The GIF “Grows Up” At A Curated Art Show

At Art Basel/Miami last week, a curated show of GIF art made a historic foray into the high-art scene.

The GIF turned 25 earlier this year, entering its late 20s alongside many of the people who pulled it from obscurity back into Internet ubiquity. Those people–Tumblr users, in large part–gathered in Miami last week to celebrate Moving the Still, an exhibition of what one curator calls “our generation’s most recognizable form of digital media.”


That’s debatable, since this generation can claim ownership of most digital media, but it’s a fun concept for a group show. Sponsored by Tumblr and Paddle8, Moving the Still has been soliciting submissions from the public for several months. An inner circle of contributors were hand-selected to create GIFs for submission, while a ruling council of celebrities like James Frey, Michael Stipe, and Rodarte each chose 20 submissions for display. At a party in Miami on Friday, hundreds of people gathered to view the winning submissions, which were projected onto the walls of a darkened warehouse (Dan Deacon and Wild Nothing DJ-ed).

Johnny Misheff, the New York Times’s Visiting Artists writer, who headed up the council, frames the show as an ode to the very young, anonymous arbiters of the GIF. “A good percentage of the more arresting GIFs we’ve seen spreading throughout the Internet like wildfire are produced by kids barely in their teens with incredible senses of beauty, political wit, and, of course, humor,” he writes. “These unsung heroes of our age are the true inspiration behind this show.” The final selection included work from Internet artist Alex Da Corte and photographer Johnny Clang, as well as plenty of anonymous submissions from Tumblr. “I greatly look forward to where the GIF will go,” added Collin Munn, Paddle8’s editorial director. “Sellable editioned GIFs? Museum exhibitions? Who knows, it’s all possible now.”

Moving the Still presents an interesting question about how Net art migrates to the physical world. Are GIFs any different from video art, once they’re removed from their original context? GIFs reemerged because they offered a syntax that is uniquely suited to life on the Internet in 2012. They’re meant to reduce you to fits of stifled laughter at your desk, to hypnotize you at 3 a.m. as you surf your dash in your underpants, to serve as visual punctuation in a community that deals mainly in images.

Suffice to say that bringing the GIF from the Internet to the art world is fraught with conceptual landmines. But it’s fascinating to watch how curators are fusing the two cultures, from Rhizome director Lauren Cornell’s buyable GIFs to Reality Cues, a recurring competition that asks architects to respond to specific topics with animated GIFs.

The Moving the Still website is wildly fun to explore, with hundreds of GIF submissions from well-known artists and anons alike. Check it out here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.