Archive for June, 2011
altar by 82times, slightly modified
Two artists inspired by Google-style animation (or negatively inspired) have made Modernist-style versions of the Martha Graham dance:
(Google's animation was so schmaltzy I almost forgot Martha Graham was considered a modernist dancer, hence the title of this post.)
Paddy Johnson emailed Google for its input on why it uses one form of web animation over another on its main search page. Predictably they sent her some public relations blather about employing the tools to best serve their users.
How should one frame the question? If they consider animated GIFs an outmoded filetype, which seems to be the consensus among leading edge web developers, they would never say "we chose method X over a GIF because..."
This leading edge consensus seems to have made strong inroads into Johnson's thinking about GIFs. The increasingly nasty discussions we've been having in her blog's comments came in the wake of a show she curated called "Graphics Interchange Format." What started out as a celebration of a plucky file format enjoying a renaissance among creatives (or so it seemed to me as an artist in the show) has become a funeral, with Johnson equating GIF makers to Polaroid film photographers who, sadly, must accept a changing technological landscape.*
Not too long ago Johnson was describing the GIF-heavy site dump.fm as a new and interesting star in the media firmament but after a few weeks of comments about the "shaky position" of the GIF from her editorial assistant and tepid remarks from an artist in the show about creativity surviving in the face of obsolescence (creativity will always survive, we know this), dump comes to resemble a camera club, association of ham radio operators, or other group of vanishing media fetishists. These are not good reasons for including it in a show, or for organizing a show.
But is the leading edge developer consensus that has become so vocal on Johnson's site, chipping away at the case for GIFs, all that much more palatable? This mindset unquestionably accepts HTML5 as an improved standard over previous HTMLs, despite strong disagreements that still exist about it, such as what type of graphic elements it should employ (SVG vs the Apple-initiated "canvas"; the Ogg Theora video spec vs the Apple-endorsed h.264).
Dump is interesting because it created a new kind of social space online, for display and exchange of web-friendly media. The preference for GIFs there is noteworthy but to the leading edge developer mentality, GIF makers are some strange "tribe" whose motives are mysterious and ultimately a bit suspect. Reason after reason was given for why GIFs are preferred, only to have them rudely swatted aside (of course company X didn't allow GIFs, what, they should look like MySpace?) leaving us with the slightly pathetic rationales of nostalgia and resistance to change.
*Update: Glum as this sounds, it raises an interesting point, addressed in a follow-up post.
Years ago I used to write letters to the newspapers criticizing their art coverage and critics; they were certainly as mean as anything Paddy Johnson's commenters have thrown my way lately. (A few were published!) The difference between my salvos and those of the Johnson posse was the context: I was complaining about actual gatekeepers with the power to decide what hundreds of thousands of people read and saw. Questioning the legitimacy of their opinions had the potential to change the dialogue.
What is at stake in telling a blogger not to link to another blogger? I suppose it's flattering that people think I need to be sidelined through non-linkage but this seems like a vestige of the print era.
Surely a better solution to the problem of a voice you don't like is to offer an alternative. The power differential between yourself and "a net guy with too much cred" is nowhere near as great as it was twenty years ago between a reader and a journalist. If you (or your commenters of choice) have something to say, readers will be drawn in those directions (via the buzz cloud!).
I am an "indie." I don't work for an institution, and have mostly ducked mainstream writing gigs the past 10 years. Since I have no gatekeeper position, it's just petty to opine whether my ideas are better or worse now than they were. If you don't like what I write, don't read it, but trying to convince other bloggers not to link to me is just being stinky for no reason.
I appreciate the frequent linkage from Paddy's blog but lately it's coming with a price. Her comments are blossoming into hatefests where any n00bie with a chip is allowed, even encouraged to vent loud and long on my shortcomings. I think of the scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood redistributes trinkets and goblets to the poor, accompanied by a hard punch in the face from one of the Merrie Men.
I will continue to link to Paddy, and assure her that if I had commenters I would ban or castigate the first one that attacked her as a person.
GIF on right is a collab. with stage; the animation on the left is CSS flipbook made to look like a GIF (just kidding)
One of Paddy Johnson's commenters found what he believes is a major factual inaccuracy in my post about Google's Martha Graham animation--so major that he spammed her blog with comments loudly and repeatedly claiming that I was guilty of "intellectual dishonesty." (Somewhat like makers of signs on American highways telling you that a tourist attraction is coming up--keep reading folks, the truth is just four comments ahead... three comments...)
hat tip boredom
Some late-breaking comments on the GIF thread from hell. If you can't attack an argument you must demolish the credibility of the person making it, so suffice it to say I am now little more than a smoldering pile of ash. I did help one reader refine his views, though, going from "Who knows why Google chose HTML5?" (for its Martha Graham animation) to speculating that it was because mobile browsers lack adequate GIF support. This same commenter goes on to bluster that
Tying Google's tech choices re: their doodles to policies against GIFs on their other sites (like Blogger) is naive (and, frankly, stupid). Facebook, Twitter (& whomever else) block animated GIFs for 1 reason (which you already mentioned): they don't want to be Myspace.
Paddy Johnson agrees :( and suggests that
what's happening to GIFs seems a little like the Polaroid problem to me. People still make the film, but it's impossible to find. Not being able to shoot Polaroid doesn't mean that artists will stop being creative, but it does mean they may have to switch mediums if it's no longer practical. That will be more painful to some artists than others.
To which I replied:
If we don't know why Google blocks GIFs in one arm of its company and pushes other animation methods in another (and we don't), why is it automatically naive to consider connections between the two? More is at stake here than the type of "film" we use; it is completely fair to consider an across-the-board GIF phase-out in the larger context of the Web becoming a more controlled and controllable place (see my comment to Duncan below). "They don't want to be MySpace" is also pure speculation.
Duncan Alexander, in another late-breaking (and excellent) comment, said that "it's apples and oranges to compare GIFs to code hacks," to which I replied
It's not an apples and oranges debate though, or people wouldn't be yelling so much. Google doesn't mean to replace GIFs with another filetype people can share and take apart and play with. On its flagship search page it is clearly presenting its vision of a "one way web" crafted by its owners where the terms of your interaction are "click here" and "save your results." To consider the political dimension isn't conspiracy theory or empty railing against the man, it's a question of what kind of internet (and therefore, life) we want to have.
In an era when Facebook=Web this has mostly been decided for us and bemoaning the fate of the GIF does have a hopeful, 2004 ring to it. Consider these arguments back-dated.
posted to dump.fm by _____ (sorry I forgot; please email and I will add).
A compelling GIF, starting smoothly and gradually becoming chaotic but always imparting a sense of geometric order in the natural world, a la Cezanne. Its artifice is laid bare and it doesn't pretend to immerse us in sentimentalized nature. Yet it probably came from a cable animal channel documentary.
When someone who claims to be in the art world has to ask a question like "why do GIFs matter to artists?" it's saddening. The appeal of an animation like this shouldn't need justifying to anyone.