Yesterday's Medium, Today's Message

Suzanne Scala
March 14, 2013
Gael Garcia Bernal in Pablo Larraín's movie, "No".

For years relegated to the digital broom closet, a reminder of the Internet’s tacky origins, GIFs have made a comeback in a number of milieu. Today, professionals and amateurs alike are creating GIFs that run the gamut from seriously silly to Very Serious. These images, both newly trendy and relics of a bygone era, are part of a movement to express nostalgia through a medium rather than a message, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s terms.

The GIF (Graphical Interchange Format) was originally created by Compuserve in the late 80’s as a way to get around the snail-slowness of modems. The GIF images load in pieces so at least some of the image would appear when the user loaded the page. According to Daniel Rourke, a Ph.D. Researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, hackers soon discovered that because the image arrives piecemeal, they could create simple animations by embedding more than one image in the file. Thus the animated GIF, bane of 90s-era web sites, was born. Rourke offers a GIF taxonomy, including "The Classic," "The Screen Grab" and "The Art GIF."

The current GIF renaissance is inspiring not just widespread wackiness from the man on the (virtual) street, but also museum shows and careful, critical theory-flecked analysis of the phenomenon. The Museum of the Moving Image, in Queens, recently hosted an installation called “Under Construction,” showcasing a vast trove of GIFs from the now defunct Geocities site, only one of several of their exhibits devoted to GIFs. Giampaulo Bianconi, a contributor to the website Rhizome, employs thinkers like Walter Benjamin to ponder the larger theoretical importance of the GIF. For Bianconi, the fact that a GIF ceaselessly loops is an optimistic response to the despair of Benjamin's angel of history. Instead of only looking at the wreckage of the past as he is blown towards the future, today's angel of history can contemplate a loop in which the past is always about to become the present again.

Something seems strange about devoting museum walls and intellect to the GIF phenomenon. Those creating the museum shows and theoretical disquisitions are also aware of the irony: GIFs are inherently tacky. Even lovely art GIFs, like Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg’s work, are tiny repeating animations that demand the viewer’s attention the way that flashing neon signs do. GIFs are persistent, overbearing, pushy.

Among all of the discussion of GIFs, I haven’t yet encountered conversation about what seems to me another basic quality of GIFs: they’re creepy. Freud did some thinking about creepiness in his essay “The Uncanny.” Why is it, he wonders, that automatons like E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Olimpia give us the creeps? In Hoffman’s story, “The Sandman,” a man falls in love with an automaton (Olimpia) despite her unsettling habits of staring off into space and responding to every remark with the same phrase. Freud surmises that characters like Olimpia are uncanny because they combine the familiar and the unfamiliar in one object. Olimpia seems like a human (familiar), but she’s a robot (deeply unfamiliar).

Like Olimpia, the figures in GIFs look a bit like figures in a familiar video format, but their movements are too choppy. What would otherwise look like a fluid, realistic animation is, in GIF format, jerky and puppetlike. What’s more, figures in GIFs are doomed to endlessly repeat their actions, giving them the look of automatons. In the image on the left, artists Jimmy Repeat and Mark Portillo capitalize on this aspect of the GIF.

Echoing Freud, Chadwick Matlin of the New Republic commented about their work, “it feels both familiar and different.”

GIFs are creepy in another way, too: they don’t age. Of course, nothing on the Internet ages, exactly. No web page, image, or GIF, can fade or get yellow with age. A well-thumbed Kindle book won’t wear out. This means that when we view even old GIFs,

they look eerily fresh and new. Looking at this old-fashioned email icon now, for instance, one has the odd sensation of seeing a brand new historical artifact.

Because digital images cannot physically age, we have to look at stylistic cues or file formats to see evidence of age. For this reason, I’ve noticed an upsurge in what I call, for lack of a better word, media nostalgia. Even beyond the digital realm, people aren’t fetishizing thewhat of the past, but the how. We aren’t making dancing baby animated GIFs anymore, but we are using an old medium that drags its tacky history along with it. The retro part of the GIF phenomenon isn’t in what people are choosing to animate, it’s in the choppy datedness of its medium.

This happens offline, too. After Kodak ceased production of Polaroid film in 2008, the Impossible Project purchased the last Polaroid film factory and began producing instant photographic film that works with existing Polaroid cameras. Impossible photographers can create images of contemporary things with that particular faded, dreamy quality of the defunct Polaroid.

Pablo Larraín’s new movie, No, with Gael Garcia Bernal, was shot with a relatively ancient 80’s-era Umatic video camera. The actual archival footage in the movie is of a piece with the film itself, since they were shot on the same film. The old medium makes the movie seem like a thing of the past, while, at the same time, making the past seem like part of the present.

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at

Another twist on this idea of “media nostalgia” comes courtesy of the New York Public Library. Their Stereogranimator allows the public to re-animate stereograms, the 19th century precursor to 3-D images. A stereogram is composed of a pair of almost identical images flashed back and forth in a stereoscope to create a sensation of depth. Joshua Heinemen, the artist whose work inspired the Stereogranimator, writes of the re-animated stereograms, "The photographs seemed to regain a sense of the moment that we typically do not associate with history. The people and places pictured were still lost, but somehow they felt more real & more alive in their milieu." Viewed in their proper medium, stereograms give us the eerie sensation that we could step from the present into the past. The stereogranimator lets users give stereograms new life online by creating—what else?—animated GIFs.

Suzanne Scala is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.