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How do you store a GIF?

Meet the artists trying to save GIFs from being lost to the internet ether

You would be hard pressed to find a curmudgeon who doesn't enjoy GIFs. The antiquated image format has found a place in all our hearts, becoming part and parcel of digital mass culture in the last four years. So spare a thought for those concerned with chronicling their cultural import. All of our favourite GIFs are out there, beyond the cloud and lodged deep with Amazon's server racks. How can you possibly create a comprehensive archive of these digital objects?

It seems a pressing question given that not a week has passed since the Internet Archive was ravaged by a fire. The issue of cataloguing GIFs reminded me of an artwork by Ian Byers-Gamber. Ian committed a selection of his favourite GIFs to 16mm film (video above) and posted it along with a tongue-in-cheek provocation, one that pondered whether the users of Tumblr (who, along with Buzzfeed, account for a sizeable chunk of those churning out and consuming GIFs) are the best custodians for those precious looping fragments of popular culture.

Byers-Gamber’s endeavour was a painstaking labour of love: it involved stamping his choice GIFs, frame by frame, onto film stock. While Ian's project does touch on the physicality of archives relative to an internet object’s intangibility, it isn’t an archive per se. It's a collection of GIFs dearest to his heart.

There's also something so aggravating about trying to find a GIF once you have lost it, especially because you know it is still out there

He considers that to be one of the most likely ways that GIFs can be preserved, with everyone keeping their favourite GIFs in their bookmark bar. And let's face it, GIFs bring out everyone's inner hoarder.

“There is something beautiful about the way GIFs exist on the internet,” Byers-Gamber says. “So many GIFs ‘disappear’ from the internet, but most of the time there are a bunch of different copies hosted all across the internet.” In the same breath, he articulates the double-edged nature of the way GIFs are presently preserved: “There's also something so aggravating about trying to find a GIF once you have lost it, especially because you know it is still out there.”

Though frustrating, maybe we could accept that inherent ephemerality. Maybe archives are the wrong way to think about GIFs. Maybe they're closer to performance art ­– present only for time-bounded period, before link rot causes them to vanish without testimony. Olia Lialina's 'Animated GIF Model' project (above) is a particularly performative take on that notion: three transparent GIFs of Olia dancing and hula hooping (dating from 2005) have become remixable digital matter: “I offer myself for web users to be used on their pages and profiles, being distributed, to appear in unexpected corners of the WWW”. The more corners of the internet that Oliana, the less likely her GIF avatar is to perish. Olia's Summer is a clever riff on the scattered existence of GIFs today.

With parallels noted with performance art (which also occasions some form of documentation), it would be remiss not to take lessons from Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied's One Terrabyte of Kilobyte Age. The project is a Tumblr driven resurrection of the Geocities archive, a chronicle of “how the web used to look before its industrialization”. Representing Geocities as it was to today's internet audience is really tricky – the user created websites were built for a bygone era of browsers, so most of them display incorrectly in the average contemporary portal to the WWW. Espenschied chose screenshots, a sweet spot on the two axis of “accessibility and authenticity” - albeit a solution which future GIF archivists won't be able to make use of.

For the pair, screenshots also illustrate what prolongs the lifespan of a digital object. “Digital culture is about practices more than about artifacts,” Epenschied explains. “Something that cannot be used is quickly forgotten. By doing mass screenshots and putting them on Tumblr, the old Geocities home pages become useful again.”

Something that is of use to web users aids in ensuring its existence in perpetuity. The rapid repurposing of existing GIFs into reaction GIFs is a case in point in that regard. And as the very successful “Paddles On” auction demonstrated, GIFs now have value beyond reuse as blog fodder among the teen denizens of Tumblr. 

That said, we have to entertain the notion that at some point, the usefulness and desirability of GIFs may wane. The spectre of Geocities looms large over the Yahoo-hosted reservoir of GIFs that is Tumblr. But beyond the whims of platforms, there are changes to how internet users are regarded by those who control the underlying infrastructure of the web (the corporations and governments who own the undersea cables and tubes through which the digital content flows).

I can envision everyone rationing their 3MBs per day just to read plaintext emails 

Ian Byers-Gamber is worried about what the loss of net neutrality, and its ensuing knock-on effects for users (TL;DR – equal access to the internet may become a thing of the past) would have for digital culture. “This upcoming [Verizon Mobile] hearing may be the thing that takes GIFs down. I can envision everyone rationing their 3MBs per day just to read plaintext emails or something like that”. 

A dystopic vision, maybe, but one that is pretty much the end game of where the internet's priorities presently lie. Epenschied cuts to the chase by noting that while we perceive the web as fleeting and transient, closer inspection reveals that some objects are more ephemeral than others. 

Some data, like banner ad databases (aka any data that can be algorithmically coaxed into generating monetary value) is there forever. “But the stuff that is thrown away in a heartbeat is the ambiguous data: free-formed, contextualized, expressive, suggestive, performative, poetic,” he says.

“It is simply too difficult to fillet it for database usage. But as users we could collectively decide that these things are also important as databases. A new coming age of oral culture has been announced more than once,” Epenschied continues. “Before this can happen, digital culture and history needs other representations than line charts of the most frequently used search term." 

Olia and Dragan both have works exhibited at Olia's Chapel, part of The Wrong New Digital Art Pavillion.