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GIFFEST: Where the Eccentric, Digital and Imperfect Collide

James Hii for GIFFEST 2023

Best described as an in-your-face, no-apologies-given riot of eye-popping colours, GIFFEST by art-based education platform EYEYAH! returns for its third edition. The show treats visitors to an unapologetically eccentric experience with off-the-wall patterns, mesmerising GIFs and, yes, even a five-legged horse.

Hosted at the National Design Centre, GIFFEST goes all-out with this year’s theme, IMPERFECT. Using the medium of GIFs (Graphic Interchange Formats), 80 artists from across the world present us with their spin on the digital format. Instead of the clichéd ‘love yourself’ spin on the topic, EYEYAH! gives an unconventional take on the often-discussed theme, showing us how imperfection ignites creativity, makes us unique, and, more importantly, how much fun an ‘imperfect’ world is.

The theme IMPERFECT emerges at a critical juncture, considering the influence of digital media on today’s youth. Steve Lawler, the curator and creative director of GIFFEST and EYEYAH!, underscores this point: “Young people are very impressionable about what they see online and the media they consume.” Further noting the effects of relentlessly pursuing perfection, Lawler continues,

“Achieving the perfect lifestyle is a myth, and yet we all still strive for it, often with disappointing consequences.”

No holds barred

GIFFEST’s punchy vibrancy pops right at you, making an introduction that’s anything but reserved. Right from the festival’s exterior, you’re greeted by a large screen playing a selection of GIFs. Inside, right by the entrance, a screen displaying several works and the festival’s curatorial statement can also be found.

The interior embraces a flamboyantly maximalist design, which adds to the festival’s character. The walls teem with a medley of illustrations and high-contrast patterns, leaving no corner untouched, creating a visually engaging experience. Strategically placed at the corridor’s end, a mirror teases a sneak peek into the rest of the space, hinting at a playful labyrinth within. The phrase “IMPERFECTION = UNIQUE” on it is a not-so-subtle nod to the festival’s core message.

Pensive quotes about imperfection can also be seen scattered throughout the space, acting as reflections on the festival’s theme. 

Beanbags are dispersed throughout the space, beckoning you to unwind and immerse yourself. Another mirror is positioned at the pop-up space’s centre, this time with the words “BEAUTIFULLY IMPERFECT” on it. Between these reflective surfaces and the riotous patterns at every turn, the venue transforms into a whimsical maze, enticing you to lose and find yourself all at once.

While décor this vibrant and bold might risk sensory overload, GIFFEST masterfully manages the visual chaos and avoids overwhelming the senses. The erratic background does serve a purpose: unironically, it helps to unify the otherwise disparate works, with the constant being the visual inconsistency. It must be noted, however, those sensitive to flashing lights or prone to seizures should take precautions when visiting the space.

Celebrating a versatile, underrated medium

Despite their ubiquity in our digital landscape, GIFs often have their versatility and artistic potential overlooked. Contemporary mediums such as video art are often taken more seriously, while GIFs are often associated with memes and pop culture. However, for Lawler, its pop culture roots are GIFs’ greatest strengths. Given their relatability and ability to reach new audiences, he notes that “it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like GIFS.” 

Living up to its tagline, ‘Asia’s largest celebration of GIFs,’ GIFFEST encapsulates the sheer diversity of this medium with a robust showcase of artists wielding unique styles and techniques. 

For instance, the 3D animated piece Crusade 2.0 (2021) by Kitasavi (known as @Kitasavi on Instagram) presents a striking array of abstract structures hovering over a crimson beach. Each structure expresses the binary of tactile qualities: soft and hard, reflective and matte. Capitalising on 3D animation’s capacity to simulate real-life textures and light, the work offers a tantalising peek into a world beyond our imaginings.

Video courtesy of GIFFEST.

Other creations like The Central Park Shuffle (2021) by Adam Hale, known as @the.daily.splice on Instagram, employ a blend of Photoshopped images and motion graphics to weave a warped perception of reality. Here, The animation uses a photo shot by Hale in 2018. Hale separated it into layers and animated them to shift the perspective of various sections of the foreground, middle ground and background.

Video courtesy of GIFFEST.

What’s peculiar, however, was the festival’s embrace of generative art such as Aaron Thong’s TRISTITIA (2023), though some might know the artist as known as @agriimony on Instagram. The algorithmically generated GIF features a sea of rectangular shapes in various arrangements that form an abstract image.

Unlike AI-generated art, which is trained on an existing dataset—be it from public domains or personal databases—generative art such as Thong’s uses algorithms directed by pre-set rules, typically yielding geometric designs. This artistic approach, hinging on coded instructions, has sparked debate about its artistic merit within the digital art stratosphere.

On the other hand, many believe that generative art is still a product of human creativity and should be seen as such; Lawler appears to support this. While algorithmically generated GIFs may seem to clash with the festival’s theme, he asserts that any quirks from manipulating the algorithm are vital ingredients in the final creation, proving that even in a perfectly generated piece, imperfection is ever-present.

Lawler further elaborates on how imperfection can arise, such as when artists intentionally use mistakes in their code. “A lot of experimentation is made [by] testing different algorithms to produce different shapes and movements,” he explains. “One artist even mentioned they made a mistake in their initial code, and the results were very interesting, so they pursued this new line of enquiry.”

Creativity in all forms

According to Lawler, he didn’t curate the GIFs based on the artist’s mastery of animation or the tools they had on hand. He explains,

“We tend not to bias style over substance…What’s important to us is ingenuity, ideas and originality.” 

Lawler’s approach is reassuring to those who cannot afford the latest tools and technology; anyone who’s ever dabbled in animation can attest to the medium’s high upfront costs. In a world where people often strive for perfection by acquiring the ‘best’ tools and equipment, they tend to overlook what they already have. Some of the GIFs on display were created with basic tools and techniques to emphasise that real creativity emerges from leveraging our limitations and viewing them as strengths.

For example, Maximiliano Alejandro Zas’s (a.k.a. @por_zas on Instagram) experimental GIF, Cycles 1 (2021) was created with Procreate, a relatively accessible iPad app for illustrations and simple animations. Although the four-second animation is brief, it captures the delightful essence of 2D animation by utilising a low frame rate and smears (a hand-drawn technique that mimics motion) to create an amalgamation of dashing squares and circles. Despite its technical simplicity, this playful animation is truly very charming.

Video courtesy of GIFFEST.

On top of the pressure to have top-of-the-line equipment, artists often face an exhausting pressure to be at their best constantly. Exacerbating this is the expectation that artists’ work should be highly intellectual or technically advanced, and that each new work is supposed to be better than the last. Several works go against that expectation by celebrating simplicity and being refreshingly straightforward, both in concept and technique.

Jacelyn Zhen’s States of Balance is one such piece. Best known for her illustrative and colour-blocked style, Zhen’s GIF is soothing to watch and is my personal favourite. Calming pastel colours, subtle movements, and whimsical transparency effects make up her signature style and breathe life into her illustration. 

A leg up on creativity

It’s intriguing that despite the extensive number of artists involved—and a naturally wide variety of GIFs—the theme IMPERFECT isn’t explicitly depicted in many of them. What gives? 

At first glance, one might associate EYEYAH!’s intent with the philosophy that there is beauty in imperfection. But rather than solely celebrating this, GIFFEST presents imperfection as a springboard for creativity. It suggests that our unique quirks and flaws aren’t just to be accepted but are key to our artistic expression. 

To illustrate this point, allow me to address the white horse in the room (pun intended).

Although seemingly random, the horse’s presence symbolises the exhibition’s message. Atypical, the horse is undoubtedly ‘imperfect’. It stands out; it’s not normal but unique.

In our world, a five-legged horse might be forced to adapt, to fit in and walk as a four-legged horse does. But consider the potential if we let the horse be and embrace its extra leg. How would its gallop differ? What could it do that’s beyond the ability of a normal horse? 

Our supposed flaws can often be our biggest strengths. When we loosen the reins, forego chasing perfection, and instead use our imperfections—our unique traits—to our advantage, we can unleash an array of possibilities, as showcased by each artist and their styles.

So, if our flaws spark creativity, what fans the flames? Aside from the festival’s overarching theme, I believe what ties its visual language and all the GIFs together is also an element of fun. 

There’s just something so inherently playful about the décor, the layout, and, most importantly, the GIFs. GIFFEST’s over-the-top maximalism feels strangely comforting. There is no predetermined style or look, and everyone and everything is included. Likewise, each featured GIF is visually distinct and unapologetically individualistic. Clearly, the artists thoroughly enjoyed creating the GIFs and used their unique styles as a springboard, resulting in a series of GIFs that collectively bring vibrancy to the space.

In hindsight, it’s understandable why there wasn’t an overt focus on imperfection itself. We all know that we are imperfect, and it wouldn’t be productive to beat a dead horse and dwell on that fact—and it seems that EYEYAH! knows that too. Instead, we see at GIFFEST the celebration of the exhilarating outcomes when we let loose, shrug off perfection and enjoy the process of creating.


GIFFEST runs till 26 August 2023 at the National Design Centre Level 1 Atrium, 111 Middle Road, Singapore 188969. Opening hours are from 9 AM — 9 PM. Admission is free.

Feature image: James Hii for GIFFEST 2023

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