“It’s hard to think of any other web technology that has survived 25 years,” muses Alex Light, head of integrated at McGarry Bowen London. For the past few weeks he’s been putting together an exhibition of the GIF file, for Internet Week Europe.
The Graphics Interchange Format may not sound particularly glamorous but the bitmap image has been a mainstay of the web since its inception in 1987. The GIF celebrates its 25th anniversary this year - perfect timing for Internet Week Europe 2012.
For Light it’s been a labour of love. In order to give the exhibit some real authenticity, he’s tracked down intriguing factoids (it’s pronounced ‘jiff’), pulled together illuminating emails between GIF’s creators Bob Berry and Steve Wilhite and has antiquatingly rebuilt a stash of vintage computers (a Power Mac 5200, a bank of iMacs and a Macintosh Color Classic thought to date back to the late Regency period). Light has curated these bits and bytes into a chronological journey through the ups, downs and ups of the format.
The original plan was to feature an exhibit from every year of the GIF’s 25 year history, but during his research Light discovered that the story was a little too complicated for that to work. In the mid to late 90’s, an enforcement of the patents surrounding GIF compression led developers to abandon the format in favour of the non-animatable PNG.
The GIF looked like it was to languish, unloved… the Miss Haversham of the web. When the patent expired in 2003, the GIF found its date card once again filling up. The subsequent rise of the non-Flash compatible iPhone soon meant that developers were looking for a new tool to share animated images over the web. On the likes of Tumblr, 4Chan and Reddit, the GIF has become an animated emoticon, a means of communicating gestures and body language, and the LOLcats phenomenon has meant that web users just can’t get enough of short clips of animals being stupid. The exhibition brings us right up to date with GIFS from the worlds of fashion, politics and space travel, demonstrating how the file has transcended its geeky roots to become a mainstream phenomenon.
Real Time Woman
It may seem a rather niche subject, but by 10.30 am on Monday morning the exhibition had already attracted a fair-sized crowd.
Light also curated ‘keystone’ GIFs from the past 25 years – a Dancing Hamster here, a Dancing Baby there – to form an event that is a history lesson for anyone born post 1990… and a nostalgic restrospective for the rest of us.