When Lady Gaga showed up for an interview with a German TV station this summer in a bizarre garment composed of Kermit the Frog dolls, she provided a digital feast for celebrity bloggers, who furiously posted photographs and YouTube videos of the interview on their sites.
But when those photos and videos grew stale, another meme emerged: Several crudely drawn Microsoft Paint renderings of the eccentric pop star in the frog ensemble were looped together to create an animated GIF. The primitive yet hypnotizing three-frame sequence was blogged and reblogged in all its 500-by-469-pixel glory.
For the uninitiated, GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, a compressed file format that allows anyone with photo-editing software to loop static images together to create low-tech mini-movies. These loud, flashy features of 1990s Web culture are enjoying a renaissance, with the animated GIF at the vanguard. They're popping up all over the Internet, anachronistically juxtaposed against the clean, seamless styles of Web 2.0 design.
In 1996, animated GIFs were cutting-edge Web art, but have since been supplanted by flash animation and streaming video. And the 12-year-olds who filled their fan sites for The Simpsons or Marilyn Manson with blingy GIFs more than a decade ago are now twentysomethings who embrace the retro charm of the kitschy throwbacks.
"We spent our teen and childhood years on the [more]simplistic Internet before our grandmas caught on," said Nick DeMarco, a San Francisco multimedia artist who counts animated GIFs as one of his specialties. "It's harkening back to that time when it felt like it was more exclusive and it was new territory."
At Save for Web, a GIF exhibition that ran last month at Xpace Gallery in Toronto, that niche group of twentysomethings was out in full force, using animated GIFs from 2009 to transport themselves back to the Web 1.0 era.
"You would've had to experience them the first time around to sort of get it," said Patrick Kyle, a 21-year-old Toronto cartoonist whose animated GIFs were projected onto the walls of the gallery.
"It was a really classy thing to have a big line of fire going across the top of your website," he said with a laugh, referring to the pages he built as a preteen. "It's funny to look back at how people were really sincere about something that ridiculous."
Intentional absurdity seems to be the goal with many of the animated GIFs artists now produce. At Save for Web, which was curated by designers Leslie Predy and Stephanie Davidson, visitors were treated to a seemingly endless cascade of Dadaistic animations, from pink and blue dress shirts superimposed over a running waterfall to a shape-shifting cartoon character with eyes and breasts.
"I think that's part of the charm," said Predy. "They really grab your attention."
Her exhibition wasn't the only one to tap into the resurgent interest in these low-fi graphics - artists from around the world have contributed their creations to animated GIF shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Marisa Olson, an assistant professor of new media at Purchase College in New York, said animated GIFs may be dismissed by some as low-brow, but she holds them up as art nonetheless.
"I appreciate it as a format that has a lot of limitations and is small in scale but offers a lot of opportunities," she said.
Major corporations are also embracing the early Internet imagery as a tongue-in-cheek way of appealing to twentysomethings, whose culture is so largely based on irony.
The British online fashion retailer ASOS, for instance, released a spring/summer collection this year that included dresses, leggings and a skirt adorned with colourful, pixellated prints, a nod to the nascent days of Web art.
Paper Rad, an art collective credited by many animated GIF artists as the pioneer of the retro Web art revival, have brought bright 2-D graphics to the videos it's made for Beck, Islands and The Gossip.
And Olson notes that music channels such as VH1 and MTV have adopted that low-fi aesthetic for their show promos.
In April, the Web team at yoga wear giant Lululemon worked overtime to create a dirt-style e-commerce website as an April Fool's Day gag, tricking it out with colourful fonts, "under construction" graphics, plenty of animated GIFs and the starry background that's become synonymous with Web 1.0.
"We tried to compile every bad Web joke from the 1990s in one place," said Carolyn Coles, the company's 26-year-old online community manager.
"We see [this style]coming back again and again; it's become an Internet meme. I think the younger, more tech-savvy crowd is picking up on this as a type of joke website," she said.
Montreal artist Jon Rafman, who takes a more serious approach to his animated GIF-making, said he's skeptical of the suggestion that irony is the only thing fuelling the nineties Web art renaissance.
"It makes it into too much of a one-liner," he said. "There is an irony, but it has to do with our generation's playfulness with everything."