Lily Jue Sheng : Avant-GIF
Text by Linnea West
In her new series “Avant-GIF,” Lily Jue Sheng transforms a low-brow communication tool—the animated GIF—into a thoughtful homage to seminal avant-garde films. Sheng has created three animated GIFs, taking clips from digitized films found on YouTube as her raw material. She outlines and then deletes the film’s digitized stills in Adobe Photoshop, leaving behind only the shifting lines of selection that indicate the motion of the deleted content. The result is a compelling and elegant abstract image, not unlike a still from one of Sheng’s own films. Pulsating white outlines on a black background remain, the image of motion in a void. In such a way, the collage-like focus on the architectural details of the Alhambra palace in Spain in the 1961 film Arabesque for Kenneth Anger by Marie Menken (1909-1970) becomes an abstract stream of grids and crosses that suddenly flashes to white and repeats, endlessly. The 1902 Serpentine Dance by Lina Esbrard by pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) was one of several films that sought to capture the undulating movement of the serpentine dance in the early days of cinema. In Sheng’s GIF, it becomes a constant swooping pattern like butterfly wings, finally rendered as the fully abstract, mutable expression of pure motion whose suggestion initially captivated early 20th century audiences. However, knowledge of avant-garde film is not necessary to appreciate the complexity of Sheng’s endeavor: primarily, this translation of film to GIF dramatizes questions of access and preservation in regards to analog media as well as presenting the possibilities of the new. Within this complex media landscape, “Avant-GIF” discovers unlikely similarities between the two moving image formats.
Consider how Photoshop selection of ‘Synchromy No. 4: Escape’ by Mary Ellen Bute (01:32 – 01:34) speaks to film’s indeterminate future in a now largely digital culture. In this work, Sheng traces a sequence from Synchromy No. 4: Escape by pioneer animator Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983), most well-known for synchronizing musical compositions with abstract images. Bute’s grid spinning on a swirling blue-and-white background becomes transformed into the trace of its own motion. Having erased Bute’s imagery, Sheng’s lines take on a movement of their own because, in addition to outlining the movement of the now-gone experimental film, the Photoshop Marquee tool’s own blinking motion—like that of a cursor—is visible. In itself, this blinking emphasizes its digital manufacture. What remains is the image of motion, traced in white on a black background like the ghostly presence of the original film in its most reductive translation to the digital world. While appropriating YouTube-quality videos already shifts integrity from the original film, translating it to animated GIF format condenses it to one of the simplest data formats—as Sheng highlights for us by erasing all the imagery of the original film. The loss of data points to the uncertainty of film’s preservation as technology changes. Media can be preserved and made accessible in new formats, yet the nature of digital advancement creates issues of obsoletion, storage, and life span with more urgency than before its existence. The re-animation of Bute’s film suggests an afterlife in which it is unrecognizably transformed, while also demonstrating the possibilities of reinvention created by new media.
Avant-garde film sits at the traditional, high-brow, celluloid end of the moving image spectrum while the GIF occupies new territory of binary code and browser windows. Animated GIFs are low-brow, mass-appeal tools of instant gratification, one-liners that provide an easy laugh. Animated GIFs—most basically described as graphic images on webpages that move—are often humorous commentary on cats, TV, or celebrities, all progeny of the original dancing baby that first went viral in 1996. Yet from a mass culture Internet phenomenon, GIFs are increasingly recognized as a format that contemporary artists explore. Art critic Paddy Johnson describes “relatively widespread accessibility” as a factor in this growth. While it could be difficult for most individuals to attend a screening of experimental works by Alice Guy-Blaché, Mary Ellen Bute, or Marie Menken, anyone with Internet access can view a digitized version of their work on the web. Sheng takes the degradation of data to its logical extreme when she chooses the GIF format—accessible yet paradoxically invisible in “Avant-GIF,” as the original film’s images are gone.
Despite traditional distinctions between high and low culture, between fine art and joke, Sheng’s work points to underlying similarities between experimental film and the populist Internet GIF. Both betray their nature as moving images, unlike the realistic illusionism that high-definition movies usually seek today. The primary concern of film from the 1910s through the 1950s was kinesis; it sought to master the representation and perception of motion. Even the later films chosen by Sheng stay true to this early fascination; as abstract (rather than narrative), they focus on the movement of the image itself. How appropriate then, that the artist transforms them into animated GIFs. Sheng creates a compressed moving image where the mechanics of motion remain stubbornly visible. The GIF’s relatively slow 15 frames-per-second reads as jerky to our eyes, one of the medium’s few distinguishing aesthetic qualities. The viewer is reminded not only of digital handicraft (the blinking selection of the Photoshop tool) but the GIF’s earliest optical predecessors such as flipbooks and thaumatropes. Clues such as the scratched celluloid and handheld camera movement of a film or the jerky motion of a GIF underscore the optical tricks behind the illusion of motion.
Like ghosts of the original films, Sheng’s animated GIFs find a new afterlife in a strange, unmoored online environment, reminding us how balancing access with integrity of media will remain a key issue as technology and formats change, not only with moving images but across all media. Yet Sheng is not nostalgic; “Avant-GIF” revels in the kinetic power of the moving image and an honesty about the mechanics of vision common to both formats. In her larger body of work, Sheng moves fluidly between video and film in an investigation of the moving image that often looks both to formal abstraction and animation. Therefore, the combination of experimental film and animated GIF in the “Avant-GIF” series is a natural development of Sheng’s concerns. Rather than a purist stance devoted to the art of film or a sole focus on new media, Sheng takes a more open-ended position. While “Avant-GIF” reminds us of the uncertainty of film’s future as the world shifts to digital technologies, it also reminds us of the constant chain of transmission and transformation required both for data and for artmaking.
 Paddy Johnson, “Will Galleries and Museums Ever Embrace Animated GIF Art?,” artnet News, published April 11, 2014, www.news.artnet.com/art-world/will-galleries-and-museums-ever-embrace-animated-gif-art-9650 .
 Tom Gunning, “The Attraction of Motion: Modern Representation and the Image of Movement,” in Film 1900: Technology, Perception, Culture, ed. Annemone Ligensa and Klaus Kreimeier (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 165-173.
Lily Jue Sheng is a moving image artist working primarily in still motion, collage, and expanded cinema forms. She graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, and is currently based in Queens, NY. Her work has exhibited internationally at cinemas, festivals, galleries, museums, and performance spaces such as Eyebeam, the MoMA PS1 Print Shop, and Center for Performance Research in New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts and Mobius in Boston; the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in Montreal; Centro Cultural de España in Mexico City; and the 1933 Slaughterhouse in Shanghai. In July 2016, she will be an artist-in-residence at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto.
Linnea West, an Athens, GA native, is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor, and curator. Since 2008, she has written a contemporary art blog, Art Ravels, that the Huffington Post calls one of “Five NYC Art Blogs You Should Be Reading.” She received a master’s degree in art history from The University of Georgia in 2015. In 2012-3, she was a Fulbright Fellow conducting independent research on contemporary Hungarian art and national identity at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest. Previously, she lived in New York and worked in book publishing.