Anna Malina dissects her own practice and the creative potentials of the GIF.
1 – Discovery / Research
“While the introduction of film offered us the means to capture a reality that was different than the one that appeared for our eyes, the GIF introduced the means to unravel these media that slowly became intertwined with our reality.” - Iris Cuppen
One of the functions of art is to provide a framework for cultural explorations and ponderings. This is where experimental art happens; an art practice motivated by curiosity and the wish to observe processes and results rather than to will a finished object into existence. At least, this is the main motivation for my own work.
To find a structure for this text I decided to create a .gif that might help me illustrate many of the topics that fuel my art making (even though it can’t be exhaustive, of course). I also documented the stages of construction and deconstruction, not least to show that they too can be of aesthetic interest.
The .gif is a peculiar image format. It is a silent perpetual loop commonly used to contain short moving sequences. Most internet users are familiar with reaction gifs, but there are also many artists who use the .gif format deliberately instead of video.
For my .gif Shadow Projection I used images from a latent space walk video I composed from a GAN1 test training. This is part of my current research of pre-revolution Russian cinema and an attempt to make an experimental film using such generated images. In addition, I used appropriated footage from a public domain educational film2 found in the Prelinger Archive and Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime3, a 1999 article by media theorist Vivian Sobchack which I happened to stumble upon when I was preparing to write this text.
All these parts have particular cultural meanings, but they also have a purely aesthetic value, which opens the images and their constellations to personal associations and meanings.
2 – Material / Translation
“The digital structure of the GIF does not only allow us to store and cherish our mediated memories, it also gives us the opportunity to repeat them, to zoom in on them, to reflect on them, to recombine them.” - Iris Cuppen
Setting out with an idea or a feeling I urge to transform into something existing in the world, I daydream about how I might make it work, how images and materials could behave in a certain constellation.
This translation & transformation from a vague immaterial daydream into an actual reality outside my mind is the most fruitful and yet frustrating part. I regard these daydreams not as finishing goals, but as starting points for a process of translating (mostly) physical materials like paper, acrylics, charcoal, etc. into a necessarily digital animation. In this process I struggle with the materials and by that with the world. If I succeed, I end up with my dream materialised – approximately. But this struggle, for me, is essential. It is my way of thinking, which happens mostly with my hands.
Or, according to William Kentridge: “It is only when physically engaged on a drawing that ideas start to emerge. There is a combination between drawing and seeing, between making and assessing, (…)”4
The materials I use are of similar importance as the images. They are not just paper, or charcoal, or the marching ants of GIMP; they too have their characteristic aesthetic quality and density. Watching these materials move is a never-ending source of fascination for me. How will the acrylic brushstrokes look when moving? What feelings will the residue of pastels evoke? Or, like in Shadow Projection, what kind of rhythm will the torn paper edges create?
What surprising discoveries will I make once I set the materials in motion? To find out, I have to take the step of translating the physical into the digital to be able to make them move.
Though at the moment I mostly use physical materials, their digitization is crucial, as, contrary to animation made with a rostrum camera5, I scan my frames rather than photographing them. What started out as a necessity due to lack of adequate equipment soon made me realise how scanning can enhance the texture and physicality of an image and its material. At a sufficiently high resolution the scanned artwork opens itself to a much deeper perception. Torn paper, for example, can turn into a mountainous landscape of an almost textile quality, with little fibres suddenly acquiring scale. Details, too small to have an aesthetic impact on the eye directly, suddenly gain it through this kind of enhancement on screen.
Funny enough then, that, when making .gifs I am using a “poor image”6 format. But, as Tom McGinn analyses how philosopher Laura U. Marks “seems to introduce a body into the digital ‘poor image’” in his thesis Death ad Infinitum, Towards an Ontology of the GIF7, he describes that Marks
(…) formulate[s] the conditions for a tactile experience of the image, as a consequence of the image’s inability to communicate as effectively as intended. Pixellated and posterized images ‘frustrate optical knowledge and instead, invite haptic speculation’ (…) For Marks, this encounter becomes ‘intersubjective’, leading to an embodied experience that invites dissolution of ‘subjectivity’ in the close and bodily contact with the image’. (…) In this context the limited 8-bit image format of the gif has a dilapidated body, suffering as a result of its own compression (…)
The digital thus acquires, exhibits its own unique materiality.
3 – Watching Things Move
“The moving image, constantly repeating itself at the shortest possible intervals, comes close to the qualities of a statue in its visual/structural nature. The short sequence of images burns its way into the consciousness over and over again, in every detail.” - Sylvia Martin, The Sculptural Potential Of New Media Works, quoted in Death ad Infinitum, Tom McGinn
In animation, this is what moves me most: watching materials behave. When creating my works, I can try to anticipate how the textures, the paper tears or the lines will perform; but until I assemble them into a .gif (or, for my shorts/music videos, into a video file), they remain in stasis.
In a .gif everything moves in a loop. That tiny moment you create, or slice out of a film or video (as with reaction .gifs, for example), moves on its own, perpetually, without beginning or end. You can watch, let it encapsulate you and make you fall out of time for a while. You can observe the movements, try to grasp them whole while getting distracted by details. With each loop it feels like you’ve taken it all in and yet, after each loop, the sequence eludes your gaze.
A photograph has its fixed time and space. The complete picture is in front of you. You can let your eyes and mind wander around the image and its contents and study them without haste.
A film or video moves forward in time; you are living in its progression. Like in the aptly titled ten minute short film 10 Minutes Older by Herz Frank8, which hints at the viewer of the film being ten minutes older after watching it, a film or video experience begins at one point in time and is experienced in real time until it arrives at another, later point, creating an experience that now lies in the past and has turned into a memory. There’s no chance to take it in entirely.
A .gif then pirouettes between these two modes of experience, being neither static9 nor progressive, forever removed from linear time or a fixed existence.
4 – Collage / Layering / Gaps
“Unlike big-screen, live-action movies, they [QuickTime movies] draw us down and into their own discrete, enclosed and nested poetic worlds: worlds re-collected and re-membered; worlds more miniature, intensive, layered, and vertically deep than those constructed through the extensive, horizontal scope and horizontal vision of cinema.” - Vivian Sobchack, Nostalgia for a Digital Object
Similar to the logic of experiencing, forgetting & remembering, in a palimpsestic way, I construct collages of layered gaps, images and materials. Some parts get lost, others are revealed or emphasised. My wish is to create charged little instances that resonate with a feeling or memory you carry inside. In A Statement of Principles,10 Maya Deren wrote:
I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions, whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will perhaps recall an image, even only the aura of my films.
This is my wish: to create a palpable visual expression of emotions which make you feel as if you have encountered something similar before – somewhere, somewhen… Or which serve in a mnemonic or conductible manner, helping to shape or to pour out feelings, memories.
Analog film images or animation, which is made frame by frame, as well as collage, are always a fragmentation first. The movement of an animation then, is a construction and because of that, movement in film or animation is not tied to naturalism. From one frame to the other you are free to montage how your heart desires and by that construct physically impossible and yet still functioning movements and sceneries.11
For Shadow Projection I have organised the image space as a multiple panel display. Inspired by comics and graphic novels as well as desktop cinema12, I have been exploring these kinds of tableaux for a while, most recently in a series titled Memories Of Dying13 and in a music video14. In this kind of arrangement I find it interesting to connect different images, times and spaces not in a progressive sequence but simultaneously, trying to make the separate parts work both independently and in relation to each other.
5 – Found Footage / Self Portraiture
“The GIF invites us to appropriate existing material, to make it our own. Its open structure gives us the impression that we can ‘touch’ this material, that we can get a grip on media that seemed ungraspable before.” - Iris Cuppen
No matter the topic or footage I address or use, my art is always personal. I use self-portraiture as well as archival footage to visualise and express my ideas. Yet, my art is not necessarily autobiographical or “about me”. My practice evolved out of loneliness and because of this my own body is the only really accessible human form to work with. Out of this grew also a need to obscure and alter my recognisable appearance in order to make the connection between my factual self and my art more loose and the images less repetitive.
For Shadow Projection though, I used a scene from an educational film. When using amateur footage that shows people, I normally do my best to obscure their faces and to not use them in a way that might be disrespectful – at least according to my own principles, which I hope are reasonable enough. But with professional footage I allow myself to use the full image of a person, as they already exist in a mediated state and removed from their real life persona.
Such footage is helpful especially when I lack time or equipment to stage a particular scene (with) myself, or when I don’t fully know what might fit a particular idea and have to seek the fitting image out, or simply when I stumble upon a sequence that inspires an idea.
My art is personal because it is formed by my own experiences and aesthetic preferences. It is speaking out of me, not talking about something that is outside. But it’s not a story about myself either. I try to emanate something ambivalent and amorphous which viewers can gather around with their own personal associations, making it possible to weave quiet fragile bonds of melancholy and mutual recognition, bonds like those that I myself have formed with the artworks of others.
With all my heart I want to advocate for a small and intimate, ephemeral art that doesn’t aspire to become immortal. It is precisely the affects of mortality which I try to make perceivable. Torn paper, wounded bodies, exhausted materials, tired minds…
In the text I collaged in Shadow Projection – Vivian Sobchack’s Nostalgia for a Digital Object –, Sobchack describes the effects of miniaturisation happening in QuickTime Movies15:
The miniature encourages the phenomenological experience of intensity, interiority, and material preciousness by virtue of its compression and condensation of data in space. But the miniature also effects our sense of time. (…)
Constrained or ‘nested’ in a small space, time is reflexive: (…) Furthermore, unlike in ‘real-time’ and ‘live-action’ cinema, our sense of temporality as we engage the miniature never ‘streams’ toward the future (and this is so even when movement is involved). Temporal compression and condensation conflict with forward movement and ‘life-like’ animation. As a result, ‘the miniature always tends toward tableau rather than toward narrative, toward silence and spatial boundaries rather than towards expository closure.’
Fragments and bits and traces of past experience exist ‘now’ in our sight and reverie, not only evocative but also emblematic of irrecoverable ‘originary’ moments of wholeness.
These effects of miniaturisation can be felt when engaging with .gifs as well. They wrap you in and for some moments the world around is condensed into this tiny instance moving relentlessly before you. And in Death ad Infinitum, Tom McGinn even suggests that “(…) the gif has a felt dimension; its relentless re-presentation of the same sequence embeds itself on the retina, becoming heavy.”16 You might be enthralled first, enchanted, enjoying this dance before your eyes… how many loops though, will it take for you to feel tired of it, eventually, maybe even annoyed?
6 – Deconstruction / Traces
“When I began drawing, I tried very hard to make perfect erasures. I later understood that the traces left on the paper were integral to the drawing’s meaning.” “This erasing of charcoal — an imperfect activity — always leaves a grey smudge on the paper, so filming not only records the changes in the drawing but reveals too the history of those changes, as each erasure leaves a snail-trail of what has been.” - William Kentridge17
Collage based work is essentially de\constructive. I deconstruct the materials and footage to construct something new. In a similar manner to kintsugi18, I also strive to emphasise and remember the deconstruction as an essential part of the work with its own aesthetic characteristics and meaning.
Similarly motivated, I try to use most byproducts of the de\construction process as part of the work, charged with their own meaning. Smeared pastels, erased pencil or the progressing crumpling of paper are examples of this. They are marks and remnants of my engagement with the material and inscriptions of time. They are also a way to invite chance into my process.
For this text I deconstructed Shadow Projection further than I normally would, just to have a look at what might be left and what might get lost, taking once again joy in this kind of aesthetic experience. For me, the deconstructed parts turn out to be more interesting than those of the constructions, as they acquire a certain sense of autonomy from my will and direction.
1 – Short explanation of how GANs work by Anna Ridler: https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/5500326fe4b0564d4c2494d1/16180440729 03-OVGOI3L9SGQAN6PLKQ7X/Screenshot+2021-04-10+at+09.37.48.png found here: http://annaridler.com/let-me-dream-again
4 – William Kentridge: Fortuna: Neither Program nor Chance in the Making of Images in: October Files 21: William Kentridge, edited by Rosalind Krauss
6 – Hito Steyerl: In Defense of the Poor Image
9 – Though .gifs can also be static images, I am concerned with .gifs as a moving image format.
10 – found in Scott MacKenzie: Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures
11 – Maya Deren has many wonderful examples of this in her cinema, present in all of her films. A short and breathtaking one is A Study In Choreography For Camera which already implies this idea in its title.
15 – QuickTime was the first accessible video format for computers: https://computerhistory.org/blog/quicktime-and-the-rise-of-multimedia
I’d argue that in the context of my text it can be considered in a similar manner as .gifs with the exceptions that QuickTime movies have sound and don’t move or loop automatically.
17 – Quoted from October Files 21: William Kentridge, edited by Rosalind Krauss
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