interview re: GIFs and internet art (as of 2021)

I was recently interviewed by Bia Santarosa, Victor Musso and Leo Zenun, students at ESPM São Paulo, for their final paper on the topic of animated GIFs and "minimal communication." This Q&A gave me an opportunity to update some of my thinking about GIFs in my own work, so with their permission I'm reproducing it here.

When did you become interested in art? What's your trajectory been like?

I’ve made art since childhood and published cartoons in my high school newspaper. In college I double-majored in art and English literature and after graduating I continued my studies at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and School of Visual Arts in NY. I opted not to pursue an MFA since I had little interest in teaching. I began showing my paintings at a cooperative gallery in Dallas, Texas and eventually moved to commercial galleries in NY and elsewhere. Mine has always been a “fine art” practice, as opposed to illustration or graphic design.

When did you start making gifs?

I started making animated .gifs in 2003. At that point they were already considered “retro” (an art form associated with the ‘90s and the dot com era). I was interested in their potential as an art form combining painting and film.

Also, do you have an opinion about net art and its history? How did image archives begin being spread, for instance, and what’s the interest around it?

The history of net art is very tied to tech developments and changes. Thus you had solo, self-hosted sites in the ‘90s, blog-based sites in the ‘00s (still mostly self-hosted), then beginning in the mid-2000s, the rise of aggregators (Flickr, delic.io.us, tumblr) and eventually the full-blown, monopoly-owned social media we have now. Each change required an adjustment in people’s ideas of art, or what was the “right” kind of art for the respective platform. For example, .gifs went from simple graphic elements in the ‘90s to stand-alone art in the ‘00s (which could be passed from site to site) to a meme craze in the late ‘00s/early ‘10s where “gif” became synonymous with “short repeating popular movie clip.” What started (certainly in my case) as a renegade art practice became tamed and appropriated by corporate social media, so that now many “gifs” aren’t actually .gif files, but are looping .mp4 videos (Twitter even pastes the word “GIF” on these non-.gif files).

What relationship do you see between gif and art, and art and minimalism?

Aesthetically I was certainly interested in the simplicity and low frame rate of animated .gifs. These were succinct “art statements” that any browser could read and didn’t require proprietary players to activate. In the early ‘00s the main way of presenting video was clumsy “Flash” players that had to be embedded in the page, unlike .gifs, which began playing immediately in the browser when loaded. With the complete dominance of “social” the context has changed and the “gif style” has been reincorporated as another form of video. Video players have gotten more universal and less cumbersome as bandwidth has increased. Many of my peers from the renegade .gif days are quite comfortable having Twitter convert their efforts into .mp4 videos now – something I’m not particularly interested in.

Do you have a target audience?

My target audience is the art world and it was interesting how animated .gifs leapt outside that frame because they were so easily transmissible. By the mid-’00s I was accustomed to seeing my minimal, abstract artworks being used as eye candy on people’s Livejournal and YouTube pages (early YouTube pages were more customizable and allowed tiled animation backgrounds).

Have you done any jobs for a label?

No, my work has stayed in the fine art context. Sold in galleries as prints or editioned DVDs.

Considering that nowadays people have been paying less and less attention to everything (Economy of Attention), what do you think is the role of gifs in Art?

As stated above, .gifs have been largely subsumed into corporate culture and no longer function as a rogue element being passed from person to person outside these networks, or sold in galleries as fine art. There was a brief flurry of interest in “animated GIFs as art” but I think that’s died down. I am not conversant enough with the recent “NFT art” craze to know whether “gifs” are being offered for sale as .gif files, or whether they are just a style or flavor of video art moving in the blockchain context. My guess is the tech buyers don’t care much about these distinctions, or other art historical considerations – they are more interested in how technology confers ownership.

Is there any social media that enhances your work? (Whether by the public present on it or by its format)

I was an early adopter of the blog format, beginning in 2001. I participated in several group blogs run by like-minded artists throughout the 2000s. These predated Tumblr, a corporate-run social media site that incorporated ideas of blogging and reblogging and attracted many artists. I never joined Tumblr, preferring my “old school blogging” approach.
In 2010 the artist Ryder Ripps and others created dump.fm, which was a meme-type site built around IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Dump was basically a ‘90s, AOL-style chat room but with the ability to post images or groups of images. I was very active there until it shut down in 2016 and I have continued to be involved with IRC communities.
I was active on Twitter from 2008 to 2018, but only for text and writing – once the site added images and video (and advertisements) I lost interest.
The mid-2010s saw a mass migration of the art world to Instagram. Again, something I avoided, not wanting to have involvement with any Mark Zuckerberg project.

What's your creative process? Do you follow specific formulas or are you usually taken by sensibility? What are your inspirations?

I’m working on several fronts: digital painting (in the form of image files and ink jet prints), animation and video, and music. There is some crossover of these interests but mostly I keep them separate. I am inspired by the whole range of cultural production, from fine art to commercial to outsider.

guest DJ set list (April 1, 2021) - prog, jazz, postpunk & detroit techno

Thanks to ffog for inviting me to guest-DJ again on his weekly internet radio show, Myocyte.
The mix was "simulcast" on anonradio and tilderadio, and has been archived by anonradio (scroll down to "Ffog - Pleasure & Discomfort Myocyte"). An mp3 version of the mix is here: [1 hr mp3]

While the tracks were playing I "announced" via text chat on the #sally and #tilderadio channels on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Listeners could comment or ask questions. This is an interesting way to DJ, very different from my old FM radio days and a few steps up aesthetically from having everyone's data and souls leeched out on spotify, etc.

Set list and notes for the show:

If - Shadows and Echoes (1970)

The Residents - Smack Your Lips (Clap Your Teeth) (1982) - some vintage Emulator here

X-eleven - Burn It Up (1990) - Dallas techno

Dan Curtin - Luminous Seed Domain (2000)

Weather Report - The Juggler (1977)

Todd Rundgren - Maybe I Could Change the World - live performance, mid '80s

The French Are From Hell - Better Off Dead (cassette 1980) - Washington DC band [YouTube]

Chrome - Eyes in the Center -- from Red Exposure, 1980

Whiteman - Congratulations (1988) - Dallas band feat. Mark Griffin on guitar, pre-MC 900 Ft Jesus [YouTube]

Ensemble Ambrosius, performing Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat on medieval instruments (2000)

Sole Tech, Sole Waves, remixer unknown, Detrechno label (1994)

Saib, Tropics, from Sailing (Bandcamp 2018)

Made by Robot, The Worst Journey in the World - Monome Community - HAITI 2010 (Bandcamp compilation)

Lortica - Trou De Trou , from Mialle Tapes - (Bandcamp 2014)

St Celfer's Step.4D™ instrument

In our recent mutual interview St Celfer (John Parker) explained a new performance instrument he was working on:

...I’m making music in real time (as opposed to tracking and then arranging) by using an instrument, homemade, or more accurately, “gambiarra,” in Brasilian Portuguese, to be played and heard live. I want to transition from an in-studio process to a live and improvised situation. I will be performing or, in other words, responding, in the moment to the actions I am making, rather than looking backwards and taking the best from pre-recorded material and re-composing it. In the 2004 interview I aspired to make new sounds or music, etc. Now I would substitute “explore” for “make.” Trying for “the new” is understood but “how” is more important.

The instrument’s creation is, itself, an exploration. I can never quite wrap my head around it. I am enjoying being lost. I travel step by step, try a decision, usually walk back, then forward again, on each sound generating component. My energies have gone into the creation of the interface between man and machine. It's a monster getting larger by eating itself.

For instance, there are midi converters, which only understand perfectly tuned chromatic input. There is a theremin component, which can be tuned to doric instead of chromatic scale for some added drama. Meanwhile two CD turntables that I scratch are manually wired into the same midi note converters. Cramming two input devices together makes more output unpredictability, with overloaded notes dropped.

The "gambiarra," now called Step.4D™, has reached a stage of completion where Parker could begin performing on it. Recordings (and some additional explanation) can be found on his website. He has been too prolific for me to keep up with all the recorded performances but I made some notes on a single piece, "STC.lives.solo12.2.9.21" [Soundcloud link] to try to convey the flavor:

A lazy description might be dark ambient or punk ambient but I think of ambient as minimal work ("a tint" to use Eno's phrase) and St Celfer's is more substantial.
"STC.lives.solo12.2.9.21" is atmospheric but has structure. There are two distinct movements. The first half could be a loose jazz ensemble (Parker's work has been compared to Bitches Brew-era Miles) riffing on simple notes with digital, time-stretching fillips and enhancements; the second half is more drone-y and builds to a dense, chord-like timbre.
It must be emphasized that this isn't a band and there is no post-production reassembly: it's one person playing a multi-faceted, self-feedbacking instrument, and it's all done with a single pass. Yet it sounds like group activity.

If I had to venture an electronic music precedent I might say Tod Dockstader. The official Kenneth Goldsmith/Ubuweb narrative about Dockstader is that he was music production guy who taught himself tape music in the early 1960s and "was denied access to the major electronic music centres because of his lack of academic credentials." Dockstader self-released his own music and eventually acquired a rep and entered the canon. Dockstader used the term "organized sound" and that's what St Celfer's "STC.lives.solo12.2.9.21" reminds me of. There are similarities in timbres and moods. But whereas Dockstader was all about slow, painstaking studio assembly of multitracked sounds in a continuous-sounding flow, St Celfer makes the work in a single take. The "assembly" is making an instrument that creates its own variables and accidents and conveys an impression of dense multitracking.

m.po memorial list of banal phrases

Sadly reader m.po (short for mashedpo or mashedpotatohead) died last year so I will no longer be receiving updates to his astute list of garbage phrases everyone uses such as "game changer," "optics," "don't go there," and "my bad."
In honor of m.po I will do my best to keep the list alive by adding items I know he would hate such as "baked in" and "in the weeds." Reader suggestions are also welcome.
One phrase from the list that jumps out, added by m.po in February 2017, is "new normal." This appears to an artifact of the early Trump Derangement Era that was repurposed for covid. Either way, it's a dumb thing to say (or write).

around the web

DeJoy Is Hell-Bent on Wrecking the Postal Service — and Maybe Your Life (Lauren Weinstein)

[Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's] 10-year plan for destroying the USPS, by treating it like his former for-profit shipping logistics business rather than the SERVICE is was intended to be — was released today, along with a flurry of self-congratulatory official USPS tweets that immediately attracted massive negative replies, most of them demanding that DeJoy be removed from his position. Now. Right now!

A Biden Appointee's Troubling Views On The First Amendment (Matt Taibbi)

The Cliff’s Notes version of [a thesis of Columbia prof Timothy Wu, recently appointed to the National Economic Council]:

— The framers wrote the Bill of Rights in an atmosphere where speech was expensive and rare. The Internet made speech cheap, and human attention rare. Speech-hostile societies like Russia and China have already shown how to capitalize on this “cheap speech” era, eschewing censorship and bans in favor of “flooding” the Internet with pro-government propaganda.

— As a result, those who place faith in the First Amendment to solve speech dilemmas should “admit defeat” and imagine new solutions for repelling foreign propaganda, fake news, and other problems. “In some cases,” Wu writes, “this could mean that the First Amendment must broaden its own reach to encompass new techniques of speech control.” What might that look like? He writes, without irony: “I think the elected branches should be allowed, within reasonable limits, to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s.”

Meaning, enforce a balance of viewpoints, presumably, as government did under the old Fairness Doctrine. Taibbi believes Biden's antitrust people don't want to break up big tech companies so much as harness their broad reach. (For good, of course.) Taibbi quotes another writer, Matt Stoller, comparing social media monopolies to Tolkein's One Ring of Power that of course everyone wants. But will the "difficult" voices who are currently being deplatformed in droves be returned to their pulpits under Biden? Not likely, since Timothy Wu's beloved 1950s were a time of top-down control, "fairness" notwithstanding.