This article is part of the Motherboard Guide to Cinema , a semi-regular series exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
Koyaanisqatsi is a film that is impossible to forget, despite having absolutely no plot.
The 1982 film is an hour-long montage of scenes from around the world that was directed by Godfrey Reggio, but is perhaps best known for its soundtrack, which was scored by the composer Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi derives its title from a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance” and its shot selection ranges over everything from nature time lapses to the inner workings of a hotdog factory.
In a 21st century twist on this classic work of experimental cinema, the artist Rico Monkeon has created a Koyaanisqatsi generator that sources its imagery from randomly selected GIFs. The premise of Monkeon’s “Gifaanisqatsi” is simple enough: GIFs tagged with “slow motion” or “time-lapse” are pulled from Giphy’s repository and looped over a two-minute selection from Koyaanisqatsi’s soundtrack that is used in the film’s trailer.
The result is a slice of modern life that is every bit as eclectic as Reggio’s original film. The GIFs I’ve seen used in the generator skew slightly towards the humorous, which offers a strange contrast to the gravity of the music. Nevertheless, Gifaanisqatsi manages to capture the essence of the original film.
Koyaanisqatsi has its origins in a 70s ad campaign sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union about surveillance and how technology can be used to control behavior. Reggio had been responsible for creating the advertisements for the campaign, but after the campaign was over there was a $40,000 budget surplus. Reggio used this extra cash to shoot the unscripted scenes that would become Koyaanisqatsi.
When discussing the meaning of Koyaanisqatsi and the two other films that came after it in the trilogy, Reggio said that the films “have never been about the effect of technology, of industry, on people.”
“Politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology,” Reggio said in Essence of Life, a 2002 documentary about Koyaanisqatsi. “So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.”
These comments are all the more remarkable considering that when Reggio and Ficke were filming Koyaanisqatsi in the 70s and 80s, the world wide web was over a decade away, and Microsoft and Apple were fledgling companies with uncertain futures. Today, the internet has infiltrated every aspect of our day to day existence in ways that would’ve been unfathomable to filmmakers four decades ago.
It is appropriate, then, that Monkeon turned to GIFs, a type of media that can only exist on the internet, for his generator. GIFs inhabit the liminal space between still pictures and video, a sequence of images condemned to eternally loop, but never progress. Like Koyaanisqatsi, GIFs eschew language in favor of the directness of images. And when combined with the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, Monkeon’s generator serves as a much-needed reminder of just how much networked technologies have shaped our perception of reality.