When you’re drowning in life’s swimming pool of digital content, thank god there’s a slipping penguin, deal with it cat or Rihanna around to save you. Look deeper though,  and you’ll find this cheeky looping medium has hidden creative depths…

The GIF or Graphic Interchange Format, has been around for a while, 30 years in fact. If you’ve never wondered about its origins, it’s a compressed file format for images that was developed by US-based software writer Steve Wilhite whilst working at the Internet service provider Compuserve in 1987. Or better known as, the perfect vehicle for watching instant moments of animal cuteness or image bites from our favourite entertainers.

Artists have been at the forefront of the GIF’s creative exploration. Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Clouds, was built from an old Mario Brothers cartridge which he modified to erase everything but clouds…He originally posted it on the Internet in 2002 and at that point the web couldn’t host video so he made a GIF. The clouds are mesmeric and intriguing – their pixelated charm create a nostalgia for techno-artefacts like Nintendo Gameboys and Nokia 5120s.


Another icon of the GIF world is The Dancing Girl, built by one Chuck Poynter a retired former US Air force employee who produced over 500 animated GIFS in a year and a half purely for love of computer programming. It was first shown on net art hub in 1998 and has been a staple ever since. She’s even spawned her own name Tumblr: which explains,

'I’ve been dancing ever since I was created back in the days. With the arise of the Internet I became a vernacular symbol of freedom among the net, and a source of inspiration for countless users in the pre-history of the web. The advent of social networks brought a severe, consequently change in the aesthetic of the internet; that's why I felt the need to renew my look, giving myself a more “topical” appearance.  But don't be fooled by this: my 'hula' remains the same ;-) Feel free – as you’ve always been – to make me dance among your web universe!'

The immediacy and ubiquity of the GIF makes it an appealing artistic tool. Who wouldn’t want to reach an audience of 100 million people? GIPHY a tech company, originally founded by Alex Chung in 2013 to be ‘The Google for GIFs’ now hosts a phenomenal catalogue of GIFS. Presently, GIPHY serves more than 1 billion GIFs a day, which are seen by 100 million-plus daily active users, from 2016’s hugely popular illustrated Obama mic drop by Julie Winegard (above) to Phyllis Ma's surrealist GIFS (below).

Promoting artists has taken a bigger role in the progression of the company – as the community team, Ari Spool and Dani Newman curate, source and rank GIF art and enable artists, through tagging and exposure, to reach the widest audience as possible. Their first #IRL (in real life) show called Loop Dreams last year marked progress and growing acceptance of GIF art and their bigger scheme GIPHY Arts aims to commission artists for special projects and partnerships in order to monetize artistic GIF creation. 

The humble GIF is a powerful contemporary tool to emote, to express and communicate. As Spool explains to Artsy reporter, Alexxa Gotthardt, “That’s pretty much the point of GIFs—they offer a new, more nuanced way of speaking. And that’s we’re trying to expand…. If we support artists, we think we can do it— we expand the possibilities of the GIF and, really, of language too.”