Hard 'G' Or Soft, The GIF Takes Its Place As A Modern Art Form

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 12, 2014 3:26 pm


That was the body of the note from NPR producer Evie Stone, along with a link to an exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image titled The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture.

Obviously, Evie and I share a certain sensibility. And just as obviously, I had to go to Astoria, Queens, to check out the exhibit — and report this piece.

Associate curator Jason Eppink was happy to talk about reaching out to Reddit users to ask which GIFs are classics — and how to describe their meaning. So, for example, a GIF of actor Nathan Fillion in the show Castle is used by Reddit responder SmashBoom Pow to express "when someone is so incredibly wrong or stupid that you don't know where or how to respond.

Or a GIF of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, submitted by GirlWithRed Hair — who noted, "I use this to convey indecisiveness. I value your argument and want to agree with you, but I'm not prepared for the consequences of doing so."

Not all reaction GIFs feature celebrities, although Eppink points out that actors often bring additional layers of meaning, especially when they're in character. Their GIFS will carry extra resonance with fans. AngryGlenn posts a GIF of a hysterical baby "when something particularly startling or unexpected occurs out of nowhere."

The exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image is scheduled to run through May 15 and contains 37 such GIFs (generally understood to stand for graphic interface format, although other definitions are out there). Eppink finds it fascinating how people are using mass media to bring subtlety and nuance to online communication, and how they're functioning as Internet vernacular. True GIF-ologists are well aware that the format's creator insists on the pronunciation "jif." With respect to Steve Wilhite, and after considerable internal discussion, NPR went with the much more common pronunciation that uses the same hard "g" as "goodbye."

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Let's shift now to the digital world and report on the kind of moving picture called a GIF, or GIF. Dictionaries accept either pronunciation. And by either pronunciation the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York is giving the GIF GIF its own show. NPR's Neda Ulaby paid a visit.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Maybe the least interesting thing about the GIF, G-I-F, is what it stands for, graphic interchange format. A GIF is a little box showing a loop of someone doing something over and over. Museum-goer Abee Cox sees them used as comments on Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit.

ABEE COX: They're gestures that are sort of hard to put into words.

ULABY: Like Oprah shaking her head in a way that says, unmistakably, unh-unh. Unh-unh-unh. Or a GIF of a saucer-eyed baby freaking out over a toy can show you're startled or thrilled or both.

COX: It's all about context and that's why I think this is a great exhibit.

ULABY: The exhibit is 37 little GIFs projected by the museum's stark white entrance. They're reactions used to respond to other people's posts, so the GIF of actress Jennifer Lawrence giving side-eye and a sarcastic thumbs up means...

COX: Yeah, okay, sure.

JASON EPPINK: For most of human history, we've communicated face to face.

ULABY: That's the curator of this exhibition. Jason Eppink is a lanky 30-year-old in a plaid blazer and T-shirt. He says GIFs can be jumping animals or angry sports fans, but GIFs of actors bring multiple layers of meaning because we associate them with their characters. Take a GIF of Larry David as a neurotic writer on his TV show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

EPPINK: Furrowed brow, it's like he's sort of shaking his head in a way, like he's, like, weighing both sides. It's so complex and so nuanced.

ULABY: And so economical. The clip is five seconds long.

EPPINK: You could've seen the GIF looped 10 times already in the time it took me to, like, explain that.

ULABY: Eppink asked users of the website Reddit to submit GIFs and explain how they're used. Those explanations are captions in the exhibit so when you see the GIF of Larry David shaking his head, it's clear what someone means when they post it. I value your argument and want to agree with you, but...

GLADYS FLORES: Yeah, but I'm not prepared for the consequences of doing so.

ULABY: Gladys Flores is at the museum with her daughter. Until now she'd never even seen a GIF.

FLORES: I'm not really, really into computers.

ULABY: While the expressions and gestures in GIFs are not necessarily universal, GIFs has become integral to the internet vernacular. Julia Flores hangs out on comment boards and she uses GIFs...

JULIA FLORES: All the time when I try to express stuff. You always use Paul Rudd dancing 'cause that's the best way to express happiness.

ULABY: There's not really a word in English that sums up the uninhibited charm of actor Paul Rudd dancing. GIFs stand for feelings it would take too many words to express and they show how you can boil down the vast sea of popular culture into one supremely personal little drop. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.