All the promotion needed for “twohundredfiftysixcolors,” a new film by Chicago artists Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus, might be in its tagline: “an experimental feature film made entirely of animated GIFs.” For some, “twohundredfiftysixcolors” will seem like an audacious effort to spin art out of a file format employed mostly for Tumblr procrastination and winking social media talk, or a nightmarish crash course in the visual culture of “lol.” However, Fleischauer and Lazarus have taken on a formal challenge: how to maintain, augment, and reward spectorial attention for approximately ninety minutes when your filmic building blocks last mere seconds and primarily highlight one or two clauses of text with a snappy, culturally relevant image or clip?
Fleischauer and Lazarus took two years composing their film from online findings alongside those offered by invited net artists and public open call participants, and the labor shows: “twohundredfiftysixcolors” is not only a summation of internet consumption after 2010, but a sure sign of the GIF’s stumbling transition to so-called high art contexts. Presented on December 5 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, a part of its free screening series, the film feels nearly inevitable as a cultural document, something both groan-worthy and essential for its relevance. But like other instances of the current net art moment, “twohundredsixtysixcolors” goes mired in the genre’s inveterate artistic problems while promising a potential move forward.
In sequences dedicated to topics such as pizza, masturbation, domestic architecture, Occupy Wall Street, drugs, or — obligatorily — cats, Fleischauer and Lazarus draw on GIFs of all forms, from film segments and edited photographs to CGI renderings and text in its large referential field equal parts Beyoncé and Bruce Nauman. Images fly by in breathless pacing, orbiting each cluster’s main concept in seemingly infinite variations before abruptly transitioning to the next segment in no narrative order. The pulse isn’t necessarily as jarring or bewildering as one might expect, but in fact strangely atrophying: the sheer variety of visual simulation tweaks attention as one either recognizes certain memes or references, or acknowledges them as entirely plausible on some website (indeed, save aberrant moments of impossibly penetrative sex or convulsive photic flickering, little here really shocks or beguiles). Though press copies were disseminated online, the imagined discrepancy in watching “twohundredfiftysixcolors” in a large movie theater, in spending more than an hour-and-a-half watching GIFs on the big screen, rings ludicrous, cheeky, or even crisic, but the artists have discussed “twohundredfixtysixcolors” as an effort to upgrade the cultural value of the GIF and showcase its aesthetic and social capacities.
To this end, “twohundredfiftysixcolors” falls prey to the biggest obstacle facing artists in upgrading the quotidian aesthetics of the internet for contemporary art settings: the mere replication of online viewing (this is what made the Wrong Biennial, at times, read like an exhausting laundry list of links). But as with any collection of GIFs, the assembled items here occasionally amuse, offend, perplex, joke, or unsettle — however mostly they fail to impress. It’s not unlike a computer-generated “America’s Home Videos,” an anthology of mild effects only compelling enough to see what might come up next.
This begins as an issue of context: at limited length and scope, GIFs rarely offer anything in the way of meaningful experience or vital commentary, and as an amateur medium meant for easy scrolling, the format was, ostensibly, never intended to do so. If some artists in fact eye the GIF as art form in “twohundredfiftysixcolors,” Fleischauer and Lazarus bury those instances in the more than 30,000 files that comprise their film. They, like many net artists, rely on the internet’s excessive barrage of information as an aesthetic given, rather than an object of critique. “Net art is so cool cuz it’s easy!” one sample GIF reads, as a wryly self-reflexive note on the medium’s palatability.
Curation often operates as the primary means of artistic engagement at play in recent net art. In appropriative work conceptually similar to “twohundredsfiftysixcolors,” citation appears as the supreme aesthetic gesture, while curation surfaces as supreme artistic mode. Indeed it’s no accident that the institutional development and expansion of net art syncs with that of curation (the artists credit a “curatorial assistant” for “twohundredfiftysixcolors”). In a cultural climate overburdened with a surfeit of digital possibilities and objects, curation itself (or, simply, ‘choosing’) becomes a virtue in its own right, as if a reward for the activity of slogging through artistic overproduction. The general vacuity of the GIF emerges unscathed in this celebration of selection, when art should demand an intensive reworking or criticism of the format, rather than simply its presentation. The film’s segmented composition slightly exacerbates the issue as well in finding visual similarities instead of fashioning new, more provocative cross-hatchings. Fleischauer and Lazarus in fact quote moving image experiments of figures like Eadweard Muybridge in an early section, and the comparison between that media and the current GIF-art is apt: both feature the very novelty of their technology as the main draw.
In one brief, illuminating moment in “twohundredfiftysixcolors,” Fleischauer and Lazarus pave something of a path forward in what GIF-focused net art could consider. Shaping a drama of collective sentiment and personal provocation, they piece together a number of images and clips relating to 9/11, from the towers’ destruction and weeping bald eagles to irreverent takes on the attacks, such as a clumsily dancing Fresh Prince of Bel Air stomping the South Tower to the ground. Fleischauer and Lazarus use the GIF’s fundamental adaptability to articulate the charge of politically entrenched imagery, in one of the film’s only reference to GIFs’ possibly poignant effects. It’s a bracing sequence that, however briefly, snaps the film out of its circular interest in the banal, and suggests the GIF as the key medium of post-9/11 media culture, one endlessly repeated, morphed, worked over, circulated. Dislodging both its content and medium from their standard contexts, this segment of “twohundredfiftysixcolors” demonstrates the potential impact of a technologically respondent art-making: the paradoxical elaboration of historical contemporaneity, of a current culture forever responding to its structural forces.
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