From Zoetrope to GIF and Back

Lorna Mills, Mountain Light/Time, 2015, Still from animated GIF. Image courtesy of the artist.

Lorna Mills. Mountain Light/Time, 2015. Animated GIF. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2012, the Oxford American Dictionaries’ word of the year was the verb GIF. Since then, the animated GIF has joined the emoji as a favored method of communicating humor in texts, and GIFs have even appeared in gallery e-blasts that announce their latest exhibitions. A quick method of communication and portability, the animated GIF (or, Graphics Interchange Format) invites one to employ a visually seductive loop of image and/or text.

While the animated GIF officially traces its origins to early innovations in computer technology, its broader history is tied to the history of animation. The zoetrope, in particular, offers insight into the repetitive viewing process of the GIF and its illusion of motion. An animation device that predates motion-picture film, the zoetrope most often features a cylinder with vertical slits all around; attached to the interior surface of the cylinder are a sequence of drawings or sculptural objects. When one spins the cylinder on its post, the images can be seen through the slits in rapid succession, becoming animated with speed.

While the GIF’s popularity is firmly established, the zoetrope is having a resurgence, especially in contemporary art. A 2015 exhibition at Metro Pictures of work by Camille Henrot included a zoetrope centered on addictions like cigarettes, pills, and drinking—a brilliant animated reminder of material obsessions. But the GIF has become an artistic medium in its own right. Lorna Mills, for example, covered giant screens in Times Square with her work Mountain Light/Time for brief periods during March 2016; typical advertisements were temporarily taken over by an animated mountain, emerging and disappearing in a quintessential GIF way.

Of particular interest is Sam Blake’s 9/11 Zoetrope showing news footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. For Blake, the zoetrope was a means through which to learn from the tragedy; the act of repetitive viewing offered him a therapeutic outlet to deal with the traumatic event. In addition to the zoetrope, he created flipbooks and commissioned essays asking how the experience of viewing the crash in these ways was different from the repetitive footage shown by the news media on television screens.

While this could be interpreted as a warning against falling into passivity, it also speaks to the naturalness of repetition.

Blake’s project helps us think through the act of repetitive viewing that is increasingly prevalent. A few critics have recently written about the hypnotism of GIF culture and the potential dangers of getting stuck in their kitschy loops. While these arguments are certainly fair, if we consider the GIF in relation to the zoetrope, much more is occurring. The zoetrope—a term based on Greek roots meaning “life” and “turning”—is fundamentally related to the cyclical nature of the world and the act of watching its events take place. While this could be interpreted as a warning against falling into passivity, it also speaks to the naturalness of repetition. So while GIFs may be just an illusion, they also reinvigorate a timeless way of looking.