Notes on .gif Culture

Catalina Africa, “Reverse Boomerangs and Other Exercises for Pleasure”, shown at 1335 Mabini, 25 April to 22 May 2015. Image from Planting Rice.

I grew up in the late 1990s, learned to connect to the internet using a 56k modem, sitting next to one telephone and weighing it down with books or burying it under paper, while unhooking the line on the other so no one could use it. When I was little, my mom used to take me to the office where my only source of entertainment was a pile of scratch paper and a PC that ran wordstar (I think this is the second time I’ve mentioned Wordstar in this blog so maybe it deserves a tag by now). With this, she improvised a means to keep me occupied by creating pictures using the = sign and zeroes to make little pictures in unicode.

I’m hardly a child anymore, but I’m still a child of .gif culture.

There was (and still is) a seamlessness to the transition from seeing pictures as a series of pluses and minuses and equal signs, to the strange language I adopted in online fora and fanpages (which, of course, was the only use of the internet to a 12-year-old girl). My best friend Marla has a good way of putting it: “We speak Meme.” We spoke meme, and still do, middle-class kids with the privilege of boredom and time to kill. We grew up sitting in front of keyboards with our noses pressed to screens, before laptops–and now, tablets–were things people just happened to have. From the comfort of our own homes, we got used to things blinking and beeping, calls to communicate with strangers on the other side of the world. And we responded to those signals. The screens we spoke through were not a means to mask who we were, but were extensions of ourselves.

It has taken time for me to acknowledge what this actually meant in practice, now that I look back at the little person who lost sleep to time spent peering into the netherworld offered through late nights on IRC. Understand that the concept of your own computer was totally foreign at the time, and the only time I could go online, uninterrupted, was after everyone had gone to bed. I don’t know why I had to do that, it was not as if I had to check mail or had any social networks where I could see what people were saying about things. I think I just took comfort in seeing life beyond this, taking place then, but not there, not quite. You didn’t know where people were, but the internet let you–in some capacity–corral them into a space.

I’m seeing an inversion between the minimalist aesthetics of the web today, and what it looked like when I first went online: when the first thing I did was visit the sites on the chickclick.com roster (which was THE BEST THING, case in point: Bust), one by one; then go on the Ultimate Band List (which seems like such a ridiculous invention now, I mean what the hell was that?) and read about whoever was featured and try to imagine what that must sound like (I know, what the fuck, right?). Most of the things I liked to look at then were unironically purple with sparkly cursors that trailed across the screen. Most of the things I looked at looked like this little artifact from 2011, which sent tingles running through, oh, everywhere:

Album cover of Lightning Bolt’s Earthly Delights that looks like it was made on MS Paint–also the best thing!

This is why the work of someone like Catalina Africa would resonate so strongly with me. It’s work that brings us back into the world, oddly enough, using digital technology as a lens. Catalina Africa’s greens recall both the green screen of a simulated environment, and the green of the world right outside our windows. It’s a visual language that makes me realize–i.e., bombs my face with a cloud of glitter–how some art just cannot be contained by the vocabulary we usually resort to when we speak as critics or curators.

Web of Gems, 2015; Mixed media installation, 213.5×213.5×86.5 cm; (c) Catalina Africa, image from http://www.1335mabini.com/

The first word that came to mind was “exuberance”: see it in the colors, in the fact that Africa often has limbs outstretched, hair blowing as if there’s a constant breeze wafting through the environment framed within her works. Framing doesn’t even cut it, considering how artists like Africa and her contemporaries, such as Jeona Zoleta, Marija Vicente, and Tanya Villanueva often show work that points out the shortcomings of framing, or understanding things within the frame.

Heck, even exuberance doesn’t cut it. The word I want is “joy”–how the hell could anyone forget to speak of “joy” when talking about art–in the viewing and the making?

 

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