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Opinion: Pop culture relevance makes GIFs a new art form

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It turns out GIFs aren’t just for BuzzFeed or your sister’s Tumblr anymore — they’re also for … London art galleries?

When I saw a Facebook post titled, “A panel of judges selected these GIFs as finalists in a newly created photography contest. They’re mesmerizing,” I almost discredited any esteem and respect I held for the Washington Post on the spot. However, after clicking the link, I must say I was indeed mesmerized, not only by the artwork displayed but by the fact that I considered it artwork.

The article showed the winner, Christina Rinaldi, and 5 runners up, which all showed a surprising amount of work and intention aimed at provoking emotion. I saw work I would expect to see from pieces exhibited in a gallery or museum, which I was shocked to see coming from the image compressing file used to show memorable scenes from TV shows or YouTube videos.

The first ever Motion Photography Prize, sponsored by the London-based gallery Saatchi Art and Google+, had their judges spend 10 weeks going through the 4,000 entries from 52 countries. Sixty of them will be on display at Saatchi through May 24.

Technology is always changing the art world, and GIFs are no exception. Just as technology expanded art by allowing photography, cinema, more advanced music and graphic design, technology has, in a way, consolidated the art of the movies and still photography to create a new combination.

Although I initially was skeptical, I was proven wrong, and I hope that others will have similar reactions. Just because the GIF is typically used today largely as a way to put together funny videos so they can be displayed casually on BuzzFeed doesn’t mean they can’t be taken seriously. In fact, what I noticed was that the works displayed in the Washington Post had a hard challenge placed on them — tell a story or provoke an emotion using motion picture in a mere matter of seconds, as opposed to minutes or hours, as is found in typical short films or full length motion pictures. But as if that burden wasn’t enough, a GIF still has to be visually appealing in the sense that a still photograph is. The demand of creativity and skill is certainly enough to merit the GIF’s exhibition in an art gallery and break the traditional outlook on the video format.

The Saatchi exhibit isn’t even the first shot at getting GIFs recognized in mainstream art — Tumblr and auction house Paddle8 sponsored an exhibition during Miami Art Week in 2012. Some were more typical, light, and pop culture based, while others could have found their way to London.

So will GIFs be the next big thing? Well, with their relevance to pop culture, style of mash-up of two established art forms, short presentation period and ease of access for museums or casual observers from home, all signs point to yes. While I’m sure they’ll face some flack, as the medium has been watered down with scenes anyone could throw together from the TV, I’m confident in saying that GIFs of original and creative content will be here for the long run, and I’m excited to see what they’ll bring to the table.

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