Opinion

Sometimes a GIF Is All You Need

Screen shot of Olia Lialina's "Summer" (2013)
Screen shot of Olia Lialina’s “Summer” (2013) (via sebastianschmieg.com/olia/summer/)

Today and yesterday were glorious days in New York: August had come, the sun was shining, the weather was just right. They were the type of days that make you want to frolic, or skip or swing. And so it happened, when I clicked on a link in a tweet by pioneering net artist and critic Olia Lialina, that I saw her swinging joyfully towards me in my browser. This, I thought, is the perfect expression of summer.

Lialina’s piece “Summer” is a GIF, and at first glance, a fairly simple one: it features an image of the artist swinging to and fro against a blank background that bleeds from bright blue to white. She wears a summery outfit, with her loose hair puffing out as she moves and a slight smile on her face. The background of pure sky-like color lets you easily imagine her drifting among the clouds, as does the placement of the swing at the very top of the page.

But that placement is more than clever — it’s quite brilliant, as it connects the swinging Olia to the address bar, which you’ll notice is constantly changing. A new website flashes with each frame of the GIF, all of them featuring the extension “/olia/summer.” “I like to swing on the location bar of the browser,” Lialina told me by email, “and I like to know that the speed of swinging depends on the connection speed, and that you can’t watch this GIF offline.” The GIF, it turns out, is distributed across the websites of 21 artists, each of whom got a frame and linked to each other.

“I believe in distributed content,” Lialina wrote, “in power of URL and in animated GIFs of the first generation: perfect loop, transparent background–> to be reused on other pages, not just posted, but to be integrated in a layout.” She added that “Summer” relates to a previous work, from 1997, “Agatha Appears.” In that piece, also hosted on a number of different artists’ sites, you click on an image of a woman repeatedly, and the image stays exactly the same while the URL changes. The web addresses seem to tell a story — “http://profolia.org/agatha/was_born_to_be_happy.html”, “http://bodenstandig.de/2000/agatha/cant_stay_anymore.html”, “http://pleine-peau.com/agatha/starts_new_life.html” — but nothing on the main screen budges.

Both “Agatha Appears” and “Summer” mess with our usual conceptions of the internet: we tend to believe that each link brings us somewhere new and that content across sites is connected only in a loose, unstructured way, rather than a fixed, causational one. By disrupting the online status quo, Lialina pushes us to think differently about what the web can be — all while capturing the pure joy of blue skies in summer.

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