personal computer and the World Wide Web. Almost anyone can make one and almost every browser will read them. In other words, no YouTube compression, no wait time, no subscriptions or proprietary formats to view, and they can be made in the most elementary and cheap imaging programs. They are the purest expression of the democratic web and along with JPEGs and PNGs comprise its most authentic visual language.
Both somewhat retro and somewhat activist, the animated GIF is appealing to many internet artists because it signifies an anti-corporate agenda as well as a kind of “truth to materials” commitment to technologies that are elegantly designed for democratic online use.
Since the early days of internet art, online artists have participated in challenging the museum and gallery hierarchies of off-line art systems. The vast majority of GIFs (as well as YouTube videos, Flash animations, RealAudio sound files and a host of other cultural digital formats) are used by creative producers who do not self-identify as artists. Animated GIFs are created, collected and displayed by everyone from Christian website designers, to antique technology buffs, to culture bloggers. For online artists, then, the use of the animated GIF also demonstrates a willingness to plunge into the vernacular of online production, blurring boundaries between art and non-art categories. Most analyses of animated GIFs discuss their signifying functions according to their specific contents and/or their historic, socio-political role in the culture of online production, but as noted above, their affective qualities are rarely, if ever, addressed.
The affective qualities of artists’ animated GIFs emerge in part from the context of their production. GIFs are designed to be viewed at home, in private, by people who are sitting at their computers. Yet at the same time these people are immersed in the hybrid, public/private environment of a personal computer connected to the collective public commons of the internet. The viewing distance — the space between the face and the monitor — is very tight. GIFS are simultaneously “in your face” and in your mind, their affects continuous with the immersive experience of daily internet use. However, just at Richard Dyer describes the songs in Hollywood musicals as “self-enclosed patterns” set apart from the narrative structure, animated GIFs — like casual online puzzle games with their addictive audio and visual rewards — provide brief moments of aesthetic affect, diversions that are set apart from the running narrative of the work day.
Each of the artists that I will be discussing, Tom Moody (New York), Petra Cortright (Berlin) and Lorna Mills (Toronto), has a gallery practice as well as an online practice. Each uses the GIF specifically but not exclusively. Moody and Mills both have blogs on which they post writing about, and examples of, art by others alongside their own creations. All three post collections of GIFs by others, sometimes remixed and manipulated. They are all active participants in the online culture of exchange, and they are to some extent in dialogue with one another.
Tom Moody’s GIF OptiDisc is a mesmerizing series of concentric circles — red, blue and black — that seem to emanate and recede from a central point in a short, looping animation. It is slightly hypnotic, inducing a near trance-like state almost immediately upon viewing. Richard Dyer’s model of affective non-representational codes in Hollywood musicals — colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, camerawork — can be applied to OptiDisc with some variations. The piece makes use of colour, movement, and rhythm, as well as a new category specific to GIFs — smooth versus jerky motion. There is no sound, and more importantly, there is no camerawork. While the motion takes place along the depth axis, and seems to envelop the viewer, there is no sense of a representational point of view. Furthermore, because the technological interface of the GIF is seamless with the internet experience — clicking and browsing web pages — the affective codes are felt immediately as part of the viewer’s environment without the distancing mediation of screened film or video.
Dyer describes the way that affective codes work “at the level of sensibility,” by which he means, “an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production.” Non-representational codes, for Dyer, do have iconic resemblance, but it operates at the level of “basic structuration.” The patterns of the artwork are analogous to the physiological patterns of sentience in the viewer. Engaging the viewer’s perceptual system directly — within the codes and conventions of online production — OptiDisc is very present, functioning more like a felt sensation than a merely visual observation. In this way OptiDisc operates in the “here and now” as Margaret Morse might say, but without the institutional structuring of the art museum to enframe and stage the experience.
In her essay on video art installation, Morse identified a limitation to the affective potential of the medium; video must take place in time. The “temporal unfolding” of installation video is usually cyclical, looping so that visitors may enter at any point in the cycle and exit at will. Morse explains that “this unfolding is incompatible with taking in visual objects all at once… .” She wonders what would happen to the “notion of experience in transcendence” if “one were to reduce temporal unfolding to the barest minimum”?OptiDisc provides an opportunity to address the question.
The loop in OptiDisc is very short, and the entire sequence can be grasped in a matter of seconds. The cyclical repetition is itself integral to the perception of the work, and the viewer’s hypnotic engagement is reinforced as the animation repeats again and again and again, creating an immersive, numbing effect. In contrast to video installation, the experience of the animated GIF is both personal and disposable. Very little investment is required to approach the work — there is no travel time to a gallery nor any admission fee — and leaving is a simple matter of clicking the mouse. It is entirely up to the viewer to determine how much time to spend with the piece, and it is the value of the affective experience alone — the neurological rewards of watching the animation — that make up the criteria for lingering or leaving.
The intensity of affect in most animated GIFs — and OptiDisc is a prime example — is partly due to their jerkiness. The goal of most cinematic animation is to render motion as smoothly as possible. The goal of the animated GIF, on the other hand, is to employ as few frames as possible, in order to keep the file size small and the download times speedy. As a result, there are noticeably larger-than-usual gaps in the illusion of motion. Margaret Morse describes a similar phenomenon in her essay when she discusses Beryl Korot’s Dachau. There is a rhythmic pattern to the multiple-monitor video projections, but it is a little off kilter.
- I have come to think of this possibility for repetition, contrast and migration of images across a shape as a poetic dimension of video installation: that is, it is a practice that deemphasizes the content of images in favour of such properties as line, colour, and vectors of motion, with content of their own to convey. The choreography of these properties is another kinaesthetic dimension of transfor-mation.
- The transformation from monitor to monitor, from two to three dimensions and back again, is most visible when these ontological levels do not match and the conceptual is transformed in its passage through various material manifestations.
Morse identifies that the affective physiological dimensions of rhythm and pattern are most apparent when they don’t exactly match up. OptiDisc has only nine distinct frames that repeat backwards, for a total of 18 frames per loop. It only has four colours, including white. The artist has carefully timed distinct passages of motion between the various coloured rings so that they do not travel at exactly the same rate. The jerky gaps between frames further grab the viewer’s attention. The moments of suspension are very short, but they are much longer than those of most animated sequences. When watching this jerky motion, the viewer’s brain becomes actively engaged in the perceptual process, working to fill in the gaps in the action, creating a sense of motion that is never quite seamless, and thus never quite complete as an illusion.
Brian Massumi describes affective intensity as a “state of suspense, potentially of disruption. It is like a temporal sink, a hole in time… .” This is a moment of incipience, before action is taken, before emotions qualify and retroactively determine the affect. In animated GIFs, the gaps in action between frames extend the affective suspense. They are small enough to suggest motion, but large enough to create a perceptible gap, which means there is plenty of time for the affect to take hold. As Mieke Bal might describe it, the animated GIFs function like cinematic close-ups — “abstractions isolating the object from the time-space coordinates in which we were moving as if ‘naturally.’ A close-up immediately cancels out the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.”  Unlike close-ups in cinema, however, animated GIFs function without a “whole” — there is no ongoing narrative for them to be juxtaposed against. If, as in OptiDisc, the affect is strong and virtually uninflected by signification it can induce a light trance, taking over the perceptual system by temporarily shutting down emotion and cognition.
This kind of cognitive stupor can be pleasurable, but it does raise some concerns. Amy Herzog talks about the political potential of the affective pause in feminist film as a moment of becoming. But what if the becoming never comes? What if the affective intensity remains arrested, and is never collapsed into action or emotions? Granted, many animated GIFs carry more signification than OptiDisc and even in this piece there are references — such as an allusion to Jasper Johns’ target paintings — that may eventually emerge and break the spell. But the endlessly looping structure does enhance a kind of “anaesthetic” state, as Susan Buck-Morss might describe it. “The problem,” Buck-Morss suggests, “is that under conditions of modern shock — the daily shocks of the modern world — response to stimuli without thinking has become necessary for survival.” In a culture that depends on citizens’ passivity — and the contemporary context of late capitalism would certainly apply — aesthetic products and media may be designed as phantasmagorias, which, as Buck-Morss explains, have the “effect of anaesthetizing the organism, not through numbing, but through flooding the senses.” The zoned-out state of mind induced and extended by digital media such as OptiDisc may be an affect that mitigates against the agency of enhanced perceptual engagement.
The suspended affect of animated GIFs is also reminiscent of Sianne Ngai’s concept of a “noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release.” Indeed, Ngai is specifically interested in animation as a racialized “translation, into affect, of a state of being puppeteered” resulting in a “predicament of suspended agency.” In applying Ngai’s concept of “stuplimity” and Buck-Morss’ “anaesthetic” to the affect of animated GIFs, however, it is important to remember that the internet is not a broadcast medium. Particularly within the context of online art practice, almost all viewers are in some way also producers, and animated GIFs operate in a culture of exchange. While distinctions between cognition and affect may be enhanced and emphasized, agency is always implied. I believe that it is the mounting impulse to participate: to re-create, remix or otherwise respond to the GIF under observation, that eventually breaks the spell of affect and leads the viewer into action. OptiDisc, for example, has been appropriated and reposted, often without credit, by scores of other internet users. For Moody, this viral appropriation — the exercise of agency by others on his work — is a token of success, and he has even mounted a gallery exhibition of prints from 60 screen shots of OptiDisc as it has appeared on other websites besides his own.
In contrast to Moody’s 18-frame, 4-colour OptiDisc, Petra Cortright’s untitled (hands1.gif) GIF has 61 frames and 124 colours which means it is a larger file, longer to load, possibly requiring a faster system, and is thus intended for a slightly more specialized audience. It is comprised of screenshots taken while someone, possibly the artist herself, is using a 3-D modelling program to animate a human hand. The hand is being rendered as a wireframe, with intricate patterns, codes and surfaces. Cortright’s GIF includes haphazard glimpses of tool bars and cursors as well as intentional glitches in which the 3-D coordinates are suddenly set way out of whack causing the hand graphic to mutate into wildly unrecognizable shapes. There is a multi-layered reference to puppeteering here. The piece depicts a puppeteer at work creating a high-tech, 3-D model. At the same time, the puppeteer is herself a puppet, her high tech efforts animated in a very funny selection of comparatively low-tech frames, showing mistakes and gaffes and flying in the face of the mainstream animation conventions.
One of the affects of Cortright’s GIF is humour. When looking at 3D graphics we expect to see smooth forms spinning around seamlessly in space. Instead, here we see excess, the carefully rendered form of the hand breaking out into all kinds of disturbing and surprising shapes. The images on the screen grabs that make up the GIF look very sophisticated, but the software used to create the GIF is not. Most computers come with the capacity to take a screen shot, and GIF building can be done in a matter of minutes with a variety of easily downloadable, open source, freeware or shareware programs. The piece is using an accessible, relatively transparent technology to poke fun at the pretensions of high-tech illusion.
In order for viewers to get the jokes, Cortright’s hand GIF requires more insider knowledge than Moody’s OptiDisc, and it has a higher level of signification, passing ironic comment on graphic conventions. These meta-levels of content— along with the large file size — make Cortright’s hand less desirable for appropriation and re-use than Moody’s OptiDisc, and it has not “gone viral” in the same way. But this GIF did attract attention — from Moody and Mills among others — and helped launch Cortright’s reputation as a serious and notable online artist. The meaning of the work, and to some extent its affective impact, depends on viewers who themselves make GIFs, or at least understand the process with enough agency to see how the artist is both invoking and confounding her own agency. In this work, the collective dimension to the practice of sharing animated GIFs is an inherent aspect of its full affective resonance.
While animated art GIFs may induce a kind of stupor, they also address viewers as participants engaged a collective discourse. For those viewers who are also producers, the agency of making GIFs is entangled with the sensation of watching (and collecting) them. To my mind, the agency implied in this collective experience of making and re-mixing GIFs goes a significant way towards assuaging worries about the potentially disempowering aspects of their anaesthetic qualities.
However, while the blossoming of collective artistic agency in animated GIF production is exciting and positive, serious concerns remain about the technologized environment in which this activity takes place. In her essay on affects in the fashion modelling industry, Elizabeth Wissinger shares concerns with Patricia Clough about the commodification of affect in an “‘attention economy,’ in which an infinite expansion of images is met with a finite capacity for human attention.” In the affective labour of modelling competition between images means that the works which are the most attention grabbing become the most valued. The same applies to a great deal of online GIF production. Many animated GIFs exploit the affective intensities of sex, violence, animal cuteness and excessive “bling” to attract attention and generate a kind of currency in a specialized zone of immaterial affective labour, where images are commodified, collected and even fetishized, but the content providers are rarely, if ever, getting paid.
Lorna Mills is an artist who revels in the irreverent excesses of GIF culture, collecting and manipulating found GIFs from the most offensive and profane to the most abject and mundane. In her original GIF work, however, she creates contemplative animations that, unlike most other art GIFs, can be emotionally affecting. While Mills is deeply involved in the collective exchange and manipulation of found imagery, she will also often use her own video footage. She breaks the video down into a series of stills, reverse-engineering high-tech smooth motion in favour of the jerky motion inherent to GIF technology. Mills heavily manipulates the images, stretching the frame, pixelating the resolution, fragmenting and isolating specific movements and gestures.
In Conrad Rodney—a GIF compilation of her uncle playing cards—Mills has added a new temporal element by making the piece extend beyond the boundaries of the monitor screen. Unlike the near instantaneous perception of Moody’s OptiDisc, viewers of this piece must scroll up and down in order to see it in its entirety. Because Mills stacks a series of GIFs together in a block, the specifics of each sequence are hard to follow. An elderly man is playing cards, his movements and facial expressions becoming more than a set of actions and images, combining into an affective miasma of gesture and mood. The result is an evocative portrait that feels more like being with the person at close range than observing him from a distance. He plays confidently without hesitation. His face is alert and slightly self-mocking. He seems like fun to be around. And yet at the same time it is hard to get a fix on him. If they were broken out into individual segments, unstretched, unmagnified and separated from one another, each GIF element would be more like video — easier to grasp perceptually, and easier to dismiss as mere documentation. The final series, however, evokes a poignant, melancholy tension between presence and loss. Like all GIFs, the jerky gaps in the movement add to the intensity of the perceptual engagement, but here they also signify as missing elements, small gestural moments that might have told us more about the man they would have depicted, were they included in the flow. And, yet, if the sequences of motion were represented in their entirety, the precious, fleeting nature of each moment would be less apparent.
As in any artistic subculture, there are those who produce spectacles that demand attention, and those who quietly go about their work hoping for a reflective viewer who will take some time to engage. And there are some, like Mills, who apply both strategies and use them at different times. Common to all animated GIF artists is a dissolution of the status of individual authorship, and the sense of participating in a collectively generated exploration of affect.
Michelle Henning reminds us, however that interactivity has its darker side. She cites Lev Manovich’s concern that computer technology plays into a “modern desire to externalize the mind.”
- Computer interactivity maps our own thought processes onto those already written into the software. It models certain ways of thinking, or certain ways of understanding our own cognitive practices: to click is to make a choice, to follow a link, to associate one event of piece of information with another. This process of the “externalization” of the mind closes the gap between subjective mental processes and objective, machinic processes. In this sense, like Taylorism, it hooks people and bodies up to machines, making people “thinglike.” This argument would suggest that interactivity, which seemed initially to promise agency over “numbed passivity,” actually does the opposite, increasing alienation.
Henning’s concern that computer activity standardizes and reifies human activity has implications for the collective activity of online GIF art. While the affective resonance of GIFs is dependent on the agency of viewers/producers, the meanings of GIFs are always informed by the technologized environment in which they function. A GIF is, at bottom, a piece of software, created by other software that has built-in limits. Although there are many different kinds of GIF builders available, they all conform to the same set of requirements which in turn conform to the technical requirements of browsers and servers. Online artists are always challenging those limits, both technically and conceptually, yet the facilities that we develop with technological tools cannot help but shape our own cognitive processes.
I agree with Henning that the more time we internet users spend interacting with our machines, the more we are prone to conceive of ourselves as “thinglike.” But I know I am not alone as a worker who spends eight to ten hours on my computer every day. In such a pervasive technological environment, I am grateful for online artists who challenge norms and standards and remind us, through their affective interventions, that we machine-bound bodies will always be feeling creatures. Animated GIFs, with their intense affective powers, are excellent vehicles for inflecting digital media with the unique and whimsical influence of individual human minds, mitigating the potential for homogenisation brought about by the use of standardized technologies in collective cultural production. •
The author wishes to acknowledge Jennifer Fisher for her generous support and guidance and for her insights into the theory of affect.