Performance GIFs 1: Curator's Introduction

Over the next few weeks, Rhizome will present a series of performance GIFs curated by Jesse Darling. Darling's introduction is below; the first work (by Maja Cule) will be on view from Thursday May 16. 

2012. The year of the doomsday apocalypse. The world didn’t end, though some of us thought it might, and perhaps we even hoped it would, if only to give us something to look forward to. Žižek, paraphrasing Jameson, famously said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—and this was in a speech given at Zucotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, in which we tried, and failed, to imagine the beginning of something else.  

But following the natural order of events, as well as what Jameson called “the temporal paradox” (in which history stops but time grinds remorselessly onward in a continuous, cyclical production of “newness”), 2012 came and went and we all kept on doing what we were doing. A perky 25-year-old acronym beat the competition – teeth-grindingly zeitgeisty notables such as YOLO, superstorm and Eurogeddon – to become the Oxford Dictionary’s US Word of the year. You probably know that. What you may not know is that the OUP award went to a verb, rather than a noun: not to the name of a file format, but to the act of making one. To GIF.

To GIF is defined, somewhat redundantly, as “to create a GIF file,” but what would it mean to decouple the verb from its referent? To GIF: to capture a moment on an endless loop.

Now it’s 2013, though nothing has changed. Seeping, soul-level post-Fordism and the precarization of the labor market mean that most of us never stop working: socializing bleeds seamlessly into networking, and meanwhile, each tweet and retweet and Like and click and comment all converge in the production of demographic data. You could say there’s a Sisyphean aspect to life in late Capitalism. Energy drinks and Adderall, cuz sleep is for sissies and the stock market and Internet never sleep at all. An animated GIF never stops cycling silently in the ether, even as your tabs are closed and your laptop shut.

Perhaps in the necessarily entrepreneurial spirit of the new cognitariat, much of the Post-Internet art currently being produced and circulated is visually indistinguishable from the aesthetic language of advertising and corporate branding. The idea that art should be a mirror to life is taken to terrifyingly literal conclusion in gleaming surfaces and brushed chrome effects and knowing selfies in which every artist becomes a cover girl, a stock photography catalogue of white people mugging in streetwear. 50 shades of sexy empty, glistering in flat[-screen] virtuality. So far, so familiar.

The animated GIF, meanwhile—whose origins go back to the antediluvian age of dial-up modems and whose natural home is the resolutely non-artistic bottom-feed of Internet image production—rudely interrupts the unbroken sheen of all the slick shit, since to GIF an image is not only to create a loop, but—in very literal terms pertaining to the effects of LZW compression—to apply a verfremdungseffekt, or distancing effect. The shiny mirror finish of HD video is dithered to dust, dots and dashes, and all the smoothing of Photoshop reduced to a crude cartography of color. The v-effekt was one of political playwright Brecht’s theatrical techniques to ensure an audience never get too comfortable: a device to make the abstract immediate and the political relatable. Here, the distancing effect allows the moving image to circulate widely on low-bandwidth connections, bringing it closer to home. To GIF is to reduce a picture to the “poor image” defended by Hito Steyerl; the conditions of its own circulation made visible. “The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities… In short: it is about reality.” 

The animated GIF is a Brechtian medium not only in the distancing effects of image compression, but also in that the repetition of a single gesture ad infinitum constitutes a sort of gestus—a symbolic moment that is amplified in context to represent a whole paradigm of existence. Brecht believed that art “is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”—and it is in the attempt to imagine a micromodular, low-cultural political theatre that this series has been curated. I wanted to stop talking about “the work” as though it exists somehow separated from our labor and from our bodies. I wanted to put the body back into the frame, since this is what we learned from OWS and Tahrir: that bodies still signify, no matter how posthuman we might imagine ourselves to be. At a time when social media is a stage and a theater where we're all supposed to play ourselves (each status update a script cue for the spectral self) I wanted to expand the discourse to include artists whose work deals with performance or performativity. Laboring bodies in the spectral ether; from body to bot and back again, and again, and again, and again, and forever and ever, whatever, amen.

JD, LDN 2013