From the archive
Compression is a process that aims for greater efficiency. Compression streamlines all that is ‘unnecessary’ by compacting a product to reveal only its most essential components. The compressed product’s new, slender form allows it to be used, seen, transmitted or reproduced with greater ease than its previously bulky or complicated body. An argument can be made that whatever is able to be used with the greatest ease is that which has been compressed to the fullest extent. The internet has compressed many things already previously compressed, creating objects both extremely heavy in connotations and extremely light at first appearance. Just as spoken language is a compression of lived experience, so too is the written word a compression of spoken language, and so too is net-speak an even further compression of all of these things. A smiley face emoticon is seen as a frivolous token of online chatter- unless you consider it the latest technologically-bound stop in the progression of humanity’s desire to articulate joy, then it becomes something a bit more complex.
Ideally, compression does not delete information or material but conceals it within itself, making all hidden components readily accessible should the person interacting with a compressed product wish to unzip or re-expand its contents. Of course not all methods of compression lend themselves to different subjects equally well. Compressing a cat’s personal space for plane travel in the manner a watermelon is compressed for a fruit smoothie would be disastrous. As art is digitally mediated, so too does it become materially and experientially compressed. This inevitably creates a dichotomy of quality of experience versus ease of access. Positions over which or if any forms of compression should be applicable to art arise. People against art’s digital mediation claim it to be a vulgar distortion of experiential affect and a forcible removal of aesthetics. People in support of art’s digital mediation point to the way it opens previously rigid institutional and architectural boundaries of participation, allowing an exponentially larger number of viewers to become aware of and join in art’s discourse. Though in the past I have favored the latter of these two positions, I wonder if such distinctions are quite so black and white. For instance, what role do formats that are native to digital viewing play in this conversation? They cannot be judged against the backdrop of a formerly physical existence but must be critically analyzed unto themselves. One such example that comes to mind is the artistic GIF.
The general popularity of GIFs is easy to understand. They’re simple to make, playfully animated, cross-browser compatible and fun to watch. GIFs have a history in both vernacular net use and internet art, as well as a history at the intersection between the two. As a visual medium, GIFs are caught in a space sandwiched between still images and film. Arguably, all film is just a rapid procession of still images, but while film conceals this fact the GIF often reveals which frames comprise it by plodding through them in a manner similar to stop animation during the process of loading. GIFs lend themselves to subject matters that may be quickly summed up in the fewest number of frames possible or to content that has no beginning or end and may be understood equally well starting from any moment in a brief, looping format. As writer Jonah Weiner says
[Many GIFs] are built around the payoff moments of Did you see that? style viral videos. These GIFs are structured like jokes, with the barest minimum of set-up … They get to the point instantaneously, and at the exact moment when one feels the impulse to rewind and watch the climax again, the loop restarts right where it should … Like an enhanced bumper sticker or T-shirt, the GIF offers a pithy, punchy means for self-expression.
This kind of self-expression is largely conversational; on message boards the GIF provides an excellent way of responding to a previous poster in a direct manner that transcends the time necessary to read and decode language. The lure of using a GIF is that it is designed not to be poured over as an individual object of dense decoding but to be seen, to trigger an immediate response, and be moved on from. On the subject of the GIF’s accepted immediacy, writer Joshua Kopstein states
Human memory is intimately tied to isolated moments in time. According to the Atkinson-Shifrin model — the same one that divided human memory into long-term, short-term and sensory — most of the things we experience are not committed to long-term memory beyond a few select moments. So it makes sense that we’ve embraced GIFs as these suspended moments in time, looping only the information necessary to conjure a particular emotion or memory.
The GIF’s straightforward looping mechanism revels in its own simplicity and the manner in which it professes to be nothing more profound than what 3~ seconds of your time can possibly allow for as a work of visual art. In an online environment that exalts immediacy and ease of use, the GIF is not a fetishization of the past or Web 1.0 culture- as many have argued- but a fetishization of the internet’s propensity for compressing information to the furthest degree possible. In a world of Macbook Airs, external hard drives the size of a thumb, and 140 character limits on textual communication, the GIF is a suitable alternative for those who can’t quite make it through a 2 minute Youtube video without advancing forward to the 1:00 and 1:30 minute markers after the first 10 seconds prove too dull for viewing. The most crucial question for artists to ask in response to the GIF’s obsession with compression is whether the GIF is a true harbinger of conceptual efficiency or an ornamental novelty of its own lightness?
GIFs do not require an embedded player to be viewed and have remained functional throughout many shifts in applicable file formats on the web. This longevity and uniform accessibility has lead many to characterize the GIF as a file format as democratic as the internet purportedly aspires to be. However, unlike Hito Steryl’s accurately egalitarian description of the poor image, the low visual quality of a GIF is not a result of pirated mass reproduction or individuals cycling images through a slew of diverse copying and transfer methods. Instead, the GIF’s limited capacity for narrative and often pixilated appearance is due to the increased bulk each frame adds to its total file size, subsequently slowing down the process of loading and viewing the larger the file gets. Without the external support of a video player, the GIF must behave as an image while appearing to be a video.
As a culturally distinct and informationally narrowed format, the content of an artistic GIF rarely strays far from the realm of the expected due to the inherently minimal range of visuals and narrative advancements it may include as a time-based medium. All forms of compression eventually meet their logical end, where whatever material that was compressed is no longer able to be recovered in quite the same manner it previously existed, resulting in an unzipped product that appears to be a faint shadow of the dense form it once took. The fault of the artistic GIF is not that it has rendered conceptually rich subjects to a point incapable of being critically expanded upon with conceptual depth, but that the format itself is a censorship of an amount of information necessary to create ideologically rich narratives transcendent of their own interface. In a recent essay on the state of internet-inform
ed art, curator Lauren Cornell states
While the field of art online continues to thrive, art engaged with the internet does not need to exist there; because the internet is not just a medium, but also a territory populated and fought over by individuals, corporations, and governments; a communications tool; and a cultural catalyst.
The idea that art’s subject matter need not address the same medium it assumes is an adequate description of a contemporary field of art making that has increasingly come to rely less on medium specificity for critical validation. As Cornell echoes, the best art on the internet or otherwise exceeds its own medium, inspiring realizations divorced from whatever it is being transmitting through. The GIF is indelibly and formally linked to the compressed boundaries of the file format that transmits it, allowing art viewers none of the suspension of disbelief necessary to think the GIF they are looking at is not, in fact, a GIF at any moment of their viewing. The solution to the artistic GIF’s status as a pre-emptively self-referential medium would require it to betray its own maxim of economical viewing and transfer. Impossibly, this would force the GIF to aesthetically become, in a word, inefficient. Some problems just can’t be fixed. The artistic GIF will have to deal with it.