GIFs are everywhere! They overload my tumblr dashboard, they are in profile pics, and they are a medium for emotions , argues internet culture expert, Kenyatta Cheese.
I was super excited to read Giampaulo Bianconi’s Rhizome article on GIFs, Gifability. But what happens when you have an art critic who doesn’t understand remix culture write about remix culture? A deep misunderstanding of the art form.
Bianconi creates a GIF typology. He draws a distinction between “frame-grab GIFs” and “art GIFs.” He argues that frame-grab GIFs are not art, and art GIFs is art.
Here’s his explanation.
- Frame grab GIFs have “abstracted authorship…are deployed in variable contexts, as reactions, illustrations, or expressions.”
- Art GIFs “are circulated to be admired… authorship is also more consistently policed, as their authors demand credit for their work.”
Bianconi does not explain how he arrived at this typological distinction. For example, he doesn’t name which GIF artists are demanding credit. But here’s the thing that anyone in the GIF community will tell you - GIF creators who are busy demanding credit are probably not going to have their GIFs spread widely on the internet. So I’m sure that there are angry GIF art creators who are trying to get attribution and that Bianconi knows of a few, but those GIF creators don’t understand the social norms of the GIF community at large, so they will feel isolated from it.
For GIF creators, resonation is more important than attribution. GIFs that don’t spread simply don’t resonate. Good GIF creators have to be highly skilled in packaging emotions into visuals, identifying what emotions & visuals will resonate within a community, and how their GIF contributes to the community’s culture. Artistic validation is in the spread of their GIF beyond the creator’s network. Kenyatta Cheese explains in his comments on Bianconi’s article:
“The recognition isn’t in seeing your name on something. The recognition is in seeing your actual work spread.”
There’s nothing necessary about the lack of authorship in GIFs. Yes, there are technical restrictions to .gif file metadata and tumblr upload file size limitations but neither of these things trump the values we decide to champion in the culture itself. If it were that important, creators would just watermark more.
While there’s a strong sense of outrage among some creators, most gif makers that I come across aren’t upset when their work shows up somewhere they didn’t put it themselves.
It would be incredibly disheartening if GIF creators themselves started to focus on receiving credit formally. It would kill GIF culture. Luckily, part of the cultural resilience of GIFs is its distance from the art world at large.
But there is an even more insidious problem with Bianconi’s typology - it replays the high-culture vs low-culture argument all over again. It’s the same logic that music critics used when describing the difference between classical music and hip-hop.
Classical music, they argued, was original. There was clear authorship. A Beethoven piece was clearly distinguishable from a Chopin piece.
Hip-hop music was considered non-music. Artists took existing beats and remixed them. There was no clear authorship with sampling. In Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock, where does the German electro band Kraftwerk’s influence begin and end? Sampling and remixing confused music critics to no end. Hip-Hop artists were seen as beat thieves. The existing legal framework of the music industry had no way to comprehend the culture of remix.
But what critics and lawyers didn’t understand back then was that authorship was validated informally, it was validated through cultural means. And sampling was the highest form of credit. Before hip-hop was even recognized by the formal music industry, rappers came up with their own forms of authorship and attribution. Recognition was performed in a grey zone, not in a clear legal zone. It wasn’t clear to an outsider, but on stage, through rhyme, and through the community, credit was given. For better or for worse, the ego in hip-hop never died.
Bianconi doesn’t understand that memes are just as ego-driven as any other collaborative art form, like hop-hop. The form in which the ego is validated rests upon a different set of values and outcome. So outsiders, like Bianconi or the music critics who overlooked hip hop, are unable to recognize what the new values of ego-validation look like so they dismiss a large of the culture as low-art, or non-art in Bianconi’s framework.
As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.” Bianconi’s commentary reflects a profound misunderstanding of GIFs. GIFs are the popular aesthetic of internet culture.
And to be clear, all GIFs are art.
Whatcha doin’ this weekend? Why not get started on Stillmotion’s Storytelling Challenge?
that you too will want to make a movie in
via Ted Hope @TedHope
Breaking the 4th Wall Movie Supercut (by Leigh Singer)
A compilation of scenes and moments from films that all “break the fourth wall” - that is, acknowledge (usually directly to the camera, and therefore the audience) that they’re part of a movie.
A friend and I were just talking about this “break the fourth wall” when discussing the Netflix hit series, House of Cards. I thoroughly enjoy Kevin Spacey talking directly to me.
THE FILM before THE FILM
History of Opening Titles.