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Touring the Excellent ‘Reaction GIF’ Exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
April 23, 2014

If you like GIFs (you do, don’t you?), and you’re in New York between now and May 15, you still have time to enjoy a cleverly assembled collection of “reaction GIFs” in an actual museum setting.

The Reaction GIF: Moving Image as Gesture” is the slightly overwrought title of an installation at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I had a chance to visit last week, and here’s how I responded:

Reaction GIFs are a notable sub-genre of these tiny recursive images, deployed in online communication as a more visceral way of praising, mocking, or expressing confusion about what others have said or pointed to. You use them to reply to someone you’re chatting with, or in the comments section of an article, wherever: As long as you are reacting, and expressing your emotion in GIF form, you are using a reaction GIF.

The installation displays 37 excellent examples — “curated” by way of a reddit thread (or two). 

The best thing about the presentation? Every reaction GIF is accompanied by a matter-of-fact description of its “meaning.” For instance, this familiar image is “Used to convey surprise, but can also denote sinister intent.”

The nature of a reaction may be more complex: “I value your argument and want to agree with you, but I’m not prepared for the consequences of doing so. Or when having to choose between doing something morally good or right, and doing something you want to do.” That idea looks like this:

And so on. The point: A good reaction GIF may be worth only a dozen or so words (as opposed to a thousand) but they are very choice words.

Do GIFs belong in a museum? In general: yes. But in this case: hell, yes.

For starters, no museum devoted to the “moving image” can ignore GIFs. And in this case, reaction GIFs are invariably snippets of pre-existing film or TV content that some anonymous and brilliant person has recognized as having powerful communicative impact well beyond its original context.

My main complaint about the installation is that it’s basically in the museum’s lobby. But it stuck with me as I explored the other works on exhibition, ranging from early 20th-century Edison shorts to the contemporary image-art of Jim Campbell. Over and over I kept thinking, Whoa, that would make an awesome GIF.

Still, if you can’t get to Queens, there are obviously plenty of collections of reaction GIFs online: Here and here, for instance. But then you’ll still be sitting at a computer, wasting time. Enjoy these in a museum, and you’re engaged in a useful learning experience. Good job!

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.