In the endless ouroboros of nostalgia and reappropriation that is the web, the animated GIF—that humble image file format, capable of supporting simple animation frames—has experienced an unquestionable renaissance in recent years. Regardless of how you pronounce it, from the robust culture of the reaction GIF and the now Republican Party-approved GIF listicle to mournful cinemagraphs and almost all of Tumblr, the GIF is currently de rigeur. But it’s rare to see a genuinely innovative use of the GIF, one that peels back the meme-layers and lays bare the elegance of the format itself. After all, an image format is an image format—but an image, when it’s powerful, transcends its medium.
This is precisely what makes digital artist Tom Hancocks’ new exhibition on the GIF-only online gallery, ANI GIF, so interesting. Titled IDLE SELF, it is a piece of animated GIF architecture, a gently animated house containing a series of increasingly surreal, clickable rooms. The structure is filled with billowing textures, ebbing light, and wobbly liquids; the entire house is made of GIF.
“The idea of connecting GIFs with spatial environments,” Hancocks says, “sprouted from delving deeper into 3D programs with no specific direction.” Hancocks, initially interested in creating still images, began experimenting with 3D modeling architectural spaces; when ANI GIF reached out about an exhibition, the idea of bringing these created spaces to life fell into place. The end result feels like a dream filtered through the familiar textures and incomprehensible spaces of early PC gaming—part Myst, part Internet fever dream, part the glowing white bedroom beyond the infinite, appointed in space-age Louis XVI-style, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hancocks claims no lineage to Myst, but the spirit of the 2001: A Space Odyssey bedroom floats through IDLE SELF; although he hasn’t seen the film, Hancocks says that stills of this scene “were very inspiring, in terms of just ambience and feel and how much a space, or even just seeing a space, can have an impact.”
In a cycle of borrowing which predates the Internet, Kubrick’s “beyond the infinite” room shares DNA with another piece of speculative architecture: the “Continuous Monument” proposed by radical Italian architecture group, Superstudio, in the 1960s. Superstudio imagined a world wrapped in an endless white grid—fantastical renderings depicted hippie families picnicking, like islands of human warmth surrounded by a white void—a superstructure obliterating the need for architecture. In 1968, Kubrick’s addition of period furniture and a baffled astronaut completed the science-fictional image, using the grid as a kind of shorthand for the blank slate of pure reality, abstracted from the arbitrary trappings of human existence.
Less than twenty years later, in his seminal novel Neuromancer, William Gibson shattered and abstracted this idea further with his invention of “cyberspace,” as a hallucinatory grid or matrix of “bright lattices of logic unfolding across a colorless void.” This, in turn, ported Superstudio’s experimental critique of modernism and Kubrick’s play of perspective over to a new proving-ground for human invention—the Internet. Whether or not Gibson’s grid included animated GIFs as compressed units of cultural expression is unclear; regardless, our real-life cyberspace seems unable to function without them. Which brings us back to IDLE SELF.
“The IDLE SELF house,” Hancocks explains, “as the name vaguely suggests, is somewhat of an introspection. There were obviously subconscious influences and I had themes in mind, but I wasn’t necessarily trying to tell a story.” Rather, he was hoping to create a digital experience akin to visiting an art gallery, a structure designed to allow focus and trigger a certain state of mind, where the space itself has personality and the mystery of what the next room contains is part of the enjoyment of the visit.
Hancocks’ GIF house strikes a balance between being science-fictional and nostalgic. The palatial scope of its abandonment is strangely evocative; clicking through its spaces feels like stumbling upon a futuristic, incomprehensible crime scene. He explains that the most interesting stories are science fiction stories, because they bend the parameters of realistic possibility—the relatable—by introducing things which could be. “The ‘house’ provides the foundation of relatability,” Hancocks explains, “but then there are those ‘what-if’ elements that the GIFs explore. What if there was a giant rock in the middle of a room with chains going through it? I would love to consider it some form of science fiction architecture, and would also love to further push that idea of adding a narrative, because that’s essentially what I love about 3D programs: the ability to observe and explore nature and physics but release some of the constraints and allow more control of the natural world.”
Still images of IDLE SELF courtesy of Tom Hancocks. Visit the animated GIF art gallery, ANI GIF, to see IDLE SELF in full motion, as well as the nine other excellent and brain-bending exhibitions of GIF manipulation.