Strange Loops: On GIFs

Eternity is a child at play.

Uncannily, this Heraclitean fragment captures both the form, and often the content, of the short animated image, the GIF.1 Here is a child at play set to repeat every tenth frame ad infinitum. Others show a cat appearing to pull an angry face. A celebrity looking aghast. A funny dance. And so on, looping round strangely long after the novelty and initial amusement has worn off. What happens here is an extreme form of editing, paring back all the inessentials, the great cacophony of life, to hone in on ‘the moment of a moment’.2

Many GIFs provide the same serotonin hit of Schadenfreude as the ostensibly candid displays of accidents on those erstwhile video camera clip-shows likeYou’ve Been Framed. Being often mere seconds long, however, GIFs deal in the ultra-condensed, micro-plots, fragments of mishap, grimace, event, itself a commentary on the reduced attention spans (or expectations) of the viewer. They are also now being used in discourse, as visual short-hand for ‘reactions’, a sort of evolution of the static emoticon. Earlier this week, it was reported that Google responded to criticism in the Wall Street Post with a GIF of a baby laughing.

It is tempting to write them off as the wind-up toys of the digital age, repetitive gimcracks that tire as quickly as they catch the eye, instantly disposable gratification. There is much one could theorise about here: animation and anima; miniaturisation; cartoonification of discourse, all of which link to infantilisation, a theme of modern life I find increasingly prevalent, but I will concentrate on the element of eternity they offer, something between a strange loop and ouroubouros, the snake forever eating its own tail, which itself resembles the modern loading icons, forging an association between itself and the endless falling through links in the infosphere.


I often return to something the Bach interpreter, Wanda Landowska, said of Bach’s music in relation to eternity:

There is something eternal in Bach’s music, something that makes us wish to hear again what has just been played. This renewal gives us a glimpse of eternity.3

One hears this in the Cello Suites or the keyboard works, and, curiously, the ear never seems to tire of Bach’s harmonic and melodic variations on the notion of unity-in-diversity. It is possible to immerse oneself in Bach for hours, days, weeks, years, and yet such immersion brings not boredom but a constantly renewed interest in the music. Whereas the eternity that GIFs portray has something infernal in its endless repetition – psychotic, demented, unnatural – which disturbs the direct gaze and peripheral vision alike; hence, none are present on this page.

But is there also artistry here in the thought-provoking usage of time? Often GIFs seem to be aesthetic updates of the impossible geometries of MC Escher and Sir Roger Penrose for the moving image:

 A Penrose Triangle

Examples might include the 3D renders of Francoise Gamma, or those uncanny film screengrabs where only one part of the image moves – water shimmers, clouds drift, hair flaps about in the wind in an otherwise static milieu. The conceit is interesting. We are forced to reconsider anew the Heraclitean nature of identity through flux and the notion of panta rhei: everything flows, something so obvious as to be consistently overlooked. Stillness is actually absent from the world.

Whilst ostensibly offering us an escape from our lives, GIFs actually bespeak our reality and return us to the treadmill nature of our days (wake, eat, work, shit, sleep, repeat), the destiny of human existence (Eliot’s biblical chiasmus in Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end […] In my end is my beginning’). In this way, these superficial loops become unconscious depictions of existential despair at finding oneself trapped in the cycle of cycles (news, consumer, seasonal), refresh buttons, and loading icons.

In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German critic posited the idea that works of art once possessed an aura through being originals, historical one-offs unique in time and place, usually to a very specific locale: a church, say. With mechanical reproduction, that aura was lost. GIFs, like most digital images, are made to be disseminated, reproduced, go viral, to be non-local and atemporal of the Internet. Such reproduction is a raison d’être – to be everywhere and nowhere, at least as long as the power stays on and the servers remain online. The more they spread, the greater their aura, turning Benjamin’s idea on its head.

If GIFs aspire to art, and others (well, Buzzfeed) have offered this mantle for them, then at some level they have to be able to move you, and, occasionally, these curious amalgams of the Absolute and the absolutely banal do. Take this one of a Chinese street vendor saving a falling infant. Okay, this is film footage, chance reportage, that has been turned into a GIF, but there is drama here, catharsis, humanity, as hope teetering on the edge of tragedy triumphs, foreclosing on Fate and Death for once. It is strangely satisfying and doesn’t diminish with repetition. But is this contingent on its GIFness? Perhaps. The repetition forces us to focus in on its participants: the principle ‘hero’s upwards gaze and outstretched arms, his fixed concentration on the act he has been nudged into performing by chance; the clumsy bumbling shirtless extra trying to help and almost ruining the catch; the suspense generated by the off-screen item which is teetering and about to fall; the woman in the raincoat noticing and screaming; and then, with unexpected suddenness, the successful catch, the panic of it, how its velocity and weight drag the man’s arms down; finally, the reveal: the unidentified falling object is a child.  It startles as all good art should.

But such startling is all too rare in the glowing Technicolor annals of GIFs, where three seconds of celebrity eyebrows being raised, or anthropomorphic cats in beanie hats, constitute the next day-long meme in an increasingly infantilised culture.

  1. Graphics Interchange Format.
  2. Kafka’s Diaries, July 5 1916.
  3. ‘On the Interpretation of JSBach’s Keyboard Music’, Landowska on Music, Stein & Day (1969).

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