Last winter, Dan Harmon, who was then the executive producer of the television sitcom Community, shared that he tried, “many times a season” to put star Alison Brie “in a situation, wardrobe-wise, that I know is going to end up as an animated GIF file!” Those GIFs, which circulate on Tumblr and other social media networks that traffic in images, are frame-capture GIFs. Unlike other GIF types, frame-capture GIFs plainly collect and endlessly repeat a single pop cultural moment from movies, TV shows, sporting events, political occasions, newscasts, cartoons, or even video games. As GIFs are silent, text is used to share dialogue or help shepherd the meaning of a GIF. Frame-grab GIFs are low-quality, incessantly mobile things, they can be awkwardly cropped and their focus is always obviously legible. Somewhat counter to this are what Daniel Rourke has termed art GIFs, which, while also frequently sourced from movies or television, contain higher resolutions and have a self-consciously highbrow pretention, usually focusing on subtler, “artistic” moments.
A frame-grab GIF
Writing in the early 1990s, Susan Stewart observed that “with the advent of film, interpretation has been replaced by watching … Here we see the increasing historical tendency toward the self-sufficient machine, the sign that generates all consequent signs, the Frankenstein and the thinking computer that have the capacity to erase their authors and, even more significantly, to erase the labor of their authors.” Stewart's diagnosis of the filmic watching-state returns, in a modified form, with the frame-grab GIF. These GIFs are in some sense the ultimate in self-sufficiency, not merely in the eternal return of their endless loop, but also within what Rourke has called the co-ordination of “their own realm of correspondence.”
The quality of the frame-grab GIF is important. Borrowing insights from Hito Steyerl’s analysis of the poor image, the creation and distribution of frame-grab GIFs “enables the user’s active participation in the creation and distribution of content, it also drafts them into production. Users become editors, critics, translators, and (co)authors of poor images.” Perhaps due to their quality and size, frame-grab GIFs have necessarily abstracted authorship. They are deployed in variable contexts, as reactions, illustrations, or expressions. Art GIFs, on the other hand, are circulated to be admired. Their authorship is also more consistently policed, as their authors demand credit for their work.
An example of what Daniel Rourke terms an "art GIF" (via)
While Stewart’s description of “the sign that generates all consequent signs” is one that erases authorship, the vernacular of frame-grab GIFs does something different. Instead of completely erasing authorship, the creation of frame-grab GIFs rearranges its tenets. Generally centered on a performer, framing the actor/actress in a context removed from the narrative flow of their source media. With their behavior on display, they carry a kind of performative authorial focus within the GIF. While the GIF is not by them, it is of them...