Portland digital artist Zack Dougherty spends hundreds of hours on art that lasts half a second long and loops infinitely. Under the alias Hateplow, his growing body of work has attracted an international audience.
But how do you classify it?
All of Hateplow’s compositions are digital and connected through elements of surrealism. Most of his time is dedicated to making the compositions look real: perfecting lighting of the floating orbs, syncing faint reflections in stone statues, having his own image peering back at the viewer.
By modern art taxonomy, Hateplow’s work falls under the umbrella of one of online’s trendiest art forms, “GIF art.”
A GIF (formally pronounced Jiff, colloquially Gif) is short for a graphic interface format. It was created to reduce the transfer time for images and since the birth of the Internet has been a vehicle for animation. Remember this dancing baby? He/She is now 17 years old.
In the past few years, animated GIFs have exploded in popularity across the web. Animated GIFs now have their own award show. There’s the new Saatchi Gallery/Google+ Motion Photography Prize. GIFs have been a longtime marquee for many articles, as well as a controversial form of copy. They are also the ubiquitous punchline for online jokes.
And this renaissance is due in large part to artists, like Hateplow, who are actively reinventing the possibilities of the file format:
“I don’t think there are many things out there where you can say it’s a new medium that people haven’t really explored … and figured out what you can and can’t do with it,” says Jess Gilliam, head of content at Giphy.
Giphy is a year-old New York-based company. It serves as a library of animated GIFs and, more or less, a facilitator between their nearly 100 featured artists and interested brands. In January, Giphy partnered with Subway, releasing 75 GIFs across Twitter in an interactive advertising campaign. Their hashtag (#januANY) ended up trending across Twitter in the U.S.
Hateplow is featured on Giphy and for someone like Gilliam who scouts new talent daily, his work stands out. “I can see artists stuck in producing the same work over and over again, but his stuff is so interesting,” says Gilliam. “It’s very unique.”
A lot of Zack Dougherty’s work is rooted in the college courses he took on astrophotography at Sierra College. That’s where he first started dealing with composite photography, the process of combining multiple photos into one. “What I loved about astrophotography was being able to see something you couldn’t with your eyes,” he says.
This mix of meticulous attention to detail in capturing photographs and the deep dive into post-production afterward is a passion for Dougherty that is still seen in his work.
He was introduced to the growing GIF art community on Tumblr by a friend two years ago. “It’s fun, it’s also a terrible format,” he says. “It’s not anything you would choose to make an animation out of that’s longer than 10 or 15 frames.” But those limitations create a level playing field for artists and offer an ability to harness the format’s greatest asset — that it plays automatically.
“As a society our attention spans have shortened so much,” says Gilliam, who also attributes the animated GIF’s success to automatically playing. “If it’s a video and I need to actively press play, and there’s going to be sound involved — I’m a lot less likely to do that.”
Over the past two years, Hateplow’s work has culminated in visually striking art that examines reoccurring themes of time and the evolution of new media. And it stands alone in an emerging, diverse art form that may be outgrowing its name.
What Does GIF Art Even Mean?
Giphy’s roster of artists is a glimpse into the expansive world of GIF art. There are photographers, animators, 3D modelers, curators, graphic designers and more. The only thread connecting it all is how they export their work.
“I think it’s kind of odd to define [the art form] around the file format when there’s such a diversity of work that’s being made, and diversity of process that leads up to it,” says Theo Downes-Le Guin. He is the owner and director of Portland’s Upfor Gallery, which focuses on contemporary art with an emphasis on digital and new mediums.
But Downes-Le Guin adds, “I think art historians and critics would argue that this isn’t a problem unique to new media.”
As soon as labels are created in any medium, they naturally become problematic. They can be extremely limiting, or overly identified with an artist or certain style. Or they just don’t accurately describe the art.
“Am I a GIF artist? Over the past two years, the dominant format I’ve dumped onto the Internet has been a GIF,” says Hateplow. But he doesn’t define his work by the file format he exports to. If he were labeling his own work he’d choose “digital collage.” For example, look at the statues he incorporates in his work.
Hateplow captures HDR photos of the statues in galleries, scans them on his computer — compiling terabytes of data — and then tinkers with them with software like Cinema 4D, where he perfects realistic light, shadows and reflection.
But he doesn’t create these statues. He facilitates them. And that’s the point. They’ve endured all these years and now exist in a digital cloud. It’s a mirror on the temporal nature of digital culture.
“The perception is that these GIFs or digital stuff in general, once it’s online it lives forever, which is true as long as we keep backing them up and reproducing the stuff on new palettes and develop new technologies that last longer than 10 or 15 years,” says Hateplow. “It can all be gone in an instant, which brings you back to stone and how powerful a stone statue is.”
As a curator and long-time admirer of digital art, Downes-Le Guin explains that for him digital art is not about the label or even the medium. Instead, it’s the statement.
“It is not coincidental that a lot of art that is truly specific to our time is being created using technologies that are specific to our time. But although it’s not coincidental, it’s not intrinsically important to me,” he says. “I’m interested in the idea.”