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I Went to an IRL GIF Gallery

At a London exhibition, 15 Folds used augmented reality to bring GIFs into meatspace.
Image: Victoria Turk

The GIF is the artform of the internet age. Somewhere between or beyond photography and moving image, its home is online, which makes even the idea of taking it out of its digital empire and into meatspace seem anachronistic to its very being.

But that’s exactly what artistic collaborative 15Folds aimed to do with their new exhibition “Everything All At Once,” which opened at a gallery in London’s Hoxton Square last night. Following their monthly online GIF gallery, I went along to see how they could possibly take the graphics interchange format into the physical world of a bricks-and-mortar space.


Once I pushed through the throngs of painfully hip visitors into the gallery room, I saw walls adorned with huge QR codes. Things began to click into place.

15Folds, L-R Margot Bowman, Sean Frank, Jolyon Varley. Image: Victoria Turk

Viewers downloaded an augmented reality app to view the QR codes, which sprung to life into moving GIF works. After the inevitable technical difficulties—too many visitors were trying to use the wifi at once—the app effectively bridged the contradiction between the necessarily web-based space of the GIF and the idea of an IRL art show.

15Folds’ Sean Frank and Margot Bowman told me the point was to present GIFs in the “real” art space they deserved, but not to reduce them down to a .MOV on a DVD, which denatures the intrinsically online aspect of the work. “They [GIFs] only exist online; you need a browser, otherwise it’s like making an oil painting and then in the exhibition you show prints,” said Bowman.

"Blinded by the Lights," by Margot Bowman. Below, left: "I wanna lick lick lick you from your head to your toes," by Phoebe Collings-James. Below, right: "The Eye," by Matthew Stone and Joe Currie

Just as GIFs are the medium of digital natives, so should be the way they’re shown. In that spirit, the 15Folds crew all wore shirts with the slogan “nostalgia is bullshit.”

So why decide to rip the looping 8-bit-per-pixel images off the web in the first place? “We just thought it deserved to live beyond the browser as well,” said Frank. “QRs and GIFs, I think in terms of technology they’re quite similar in terms of people now recognise what they are, but they’re not a very explored medium—so we wanted to kind of marry the two and push what they can do.”


Bowman admitted she used to be very anti-gallery but that she’d recognised their Tumblr-based online gallery meant people were seeing the art amid noisy feeds; the show allowed more breathing space for proper appreciation, away from open tabs and Facebook distractions. “All we’re trying to do is to make space for this form of expression, and the show is really like an extreme version of that,” she said.

The app for the show was put together by Plague, another company Frank is involved with, and the augmented reality experience added a level of surprise to the GIFs. I didn’t quite know what to expect until Matthew Stone and Joe Currie’s staring eye popping out of the wall, or Phoebe Collings-James’ giant tongue, thrusted toward me. The artworks were generally organised around a broad range of themes like “evolution” and “apocalypse,” but they were united mainly by form rather than content.

Bowman and Frank said they’d intended the show to be “democratic,” with a wide range of styles and artists, many of whom don’t usually work with GIFs. “We’ve got a tattoo artist, a writer, we’ve got more classical artists,” said Frank. “We really see this as an outsider art movement, anyone can make a GIF with the tools. It’s more about ideas.”

Bowman was attracted to GIFs personally because she wanted to make digital art but didn’t know how to code. Now that GIFs have become ubiquitous, she’s keen to show there’s more to the community that makes them than memes, cats, Miley Cyrus, and Miley Cyrus-inspired cat memes. “We’re living in a very strange time and we need a new culture to understand that time,” she said. Where the GIF as an art form fits in with that? “It is the internet’s creative output, essentially.”