As the internet becomes more and more intertwined with society, so too does the museum’s scope.
“Net art is the most contemporary artform,” said independent curator Linsday Howard at an artist talk celebrating the opening of her exhibition “The Situation Room,” a year-long installation now on display in the museum’s visitor elevator.
“It’s the most important medium for us to be exhibiting and critiquing, because it’s giving us so much information about who we are right now and who we will be,” she added.
Commissioned by MoMI with the sponsorship of GIPHY Arts, the series consists of six artists, each of whom conceived four original GIFs to be presented on the walls and ceiling of the elevator for two months.
On November 13, Howard sat down with the first artist, Carlos Alfonso Sanchez, and MoMI’s Director of Curatorial Affairs Barabara Miller, to discuss the exhibition’s nature, Sanchez’s work ‘“lookit,” and contemplating GIFs as a museum-worthy medium of art.
For those who are unfamiliar, a GIF - short for graphics interchange format - is an image file format commonly used on the web because it compresses the file without degrading its quality.
GIFs also support animation, and those images are often incorporated into messaging and social media.
In 2013, GIPHY, Inc. was founded as the first search engine for GIFs. It allows users to search for their favorite GIFs and share or embed them online, as well as post their own creations to the database.
GIPHY developed its arts department in 2016 as a means to explore GIFs as an aesthetic medium.
“I had a very traditional relationship to GIFs,” said Sanchez while describing his process for bringing the “lookit” installation to life. “So it was interesting to be challenged with the creation of one in this artistic context.”
Sanchez is a Queens-based artist and graphic designer that Howard had been following for a while before she was brought on board to curate MoMI’s elevator series.
His piece presents collages of digital imagery infused with uncanny vignettes drawn from his own bedroom drag performance rituals.
“Paradoxically, when I was given the GIFs as a medium, I immediately thought about still lifes,” Sanchez said, “which is why all of these images are very much fixed within a place.”
The installation stages the character’s intimate moments under a public light, playing on the relationship between the personal nature of communicating and the vast exposure that occurs online.
“Transplanting GIFs from this environment where we typically see them, on our phones and appended into messages or social media, and recontextualizing them makes people think twice about a line between their regular communicative practice and art,” explained Miller.
“The Situation Room” utilizes the cramped, eerie, nakedness of MoMI’s white-walled elevator to forge a space like the one ordered by JFK in the White House.
In 1961, JFK’s Situation Room aided security officials who were having trouble accumulating and making sense of audio, video and text communications in real time during a crisis.
In formulating the idea behind the exhibition, Howard considered the fact that today we are constantly bombarded with information in the digital realm.
“What we lack now is time or space for interpreting the situation,” the curator analyzed. “I think we really need artists to help us provide some contemplative distance and space to really critique and assess our culture and the way that we’re experiencing the world.”
Installing the GIFs within an enclosed space, and further, as part of a museum collection, highlights the intention running through the works.
Removing these pieces of digital information from the congestion of daily internet life slows down the process for assessing their message.
“I love atypical spaces for experiencing art,” said Howard, who has previously curated exhibitions in an abandoned barn and at the bottom of a swimming pool. “It’s an opportunity for people to have their guard down and have unexpected conversations with the work.
“I wanted artists who really had visual mastery and also understanding of the social context of animated GIFs,” she continued. “Artists that have a strong perspective and a personality that you would want to be stuck in an elevator with.”
Upcoming artists to be featured in 2020 for the series are Sam Rolfes (Jan. 8–March 8), Heather Phillipson (March 11–May 10), Borna Sammak (May 13–July 12), Molly Soda (July 14–Sept. 13) and Eva and Franco Mattes (Sept. 16–Nov. 15).
MoMI is open Wednesday–Thursday from 10:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Friday: 10:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m. and 10:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m. on weekends.