…and then the world

presentation: Oh! You Pretty GIFs (Melbourne, July 2015)


In mid-July, in my final stop in the mid-year conference tour, I had the honour of presenting at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne at a symposium marking the opening of the David Bowie is exhibition in Australia at the same venue. Needless to say, it was an amazing experience, and huge thanks go to the organizers for their hard work in putting this together; I fell sick after the first day, unfortunately, and missed out on a whole bunch of fascinating work if the first day was anything to go by! Plus it’s not many conferences where the day starts with musical performances (including a ukulele trio dubbed the ‘Thin White Ukes’), features keynotes from a scholar living as Bowie, the David Bowie is V&A curator, and one of Australia’s pre-eminent musicians and music writers, *and* offers workshops and such that include make-up and photoshoots:


I presented a paper about David Bowie GIFs, fandom, and related themes; unlike many of my previous presentations, my slides were mostly images, projected onto a ridiculously huge cinema screen – so putting up the slides without comment seems a little confusing; however, also unusually, I wrote out a script for my presentation so that I had something to work from without the slides to give written prompts. So, if you are interested, you can find the full selection of GIFs and accompanying ‘script’ (which I talked around and occasionally went on short tangents from, but as a guide to what I was probably planning to say) after the cut:



Oh! You Pretty GIFs: a draft script

Tim Highfield, 17 July 2015.


Hello, and thank you.


So, today I’m talking about David Bowie in media, but as in a sense a secondary media subject – the works and representations here are not those created by Bowie or his collaborators, directors, and so on, but often artefacts which are taken from pre-existing media, stripped of their context and presented in isolation, applied to new settings, subjects, practices, and uses. From music videos and concert performances to interviews, film and tv appearances, and the inspirations provided by lyrics, by appearances, costumes, and more, different elements of Bowie’s career have been adapted and appropriated within short, visual loops online, and in this presentation I’m going to look at a few examples of both content and practice.


The sub-title of this paper is: Visualising David Bowie fandom on Tumblr – although really, the last part could simply be “on social media”, for spaces like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly supporting formats like the animated GIF – which I will get to in a moment. I have focused on Tumblr (that’s tumblr.com) here – and on image and visual media repositories such as Imgur and Giphy – because arguably this is the most obvious and largest space where community and fandom reside on social media. I haven’t provided any screenshots of Tumblr itself, but as a very very quick intro:


Tumblr is a quasi-blogging platform (owned by Yahoo!): you can sign up and create a Tumblr blog in seconds, and while you can post whatever you like, including writing thousand word pieces on the subject of your choice, the norms of the platform tend towards the visual and the short: furthermore, there is a strong culture of reblogging material, of sharing someone else’s content – with attribution – on your own blog. I won’t spend too much time unpacking Tumblr, but it is a social media platform which thrives on the creation and appropriation of media, and their application to new contexts, whether sharing responses and screen captures from television shows as they happen (or shortly afterward), creating fan fiction through selective editing (of one or multiple sources), or employing visual media to stand in as a response to an unrelated question or situation – the reaction GIF, for example. There are sites dedicated to many different shows, artists, and more – a standard name template for blogs focused on a single topic is the fuckyeah[x].tumblr.com site – and these foster various creative and communal expressions of fandom, of identity creation and more (and this is not restricted to pop culture, of course, and indeed Tumblr has been a popular platform for the creation and performance of LGBTQ identity, for instance).


And then the GIF: standing for Graphics Interchange Format the GIF is a key element of internet culture, and indeed it has occupied different places and implications in internet vernacular: in the 90s, for instance, animated under construction icons, bouncing hamsters, or obnoxious rotating logos were synonymous with particular types of website, and the GIF was perhaps more reviled… and then it declined in presence, until its resurgence as a format that enabled not just animation, but looping, reformatted video content (where the frame-by-frame nature of video is more obvious). GIFs can be used in multiple ways, of course: there are conventions and practices around recording highlights of sports in GIF form, for instance, or the screencapping of tv, and these can inspire other users to add content into existing GIFs…


So, in this talk I am examining the animated GIF – the looping visual – as a means for social media users to express fandom, commentary, play, creativity, and these elements in concert; I am not saying that these are the only practices or functions at hand, but these are what I am covering here  – similarly, the examples I am about to show are not necessarily representative of all practices or the most popular content, but are particularly appropriate illustrations. These are intertextual, using existing media to pass comment or respond to other contexts: while David Bowie is a common factor in each of the GIFs I am about to show, they draw from different aspects of his career and are employed for different purposes – and indeed, demonstrate various degrees of user engagement in the creation of these media. There are at play then elements of fandom that are specific not just to Bowie, but also to social media at large, of what people including my colleague Jean Burgess have referred to as ‘vernacular creativity’ – where new user-generated content responds to, is inspired by, and changes previous content – and what researchers here at the University of Melbourne have dubbed ‘platform vernacular’ as content responds to the various tropes, norms, affordances, logics, and cultures apparent on specific social media platforms.


Let’s start – at last! – with Bowie the musician, in terms of GIFs taken from his music videos. Although, really, this is less the musician, and more the performer, and especially in one of the more common sources of GIFfery: the video for his 1985 collaboration with Mick Jagger on ‘Dancing in the Street’.



Here we get exuberance, silliness, flamboyance, unabashed enjoyment and ridiculousness, on loop; stripped of audio and context, selections from the Dancing in the Street video express fun without reservation – we get two men enjoying each other’s company, playing around in deserted streets and warehouses, with particularly exaggerated dancing and memorable moves like Jagger’s…



[source missing — if you find it, let me know!]

But what we also get here is a focus on just how surreal and mad this all is – explained by the fact that this video was filmed almost impromptu, prepared in a rush for a single release to benefit Live Aid – Bowie and Jagger are larking around, this much is clear, but sans audio and on loop it just becomes more and more ridiculous the more you see it.




And here we get a new application of the media – it is not just a reference to an infamous video, but a punctuation mark that is added to other settings, introduced to unrelated narratives and conversations.


Other GIFs drawn from musical contexts focus again on the performance – see this loop taken from an early 70s TV performance of ‘Space Oddity’



or the particular focus on some mid 90s pelvic action (this is just one of several GIFs in series)


or this final GIF from a series taken from a performance during the tour documented on Stage.


They can be condensed even further – the very short loops of a facial gesture or tic – to start moving beyond Bowie as subject, and more Bowie as conduit for a particular emotion, response, or sentiment.


The reaction GIF – where the emotions conveyed in the GIF are used to stand in for the user’s own feelings – provide a visual shorthand in place of text, and here the importance of Bowie himself might be secondary; at the very least, it offers multiple levels of meaning – first the reaction, second the context (and not everyone might be aware of these multiple levels, but the first one is obvious without explanation). Bowie’s cameo in the film Zoolander might be of service:



Stripped of context, Bowie is not reacting to Derek Zoolander or Hansel in the throes of their walk-off, but instead his gestures are responses to comments and topics relevant to the user employing and appropriating them. These offer more than just a still image of a raised eyebrow or grimace – these are appropriate too, of course, but in getting the full reaction, the action of the raised eyebrow, the user’s own response is clearer.

[As a side-note, too, what is obvious throughout these slides is the variable image quality of GIFs – this is part of the culture, though, in that the ability to create GIFs is made available to casual internet users through various free services, as well as through software and paid sites which can help provide higher resolution imagery.]


Reaction GIFs may also employ text to transcribe dialogue or the thoughts behind the depicted actions – as a purely visual format, GIFs are unable to support audio; when I told my dad about this paper, he suggested an alternative punning title (actually he expressed disappointment that I hadn’t used this pun) and while I will note that we are still waiting for the GIF of sound and vision, in a sense Vine – the app where 6 second looping videos are created and shared – serves this purpose.

In the absence of audio, then, we get the caption – traditionally at the bottom of the image, whether taken from subtitles or added by the user – showing the missing dialogue.


This GIF is obviously taken from the 1986 film Labyrinth, but again – like the Zoolander GIFs – has applications beyond referring to the film itself: “You say that so often; I wonder what your basis for comparison is” is a retort that may be worked into conversation about a far greater range of topics than Jareth is responding to in the film.


Like ZoolanderLabyrinth offers a wealth of applications here – and this extends from reaction GIFs to elements of favourite scenes and indeed general loops from a much-loved film. The formative experience of watching Labyrinth for many of my generation, for instance, may be reflected here – and this is not just seen in GIFs…


…If you search on Tumblr for posts tagged with Jareth, you will find photos of fans cosplaying as the Goblin King – both male and female – particularly at the moment as San Diego Comic Con has just been happening. I should note then that while I’ve focused on GIFs here, which have their own connotations – Kate Miltner at the University of Southern California has researched GIFs as a camp format, for instance – they are not the only visual media featured on Tumblr or on social media at large.


I argue that there are various cultural logics at play within the repetition of a GIF – the value of the loop, the emphasis on a particular action, reaction, or punch line, for instance – that are absent from other media.


This is important to note since GIFs offer a different way of realizing fan practices such as fan fiction, of shipping and slash fic: ‘shipping refers to promoting two characters as (potential or actual) romantic/sexual partners – for instance “I ship Jareth and Hoggle”, or “I ship Bowie and Ronno”. This often happens within fandom – if you’re familiar with the Twilight series, for instance, the Team Edward and Team Jacob factions, arguing for a specific suitor for Bella, is an obvious outlet of the desire for a particular pairing, but shipping also feature couplings that the series creator has not discussed or contemplated (but which are arguably implied in subtext – Dumbledore and Snape, perhaps). Slash fic takes this to sexually explicit ends, but I will let you explore that for yourselves.


[source missing — if you find it, let me know!]

In Labyrinth, then, there is an obvious fan-led focus on the relationship between Jareth and Sara (and quite possibly projection on the part of the fans themselves). This also extends beyond the Labyrinth-specific setting, though: shipping and fan fic can mix texts, creating a continuity between texts of different eras and sources. Here, for instance, we get Jennifer Connolly’s Sara replaced by Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, played by Emma Watson: the common theme of magic creates a link between the two texts, with the dialogue from Labyrinth directed at a character from another world – yet still projecting a similar dynamic, which then becomes more obviously sexual and overt in this second GIF.


Fandom may also just project a desire to be part of Bowie’s world – whether real or that depicted in other texts; to return to Dancing in the Street, we get this fan creation expressing a wish – and here we also see the ownership of the creation and its framing as an obvious piece of Bowie fandom with the watermarking on top of the material taken from the video (and while the video itself is not owned by the GIF’s creator, its transformation has been claimed).


Of course, the same media can also be framed with a caption that puts a very different spin on the GIF: see this…


Here, Bowie and Jagger are perhaps irrelevant – yes, they are depicted, but what is being commented upon is less their dancing or fashion, and more that of white people at large… This also highlights the punchline potential of the GIF – it offers joke and resolution in one, without needing additional context (and the loop really strengthens this).

The final examples I want to show bring the focus back to Bowie because Bowie, and are to various degrees outlets for individual creativity while directly responding to the iconic. The looping format of the GIF, where a series of images are played one after the other, makes it a handy medium for showing related photographs, such as these from the Brian Duffy Aladdin Sane shoot; the content here is not the user’s, obviously, but some slight curation has taken place.


A variation though is apparent here, which again draws upon the Aladdin Sane imagery to juxtapose 70s Bowie with him 40 years on around the release of The Next Day. Again, photos taken from other sources but brought together – and contrasted against one another – in an original way.


The blurring of the original and the appropriated goes further, though: we have GIFs which feature users’ own depictions of the Aladdin Sane cover, contrasting colours and applying the animated loop to provide their own emphasis.


And then we get this series – and these are four separate GIFs – of depictions of four different eras and costumes, mixed together and looping independently such that the result is endless temporal confusion as Bowie is repeatedly remixed.



And this leads into the final GIF: because this session is entitled the Many Faces of David Bowie, I feel like this is the most appropriate way to finish up: for Bowie’s birthday at the start of this year, illustrator Helen Green drew a series of portraits of Bowie at various points in his career, from the 60s to now via Ziggy, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, Jareth, and more. Her approach to this, though, was not just to draw each face, but to do so in a way that they formed a clear sequence that was well-suited to the GIF format:



She posted this amazing piece on Tumblr: the digital equivalent of a flipbook, it is a mesmerizing realization of creativity, of fandom, and of the capabilities and affordances of the GIF format. In short, it helps to demonstrate some of the ways in which Bowie – as subject and object – is featured in visual social media, to express fandom but also as an outlet and inspiration for creativity and original content.


Thank you.


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