GIF-ed cultural heritage

Submitted by Sonja Jankov, Serbia

This method asks participants to engage in the visual and ludic process of creating GIF pieces (Graphic Interchange Format). These can be photographs and reproductions of works from both the known and unknown collections. This method enables participants to get familiar with open digitised archives, in an active, even performative way. By manipulating images instead of only looking at them, users experience them in different ways and learn about the origins and historical context of particular images. Even though the method is often used as a pure PR by museums and galleries, it can be used to intervene with subaltern or marginalised perspectives. What this requires is setting an issue related to a particular marginalised knowledge and perspectives or groups, and asking participants to intervene in archives and collections through GIF by making statements about these groups.

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In which way is this method alternative? 

When talking about their project and competition GIF IT UP, Europeana emphasized that the competition is “also helping audiences to learn about image licensing in an interactive and fun way.” Apart from that, this method enables users/participants to get familiar with open digitized archives, in active, even performative way. By manipulating images instead of only looking at them, users experience them in different way and learn about the origins and historical context of particular images. Application of this method, if well organized and/or curated, will preserve information about the source images along with their animated GIF versions.

In which context was the method developed?

Animated GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) was created in the late 1980s for purpose of transferring and storing digital animated logos within cyberspace. Although considered now to be a low quality format, at the time of its creation, this “eight-bit file format introduced the amazing spectacle of 256 colour images to be won over the thin lines of dial-up connections” (Fuller, 2012). It is an upgrade of GIF format from 1977 that could transfer a single picture only, but nevertheless represented a miniature technical revolution. Static GIF image was invented “to provide a graphic format that can support colour images, as result of addressing the shortcomings of the previous Run-Length Encoding (RLE), the first graphics compression algorithm, capable of only supporting black and white” (Chiarini, 2015: 130).
The type of GIF that could withstand multiple images, and is known today as animated GIF, was transferring files since the beginning without impoverishing their quality. It is based on LZW (Lempel – Ziv – Welch) algorithm whose main characteristic is lossless compression. This means that “if you compress an image with such a technique and expand the file again, the image outcome is in every detail and bit identical to the original, non-compressed image” (Miano, 1999: 12, quoted in Schiet, 2012: 65). From today’s perspective it is seen as a poor image because it is not suitable for transferring high definition digital photographs, significantly reducing their resolution and colour spectre. However, contemporary technologies overcame this issue and animated GIF started to embody animations of higher image quality.
Animated GIF is no longer used for file transfer, which was its initial purpose, but it remains extremely popular digital media in a wide context of contemporary visual culture.

Requirements for applying the method

Application of animated GIFs to reanimation of cultural heritage (or anything else for the matter) can be used by help of any electronic device, though online sites or installed apps/programs. Therefore, there are no limits to location or a number or profile of participants, which projects like Europeana’s GIF IT UP demonstrate. In terms of technology, availability of internet is important if the participants are using online engines to create GIFs. There is also an issue of copyrights and whether images can be used for further manipulation in GIF format. This method may be very challenging (and possibly inappropriate) in relation to Holocaust studies, images of victims, images of violence and so, but it can be also used appropriately in these contexts if the moderator/lecturer is carefully directing the whole process. Since GIF can easily trivialize presented themes and issues, and often has humoristic aspect, one has to be careful not to create unwanted meanings and feelings.

Experiences with the method

Since 2014, I am curating the long-term curatorial and research project GIF: Visual Practice as Critique though online collection and series of exhibitions, workshops, screenings, theoretic writings and spoken word programmes, in cooperation with both regional and international institutions. The project is dedicated to systematization, preservation, exhibiting and presentation of animated GIFs related to spatial issues and architecture in the broadest sense. It aims to position animated GIF within the context of new media art and to revalue its position in certain stages of curatorial process, such as documentation and presentation of events and museum collections of architectural models. As such, the project connects cultural heritage to new media, as well as artists, activists, associations, collectives, researchers and all those who are using this free and easy-to-make format.

Additional references

Competition GIF IT UP by Europeana
Jankov, Sonja, catalogue for the exhibition GIF and Cities, Gallery Podroom, Cultural Centre of Belgrade, 9/2-9/3/2017
Project GIF and Architecture: Visual Practice as Critique (curator: Sonja Jankov)
list of additional bibliography (bottom of the page)
Jankov, Sonja, “Animated GIF and Architecture,” in: Ružica Bogdanović (ed.), Going Digital: Innovation in Art, Architecture, Science and Technology in Digital Era – book of proceedings, Belgrade: STRAND – Sustainable Urban Society Association, 2018, 171–182

Getting creative with stickers & effects – make your first GIF (Europeana)
Playing with colours – make your first GIF IT UP entry (Europeana)
How to make a GIF from a series of photos (Europeana) to-make-a-gif-from-a-series-of-photos/
Make a GIF from a vintage video (Europeana) from-a-vintage-video/
Gif-making online workshops (DPLA)
How to make a GIF using free software (DigitalNZ) a-simple-animated-gif-with-free-software
How to make an animated GIF from a stereograph (DigitalNZ)
How to make an animated GIF using Gimp software make-an-animated-gif-from-a-stereograph + screencast (DigitalNZ)