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11 July 2016
Gif Telepathy: Uncreative writing in poor images

Manuela Pedrón Nicolau

Internet is brimming with charming ladies entering into the universe of virtual reality. Amidst all this material, my favourite is a GIF animation in which one of these women appears open-mouthed, although still quite dignified, sitting on her sofa at home when something or someone in this parallel dimension attacks her. Her fright has occurred around fifty times on my screen, and I’m still incapable of understanding what exactly she’s looking at or feeling. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to use her reaction in very different situations and conversations. This GIF identifies fairly well the type of animation that I’m interested in analysing here; those that generate, and are constructed from, found, reused or converted images.

Why this type of image? GIF, as Wikipedia tells us, are the initials of Graphics Interchange Format. It’s an image format created in 1987 by the American telecommunications company CompuServe (currently AOL) that offered an efficient system for compressing images, enabling them to be sent faster without any loss in quality. Despite this, the popularity of GIFs arrived fundamentally due to the possibility of generating animations, used in particular for advertising banners and animated logos on web pages. So, GIFs which use found material or restructure domestic videos are those that, in my opinion, have most successfully undermined the original function of the format. Distancing it from commercial utility and creating abstract meanings that the user can employ as they wish (including, here yes, commercial ends and other benefits obviously). The GIFs I’m referring to employ all sorts of found footage and don’t include text messages, they are just images; the iconic-textual game is introduced by whoever takes on the role of user-repeater. A large part of these GIFs feed off material stemming from the Internet material, the same medium on which they are launched after their editing and conversion. It’s an exercise in the appropriation of appropriated material, a circuit that recurs to thinking in a loop, like the never-ending loop of the actual format.

Hito Steyerl’s theorising about “the poor image” [[Hito Steyerl, “En defensa de la imatge pobra” in Los condenados de la pantalla, Caja Negra Editora, Buenos Aires, 2014 (pp. 33-48).]] , which degrades through such processes of distribution and remixing, have generated a clear and suggestive framework for understanding the material and semantic conditions for the reuse of images on the Internet. Although a text focussed on the image in movement, the theorisation surrounding other forms of film, many of these can be extrapolated to the use of photography and the still in this context here. The poor image “is poor in quality and of substandard resolution”. “It is the ghost of an image, […] an errant idea in free distribution” that circulates fundamentally through the Internet. “It’s RAG, RIP, AVI or JPEG” and I say, in particular, GIF. Steyerl proposes, as an alternative to resolution, a form of value for these images “defined by speed, intensity and diffusion” that explains the progressive degradation of “rich images” for the creation of GIF animations that can be visualised and distributed with the greatest possible ease.

With a more or less clear idea about the conditions of the raw material for these GIFs, to think about the forms of production and reception of these animations, I’m going to appropriate some of the concepts raised by Kenneth Goldsmith in relation to uncreative writing [[Kenneth Goldsmith, Escritura no-creativa. Gestionando el lenguaje en la era digital, Caja Negra Editora, Buenos Aires, 2015.]] and some of José Luis Brea’s ideas about reading and telepathy in interconnected societies [[José Luis Brea, “Telepatía colectiva 2.0: pequeña teoría de las multitudes interconectadas” in El cristal se venga, Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo/RM, México DF, 2014 (pp. 99-107).]]. Shifting theories developed in one specific ambit of knowledge to another can help to clarify methodologies and meanings. In this case, it’s more one of translation, given that I would like to think about the forms developed in the use of GIF according to the approach employed by Kenneth Goldsmith to explain uncreative writing, derived in turn from the application of the way writing functions on the Internet. Goldsmith proposes an ecosystem for writing that can be extrapolated to the production of GIF animations. He sketches out a digital “ecology” in which data are ephemeral and where “final versions don’t exist”. This is “a rhizomatic ecology”, exemplified through the cycle of water that generates a “continuous and infinite variety of events and interactions”. The main base for this ecosystem is appropriation, and Goldsmith, based on a few examples of the texts of Walter Benjamin, for as he proposes “isn’t all cultural material shared, with new works built upon pre-existing ones, whether acknowledged or not”. I’m interested in thinking about the production of GIF animations as a reference for uncreativity, dependent on the conditions of anonymous authorship, appropriation and semantic flexibility.

In this sense, Goldsmith also points to the concept, moving information, coined by Marjorie Perloff to identify “the act of moving information from one side to another as the act of being moved by this process”. Two acts that form part of the same process in the current context of the use of GIFs. But it is interesting to try and analyse them separately to understand how the reception and reading of these images are developed. Returning to the proposals of Steyerl, the poor image “transforms quality into accessibility, the value of exhibition into the value of cult, contemplation into distraction” and comprehension into evocation. Concrete meaning is constructed in GIF animations between photogram and photogram, in a message that is contextual rather than textual. But to understand the conditions in which this message is transmitted and in particular received, I’m interested in thinking about this visual culture of the degraded and over-disseminated image in the lapsus in which Hito situates it: between an alternative economy of images and the capitalism of information . Here this type of GIF can be identified as one of the most interesting elements of contemporary visual culture, but without being epic, without any pressure to find a fundamentally political essence in this language. Therefore to understand the communicative context of GIFs, as opposed to Dziga Vertov’s idea of “visual relations” that Steyerl employs, I prefer to leap to the telepathic theory of José Luis Brea; instead of utopian communism, let’s talk of affectivity and survival. Brea, based on the texts of Roberto Bolaño, proposes writing be understood as a telepathic process and reading as a hallucinogenic one. A framework to understand the communicative processes that can be applied to the visual arts as much as to interactions on Internet. Focussing on the contemporary GIF, reading, framed in the conditions that the “social network of the subject” generates, develops into an “ultra rapid, interpretative process, that in reality overtakes the logical reordering that they (their affects) fabricate, the subject as the interpreting subject – even prior to perception. This is telepathy”, “collective tele-pathy”, “shared affection”.

In short, my interest in these GIF animations resides in their unoriginality and their creation of thought in a loop, flexible, without any specific content and open to reinterpretation and recycling. In this way a path for communication has been generated, in which the raw material is the poor image, constructed and remixed through processes of appropriation, the communicative basis for which, through abstraction, evocation and irony, is shared affection. GIF.

Dedicates her time to curating, teaching and empirical investigation, moving from project to project, without ever being very clear about the frontiers that divide them. A precarious existence, that stresses her out, but every now and again she allows herself the luxury of a mid-week siesta.

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)