The Affect of Animated GIFs

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Sally McKay has written a thoughtful paper titled "The Affect of Animated GIFs (Tom Moody, Petra Cortright, Lorna Mills)." The venue is art&education, a website for art writing co-sponsored by e-flux and Artforum. I'm flattered to have my OptiDisc GIF featured on the front page and discussed in depth.

From McKay's text (footnotes are in the article):

Brian Massumi describes affective intensity as a "state of suspense, potentially of disruption. It is like a temporal sink, a hole in time... ."[27] This is a moment of incipience, before action is taken, before emotions qualify and retroactively determine the affect. In animated GIFs, the gaps in action between frames extend the affective suspense. They are small enough to suggest motion, but large enough to create a perceptible gap, which means there is plenty of time for the affect to take hold. As Mieke Bal might describe it, the animated gifs function like cinematic close-ups — "abstractions isolating the object from the time-space coordinates in which we were moving as if 'naturally.' A close-up immediately cancels out the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect." [28] Unlike close-ups in cinema, however, animated GIFs function without a "whole" — there is no ongoing narrative for them to be juxtaposed against. If, as in OptiDisc, the affect is strong and virtually uninflected by signification it can induce a light trance, taking over the perceptual system by temporarily shutting down emotion and cognition.

This kind of cognitive stupor can be pleasurable, but it does raise some concerns. Amy Herzog talks about the political potential of the affective pause in feminist film as a moment of becoming.[29] But what if the becoming never comes? What if the affective intensity remains arrested, and is never collapsed into action or emotions? Granted, many animated gifs carry more signification than OptiDisc and even in this piece there are references — such as an allusion to Jasper Johns’ target paintings — that may eventually emerge and break the spell. But the endlessly looping structure does enhance a kind of "anaesthetic" state, as Susan Buck-Morss might describe it. "The problem," Buck-Morss suggests, "is that under conditions of modern shock — the daily shocks of the modern world — response to stimuli without thinking has become necessary for survival."[30] In a culture that depends on citizens' passivity — and the contemporary context of late capitalism would certainly apply — aesthetic products and media may be designed as phantasmagorias, which, as Buck-Morss explains, have the "effect of anaesthetizing the organism, not through numbing, but through flooding the senses."[31] The zoned-out state of mind induced and extended by digital media such as OptiDisc may be an affect that mitigates against the agency of enhanced perceptual engagement.

Some thoughts on this to come.

Update, Jan. 2018: Substituted an Internet Archive link to the article.