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The GIF As Exquisite, Unironic Art

If 15 Folds has their way, GIF art will disrupt the art world.

The GIF can be many things—a disposable meme, a bit of looping humor, or an endless replay of Ballardian metal-meets-flesh violence. But GIFs seldom rise to the level of exceptional, fine art. The trio at 15 Folds hopes to change this with its monthly-themed online GIF gallery.

While 15 Folds used to be a collaborative and iterative artistic process akin to Exquisite Corpse and Chinese Whispers, the site's creators ultimately settled on a different format. Each month, they select a theme, and commission GIFs from creatives across various disciplines, with the fifteenth piece coming from 15 Folds itself. Themes have included Ritual, Opulence, Supernatural, and Paradise, amongst others. The artists respond in a variety of ways, from the absurdly funny to the truly mind-melting.

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Ultimately, the group, which includes creatives Jolyon Varley, Margot Bowman, and Sean Frank, aims to take 15 Folds out of cyberspace and into the real world. The goal isn't the monetization of GIFs, but the subversion or disruption of the art world with their preferred digital form. To do this, they're developing some technology to best display GIFs within a gallery setting.

In a recent chat, we talked about their ambition to subvert the art world, and how they want users to make and submit GIFs on 15 Folds to give this digital generation a resonant voice amidst an ocean of virtual noise.

Motherboard: Take us into the early formation of 15 Folds.

Margot Bowman: I think it kind of came out of our different skill sets and backgrounds. Sean and I knew each other from going to art school in London, and he's a filmmaker. He was like, "We should really do something." We were making GIFs, and we wanted to work with each other. Then we met Jolyon, and he brought a different skill set. We were really aware that the creative people we knew were making GIFs, but there was no valid place for that art to exist.

Image: Margot Bowman for 15Folds

Sean Frank: We were looking at stuff like the correspondence art movement, and were quite fascinated with its communication element. People would write mail and post each other little bits of art, and then respond to it. We wanted to bring that into the digital age.

The first iteration of the site was based on the game Exquisite Corpse. We wanted to bring that into GIFs in the form of communal art, and send it on to different contributors in different disciplines. We've always talked about who our dream artists would be, and it's people from Stephen Fry to Chris Cunningham to Ai Wei Wei; a whole breadth of people who aren't necessarily artists, but who were able to communicate creative thinking in this GIF medium.

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Which isn't exactly as easy as it seems.

Bowman: Yes, in terms of making a point, or communicating, or storytelling, you have to do it in that really small space. We're Tumblr based, so we sometimes have uploading problems with that. You're looking at a really distilled, skilled communication, and it has to be edited well. It's good to be making these really concise expressions.

Jolyon Varley: Of course, we wondered how that old Surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse would translate online, where one person draws one body part, passes it on, and the second person adds another part, and so on. But, that concept became a hybrid with Chinese Whispers (Telephone), where you start with an idea or concept and then pass it on to the second person, and they make something based on that, and so on and so forth. In doing that, you see the narrative that evolves from one idea; how it completely distorts and changes.

Image: Laurent Segretier, Artist, Hong Kong

The title 15 Folds, of course, is a direct homage to the original folding of paper. We found out very quickly, after working with everyone from philosophers to fashion designers, artists, and musicians, that the challenge of commissioning them to make an original piece of artwork based on somebody else's submission in 48 hours was like herding cats—almost impossible.

It became like a full time job just corresponding with people, ironing out their concerns, and helping them understand the concept. So, we ended up changing it to what you see now, where we put a single brief out to 14 creatives each month who work a month or two in advance ideally.

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Which is novel, because the creatives are creating commissioned art in a non-traditional internet visual format. 

Bowman: Yes, instead of looking at themes like "opulence" or "luck" through the context of classical sculpture or oil painting, we're using the language that young people have at their disposal. I feel really proud about the people who follow our blog.

When we put out weirder work, stuff that's more like net art or conceptual, with the vectors and motion graphics, then our followers are receiving that as their daily Tumblr feed experience. I think that dissemination and osmosis is a really powerful aspect to the project. We're getting this stuff into people's eyeline.

Image: Grant Liddall, UsTwo

Frank: We've had a really good response from people in the art world who have said how it's almost like this outsider art movement. And we're not just targeting visual artists, we're giving these young internet artists making GIFs in their bedroom the chance to publish their art in this online gallery setting.

You have two sets of limitations: the length of the GIF and the monthly theme. These force the artist to think a certain way about the project, and produce unexpected results. Is that by design?

Bowman: I watched the Ai Wei Wei documentary, and he said something like, "I'm not an artist, I'm a chess player… the world makes a move, and I make a move back." I think a lot of creative people work in that way. They have their own process, thoughts, and practices, so it's exciting to interact with another body or set of ideas and see what happens when you combine yourself with this outside thing. This month the theme is "Alone Together," and we had Jerome LOL make a GIF for us, and he's making culture that is about connection and isolation, normally through music; but these are ideas he's interacting with a lot.

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Frank: As a filmmaker who makes films around a minute-and-a-half to three minutes, it's quite interesting for me to then suddenly have anything from 25 to 100 frames. You then have to make the beginning make sense with the end, and there is this real hybrid of old animation techniques and thinking in frames, and also photography, and fusing it with this image thing. I found it really interesting getting my head around that concept, and I think it's impacted my filmmaking.

Image: Sean Frank for Dominic Jones SS14, London

Bowman: Repetition is a totally different form of narrative, so something repeated one hundred times has this hypnotic quality, and it changes the scale. It's a really different way of storytelling. It's not time-based in the traditional sense.

Varley: There is a totally mesmeric quality to GIFs. It almost forces you to get to the crux of something, the moment of impact. When you watch an animated GIF on something like a train wreck, you're totally transfixed. That is the moment it becomes derailed, and you watch the trauma and impact over and over and over again. With the artwork, it draws you in and forces you to focus on the very nucleus of what something wants you to think and feel with their work. In that respect, I really don't see it as a limitation but as one of its great benefits.

One of most interesting pieces to look at on 15 Folds, in my opinion, is Mark Dorf's Pluto & Charon. The way the two faces, which look 3D-modeled, are in orbit around one another is mesmerizing. It's a real work of art, and it's a great example of someone taking the GIF format and producing something really mind-bending. 

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Bowman: That's a really small file and a great example of working within the limitations. There is really complex movement, reflection, and really good color gradients. What's interesting is if you look at the same work on our Google+ page it almost looks like a different work because Tumblr has really specific compression capabilities, and Google+ has different ones.

Image: Mark Dorf, Digital Artist, New York

Varley: The thing that we love about the format is that it offers so much breadth of interpretation. GIFs, by their nature, can be really trashy and disposable, or they can be really chic and considered. It's really interesting to see how different artists approach the format.

Bowman: One of the things we want to do with the site is prove as a generation that these people are making amazing culture using the tools they've got in front of them. We want to give it the gravitas it deserves.

How do you settle on a theme?

Bowman: We have a million Google docs. At some point in the month we just choose what we find interesting. This month was a big learning curve because "Alone Together" really resonated with the people who follow us.

Frank: Sometimes it does go off what's going on in the calendar. We couldn't really avoid February being about love, but we were also conscious that everyone would be making content about love and valentines. So, we wanted to kind of touch on and acknowledge it, but not be so directly prescriptive to our contributors. So, we thought "Alone Together" was quite nice since it was something about the internet, but people could possibly take it to the romantic end of things.

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Image: Alex Bond, Video Artist & Illustrator, Philadelphia

Varley: There weren't as many literal interpretations as we would have thought. Credit to our contributors, who ceaselessly amaze us by finding ways in which they explore and interpret themes. One of the things we do like to bear in mind when we're coming up with a theme is keeping or preserving some degree of ambiguity, so there is that scope for interpretation. And I think that works for us.

Users can also submit a GIF to the site, even though you do commission work from international artists.

Varley: We don't want to sit there in this ivory tower commissioning people we'd love to make work, and then just post and revel in it. We want this to be open to the internet. My company Neverbland, which built the site, is a huge believer in open-source culture. I don't see why any project that comes out of Neverbland should be any different. We want it to be inclusive. We want people to look at our site and be inspired by what they see, and then be empowered to make an interpretation and then get it featured on the site. That resonates with Tumblr and its users.

You also offer a GIF Maker for anyone who visits the site.

Bowman: Yes, this is one of the things we're also really proud of, and we want more people to use it. It was one of the key things that came out of the beginning of the project. We need to open up the digital conversation so it's not just techie nerds who are emotionally inept. Anyone can use the GIF Maker tab, and it makes them under 1MB for Tumblr. It's like an open door.

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Image: Sophie Alda, Illustrator, London

Also, I started making GIFs because I was really interested in the internet, but I didn't know how to code. The cool thing about GIFs is that it creates HTML code from an emotional place. You take an image and that becomes code. They only play in web browsers, so it's a really interesting way to approach and intercept what can often be a really iron-walled digital world.

A couple of years ago, if you didn't know how to code you couldn't take part. GIFs were really a jab in that doorstep. You can still contribute to the conversation, which is the conversation of this generation. So, we need to have as many good voices in the room as possible.

Varley: At the heart of GIF Maker was this notion of accessibility, and being able to give people the tools to contribute to the project even if they had no specific understanding of Photoshop and all the programs required to make the most beautiful GIFs you see on the site. It's not about that. It's about responding with your own unique interpretation of the concept, and being able to articulate why you made that, and giving it a title and description. And the GIF Maker, as reductive as it may be, allows you to create a GIF in its most basic sense, and play along with the game.

Image: Jack Cunningham, Director, London

Frank: Going back to wanting Stephen Fry to be able to make us a GIF, we thought, "Why would people want to contribute to this site? They'll be too busy and won't know how to make a GIF." So, we just wanted to give as much as we possibly could to enable anyone to contribute to the site.

So, has Stephen Fry made a GIF for 15 Folds?

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Bowman: We haven't even asked, but we like the idea that he would make one for us in the future.

Frank: He will soon. [laughs]

What do you have planned for 15 Folds in the future?

Frank: We're working on our first ever GIF exhibition in real life. We're in talks at the moment with a really amazing space. We're trying to take it into a real gallery and align it more with the art world. We're going to basically commission our favorite creators, people from the site, internet creators, and bigger visual artists, painters, filmmakers, and musicians to make these one-off GIFs that will be seen in a very different way. We're really excited because we're using some new technology, which will be a first as far as how GIFs are seen outside the context of the internet.

Image: United Fakes, Director, Strange Beast

Bowman: If you're a young person, it's always really empowering to see something that is your culture in a space that has so much gravitas. It gives us confidence in our agency in the future. What happens in the next five or ten years is really important. We have to have confidence and belief in what we're doing.

Varley: Sean makes a good point. We've seen the future of this project. It's great that we're making art on the internet, but the objective is to sort of permeate the greater art world and the establishment, and bring this outsider art to the masses. It exists in very niche communities, and it would be wonderful to bring it to everyone else. And the way to do that is to perhaps exploit the traditional model.

Yeah, subvert it. 

Varley: Absolutely.