There is something in the air, something that is compelling artists in Portland and beyond to mine bits of futuristic past in retro-utopian explorations. Portland arts group Weird Fiction charts a nearby but divergent course exploring "the outer regions and ramifications of today’s pervasive information environments" but through the lens and often language of the early speculative fiction/horror literary genre from which it takes its name. There is no utopia envisioned in Weird Fiction projects but a disorienting future present that seems to key into prevalent cultural technological anxieties that mount in times of brisk and disruptive technological innovation (see also the era of Sputnik and the Bomb). It’s exciting work that is contemporary, expansive, and rigorous which is why it’s amusing/ironic that in its current iteration it hinges on the lowly GIF.
Weird Fiction’s current show The GIF Economy at Tractor Gallery (328 NW Broadway, #114) is deceptively simple—a classic iceberg exhibition—with a handful of monitors displaying a series of animated gifs. GIFs, you’ll recall if you ever haunted MySpace, are the family of moving illustrations that can range from hopping cartoon penguins to seizure-inducing slideshows. Weird Fiction’s GIFs, plundered from the interwebs in a year’s worth of trawling (and no doubt massaged a bit) are more complex: crude and glitchy, they are micro-films…the cinematic equivalent of a haiku written by a madman, run through a papergrinder, and reassembled with wheatpaste. On the wall of the gallery is a brilliantly mind-twisting taxonomy of GIFs Weird Fiction has developed which I’ll reproduce in toto as a paraphrase would be as good as a blindfold (the taxonomy says much about the groups retro-speculative-fiction concerns as well as their adventurous play with words and concepts):
#CINE-MOLECULE: microscopic mental vampires weaponizing space/time in a kinesthetic battle for hearts and minds.
#DERELICT THEORY OBJECTS: artifacts so murky & feedback singed that even the solipsistic world of contemporary art can’t make sense of them.
#FICTO-QUIZZICAL: non-euclidean narratives contingent on unforeseen “Z points.” fickle phenomena requiring attention to new signals in noise.
#GLITCHCRAFT: The art of the creative short circuit. Vessels for exploring new worlds. A proto-theory object with trails of attention.
#LORKURERS: cool hunting zombies sift through the foul stench of info-detritus seeking fresh brain matter for their Voodoo Economic masters.
#MAJESTIC 12: was the birth of the transistor just months after the Roswell crash an utterly cosmic conspiring?
#OBLITERATI: You can never make enough money to disappear! These data bodies are off the grid, staying anonymous while outing everyone else.
#OBLITERATARIUM: a stronghold of grey market R&D, a nexus perplexus, a theory object with a death wish.
#POLTERZEIRGEIST: A scary spirit of the times. The feeling of hovering inches off the ground, escape velocity threatening to fire you away.
#PANOPTICONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR: an interloper of and within vernacular information architectures.
#SECOND-WAVE VAMPLING: shifts from grave-robbing to mind-jacking, snatching images from the future, straight from the multitasking mind.
Weird Fiction invited viewers to contribute their own GIFs (you can do the same, there is still time, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org) and have added them to the mix displayed on the monitors. Behind a partition is a computer on which gallery visitors can access Weird Fiction’s website. And tomorrow night, December 18, from 6-9, they’ll host a closing party with live multimedia performance and the release of texts the group has produced during the exhibition "in an effort to advance Weird Fiction mythologies," the below-the-waterline back story (and front story) of the Weird Fiction project.
The GIF is such a brilliant choice of medium (and raw material). Recall the way the GIF’s gee-whiz factor faded quickly in the cacophony of its visual assault on highly GIFed webpages…the joy in discovering we could make an image move blanching before the question, as we faced the growing evidence with the proliferation of GIF, of whether or not we should. The GIF then, is an everyman’s online pivot point between the possible and the good. And that really is what our cumulative online experiences are now all about. We can do more than ever before, virtually; how much of that that we can do is good?
Technically, the GIF is interesting as it nears obsolescence because although it lacks the elegance of its neighbor, the Flash animation, its relatively tiny file size makes it a more efficient delivery mechanism for motion. The GIF’s fall from favor is another marker on the road to byte bloat and the neverending, requisite march toward faster, more memoried computers. And for this you will pay…and pay.
Weird Fiction is channeled by Zack Denfeld, Mack McFarland, Jeff Richardson, and Carl Diehl. McFarland calls "the more laid back scientist of the group," Denfeld the "more crazed salesmen researcher," Richardson "the quiet tinker[er]," while he says, "I fall under the engineer zealot category." For the past year, Weird Fiction has produced speculative fiction blogs, multimedia performance, videos, interactive installations and book works.
I talked at length with Diehl at the exhibition’s opening and followed up with an exchange of emails to dig further into the WF practice. Diehl said, "Today, our group aims at contemporary information environments, taking a surreal approach to the network culture that is so pervasive."
"For example," he continued, "as one wanders freely around the internet, web histories, search histories, various bits of personal data are accumulated. This accumulation of data becomes a shadow of an individual, and potential means of exploiting that individual’s privacy. Weird Fiction starts with a concept like this, a data shadow, and riffs off of it in speculative fiction. Collaboratively creating a constellation of meanings, wordplay, and associations from fictional/folkloric narratives, tales of supernatural possession, or paranormal abduction and mixing it freely with non-fiction notions around surveillance and identity theft, intellectual property and remix cultures. "