Interview: Steph D.
[ Ed. Note: I’m elated to share this interview with you, and double elated to exhibit 12 brand new GIFs from Steph D. as part of Private Investigation at Mastodon Mesa! Stop by on Thursday, September 23rd and see them up close, in a digital frame purchased at Best Buy! ]
Stephanie Davidson is the Don Draper of GIFs. No: she’s more like an auteur. 20 years from now, when James Cameron shatters box office records with the first feature-length GIF, historians will take note that Steph D. was the pioneer in bringing integrity and artistry to the format, and the Academy will present her with an honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievements in GIFmaking.
But it’s not just the medium, it’s the message: beyond the (hypothetically) visionary nature of Steph’s work in a technical sense, there’s also a substantial emotional impact permeating her pixels. Draw the rhythm of a beating heart on an axis of humor and terror and you start to get the picture. She can take something covertly frightening and use comedy to both negate and reinforce the horror of its existence—Pope Ratzinger, press-on nails, corporate aesthetics and spray-tanning, for instance. Now, the enfant terrible of Canadian new media graciously sheds some light on Maya 3D rendering, The Cheesecake Factory and 50 Cent’s tweets:
How did you get the gig to design/direct/create the UH-mazing video for Sun Araw’s (Cameron Stallones) song “Dimension Alley”?
I met Cameron in LA last year and I think he knew me through Tumblr, and I told him I would love to do some video stuff for Sun Araw. Cameron is a real film and video buff so I was a bit nervous making something, but I think it worked out.
I couldn’t say why exactly, but that scene at the very beginning where the field of suspended plasma cubes falls all at once in slow motion really takes my breath away every time. Is this a vision that came to you in a dream? Where did you get the inspiration for this masterpiece?
Rendering stuff like that in Maya takes a while so it’s usually best practice to plan all that stuff out with storyboards and concept art or whatnot, but I usually piece it together as I work. I think in that case I made this kind of blue marble texture and everything just sort of came out of that, just things that I thought would interact well. I was kind of thinking of a Laser Quest warehouse.
In your wildest dreams, what band or musician would you most like to make a video for? What would it look like?
I just made a video for Zach Hill that will be online later this week, that was really cool for me because I’m a huge fan of his. Christian Megazord Oldham knows Zach and passed on my work to him so that was really great. Working on a project with Zach Hill is just about as wild as it gets in my books.
You strike me as someone who would be well-versed in GIFilosophy (which is the philosophy of GIFs, obviously.) Do you think their role in internet culture has changed since the advent of YouTube and easy access to “full-length” videos? Will they become a lost art? Will you pass the tradition of GIF-craft down to your grandchildren?
I’m pretty surprised they’ve made it this far, specially with stuff like HTML5 coming up. I’ll always like gifs because they’re a short limited media where you have to condense any message or idea to a handful of frames. On Tumblr I find it interesting that no one wants to watch youtube videos really. I don’t have cable and I watch everything online so I think I have close to 1000 youtube favourites, all of which IMHO are pretty great, but when I post these on Tumblr they get no likes or reblogs compared to a mediocre gif. Gifs are just really effortless to consume, there are no plugins or loading. Gifs are sort of a successful in usability. I think that statements like “gifs will become a lost art” are not necessarily useful, that’s sort of like when people say “radio will die off”, these formats don’t necessarily die off, they just play a different role. Exercise
After releasing them into the wild of “the internets”, have you ever seen any of your GIFs pop up in unusual places? Were they used well?
Yeah I notice them now and then on message boards or sometimes College Humor type aggregates sites. I think at one point if you punched in “wtf gifs” a page with mostly my gifs was the #1 result. That was pretty cool. Earlier in the summer I noticed a band posted on Pitchfork had a still of one of my gifs as their band photo.
I love your idea for the Disembodied Pizza Hut Roof plopped down in the middle of a giant gallery space. I worked at one myself not so long ago, but I never really appreciated its pagoda-like elegance.
Yeah I really like how iconic the shape is. At work the other day I was researching big restaurant chains and I came across some jpgs of abandoned Chi Chis. I thought that was really great. But the Pizza Hut roof in particular I like, it sort of feels like they were due for a major rebranding 20 years ago but it just never happened, or didn’t happen consistently.
Are you a curator?
I curated once at Synchronicity Space in LA, it’s pretty tough to curate! I guess I am mostly a fan of just making things, but I had a lot of fun doing that show. My challenge curating is that I think I’m really influenced by a huge range of people so it’s hard for me to understand why I like particular things, but I think knowing stuff like that is important if you’re going to curate. But I had a lot of fun putting on that show and hanging out in LA briefly.
The constructive power of digital media combined with the infinite resources of the web seems to be especially conducive to two types of extreme action: hyper-juxtaposition, the bringing together of two almost inconceivably dissimilar things (more unlike than ever before!), and mega-collage, the compilation of things within a given category until they form a kind of urban sprawl, a society devoted to a single idea like cuckoo clocks or bouncy castles. You do both of these things incredibly well. Does it come from practice? Natural Talent? An experiment that evolved into an aesthetic?
Well with hyper-juxtaposition I think aggregate sites like Tumblr or Digg or even Twitter really influence me because they draw out these connections mechanically, and then I try to adapt them. Like here’s a really basic jpg collage I made of 50 Cent’s Twitter entry and a romantic photo
I just thought they were really simple total opposites. Or going back to when I was researching food chains at work I noticed two food chains, Jack Astor’s and Cheesecake Factory, had really similar websites so I just made a side by side comparison:
With the other collages like Bouncy Castles– that’s more about how I’m interested in multiples and iterations of basically the same thing. There’s such a wealth of similar stuff you can access online and it’s completely excessive and fascinating to me. I remember one art history class in University in particular where my professor did a presentation on Bernd and Hilla Becher, photographers who did a lot of studies of disappearing German architecture in a very objective manner. I had never heard of them before and I was really inspired by their exhaustive work and extreme objectivity. So I think my collages come out of that need to document and compare things.
Are there new possibilities you’re working on that the e-world has never seen?
One of my goals this year is to get better at different types of open source programming and make my stuff more interactive and installation based. I don’t have any grandiose ideas in particular!
Your work contains a lot of humor and, even more amazingly, that fact only seems to enhance its aesthetic impressiveness. Do you every worry about having to strike a balance between being funny and being perceived as a “legitimate” artist?
I don’t really try to make my work humorous consciously, I think, it just sort of happens. Going back to that simple collage of the 50 Cent tweet over the romantic photo, originally I was a little disturbed by his tweets. I think I try to decontextualize things as much as possible and then gauge the response. I’m not really sure what being a legitimate artist means I guess. When I think of the term ‘legitimate artist,’ I think of that book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson. I guess I’m not so interested in art that thinks its legitimate.