A research about looping imagery
and the use of the loop in design
To Define A Loop
1.1 Mesmerize me
1.2 The role of time
1.3 R. as Punishment
The visible loop
2.1 Temporal versus still
2.2 The challenge
2.3 Analogue loops
2.3 The Animated GIF
3.1 Refined repetition
3.2 Merged within media
3.3 The chat environment
What is the role of
and how can we use
the concept of a loop
as a tool for
It is a very small round object. It appeared on my screen just a few seconds ago. I try to not get annoyed. It is probably designed to keep me from frustration. The round object follows the movement of my mouse and my eyes follow the rotation. The little thing spins and spins and spins. I try clicking it desperately. Maybe it will disappear again when I close my eyes. Naively, I hope this is an effective strategy. I peak through my lashes: nope, still there. I know I just have to be patient, I just have to wait. However, waiting feels like forever, watching the continuous movement of this little ball. Is it actually a ball? Or more something like a wheel? Would it be able to spin forever?
And then, as sudden as it appeared, the little looping thing vanishes. I am truly relieved. Though I realize, sooner or later it will come back, to make my life miserable again.
Have you ever been frustrated by the same object as I describe
above? The little looping animation that shows up when the operating system of your Mac wants to indicate it is busy. It is a signal that sends you a friendly reminder: please wait! However, we never like to wait. And therefore the little pinwheel acquired a notorious reputation.
This loading pinwheel is an example of a tiny looping image, a short repeating animation we encounter in our daily use of digital communication systems. The ball is in endless rotation, seamless motion, repeating its behaviour over and over again. Illustrating the process of loading, is just one of the uses of looping images. They inhabit the interfaces we use on our smartphones, televisions and computers, they live on the web pages we visit: they pretty much sneak into every digital environment, and they can have very different aims and uses.
In my thesis, I want to discover what the role of looping images within communication can be, what makes them attractive and therefore so ubiquitous. The concept of the endless loop especially gained my interest. To answer this question I am looking into different features of the loop like the use of repetition and the use of sequence and the relationship between the loop and time. Additionally I will go more in depth about the use of the animated GIF as an example of looping imagery.
to define a loop
Loops can be found in animation, music and even in our natural
surroundings. But at what moment do we call something a loop?
A loop is not necessarily a man-made object. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, something runs in a loop, or is on a loop, if it runs continuously, so that the same things are repeated again and again.(1) I would say that time, sequence and repetition are the main components of a loop. The relation between these components can offer meaning to the loop as an element within design and turn it into something truly attractive.
Repetition always takes place in time, the fourth dimension. A loop will therefore always have a certain duration in time. There is no limit to the length of this duration, though to be able to perceive something as a loop, we need to be able to recognize that it repeats itself. In the case of a loop that would have a duration of 10.000 years, we would hardly be able to realize it is a loop: it would simply feel like a linear movement in time. The same goes for a repetition within a millisecond, we cannot see anything change, so we cannot perceive it as a loop. The length of the loop is thus connected to the visibility of the repetition.
Still from Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, (1995).
"compare it to
a slide as a kid"
Scene from The Jungle Book, by Walt Disney Studios (1967).
“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue.”
However the length of duration can vary from a few seconds to multiple years, only when the duration is relatively short and we can notice the repetition clearly, the loop can become a pleasure. The moment when repetition turns into rhythm, the loop gets mesmerizing.
When mesmerized by the loop, like you are caught in the loop, you want the experience to last forever. Compare it to sliding down a slide as a kid; an activity so enjoyable you want to do it over and over again. You only stop the moment the spell is broken; your parents call you to go home.
Mesmerizing essentially means being extremely attracted by something or someone, almost as if hypnotised by the subject of your attraction. The word is derived from the last name of the 18th century psychologist Franz Anton Mezmer, who believed that all people and objects are pulled together by a strong magnetic force.(2) Sometimes looping imagery can feel truly magnetic too, when your eyes are drawn to the endless repeating patterns, like a visual rhythm, with an almost hypnotising effect. This reminds me of the television cartoons I watched when I was a child: whenever cartoon characters got hypnotised looping spirals would appear in their eyes. (Figure 1, 2)
We like to recognize patterns of repetition, in visuals or in words, and we really do enjoy it, as Mary Oliver says regarding to poetry: “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue.”(3)
We as humans do enjoy repetition in several cases. It makes things clear and makes us feel safe. When you see something again you feel reassured, you recognize it as familiar, there is no surprise, you know what to expect.
The appreciation of repetition has been studied by professor Robert Zajonc, who demonstrated in the 1960’s the ‘mere exposure effect’ which implies that people tend to prefer things they have been exposed to before.(4) He proved this by an experiment in which he showed subjects a series of random shapes in rapid succession. The shapes were visible for such a short time that it was impossible to recognize that some of them were repeated. Still, when subjects were later asked what shapes they found most pleasing, they chose the shapes which had been repeated, though they had no awareness of the repetition in the test.
Overall we can argue that repetition can make something very enjoyable. It is for sure one of the reasons the loop is interesting. But I stated earlier that repetition cannot take place without time being involved. The connection between time and the loop is one to be explored.
Another prerequisite for something to be perceived as a loop, is that it runs continuously without any pause; forever. The duration of what is repeated is restricted but the duration of the repetition is infinite. Time itself can in this way also be perceived as looping. The clock, the instrument we use to measure time, tells us the time in a repeating fashion. It repeats its pattern of hours, minutes, seconds, until it fails because we forgot to change the batteries.
Real Time5 by Maarten Baas is a recent series of clock design that reveals the loop of time in a beautiful way. The series consists of four different types of clocks. The clocks have in common that they all tell the time through the gestures of someone literally marking the time. A childhood fantasy, of a man in the clock controlling the hands, is turned into reality.
Real Time, installed at Schiphol Airport. Maarten Baas, (2016).
Real Time, installed at Schiphol Airport. Maarten Baas, (2016).
One of these clocks is installed at Schiphol airport. (Figure 3) The clock has a bright round face, which is about three meters in diameter. The face looks like foggy glass, and it seems like a man is standing behind the glass, painting the hands of the clock. Every minute he wipes out the hand he just drew; to replace it with a new line; the current time. A very delicate and labour-intensive process of moving the hands of the clock, live in real time.
The same principle of being a 24-hour-recording repeated, is used in the artwork The Clock(6) by Christian Marclay. Like the work of Baas, Marclay’s film tells the time, through a video playing in real time. The difference between the two works is that Marclay only used found footage, instead of creating footage himself. The Clock consists out of over 500 movie clips, derived from over hundred years of film history.(7) The scenes are taken from a wide range of film, from pulp movies to Oscar nominees, from classics to very recent films. Every scene shows the time: when characters look at their watches, you can read the time with them. Watching The Clock will make you extremely aware of the passing of time, while you see every minute flow by.
However, the clock on its own might not be a loop at all. According to John Durham Peters, media historian, the clock is not a loop, because even though it repeats itself, every time it does, the pattern conveys new meaning. ‘Clocks say the same thing over and over again, and yet the information they provide is always fresh’.(8) It points out ‘the now’ which will always be a different point in time. The pattern is repeated, but the meaning is not repeated.
‘Clocks say the same thing over and over again, and yet the information they provide is always fresh’
Nevertheless the characters displaying the time in The Clock and Real Time, are for sure in a loop, as they do not change: they will never grow old. It would be very impressive if the man painting the time actually would age. Now he does age only for one day. But in the time span of one day a human does not visibly change. It would be interesting to see the man change over the years; becoming older, would he still be able to keep up with the pace of the time?
Now his existence resembles that of a phoenix, being rebirthed every day again. The phoenix originally symbolized the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology.(9) When a phoenix dies, it burns itself down and from these ashes it rises again. In this way the creature is immortal, while still taking part in the process of aging. In fact, it had the miraculous power to loop its own life.
Schematic overview of Linneaus’ Flowerclock.
Another representation of the loop in ancient mythology is the symbol of a snake eating its own tail. (Figure 4) This symbol represents the eternal cycle of nature and is often used a symbol for infinity.(10) We name this symbol the Ouroboros which is derived from Greek and means tail-devouring. It is a remarkable symbol, because it has been found in many different cultures spread over different continents. The act of eating your own tail is seen as a way to become immortal; the snake is feeding itself; growing and renewing. Both the phoenix and the Ouroboros are symbols based on phenomena from nature. It seems no coincidence that these symbols are based on animals, living in the immediate surroundings of men. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, early civilizations looked at visual repetition in nature to find a way to know the time.(11) Our natural environment appears to be a giant loop; the earth looping the sun, the moon looping around the earth. The very first instruments of time measurement like sundials and moon calendars were based upon these natural visual patterns. Other ways the loop of time was seen reflected in nature was by the pattern of the water level of rivers (used by the Egyptians) and the annual growth rings of trees.(12)
In 1751 the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus invented a new way of measuring time through a natural process, even though in his time he was already equipped with a proper mechanical clock. In his writings in Philosophia Botanica he describes a group of flowers that bloom exactly at a certain hour of the day. He created a clock made out of flowers to indicate the time of the day, based on his own field observations.(13) (Figure 5) The flowers are arranged in a circle like a real clock, but the method was meant for using the flora in the local landscape to estimate the time. In this way the loop of nature represented time.
We define time through loops, though time itself is not looping. Time moves in a linear fashion: Every day is a new day. We cannot see our calendar as a perfect loop, it is more like a spiral moving forwards. We do not actually repeat in time, or live the exact same day again. Every year we will have a day we have named to be the 7th of December, but it is not the same 7th of December as one year ago, or one year into the future.
In film on the other hand, the linearity of time can be altered. In many movies has been experimented with the idea of time actually being repeated: characters caught in a loop. A well-known movie in which this concept is part of the story is Groundhog Day(14) directed by Harold Ramis. In this movie, a weatherman called Phil Connors, gets to relive one day over and over again. Every morning he wakes up in the same bed in a small village in Pennsylvania. He is not only stuck in one particular day, but also in the same place, and therefore he is stuck with the people surrounding him in that place. He gains a lot of knowledge from his encounters with the people around him, which he uses against them at first, and afterwards he uses it to help them. In Groundhog Day, the actual day is repeated, and only Connors is stuck within this day. Nothing changes, except that he remembers the endless experiences he gains while reliving that day. Through his memories he is very much aware of being in a loop.
Poster, Memento (2000).
Poster, Groundhog Day (1993).
Our memory is our main tool to detect loops
Poster, 50 First Dates (2004).
In 50 First Dates the loss of short time memory lasts a day for Lucy; she relives the 13th of October over and over again, after a car accident left her with amnesia. Her family makes sure she can live every day as if it is the 13th of October, so she does not have to be sad about her condition, as she is never confronted with it. She finally escapes the loop by falling in love; in the end her lover and family provide her every morning with a video, summarizing every event that happened from the moment she got amnesia till the present. So she does not get scared when she sees her own child.
From the stories of these three movies, we can conclude that our memory is our main tool to detect loops. It is what makes us realize that something already happened before. Without our memory we are not able to perceive the sequence of events and therefore can unconsciously get caught in a loop.
And another thing we can derive from these movies, is that being in a loop is not been regarded as something pleasant. Characters become prisoners within their loops; forever performing acts in eternal repetition, without any chance on moving forwards. Eternal repetition is a punishment.
Interesting is that already in Greek mythology the loop is seen as an instrument to cause suffering.(16) In the Tartarus, the underworld, one of the most severe punishments is for Sisyphus, a king who had mocked the supreme god Zeus. As atonement for his sins, he must push a boulder up onto a hill. However, every time he reaches the top of the hill, the boulder will roll back down to the bottom. He is confined to this loop forever.
But Sisyphus is not the only mortal enduring a loop as punishment. Maybe worse a fate has befallen Tantalus(17), a man who also insulted the gods. He is forced to stand in a pool of water, with branches full of grapes hanging right above him. Whenever he tries to grab the grapes, they will appear just outside of reach. The same goes for the pool he is standing in; whenever he will bend down to drink, all water will suddenly drain away, before he can swallow any. In this way he has to suffer from eternal hunger and eternal thirst. Both of them, Tantalus and Sisyphus will suffer forever, because they are already dead. Normally death would put an end to an endless repeated struggle, but in this case there never will be an end; the endless repetition is core to the punishment.
Endless repetition is a punishment
1. “Loop”, Cambridge Dictionary. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/, consulted in November 2016.
2. Tartakovsky, M. (2011). Psychology’s History of Being Mesmerized. Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/05/09/psychologys-history-of-being-mesmerized/, consulted in December 2016.
3. Oliver, M. (1994), A Poetry Handbook. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company.
4. Fox, M. (2008) Robert Zajonc, Who Looked at Mind’s Ties to Actions, Is Dead at 85. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/education/07zajonc.html, consulted in December 2016.
5. Real Time, Maarten Baas, (2009-2016).
6. The Clock, Christian Marclay, (2010).
7. Bradshaw, P. (2011) Christian Marclay’s The Clock: a masterpiece of our times. https://www.theguardian.com/12film/filmblog/2011/12apr/07/christian12-marclay-the-clock, consulted in November 2016.
8. Peters, D. (2004) Calendar, Clock, Tower. Media in Transistion Six Conference. United States.
9. Buxton, R.G.A (2004) The complete world of Greek mythology. London: Thames & Hudson.
10. Goblet d’Alviella, E. F. A. (2006) De geschiedenis der symbolen. Amsterdam: Schors.
11. Boorstin, D. (1992), De ontdekkers : de zoektocht van de mens naar zichzelf en zijn wereld. Amsterdam: Agon.
13. Callender, C. & Edney, R. (2012), Introducing time. London: Icon Books.
14. Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis, (1993).
15. Memento, Christopher Nolan, (2000).
16. 50 First Dates, Peter Segal (2004).
16. Buxton, R.G.A (2004) The complete world of Greek mythology. London: Thames & Hudson.
the visible loop
We now know what a loop is and what a loop can be. An intriguing mix of repetition, sequence and time. When a visual starts moving in infinite repetition, we can define it as a looping image. The repetition can be seamless, when the beginning and the end of the sequence exactly match up. Neither real beginning nor end can be defined in a seamless loop. But a loop can also have a very clear start and ending, when the transition from start into end is very abrupt. In this chapter I analyse different types of looping images from the past till current day.
Fresco Monastry of San Marco (detail), Fra Angelico, (circa 1450).
I have just argued that time is essential for perceiving repetition and therefore a loop always needs to have a duration; a temporal component. Therefore it seems to be a contradiction to talk about looping images. By definition an image does not have temporal component. However, a still picture might be regarded a loop as well; when the way we read images is taken into account. When you are used to read text from left to right, you will approach reading imagery in the same way.(18) You start at the top left and end at the right bottom corner. The time reading takes, replaces the temporal duration. A still image can transform into a loop.
An example of a painting where this is the case, is Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 by Marcel Duchamp from 1912. (Figure 11) The woman moving down the stairs seems to be doing this endlessly on repeat, when you read the image from left to right, over and over again. This is because the sequence of movement is captured in one image, almost like a long-exposure photograph.
Another image that works as a loop, is a fresco from the fifteenth century by the Italian painter and monk Fra Angelico, in the monastery of San Marco in Firenze. (Figure 10) It depicts two men who are thrown into the sea, but saved by an angel. Due to the circular composition, your eyes automatically are lead up again to see the men thrown into the sea once again.
In conventional art theory, visual art could also not represent a time span. A painting would always depict a point in time, like an instant. This moment was called the punctum temporis: showing the ultimate point of action, so the viewer could immediately imagine the preceding events and the events that followed.(19)
In case a painting portrays a transition from one state to another or it portrays a narrative through a series of scenes, the actual artwork can display time.
Descending a Staircase, No.2, Marcel Duchamp, (1912).
a still artwork can display time
In the case of the looping animation, I would like to reverse this line of reasoning: the loop includes a time span, but due to the repetition this time span is reduced to a continuously repeated moment. Many artists who work with short animations coin new terms to describe the phenomena: from moving still, to living photograph, to cinemagraph. This illustrates the confusion the loop creates as an attribute.
Can something that shows movement, which depicts a change within time, which has a duration, be called a still? And can a still actually depict movement?
A GIF which lasts a short amount of time, let’s say less than a minute, will get lost between being static and changing due to the loop. Between two different ways of viewing time actually; being an artwork that only depicts a moment, or actually portrays a length of time. In ancient Greece time was already divided in two definitions. There were two gods representing time: Chronos and Kairos.20 Kairos was the god of the moment, while Chronos represented the endless linear flow of time.
A still image can convey time and movement, but to truly see a picture move is something more spectacular. In the period before film was invented there have been several attempts to capture a moment instead of a point in time, and through this movement. The physiologist Etienne Jules Marey in France and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge in America both used photography to picture motion in the late 19th century.21 Muybridge started with motion studies of horses, and created a way to capture movement in a sequence of photographs: this resulted in a lateral photographic study of a galloping horse, with twelve different points in time. Earlier movement had only been captured in photography through long exposure times and this resulted in images in which the motion was just represented as a blur.(22)
(Figure 11, 12)
When you look at the photo sequence of Muybridge, it already looks like the frames of a small animation laid out, because of the separate frames. The difference with the work of Marey, is that Marey presented his sequences in only one single photograph. To be able to do this, he invented the photographic gun.(23) (Figure 14) A tool that combined several images into one and in this way captured a moment in a single picture instead of loose frames like Muybridge had done.
The gun had a cylinder with photographic plates attached to it. You would aim the gun at a moving subject and it would shoot twelve frames a second. The plates could later be used to assemble one image with twelve sequenced stages of movement. Nowadays we can use anything, like an app or a camera to make a sequence of pictures, we luckily do not have to use an object which looks like a rifle.
Human Locomotion, Etienne Jules Marey, (1886).
The Horse in Motion, Eadweard Muybridge, (1878).
Photographic Gun, invention by Etienne Jules Marey, (1882).
to make a sequence of pictures, we luckily do not have to use an object which looks like a rifle
devices used to display analogue loops
Zoetrope booklet, (1870). Simon Beattie Collection.
At the same time as Marey and Muybridge were experimenting with photography, the zoetrope became a very popular toy.(24) This device, which consisted out of a rotating drum with strips of images on the inside, could be used to display small animations. The images on the strip would represent a sequence of movement and would form a short animation when you would look through the holes of the drum, while the device was in rapid rotation. These strips show similarities in form with the chronophotography and look like dissected loops. (Figure 12, 13) The illustrations are still together on one sheet, but to use them the sheet had to be taken apart.
Before the zoetrope, other devices like the thaumatrope and the phenakistoscope used the same principle for creating the illusion of continuous movement.(25) The thaumatrope did not necessarily show movement but would merge two images into one. An example of this is the bird in the cage. A card on a string shows on the front a bird, and on the back a cage. When you would twirl the string quickly within your hands the rotating shows you the two images; but the bird seems to be in the cage!
The basis of these devices was the phenomenon of ‘the persistence of vision’ in which the brain retains the impression of an object for a fraction of a second after its disappearance, creating the possibility of apparent motion.(26)
The phenakistocope took this further by having multiple illustrations instead of two. (Figure 14) Users would spin the disk while they are standing in front of a mirror. The slits act as shutters that turn the static frames into an animation in the end.
After the rotating devices, other ways of providing animation were created. The technique of a flip book, in which different sheets with paper are shown one after another in a continuous speed, got very popular and resulted in new devices to show animation like the mutoscope.(27) (Figure 15) This weird apparatus worked like a vending machine: you had to insert money and next you were presented with a short flipped animation. This could be a cartoon, but the mutoscope is now mostly known as a device to show erotic little animations: animated peepshows!
Zoetrope booklet, (1870). Simon Beattie Collection.
the brain retains the impression of an object
Mutoscope, dating from the early twenty century, hosting a peep show.
The examples are early looping animations, predecessors of film, look actually very similar to the animated imagery we see all around us on our screens. In an article in Wired these optical illusions of 150 years ago are compared with the animated GIFs we use today: “Optical tools are often regarded as the forefathers to the modern GIF. We’re all interested in seeing movement, it was a different time, but the same challenge: How do you make things move?”(28)
It cannot be seen as a weird phenomenon that people were captivated by looping motion in the 1800’s. It was something totally new, photography just came about, but the actual invention of film was still a thing to develop in the future. Looping motion was seen as very surprising and exciting. When we compare it to the visual overdose we are surrounded by today, there is no other conclusion to draw: now there is nothing new and exciting anymore about looping images. Why are they actually still popular?
The most common used format for looping imagery in our current daily communication is the animated GIF. The abbreviation GIF stands for Graphic Interchange Format, a format that can convey lightweight animations consisting out of a small number of frames.(29) Usually the animation lasts no longer than a few seconds.
However short these animations are, they seem to be surrounding us in our online use of communication systems. They are used in chat conversations to express emotional responses, used in advertising to attract the viewers’ attention, used in websites to enhance a certain atmosphere and used to quickly showcase an event in a news feed, to name a few examples.
The intention of these animations can be innocent and playful when used in a chat, but can become serious and grown-up when used to illustrate an important incident in world politics. Most of us know the short looping images from our daily activity on social media. But except on Facebook and Twitter, the medium is also implemented in articles by serious news outlets like The Guardian and the Telegraph.(30)
Some even claim that these short animations are the future of communication. This due to the fact that a visual message is easier and faster to process than a message in text. “We know and believe the way we transfer information in a social environment is increasingly based on visuals,” explains Adam Leibsohn, chief operator at media platform Giphy.(31) With the rise of the visual small animations fight their way into our daily communication.
Interesting is that the little loops that the platform Giphy is built around, are actually nothing new. As I explained in the previous chapter, we already loved short looping motion in the 1800’s. But those were analogue looping images. Digital looping imagery seems a trend of the last few years, but the actual format dates way back. They were already around before I was born! (Which means before 1993.)
innocent and playful, serious and grown-up
The animated gif
was invented with
the intention to add colour and movement to digital communication
The animated GIF was invented in 1987 by a computer scientist looking for an better and easier compressed file format, to add colour and movement to digital communication: the American scientist Steve Wilhite received a Life Achievement Award for his invention the GIF.(32)
It is surprising that such an old format, from the very humble beginnings of the internet, still enjoys such popularity in the present day. This popularity is seen as a result of nostalgia because the format was very much in vogue before, especially in the 90’s when the GIF looked still very clumsy, like old school clip art.(33) They were created as small images which main use was to decorate or enhance a text or a page.
Animations had to be very simple and modest because the general bandwidth, the speed on which you could load web pages was very low. My dad told me that the first time he sent such a looping animation in an e-mail to a friend, the actual message had to load for over half an hour, before the friend could actually see what my father sent him.
Screenshot of turtle animated GIFS. https://gifcities.org/?q=turtle, accessed in December 2016.
A beautiful website which perfectly showcases the popularity of small animated loops in the 90’s is the website gifcities.org.(34) It is a site created by the Internet Archive to highlight the history of the internet. The site is an enormous database of all kinds of different small GIFs originating from the web platform Geocities. It was one of the first platforms that allowed people to create their own web pages.
This resulted in a giant network of pages about random topics, all connected through the use of a crazy DIY digital aesthetic. The use of GIFs on the platform to enhance your page was very common and the amount of GIFs created was very extensive. Geocities is no longer hosted and thus no longer online, but on gifcities.org the spirits of the makers live on. You can search for a retro GIF of anything you can think of. I enjoyed myself with a screen full of my favourite animal in loop. (Figure 18)
18. Pater, R. (2016) The Politics of Design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers
19. Poidevin, Le R. “Time, and the static image”,12 Philosophy, Volume 72 (280), 1997. p.175 - 188.
20. Buxton, R.G.A (2004) The complete world of Greek mythology. London: Thames & Hudson
21. Baudson, M. “Van de kinematische voorstelling naar de vierde dimensie”, Tijd, de vierde dimensie in de kunst, 1984, p.159-185
23. Meier, A. (2015) The Scientist Who Shot His Photos with a Gun and Inspired Futurism. http://hyperallergic.com/197464/the-scientist-who-shot-his-photos-with-a-gun/ consulted in November 2016
24. Unknown; Optical toys; The Richard Balzer Collection, (2009) 2016 http://www.dickbalzer.com/Optical_Toys.203.0.html, consulted in December 2016
25. Stinson, L. (2013) These Incredible Animated GIFs Are More Than 150 Years Old. https://www.wired.com/2013/12/these-150-year-old-gifs-are-insane/consulted in November 2016
26. Unknown; Persistence of vision: how does animation work? (2015) https://www.futurelearn.com/12courses/explore-animation/0/12steps/12222, consulted in December 2016.
27. Unknown; Optical toys; The Richard Balzer Collection, (2009) 2016 http://www.dickbalzer.com/Optical_Toys.203.0.html, consulted in December 2016
28. Stinson, L. (2013)
29. O’Leary, A. (2013) An Honor for the Creator of the GIF. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/122013/05/21/an-honor-for-the-creator-of-the-gif/ consulted in November 2016.
30. Gosling, E. (2016) Images as culture and a new language: Giphy’s Adam Leibsohn’s insights on the future of the gif. http://www.itsnicethat.com/features/giphy-adam-leibsohm-290116 consulted in November 2016.
32. O’Leary, A. (2013)
34. Ghoshal, A. (2016) Gifcities brings back 1.6 million old-school GIFs from the GeoCities era http://thenextweb.com/shareables/2016/10/28/you-can-now-enjoy-1-6-million-gloriously-old-school-gifs-from-the-geocities-era/ consulted in November 2016.
The loop communicating
The format of the GIF is one of small compression, which at first resulted in low quality and highly pixelated imagery. (Figure 17) Due to technical developments, we currently can create looping animations out of movies and high definition photos. It is no longer necessary to make them only a few pixels wide, like the early GIFs. The appearance is now way more refined, and this is also reflected in the use of looping imagery.
An example of the use of these refinements in loops is to be found on the website of Het Nationale Opera & Ballet from Amsterdam.(35) Every performance is promoted with a specific webpage, which introduces the title of the opera or dance performance with full-screen imagery representing the atmosphere of the performance.
Arabella, an opera by Richard Strauss, is presented in a beautiful looping animation.(36) It shows a young woman wearing an elegant hat, gazing directly towards you through a crystal wine glass. The water of the glass is slightly moving while she holds it, until a golden ring falls down from above. The ring hits the edge of the glass and causes the whole image to shake, and the image keeps shaking while the ring bounces off into the water.
The whole scene only lasts for about 10 seconds and then repeats itself. The short scene briefly describes the story; the aim is to provide a glimpse of the narrative of the opera, which is all about the troubles around the dilemma marrying for love or for wealth.
Not all loops to present the performances are focused on the narrative aspect. Some like the one for the ballet piece Coppelia37 are a continuous loop, not showing the motion of the characters themselves, but circling around them like the spectator is moving around them to get an extra clear focus on the costumes and bodies of the dancers.
The images balance between film and photography, slightly moving in a very quiet tempo. It is not harmful to your eyes, like the looping GIFs of Geocities. It merely transports you into the atmosphere of the performance. Alex Clay, from studio Lesley Moore, one of the designers behind the identity, explained in a lecture at the Royal Academy of Art in November 2016 that it only seemed logical to convey the essence of the performances in moving imagery, as both opera and dance are disciplines in which movement is an important element.(38) At the same time, the movement sucks you into the atmosphere of the story, and conveys the message of the opera within a few seconds. The mesmerizing effect is obvious.
The appearance is now way more refined, and this is also reflected in the use of looping imagery
Other examples of more elegant video loops are so-called cinemagraphs. These images seem to be photographs, frozen moments in time, but suddenly elements in the photo start to move. This creates very confusing imagery, because we are used to visuals that either show motion or are still, but never do both at the same time.
The cinemagraph as a medium is pioneered by designer duo Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg. They also describe the cinemagraphs as living photographs. “It’s a photograph that has a living moment inside of it.”(39) What element you define as moving, gets highlighted out, that element seems to be broken free from time. The image of a woman sketching during a catwalk show, gives you the feeling she is captured while being in her own world, perfectly happy in her own loop. By catching a short sequence in time, you actually seem to be able to escape time itself.
The very short time span which makes a loop a merged version of a still and a moving picture, makes it possible to use moving image in combination of other media which asks for an activity of reading rather than watching.
I remember I started to read the Harry Potter books by J.K.Rowling when I was a child. At a certain moment in the story Harry received a photo album from his friend Hagrid. The album contained not just still images, the photos were special enchanted pictures: the people in the pictures were moving! Magic! Even though I knew about film, this idea of motion was something way more fascinating; a picture which would move instantly and did not need a recorder to play, motion that could be kept in a book.
My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, (1996), Olia Lialina.
a loop is playing anyway
Film does often not mix well with text or image when you browse a webpage. Maybe this is due to the long loading time high quality footage still demands, but I also think it is because film needs the full attention of the spectator. It asks to be watched passively: start from the beginning and watch it till the end. You need to make time for it and make the decision to watch it: press the play button.
A loop does not demand the same kind of attention as a movie. A loop is playing anyway. It does not matter when you start watching, the beginning and the end are created through the moment your eyes are caught in the movement. This is why the loop is very effective in combination with text and image in online communication. It does not require action from the user to experience it. Therefore it can work together with text and image on one page. Examples of this are found in digital storytelling.
In 1996 Olia Lialina designed a net-based artwork called My Boyfriend Came Back from the War.(40) (Figure 18) It is an interactive story, about two people having an uncomfortable conversation. The work is black and white, built in HTML and she published it on her own website. It all has a very old-school-retro-web feel to it. It is one of the earliest works of art made for the web alone.
a loop does not require an action from the user
The images are not really illustrating the story; they are merely providing some kind of atmosphere, being abstract and grainy. Some of the images are moving; there is a window that changes in hue, blinking in some way. It makes the page feel alive. When you made your way through the story and you reach the end, the image of the window is still moving. Even though the conversation has ended in silence, the window somehow reminds you of the world outside still going on. Maybe it even illustrates that the story will never end. A story is finished when there is nothing left to read, but a loop can be read over and over again.
Another example of the inventive use of looping imagery in storytelling is in the work The Bloody Footprint.(41) (Figure 19) This is a web comic by Lilli Carre published on the website of the New York Times in 2015. The story is one about memory loss, two friends talk about an event which happened in the past, experiencing an inconsistency in their memories. The story unfolds itself while you are scrolling. At first it does look like a classic comic with panels and windows following a linear storyline. But then some of the panels appear to be different. They actually move! The animations are gentle and sometimes only visible through a subtle change of texture.
Movement attracts the eye, and therefore the animations make certain parts of the illustrations stand out. A ladder seems an important element in the story, constantly slightly changing its hue.
Carre is using the loop as a tool to reveal the hierarchy of elements, and also uses the medium by speeding up and slowing down the pace. When a preceding panel showed movement, you look twice at the next panel; you somehow suspect movement as well, which makes you look in a better way. The still image, suddenly becomes quieter and more silent than before.
Beautiful about the loop is the fact that you can catch a moment through it. Instead of collecting pictures reminding of moments, you can capture the actual short moment itself. Like Harry Potter’s photo album, the images come to life.
In the work The Idle Self(42) we can transport ourselves from room to room by clicking on doors. Every room contains looping imagery. The moving objects in the room steal your attention and let you focus upon these objects, while the rooms are essentially moving.
In chats we can use looping imagery for expressing emotion or for making a funny remark. The loops we use online in chats can be seen as a new very universal way of expressing ourselves. The use of loops is not restricted to one culture or one language. Adam Leibsohn COO of Giphy, a platform full of GIFs, claimed that gifs are more meaningful than words and are the future of communication.(43) It is a logical statement for him to make, as he derives benefit from GIFs to be seen as popular, as his company is based on distributing GIFs. A very funny and clever reaction to this statement was made by Amanda Hess and Katy Waldman, who debated in words and GIFs, the meaning of GIFs in relation to words.(44) Waldman made her statements in words while Hess reacted in GIFs.
The conclusion from the debate was that GIFs cannot replace words, as images can convey different meanings and they will always need words to provide them with a context. “Words have a lot more tonal range than GIFs, which are mostly good for the visual equivalent of clever one-liners.” But: “They can spice up conversations”.(45) Whether used in advertising, storytelling or like a pictographic language within chat conversations, the moving element can bring atmosphere, explain context, and communicate ideas fast. Nevertheless they are not able to work on their own, they need a context to be truly communicating.
Panel from illustrated essay, The Bloody Footprint, Lilli Carre, The New York Times(2015).
GIFs cannot replace words, they will always need words to provide them with a context
35. www.operaballet.nl, Het Nationale Opera & Ballet, accessed in December 2016.
36. Coppelia (animatie), Lesley Moore voor Het Nationale Opera en Ballet, http://www.operaballet.nl12/nl/ballet/2016-201712/voorstelling12/coppelia, accessed in December 2016.
37. Arabella (animatie) Lesley Moore voor Het Nationale Opera en Ballet, http://www.operaballet.12nl/nl/12opera/2013-2014/12voorstelling/arabella, accessed in December 2016.
38. Clay, A. Lesley Moore, Lecture, November 14th 2016, KABK, The Hague.
39. Lin, J.C. (2014) When Photos Come to Life: The Art of the Cinemagraph. http://time.com/3388024/12when-photos-come-to12-life-the-art12-of-the-cinemagraph/ consulted in December 2016.
40. My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, Olia Lialina, (1996). http://www.teleportacia.org/war/, accessed in December 2016.
41. The Bloody Footprint, Lilli Carre, (2015). http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/02/05/opinion/private-lives-12the-bloody-footprint.html?_r=0, accessed in December 2016.
42. The idle self, Tom Hannocks, (2013). http://ani-gif.com/2.5/, accessed in December 2016.
43. Gosling, E. (2016) Images as culture and a new language: Giphy’s Adam Leibsohn’s insights on the future of the gif. http://www.itsnicethat.com/features/giphy-adam-leibsohm-290116 consulted in November 2016.
44. Hess A. et Waldman A. (2015) Will Words Soon Be Replaced by GIFs? A Debate in Words and GIFs. http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/05/11/are_gifs_the_future_of_12communication.html consulted in November 2016.
the power of the loop
Loops are a combination of time, repetition and sequence. In visual communication loops can provide motion to still forms of media. It can therefore bring new opportunities for communicating stories; whether it is through moving posters, accentuating elements in illustration or enhancing a certain atmosphere. The motion can be used to attract attention or to depict activity. It can provide information in a fast manner, but nevertheless will always need the context of words to be truly understood.
The power of repetition is the main reason for the communicating power of the loop. Repetition can mesmerize the viewer through the creation of an enjoyable visible rhythm. On the other hand, this feature is also the reason why ‘being in a loop’ is regarded being a terrible experience. Film characters caught in a loop never seem to be happy about their fate, just as in Greek mythology being caught in a loop was seen as one of the most severe punishments.
to provide motion to still forms of media
the loop becomes a medium on its own, being able to
dismiss itself from
the pattern of time
Ancient cultures already used loops to define their place in time and visual loops were already popular in the 19th century through small animation. Today most of our communication takes place on the screen, an ideal habitat for the loop. The most common visual loop is the animated GIF, but the loop is also represented in other digital formats.
Due to the nature of the loop, being something that has a duration, but at the same time only being able to only capture a moment, it can inhabit the undefined field between still and moving image. It can therefore create a feeling being outside of time, mixing the realities of Kronos and Kairos.
In this way the loop becomes a medium on its own, being able to dismiss itself from the pattern of time: the main power of the loop.
It is a very small round object. It appeared in my screen just a few seconds ago. I try not to get annoyed. It is probably designed to keep me from frustration. The round object follows the movement of my mouse and my eyes follow the rotation. The little thing spins and spins and spins. I try clicking it a few times desperately.
Have you ever been frustrated by the same object as I describe above? The little looping animation that shows up when the operating system of your Mac wants to indicate it is busy. It is a signal that sends you a friendly reminder: please wait! However, we never like to wait. And therefore the little pinwheel acquired a notorious reputation. This loading pinwheel is an example of a tiny looping image, a short repeating animation we encounter in our daily use of digital communication systems. The ball is in endless rotation, seamless motion, repeating its behaviour over and over again. Illustrating the process of loading, is just one of the uses of looping images. They inhabit the interfaces we use on our smartphones, televisions and computers, they live on the web pages we visit: they pretty much sneak into every digital environment, and they can have very different aims and uses.
In A PLEASURE TO SEE YOU AGAIN, I discover what the role of looping images within communication can be, what makes them attractive and therefore so ubiquitous. The concept of the endless loop is highlighted in this process.
Loops have already been observed for over thousands of years. Ancient cultures used the cyclical processes in nature to define their place in time.
They have been regarded as both positive and negative elements. When someone is caught in the same pattern over and over again, it is seen as negative: Film characters caught in a loop never seem to be happy about their fate, just as in Greek mythology being caught in a loop was seen as one of the most severe punishments.
On the other hand, loops can be extremely satisfying too. Scientific research has proven that repetition has the power to mesmerize us, in music as well as in imagery.
Text and design
Wies van der Wal
Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague 2017