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Exhibiting .gifs: An Interview with curator Jason Eppink

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Jason Eppink, Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.
Jason Eppink, Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.

Who would have thought when CompuServe introduced the Graphics Interchange Format in 1987 that the world was witnessing the birth of a new medium of expression? At Digital Preservation 2012 keynote speaker Anil Dash suggested that the humble animated GIF was likely “the most watched form of video?” Animated GIFs are increasingly being appreciated as a medium for art and as an important mode of cultural expression.

As part of the NDSA Insights Interview series, I’m thrilled to interview Jason Eppink, Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Jason recently curated, The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture, which exhibits a set of GIFs he identified in consultation with redditors.

Trevor: For those who are unfamiliar, what exactly is a reaction GIF? Furthermore, what are reaction GIFs doing in a museum?

Jason: A reaction GIF is an animated GIF, typically of a body in motion and primarily excerpted from a film or television show, that is used online as a response or reaction.

An example of a reaction gif. Provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.
An example of a reaction gif. Provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.

I see two distinct forms of reaction GIFs: “actual” and “hypothetical.” The former occurs in comment threads, message boards and email chains when someone posts a GIF to directly respond to something someone else wrote. The latter occurs when someone proposes a hypothetical situation (e.g. “When a website says it’s “done” loading but the page is blank“) then posts a GIF to perform a reaction. These are frequently referred to as HIFW (How I Feel When) or MRW (My Reaction When). In general, we see more actual reactions on Reddit and more hypothetical reactions on Tumblr, though obviously this isn’t a perfect distinction and there’s plenty of overlap.

I’m interested in both uses of the reaction GIF, but I kept seeing the same GIFs pop up over and over on Reddit and the comment sections of other websites. It occurred to me that a good way to tell the story of the reaction GIF to a general audience was to take a snapshot of this “canon” as it currently stood.

Reaction GIFs are in Museum of the Moving Image because we’re dedicated to the moving image in all its forms, and that includes GIFs! In my role as Associate Curator of Digital Media, I focus on all the ways people are making, sharing, and interacting with the moving image, including remix, video games, interactive art, and of course animated GIFs.

Trevor: Your subtitle, “Moving Image as Gesture,” is a nice concise description about something that seems rather unique to the animated GIF. I would be curious to hear your rationale and description of the concept here. Along with that, I would be curious to hear how you think the animated GIF is situated in a broader history of the moving image. Is there precedent for this function for moving images? Is this something unique to the affordances of the animated GIF and the web?

Jason: When I started noticing reaction GIFs a few years ago, my first thought was that they were like new words: brief, silent, looping videos that were being used to fill in gaps in our language. As I started doing more research on linguistics and human-computer interaction, I became convinced that they had more in common with gesture.

Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.
Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.

Human communication has primarily been face-to-face since language emerged many millennia ago. Only in the last few centuries (since the printing press) has text been such an important part of daily life, and only in the last couple decades have we relied on text for so much of our synchronous and near-synchronous communication (email, text messaging, etc.). We have lots of nonverbal cues at our disposal when we’re communicating face-to-face: speech, rhythm, intonation, volume, gesture, etc. But when we communicate over computers our toolset becomes very limited. Speech is related to text, obviously, and some of those nonverbal cues might map to punctuation and font, but what about gesture?

So I propose the primary purpose of the reaction GIFs is gesture: they’re a language tool that allows the user to perform a gesture in a context that is mainly text-based.

I haven’t found any precedents that tell a satisfying story of continuity for the reaction GIF or even the animated GIF in general. Certainly we saw a proliferation of optical toys in the 19th century that created loops – phenakistoscopes and zoetropes and the like – but they served a very different cultural purpose. A GIF can only be a casual tool for identity and language because it’s infinitely reproducible and instantaneously transmittable.

Trevor: You asked Redditors (that is, participants in the Reddit online community) to help you select the GIFs you would share. Why did you take this approach and how did you make your selections based on their recommendations? Given that “Reddit” itself comes from a portmanteau of the words “read” and “edit,” does working with that community serve to alter some of the ideas about authorship of the exhibition?

Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.
Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.

Jason: I’m primarily interested in how culture emerges rather than how it is authored. To me, it was critical for a community that is constantly defining and redefining this set of behaviors to have the key voice in telling that story. After Redditors submitted their GIFs and definitions, I did lots of search analyses to look at how frequently the GIFs and their derivatives occurred online, and in consultation with some colleagues, shaped the show so it told a diverse and balanced story that explored the broad range of the reaction GIF. For example, I didn’t want too many versions of someone eating popcorn, as significant as many of those GIFs are.

Trevor: Authorship often plays a significant role in the narrative flow and structure of exhibitions, but I imagine it would be nearly impossible to identify the creators of these GIFs. This is further complicated by the fact that most of these are functionally very tiny clips from TV shows and films. I’m curious to get your thoughts on the need or value of presenting these GIFs with information about their authorship. Further, given the fact that many are unattributed and most appropriate small segments of copyrighted works, how did you and the museum think through any rights issues?

Jason: The element of the GIF that most interests me is the enduring ethos of the commons, something that persists long after the internet has been colonized by commerce. In the early days of the web, what we now call “embedding” was called “hot-linking,” and it was considered rude. If you found an animated GIF you liked that you wanted to include on your webpage, you saved a copy to your own server. That’s how GIFs spread; no one thought it was a problem that they were left unattributed. Entire websites cropped up to serve collections of animated GIFs like this.

There’s still very little to gain from making GIFs, so authorship remains deemphasized. We have a bias towards authorship when it comes to images because we’re transitioning from a world where image production was materially expensive. We expect the image to have an author because of the fundamental relationship of authorship to the economics of producing cultural artifacts. But today images are as cheap and prolific as the air that we utter our words with.

Maybe reaction GIFs are like slang. I’m fascinated by the history of the word “okay.”  Historians are trying to track down who originally spoke those two syllables, but the more significant story is that a slang word caught on because enough people started repeating it, and now it’s an indispensable part of our vocabulary. What’s interesting is how the GIFs in this exhibition, not any of the other millions of GIFs that have been made and largely forgotten, struck a chord with enough people that they started using the GIFs as their own, and how those GIFs bubbled up to the surface to become significant artifacts for some fairly large online communities.

Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.
Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.

The question of “who made the first version of this specific reaction GIF” is certainly a valid inquiry, but it gets murky very quickly, just like historical “firsts” always do. And you’re right, that would be an enormous project outside the scope of this exhibition. I did track down all the original sources these reaction GIFs were derived from, but in the end decided not to include them in the exhibit because that was beside the point; it was contextualizing them incorrectly. This exhibit is not about who made the reaction GIFs or where they came from but who uses them; not the old meanings they were derived from but the new meanings they’ve been given. That appropriation, even just using a reaction GIF someone else made, is its own form of creation and comes with its own authority. So instead, the exhibition credits the Redditors who contributed the GIFs and their definitions.

Regarding copyright: I’m confident the exhibition easily falls within fair use, but even outside of the context of a museum, I suspect we’ll see case law made in the next five years affirming that animated GIFs are fair use.

Trevor: When I asked you about doing an interview for the blog you stressed “To be clear from the start, though, we’re neither collecting nor preserving the GIFs on display, only exhibiting them.” I’d be interested to get your read on what it means for you to exhibit these GIFs but not to collect them? That is, you’ve made copies of the files, so in some sense you’ve “collected” them. I would be interested to hear your take on what these terms would mean for something like this set of animated GIFs. Furthermore, would you be interested in offering the collection of GIFs you’ve pulled together to the exhibition to some other repository for long-term access?

Jason: Knowing that the Library of Congress is very much about collecting and preserving, I just wanted to make sure you still wanted to have this conversation! As I’m sure most of your readers know, in the museum world “collecting” means a very specific thing. We exhibit moving images – our screening programs are at the core of our mission – but those films are on loan. I understand the exhibition of GIFs inside that framework.

As a rule, we don’t collect film or video; that requires a significant commitment that only really large institutions (UCLA, MoMA) can afford. Instead, our collection focuses on objects that surround the production, promotion and exhibition of moving images. So sure, I have copies of these GIFs in a few places, but we haven’t accessioned them, i.e. made a commitment to preserve them for the foreseeable future. If someone reading this wants to make this project a part of their archive or collection, I’d certainly love to talk with you!

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of reaction you are receiving to the exhibition? From the story on National Public Radio, it would seem that the pronunciation of “GIF” is itself still a popular subject of discussion. That aside, I would be curious to learn a bit more about what you’ve learned about the medium and it’s use through working on the project.

“That’s the reaction we got online from people who were surprised a museum would exhibit animated GIFs.” Image provided by the Museum of the Moving Image.

Jason: Was that a setup for a reaction GIF? Here’s one:

That’s the reaction we got online from people who were surprised a museum would exhibit animated GIFs. Of course, everyone’s a self-styled GIF expert these days and has an opinion about an egregious omission I made. But that’s good: they should be questioning our authority.

I find the pronunciation issue interesting in terms of identity-making. From a purely utilitarian perspective, obviously it doesn’t matter because we know what someone means whether they say “JIF” or “GIF.” But language is a tool for social identity, and how someone chooses to pronounce a word often has more to do with signaling a status or group affiliation. My axe to grind is with the media’s fixation on this narrative of “X as Art,” where X is a common thing you didn’t know could be art but actually it totally is now. Artists have been working with GIFs practically since the format’s inception, and that’s a significant and often overlooked story, but it’s obviously not what I’m doing here.

I’ll finish with an interesting technical concern that I keep running into: the same GIF can play at different speeds based on browser and browser version! This is not a big deal if you’re a casual web user, but it’s super important if you’re trying to exhibit a GIF as it was experienced at the time of its creation. Artist Jeremiah Johnson maintains the invaluable Animated GIF Minimum Frame Delay Browser Compatibility Study which I find myself returning to every time I’m working on one of these projects. This issue popped up a few times with the reaction GIF show, but it really became a concern when I was wrangling more than 300 90s-era GIFs for Under Construction.


  1. Jason curated a collection of “Under Construction” GIFs I’d collected at the Museum of the Moving Image and it was an amazing work. I was happy to be a part of that!

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