Dyan Jong makes gifs professionally among other things. When I ask the 29-year-old visual and installation artist what gifs can transmit that other mediums can’t, her answer is concise but complete: “Eternity.”
It wasn’t long ago that gifs were bi-products of longer stories. Now the democratized short stories dictate the cadence of music videos and carve eternal moments into our collective imagination. For her GIFs Dyan manipulates light to create movement. “I’ve spend a lot of time figuring out a natural rhythm for GIFs so I ended up using a lot of light gimmicks.” she told me over the phone. In some of the GIFs she’s created, her subject matters, often musicians and models, stay still while the light carries on a full day’s worth of movement. Light is in fact a theme across Dyan’s work as a photographer, director and installation artist. Last year, she presented “Resilience”, a large-scale installation in Los Angeles’ Chinatown where 8000 beams each representing one hundred of the estimated 800,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as of 2017 filtered through holes in a makeshift wall.
Growing up in Temple City, a suburb east of Los Angeles, Dyan was more interested in the anime and manga she and her sister devoured over the summer and the virtual-world science games she spent hours on than school. “I don’t really have that many formative memories of school. That’s the reason why I ended up in my own head.” By the time she was ten, she already had a website she built using the computer her dad had assembled for her. A true child of the internet who has seen digital possibilities amplify, it’s no wonder Dyan is herself interested in stretching and distorting those limits through image and space.
We chatted some more via email and phone about how she came to be a gif animator and how her biology background sets the tone for how she thinks about image making.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you get into your line of work?
As a kid I enjoyed reading scientific nonfiction, playing cyberlife computer games, attempting story writing, 3D animation, illustration, and all kinds of random interests, despite being as mediocre as you would expect a kid to be. Illustration led me to photography, which interested me initially for the access it could grant me to what my friend D calls "rooms we don't belong in," and eventually photo became a parlay into other types of visual art. [In college,]I earned a B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, not because of any parental pressure, but because I've always been interested in how and why things worked. art and science are both about observation and discovery, tentative conclusions and raising questions upon encounter. I'm fascinated by how the two inform each other, and creating is how I "think out loud" about that space. there are many other paths to exploring that, such as academia or design, [but] I'm having way too much fun where I am now.
Did you have formal study in the digital field?
I took digital photography and video classes as part of my Digital Arts minor, but it mostly emphasized technical skills over conceptual. I've had learning inattention all my life, so I doubt that formal, structured study would have made much of a difference. [I] pursued interests in books, Youtube, conversations, workshops, internships, museums, biennales, world expos, travel,all of which I feel were more personalized and experiential.
How did your work in photography, film & gifs evolve or interact with one another over the course of time?
While I started in photography on a whim, I began experimenting with the moving image gif format as a way to understand infinity. Gifs soon led to opportunities for music video directing, and most recently, a light installation. I see myself as an image maker right now, but I'm interested in continuing to experiment with all kinds of media to understand how the right combination of sensorial input emerges into complex thoughts and emotion.
How do you choose with which to tell a visual story? Is it usually a collaborative process with the artists and companies you work with?
Yes, it's very collaborative. Storytelling is such a nuanced game that even overly crisp or color-balanced images lose sincerity in certain contexts. I try to become as informed as possible about what the team is looking for, and think about what I can bring to the table and how. I dislike moodboards even though it helps others visualize what is on the inside of your head, but because moodboards need to include references that exist outside of your head, it becomes this negative cycle where I might narrow my vision to what already exists, and sometimes my work unintentionally becomes referential. In my free time, I'm always collecting input from as many of my interests as possible without any particular objective, and I feel that makes my tastes more sincerely my own, even if they are a bit strange or blind to trend.
What does the process of creating a visual story for a brand or an artist look like at its most ideal?
At the most ideal, I'd be given free reign and ample time to immerse myself in the project. I'd want to get to know as much as I can about the subject, and have room to iterate and pivot. My best work usually follows a process I've coined "rhizomatic recombination". It basically means learning by reacting to evolving circumstances (rhizomatic learning) and then forming unexpected connections between seemingly disparate inputs. It's my favorite way of engaging with an artist - to learn everything about them, then find and underline connections within and between ourselves, and most likely ending up someplace we never saw from the starting line.
Do you create gifs as an extraction of a longer film or as a stand alone product with their own independent arch?
All gifs stand alone for being a moment of footage that is isolated, stripped of context, and looped. But I do like to create gifs as part of a series, and others have even made narrative music videos entirely out of cinemagraphs, [like in] Joel Compass’ "Back to Me".
You often pair gifs with music on your IG feed which creates a totally different experience of consuming music than that of a music video. What experience are you trying to provoke with that pairing?
We all know that feeling - when you replay a song over and over again until you're in a trance, but visually as well. So long as your phone's charged, you could just dwell in that audio-visual world indefinitely.
Why do you think gifs have resonated so much with the current generation?
Despite being a 30 year-old medium, gifs have not yet developed as a formal "art" the way photography and cinema have, and with few rules or titans, almost any gif you make or see is likely to have never existed before. As digital natives, that kind of modernity and novelty connects to us, I think.
What sort of work are you looking forward to putting out in the near future?
I'm looking to continue exploring the loop in AR/VR, and also throwback physical formats such as zoetrope and lenticular, though the endgame is not gifs. I'm looking to parlay into opportunities to experiment with other media and as described earlier in rhizomatic learning, to allow myself the freedom to react to evolving circumstances.
I'm fascinated with technology for giving us the ability to articulate stories and ideas that weren't possible before. I want to focus on developing a sensorial vocabulary, and come up with ways to communicate in a way that anyone can understand.