A Guide To Enjoying (And Making Your Own) GIF Art

<p>Epileptics, beware. You may want to stick to painting and skip this post.</p>

May 3 2011, 9:12pm

The past week we’ve seen a lot of chatter about how cinemagraphs are elevating the GIF to fine art, thanks in large part to an article in The Atlantic that ruffled some feathers in the art community. There’s no denying that the GIF is seeing some unlikely (and long overdue) attention from the art world more than 20 years after it first showed up to animate our web experience in 1987. In the past few months alone we’ve seen art critics like Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City call 2010 the Year of the Animated GIF (a statement she apparently believed fervently enough to curate a show about them a few months later) and Rhizome director Lauren Cornell selling GIFs at the traditionally conservative NY Armory Show this March. It’s safe to say the cinemagraph can hardly take credit for the GIF’s transition from chat rooms and message boards to the white walls of the fine art world.

We won’t waste any space chronicling the rich and multi-faceted history of the GIF here (read Joshua Kopstein‘s excellent post “The GIF That Keeps On GIFing” for that instead), but we thought it worthwhile to take a survey of some of the best GIF artworks we’ve seen on the web lately, as well as the places to find and create more of them.

You can satisfy your low-brow GIF cravings on sites like 4chan or the countless GIF-glorifying Tumblrs like GIF Party and Fuck Yeah GIFs. A step above is the image-based chat site dump.fm from artist Ryder Ripps, whose community no doubt benefits from the artistic ties of its creator, yielding content that is more conceptual and refined than the aforementioned Tumblrs (and has even spawned exhibitions of its own). Then there’s the ambitious ANI GIF project from Daniel Rehn and Sarah Caluag, which presents monthly GIF exhibitions online and is working towards an Animated GIF Biennial (in the real world) slated for 2012.

Although GIFs are notably carving out their own formal and visual styles, firmly rooted in the culture of the internet and the limitations of the GIF file format, here are a few artistic traditions we’ve seen GIF artists embracing.

This one’s the obvious choice because, well, just about everything on the web can in some way be classified as having a foothold in pop culture. In the digital age, this style is often rooted in internet memes, TV or film mash-ups, or 8-bit nostalgia.

Ryder RippsObama Kermit Meme

Tom MoodyGold Machine Cosmos

GIFs lend themselves to this visual style quite well, reveling in optical illusion by animating the sensations of movement already present in their static visual counterparts.

David OpeUntitled (110503)

Antlers WifiUntitled

Making use of basic geometric forms, colors and lines, it comes as no surprise that many of the web’s animated GIFs would fall under the category of “abstract art.” Given the GIF’s simple file format and small size, abstract animations work particularly well and create subtly shifting, entrancing designs.

Kim AsendorfAbstract GIF

Brandon Jan BlommaertOptical Shimmer Source

As an animated, time-based medium that often distills a narrative moment, it’s no surprise that some GIF artists align more with film than with other visual mediums. Of late, we’ve seen the term “cinemagraphs” thrown around, a kind of hybrid between photography, film and “video paintings.”

Jamie BeckMeet Me At The Bar

If We Don’t, Remember MeA.I. Artificial Intelligence

Ok, we admit, classifying GIFs under the artistic styles of previous generations may be an exercise in futility—there are many more GIFs and artists who simply defy categorization (see: Francoise Gamma, Sara Ludy, Petra Cortright, Laura Brothers, and Nicolas Sassoon). Still, in terms of recognizing and identifying the formal and contextual qualities that distinguish these GIFs from the stuff one might find on GIF Party, for instance, it helps to at least start with some conventional reference points and cast a glance back at the established standards of the old vanguard.

If you’re keen to try your hand at making your own animated GIF, there are countless sources and tools to help you do so. One of our favorites comes from artist Aaron Meyers, whose 3Frames web project and iPhone app distill the GIF to its most basic, pure form and make creating it as easy as pushing a button.

Thanks to Lindsay Howard for the GIF art tips.