By Rebecca Catching, originally published in China Now, the British Council platform for the arts and creative industries in China in 2019
The East-Asian Origins of the GIF
In 2011, the Korean company Naver, which created the popular East Asian messaging app Line, introduced a series of cartoon characters that could be shared between users of the app. Created by artist, Kang Byeongmok, the “Line Friends,”  are a collection of cartoon animals with benign expressions on their faces. Animation-wise they are pretty generic, but mobile users in East Asia loved them—there is even a Line Friends store in Shanghai hawking their unthreatening merch on the busy retail strip of Huaihai Road.
The “Line Friends” may not seem revolutionary, but they and their emoji brethren, who made their first appearance on the screens of the Japanese phones in 1998, (the first emojis were designed by first designed by Shigetaka Kurita for the Japanese mobile company DoCoMo), actually helped spark a whole para-lingual revolution, where communication was achieved without the benefit of a purely visual, non-codified language. Riding on the popularity of animation, and manga culture in East Asia, these emojis and stickers, helped launch GIF culture out of the “nerd-osphere” of chatrooms and bulletin board services, of comic book nerds, otakus and gamers, and to make it a new digital and global lingua franca.
The innovations by Naver and DoCoMo are reflected in the Chinternet as well, where netizens were already sharing emojis and GIFs on Bulletin Board Services, QQ messaging, and Weibo (Chinese twitter), bringing GIFs into mainstream parlance, before they were eventually adopted by WeChat, China’s most popular messaging service in 2012, according to Chinese internet scholar, and media anthropologist Gabriele de Seta.
De Seta explains that in Chinternet speak, animated GIFs, are placed into a larger category of visual communications called “Biaoqing” 表情 (shorthand for the term “expression symbol.” Biaoqing encompasses, “jietu” 截图, screenshots, custom images (individual GIFs produced by random creators on the internet), or stickers (a set of thematic GIFs available through the platform, which tend to be more professional looking). Unlike the stickers hoarded by primary school students, WeChat stickers can be shared and collected with great ease, proliferating like visual viruses. So ubiquitous is the sticker, that everyone from senior citizens, to CEOs, from social media managers to museum directors, incorporate them into their everyday communications with both staff and with friends. They have become an indispensable part of everyday communications in China, given that for many workplaces, WeChat is the prime means of communication, not email. Even the Communist Party is hip to the persuasive power of GIFs, creating its own set of stickers, pushed through the WeChat platform, to address its own political goals, for instance, anti-corruption campaigns.
GIF Sharing as Performance of Identity
But beyond their use for propaganda or brand marketing, De Seta writes that the curation of collections of stickers and animated GIFs is part of the performance of individual identities:
As illustrated by ethnographic studies of WeChat use in everyday life, Chinese users curate their collections of biaoqing as an important component of their identity-making practices and deploy the flexibility of custom images to piece together repertoires of paralinguistic resources that best represent their professional belongings, aesthetic preferences as well as their intimate feelings.
Part of the reason for the popularity of these GIFs is the difficulty in obtaining them. Some are like rare baseball cards or stamps; they are hard to find and when users spot images they like, they need to act quickly and download them from that particular chat into their own collection. In fact, when introducing newcomers to WeChat in China I typically send them a phantasmagoria of off-the-wall stickers. Parading down the screen are GIFs of Marina Abramovic zapping lasers out of her eyes (a riff on “The Artist is Present” performance), a dancing Yayoi Kusama, a panda bear smashing his keyboard on his boss’s desk (good for letting steam off at work) or a chimeric “grass mud horse” which shape-shifts into a blur of different animals (the grass mud horse is sort of the mascot of rebellion on the Chinternet). With this arsenal of GIFs at their disposal, these WeChat ingenues are now ready to go forth into the world of WeChat. So desirable are these stickers that many chat groups are formed on the platform with the express purpose of sharing stickers, explains de Seta.
Over the years, I have been invited to eleven of such groups, each dedicated to slightly different genres of content, ranging from short videos and funny GIFs to ethnic minority humor and old people’s emoticons).” De Seta describes these images as “central protagonists of Chinese digital media ecologies in terms of both everyday use and public discourse.”
Similar platforms in the West, such as What’s App, Skype, and Facebook messenger were quite slow to adapt to sticker culture; Apple iMessage just introduced this function in late 2016 almost three decades after the first GIFs appeared on screens in America in 1987 when they were introduced by online provider CompuServe. GIFs became popular in the West in the mid-90s popping up on kitschy, seizure-inducing “Geocities” websites, (remember the rainbow flashing titles and dancing babies?) before reaching broader usage in the 2000s through sites such as 4chan.
Yet these loopy, flickering images, have predecessors that pre-date the internet. The technology bears a strong relationship to pre-cinematic technologies such as the flipbook, thaumatrope, phenakistiscope, zoetrope or other contraptions from the Victorian Era known as “optical toys,” which used fixed images at moving at high speeds to create the illusion of movement. Though low-tech, these technologies also share another element in common with the GIF which is looping and it is precisely this looping—in contrast to static images such as a drawings or the linear progression of a film—which make this format so addictive, sticky and mesmerizing, popping in and out of internet culture as we’ve seen with technologies such as the short-lived Vine and now Boomerang (Instagram) and (Bounce) in Snapchat.
Writing about the seductive nature of this technology, curator Jason Eppink says that, “Even today, a successful GIF is one that is shared, eclipsing its creator to become an essential part of the cultural conversation. The result is a digital slang, a visual vocabulary unencumbered by authorship, where countless media artifacts are viewed deployed and elaborated upon, more as a language than as art product.”
“GIFs,” he writes, “are promiscuous and frictionless with low barriers for viewing possessing and sharing. It is largely because of its limitations that the GIF survives [three] decades after its introduction sustaining renewed interest in the loop.
The Proliferation of GIF Art Exhibitions
It was only a matter of time before artists started exploring the potential of the GIF medium and in the past five years, we’ve seen GIF exhibitions proliferate with MoMA collecting the DoCoMo emojis in 2016. Recent GIF exhibitions include: “Loop Dreams” (pop-up space, New York, 2016 co-curated by GIF distribution platform GIPHY and internet art organization Rhizome), “Timeframe,” (at Gallery 151 New York, 2017), “The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture,” (The Museum of the Moving Image, New York, 2014), “Savannah GIF Festival” (Jepson Center, Savannah Georgia, 2015), “Everything All At Once,” which featured QR codes linked to GIF art (Lyst Studios, London 2014), “Materializing GIFs | Glitch Festival,” (Rua Red, Dublin, 2018) or the Tate Britain project “1840s GIF Party” (2014) which called upon artists to make GIFs from the museums 1840s Room collection. Some of these 1840s gifs actually found their way onto Chinese mobile phones, for instance, a young girl in a 19th-century dress shimmying in a parlor (see it here:). But these new characters were already in good company as the Palace Museum in Beijing released a series of their own GIFs that same year seeking to literally animate their collections with images of Emperor Kang Xi sitting cross-legged and arching his eyebrows while he licks his lips. (See it here: )
The Chinese GIF art scene though small is as visually robust as it is critical, with artists such as Liao Wenfeng, Min Liu, Wu Junyong, Chen Xuegang and Miao Ying using the medium to challenge the museological system, internet censorship, social conformism, and political power structures.
Miao Ying’s GIF Art—A Meta-Critique of the Chinternet
Miao Ying—one of China’s most feted post-Internet artists—is very interested in the technological ecosystem which gave rise to GIF culture. Though her practice does not extensively focus on GIFs, she has made several important GIF works that take pretty bold aim at the censorship apparatus. For instance “LAN Love Poem.gif” features screenshots of sites blocked in China including Facebook and Twitter, but in fact, the pages are blank except for the error messages reading: “This Page is not available.” Miao Ying’s use of GIFs seems to be primarily aimed at exploring the Chinese “Intranet”—a closed off and siloed sphere, which does not easily communicate with the global Internet outside the Great Firewall. Her use of 3D Taobao fonts and a 90s-internet aesthetics hark back to the 1990s “Geocities” look which is still very much a part of visual internet culture in China today. This 90s aesthetic also reminds us of a time when we thought differently about the “information superhighway”—an era when we still believed in the emancipatory power that the World Wide Web would provide. (see images of her GIFs here.)
Like the other artists profiled in this article, Miao Ying uses the GIF as a form of social critique, using the language of the Internet to speak to the Internet. In this short survey of GIF art, I have found that with the exceptions of Miao Ying, most artists seem to pursue a more linear aesthetic; they understand that the mass-market nature of the GIF medium, they promote its sharing and dissemination and they express themselves in a clear and graphic visual style which borrows much from comics, and line drawing, sometimes incorporating more diverse influences such as folk art and woodcutting. It’s common to see imagery such as weapons, political symbols, bodily imagery, such as skulls and skeletons and occasionally sexual content. There is a strong connection to the medium of animation—and many artists also produce flash and computer animation videos as part of their practice.
Min Liu’s Dark Visions of the Everyday
The other common element found within this work is a wickedly-dark sense of humor, one which often relies on visual puns, and sometimes violent imagery, to create work which is as cynical as it is whimsical, as uplifting as it is depressing. We can see evidence of this dark tendency in the work of Taiwanese artist Min Liu, in her work “Bloody Diary.” This series of GIFs seem to skip gleefully from the mundane to the macabre in a way that is destabilizing but provocative at the same time. The collection of animated images rendered in striking red, black and white seems to echo the aesthetics of wood-cuts—an earlier mode of the mass communications that has existed for centuries. “Bloody Diary” was the result of a Min Liu’s 100-day challenge to produce one GIF a day, turning the everyday scenes of her home into mobile vignettes of the uncanny. For instance, she presents cheerful images such a cat lapping up water out of the bathroom faucet, or a steaming moka pot on a burner, but these soon give way to more lurid imagery, such as a woman sitting in front of a fan which is blowing so vigorously it causes her skin to peel off, or a carton of milk inscribed the words “Bloody Diary,” the milk glugging out into a cereal bowl. Lest we lulled into the comfort of this domestic scene, a spoon reaches in and pulls out a pulsing bloodshot eyeball. In another animation, a series of amiable-looking cats are perched on a moving assembly line. Each time the line stops, a hand calmly reaches down and plucks off their heads as if they were Russian nesting dolls. We see this brand of quotidian horror reappear in the image of a squirrel nibbling on a few acorns—actually human heads—or a watermelon which is sliced in half to reveal a smattering of blinking eyes, their black oblong shapes resembling watermelon seeds. Despite the somewhat gruesome scenarios, these seem like victimless crimes—there are no screams of agony and unlike the notoriously-violent Tom and Jerry cartoons, the focus doesn’t seem to be on violence for the sake of violence, but rather it’s a metaphor for a kind of deep psychological angst, or perhaps the everyday existential terror of office life. (See her work here: https://tenor.com/view/min-liu-min-liu-art-gif-8834150
Liao Wenfeng, Quotidian Imagery and Power Relations
This quotidian horror also resides in the work of Liao Wenfeng, who, along with Wu Junyong and Chen Xuegang are some of the earliest contemporary artists to actively adopt the GIF as a mode of expression. Liao Wenfeng has done much to help spread the awareness of the medium—curating “Gif-ing” as part of the Third Independent Shenzhen Animation Biennale at Shenzhen OCT LOFT in 2016. His work seems to combine a sense of existential angst with a humorous examination of the mechanisms of power. For instance, “Yes No Espresso” depicts a moka pot jockeying with a cup, trying to fill the cup with coffee while the cup dances around trying to avoid the spout—a playful re-creation of the mental dilemmas office workers tend to face at around 3 pm in the afternoon. “Chair as a Clock,” functions as a sort of companion work—with an office chair which rotates in minute increments like the second-hand of a wall clock, painfully counting down the slow crawl towards the end of the day.
I first had the chance to work with him for an exhibition I curated at OV Gallery in 2012 entitled “Minute Gestures,” which included photography and GIFs and later in 2014 at “Cosmos” at the Minsheng Museum where he produced a large installation of 72 screens which viewers watched as they were riding the escalator to the second floor, the GIFs blinking at them in sequence. The complex installation was clever in presenting these fleeting images in a context that was also fleeting.
Much of Liao’s work seems to comment on the absurdity of existence and the angst of the individual trying to exist within different systems—the corporate office, government bureau or even the art museum. For instance, “Searching for Insects,” depicts an outstretched human hand with a woodpecker clutching onto the arm and pecking furiously away at the elbow giving new meaning to the expression “henpecked.” In Liao Wenfeng’s work, the body often acts as a stand-in for the mind, for instance, “Song of the Collar Bone,” depicts a violin bow sawing back and forth across a ribcage as if the bow is playing the person, and not the other way around. The work not only references how humans are “played” and how they also “play themselves.” In Liao’s work, it is common to see two different objects/beings locking horns in a kind of struggle, often a power struggle as is the case with “Betrayers,” where two fingers waggle fervently from each corner of the screen in an accusatory manner. This takes a more sinister turn in “Flag” which depicts the silhouette of an ax which stands proud and erect, while the ax blade quivers, fluttering like a flag in the wind, (the allusion to the ruthless violence of nationalism is not missed). “Blowing on a Knife” follows a similar theme depicting a person blowing up a balloon, which, when it deflates narrows into the shape of a knife, illustrating the sinister power of words. (See his work here and here )
Wu Junyong: Enacting Power Relationships Through Folk Motifs and Sexual Imagery
These juxtapositions are what give the GIF its power as it flips back and forth between images, with hyperbolic or absurd situations used to comment on depressing and mundane realities. Wu Junyong is perhaps the artist with the most extreme tendencies in this area, using the body as a metaphor and taking it into the realm of the grotesque. Starting in 2010, he began producing a series of animations, which used sexual perversion and strange relationships between humans and animals to comment on distorted relations of power. His animations possess a certain stickiness which makes them hard to turn away from, yet at the same time, watching them may invoke feelings of revulsion at the strange acts being performed by bodies on bodies. Still, working in line drawings, silhouettes or paper cuts, Wu Junyong manages to dilute the power of this obscene imagery so as to make it digestible for a gallery audience. Growing up in Fujian, Wu was deeply influenced by the local folk art and throughout his work, we can see a virtual bestiary of roosters, horses, dogs, and other animals all rendered in a folk-art vernacular which borrows much from Chinese shadow puppetry.
Interacting with these animals, we find different kinds of stock characters such as the pompous authority figure, the alienated individual and the bearer of the dunce cap. Without stretching too much we could almost see these characters as modern iterations of the archetypes found in shadow puppetry, the warriors, bureaucrats, merchants and the “chou” or clown role. In fact, we see many allusions to puppetry in his work, for instance, a man acting as his own puppeteer, his hands pulling strings attached to his own feet. In another GIF, one man appears to be conducting an orchestra with hearts, spades, and diamonds flying up in the air, but when we look closely we realize that he is, in fact, the person being conducted—a pair of hands below him hold the strings. These hands and strings are complemented by more overt power motifs, whips for instance, or the dunce cap—an accessory used during struggle sessions in the Cultural Revolution. One of his gifs seems like a recreation of this kind of session with a figure with multiple pairs of arms and legs flailing around and waving his hands as if pleading with someone. Finally, we see two figures lunging back and forth in a heated discussion, their members are replaced with mechanical arms pointing accusatory fingers. Wu’s use of heavily political imagery, flags, weapons, and megaphones indicates a kind of ideological battle staged between individuals and within individuals, such as with the man who pulls open the skin on his chest, as if to reveal a Super-Man costume beneath, only that the collection of stars displayed so proudly on his chest, slide down his body creating a mood of disappointment. These social and ideological contortions are enough to drive us to drastic and self-destructive measures, like the man who stares at his finger as it grows longer and longer in front of his eyes and bites it off only to watch it grow again.
Beyond the content of his work, Wu Junyong is also interested in how these images are disseminated, reflecting not only the opensource culture of the internet and but also the specificities of the Chinternet. His “Water Droplet” 水滴 project, involves a process of disseminating these GIFs through his phone, and the creation of a public record of provenance for each gif, which records the names of the artists, museums curators who have collected them. He knows that his GIFs will live and die on the internet, and he seeks to create a network of private exchange where these images can live as a kind of alternative narrative or collection infrastructure. Speaking of his experience of sharing the GIFs with Art World, he says: “It was just fun at first, and later I discovered that as soon as I sent these images out they began to propagate out of control. I first I would send it to you and then you send it to your friends and then they send it to someone else. In the end, it may end up in the mobile phone of a herder on the grasslands of Qinghai.”  This process of dissemination and collection creates a form of institutional critique—making art really and truly accessible to the people, turning anyone with a computer into a collector, or anyone with an exhibit’s worth of Wu Junyong artwork on their mobile phone into a curator. (See his work here: and here)
Chen Xuegang—Absurdity with a Political Edge
Art critic Wu Wei, describes this process of dissemination, using the metaphor of a dandelion releasing its seeds into the wind in his writings on GIF artist Chen Xuegang. The artist who began experimenting with GIFs in 2007, first began to produce them in greater numbers in 2012. Amongst these artists, Chen is the most interested in direct social criticism, with his works often veering into the territory of political cartoons. Chen’s workplaces human figures at the center of heaving, throbbing assemblages filled with gears, megaphones, factories, and construction cranes. These animated assemblages move with the rhythms of a factory, and the humans are pushed and pulled in time as their movements are connected to the ceaseless turning of the cogs. Even the natural elements found in his work, trees, and flowers, bloom and grow to the rhythm of the factory and the system.
Works such as “Stream of Consciousness No. 6” (link here: ) seem to convey a kind of white-collar angst which we find in Min Liu and Liao Wenfeng’s work, but they take it to a more caricatured level with two figures facing each other, their minds depicted as mesmerizing rotating spirals, and a pencil protruding from the eye of one figure and poking out the eye of the other only to reverse course, and poke out his own eye in a constant cycle of “making the world blind.”
In another work, “A String of Jumpers at Foxconn” [translation mine] 富士康连环跳, the characters for the word Foxconn are stacked one on top of the other and placed within a structure of a building; levers add and remove parts of the characters meanwhile a conveyor belt launches workers to the roof of the building and right over the edge in a reference to the 14 suicides which occurred at the Taiwanese electronics factory and major Apple OEM manufacturer in 2010.
Chen Xuegang does not hide behind references to vague power structures, rather he references specific incidents and satirizes government rhetoric. “Harmony Castle,” depicts a digger used for demolitions with the characters “harmonious” 和谐 dangling from its arm, while “Angry Birds: Why Hasn’t Father Returned?” addresses the demolition of artist’s studios in Songzhuang Village outside of Beijing. Some works employ a caricature aesthetic used in political cartoons. For instance, “Kim Jong Il—Korean Hitler,” features a pencil drawing of the former Korean leader, who removes the skin on his face to reveal Hitler underneath; Hitler, in turn, removes his mask to reveal Kim Jong Il, in a never-ending loop of autocratic terror. Another work “Words of the Sage” [my translation] 子日 features a figure which looks like Confucius, who appears to be chanting, like a sage meditating in a mountain cave. From his head, a hand reaches desperately out, fingers pointing to the heavens plaintively demanding attention, but looking down we see that his body is made from a set of fabric patterns, made for female bodies, the indication being that Confucius or perhaps more broadly the sages speak mindlessly about the model notions of femininity. (See it here and other works here）
Social Implications of GIF Art
Cheaply produced and quickly consumed without the need for curators, exhibition halls, storage or official approval, the GIF form is an ideal way to circumvent more official narratives. “This is something that other media can’t do,” writes curator Zhang Haitao in describing Chen’s work, “The GIF file format is light and small, a kind of ‘low carbon’ type of file. The production cost is relatively economical; the uploading is fast, and the speed of transmission is extremely convenient and quick.” This is important in China’s Internet ecology where internet speed is often throttled. “The GIF is becoming an indispensable element which adds flavor to our lives; sometimes it brings us great joy and happiness, other times it can transform into a sword which we use to critique and question reality,” writes Zhang. In the hands of Chen Xuegang and those of the other artists discussed in this article, GIFs provoke a much greater degree of social critique and self-reflection than we would expect from the benign faces of the Line Friends or Shigetaka Kurita’s pixelated cats and smiley face icons. Perhaps the Line Friends and the emojis were merely trojan horses, their radical potential lurking within.
 De Seta, Gabriele, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019 https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author)
 Note: the word GIF can be pronounced with a hard “g” as in gift or a soft “g,” as in jiffy.
 De Seta, Gabriele, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019 https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author).
 De Seta, Gabriele, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers, and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019, https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author)
 De Seta, Gabriele, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers, and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019, https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author).”
 De Seta, Gabriele, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers, and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019, https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author).
 De Seta, Gabriel, Biaoqing: The Circulation of Emoticons, Emoji, Stickers, and Custom Images on Chinese Digital Media Platforms,” First Monday: Peer Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 23, No. 9, September 3, 2018, (last accessed May 6, 2019, https://firstmonday.org/article/view/9391/7566#author).
 Erdem, Eda, “GRAPHICS INTERCHANGE FORMAT (GIFs) AS MICRO MOVIES,” (Master’s Thesis) Department of
Communication and Design İhsan Doğramacı Bilkent University, Ankara, September 2015, p. 17
 Erdem, Eda, “GRAPHICS INTERCHANGE FORMAT (GIFs) AS MICRO MOVIES,” (Master’s Thesis) Department of
Communication and Design İhsan Doğramacı Bilkent University, Ankara, September 2015, p. 17
 Interestingly enough, Vine, was not merely a technology for sharing looping images but one for making them as well; its easy-to-use format generated twice as many memes as Twitter—thus becoming a generator of visual vocabulary.
 Eppink, Jason, “A Brief History of the GIF, So Far,” Journal of Visual Culture, Volume: 13 issue: 3, p301
 Eppink, Jason, “A Brief History of the GIF, So Far,” Journal of Visual Culture, Volume: 13 issue: 3, p304.
Article first published online: December 16, 2014; p.303
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