Group orgy? The next wave of Internet porn? No. Just the best attended pubic call-for-art in the history of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Nearly 400 people recently packed into the MCA’s Puck’s Café for a night of Internet revelry and celebration of the animated GIF. The show was the finale to the five-part “Internet Superheroes” series hosted by the museum this past winter.
Earlier this year, Amy Corle (MCA’s director of community engagement and mastermind behind “Internet Superheroes”) caught wind of the animated GIF movie that Chicago artists Jason Lazarus and Eric Fleischauer were working on and asked them to present the film at Puck’s.
The film, aptly named twohundredfiftysixcolors (there are 256 colors available in an animated GIF), is an evolution of the file-making format, from its humble origins in early cinema to its prominence in late 20th-century MySpace culture and beyond. The film is also a public project, with Lazarus and Fleischauer filling their coffers by issuing an open call for GIF submissions.
Fearing that prematurely showing a clip of their unfinished movie might undermine the finished project, the pair declined Corle’s invitation, and instead suggested riffing off of TWEEN, a one night animated GIF exhibition organized by TAGTEAM (Jake Myers and Christopher Smith) during which dozens of artists looped animated GIFs on their laptops until the batteries died.
For Downcast Eyes, Lazarus and Fleischauer invited TAGTEAM to join them, sent out invitations to about 40 artists and issued an open invitation to the public, then hoped for the best.
A blinking, jolting mess of Macbooks and young artists descended on the MCA. And it wasn’t just sex, either. There were swinging chickens, slow moving landscapes and flashing skulls. A vomiting MGM lion, the Teletubbies, and a demonic Mark Zuckerberg were all represented. I had the chance to catch up with Lazarus and Fleischauer before the show to chat open-call art, to explore the meeting point of the high and the low, and to tease out the GIF’s past, present and future.
The animated GIF turned 24 this year. It’s a child of the ’80s. Is it really making a comeback?
Eric Fleischauer: I mean there are people out there, when I tell them about the twohundredfiftysixcolors project, that are not even aware of what a GIF is. They think I’m saying “gift.” When you are walking around with these blinders—almost like magnifying glasses on—if you’re looking and analyzing and going through, you forget that there are people who are very smart and have no idea what you are talking about. Then you explain it and they are like, “Oh, yeah, I know what those are! What are those called?” So that’s something that I’m excited about.
Jason Lazarus: Yeah, and even if they don’t ever make a GIF in their life, they are all of a sudden—much like when you see a really innovative music video or something—you have a new reference point as a participant in culture at large. The goal is not necessarily to convert a number of people. The profundity is where you are suddenly looking at digital culture in a slightly different way. It’s re-contextualizing culture at large.
It seems like public participation is the backbone of twohundredfiftysixcolors and Downcast Eyes. Why is this?
EF: Well GIFs exist through an individual creator, but also pull from a source online that is created through some kind of community, whether it’s a blog, or hyper-linking from one thing to the next. For us it’s really exciting to see the breath and the diversity that exists in the spectrum of GIF-making. I think as artists, we’re both well aware of the failure of the “Great Man Theory” or the idea that a single voice can totally encapsulate such a large idea.
So this is sort of similar to a BYOB show, right? Where anyone can bring their own ‘beamer?’
EF: Well, a BYOB show implies anyone shows up with their own beamer, but in reality it’s curated. I just wanted to kick down the door and be like, “No, literally anyone can bring one.”
JL: Yeah, because GIFs are such a democratic micro-filmmaking format. I mean they’re completely dumb from a technical point of view. Their whole spirit is a game, right? There’s an intense fluency [among the Internet kids] and it’s really fascinating to watch a meme get kicked around and distorted and folded so quickly. I feel like that work is largely already being done and being done well for a certain audience.
Democratic art, eh? Well, it bears asking: What is the future of the GIF? Does it have one?
JL: That’s a really interesting question, but it’s also in some ways kind of difficult. I think the future is kind of a continued acceleration of people looking at the GIF through a more serious lens, as something that can exist with some credibility within the art world, whatever that means. I feel like as our culture is more screen based—not just computer screens, but phones and things like that—I see GIFs getting used as tools, whether it’s advertisements or artists starting to use them as showcards, things like that. They are becoming extremely versatile and utilitarian even, not just funny and trippy.
Do you think GIFs will become commercialized?
EF: So, the cinemagraph could be your answer. It’s kind of like the preface to your answer. The cinemagraph is a term that was coined by these two New York-based designers, who essentially started using a DSLR to shoot video. And then they would convert that video into these really high-end, glossy GIFs that were actually beautiful. They were doing it for Oscar de la Renta, New York Fashion Week, Dogfish Head, all these clients—and then I noticed two weeks ago that their website is now trademarked. What used to just say “Cinemagraph,” now says “Cinemagraph TM.”
That doesn’t seem very democratic.
EF: And the TM is not small. It’s like 15-font-size. It’s actually kind of upsetting, and it’s the classic example of when punk rock becomes pop punk and it gets turned around like that. I find it a little bit offensive that these two professionals saw that—kind of like what happens with art and independent film or art and Hollywood film—it’s just a “cool idea.” Let’s take that and own it. Literally. It’s problematic.
JL: An addendum to that is, thus they must be in our project. It’s really important to this larger conversation. To see some kid at home screwing around with GIFs in a really inventive way, and seeing that sandwiched around what a cinemagraph is. It’s where these two bump up against each that we get really excited. Because the film [twohundredfiftysixcolors] isn’t an answer as much as a huge set of questions.
I noticed that the whole Internet Superheroes series is organized in Puck’s Café rather than the MCA’s gallery space. Did you feel slighted?
JL: I think the museum as this sort of hierarchical, ivory, or sectioned-off thing is one way to look at it, but actually we get to piggyback off of the museum’s willingness to open its doors. To be a little bit idealist about it, we get to sit on the most flexible edge of the museum that reaches the farthest out into the public. So actually that situation is really perfect for us, because that really embodies the way that we’ve kind of opened the doors in this project.
Well put. Anything you want to add?
JL: Maybe the best possible victory in this is that it ends up that the highest art is found in the place where low meets high and the public meets the curated—the curation. By hanging out on the edge— in this project and for a night.
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-by Erin Schumaker
(Top image: Organizers Eric Fleischauer and Christopher Smith, via Theo Darst)