Since March 2012 artist James Kerr has been creating somewhat absurd, but decidedly brilliant animated GIFs based on Renaissance paintings. His Tumblr and alter ego Scorpion Dagger has amassed over 700 of the images and some 125,000 followers. With tongue firmly in cheek, Kerr has found a way to mock the original subject matter as much as our contemporary culture.
Now Kerr has teamed up with independent art book publisher Anteism to raise money on Kickstarter and produce a printed art book. Not just any coffee table art-book-and-dust-collector, Scorpion Dagger will boast augmented reality features that make Kerr’s GIFs come alive on the page.
When a smartphone with the book’s companion app is held over a page of artwork, the still image on the page will play out in full animation on the reader’s device.
Until a couple years ago, Kerr’s work as an artist had primarily been what he calls “more or less traditional collages” on board or canvas hung on walls. Looking for an artistic change, Kerr decided to teach himself how to animate. Scorpion Dagger was born as a side project while picking up that skill.
Kerr played with remixing whatever images were on hand into short video clips. He first considered the potential for GIFs as artwork when he workshopped his videos with a friend who works as a professional animator.
“My friend thought it was silly that I was sending two-second videos,” says Kerr. “He suggested I make GIFs out of them.”
The choice of Renaissance paintings for subject matter was pragmatic more than conceptual. Kerr needed a readily available stock of images in a similar style that he had legal permission to remix.
“When I was learning how to animate I ran out of stuff to use for my portfolio, so I started looking on the Internet for stuff to cut up and collage,” he says. “I kept coming across these Renaissance paintings and thought it would be interesting to do something with them.”
Kerr quickly developed his unique style and committed to making one GIF a day for a year. And thus Scorpion Dagger was born. Over time, the work began to take on more meaning for Kerr.
“I’m kind of into this idea that we think of ourselves as advanced–and we definitely are technologically–but we haven’t really progressed as a people culturally,” says Kerr. “And you can kind of see it in those paintings. The work plays on this idea that the subjects of these paintings aren’t so different from us. We’re still bumbling around the world like idiots trying to figure things out.”
The animated GIF is a compelling format for Kerr’s work precisely because it plays into this tension between culture, technology, and progress. The Scorpion Dagger book will complete a cycle from the analog world to the digital and back again.
“The interesting thing is that when I first started using Renaissance paintings I was actually scanning some images from books,” says Kerr. “I scanned a painting, digitized it, re-purposed it, made it into a GIF, and posted it online. I think it’s a funny circle that now I’m actually gonna put it back into a book.”
To complete the cycle, Kerr’s physical book critiquing technological progress will be embedded with augmented reality features.
“When you change the painting from being just a static image all of a sudden it becomes much more immersive,” says Harley Smart, Anteism’s publisher. “It becomes a responsive and interactive work of art. I always loved pop-ups that unfold out of books and paper engineering. It feels like augmented reality is taking us in this kind of direction.”
As fun as the playing with the tech and digital to analog conversions is, Smart is quick to point out that the book is still an art book before anything else.
“This isn’t just going to be a gimmick book that you have to have your phone to read,” he says. “We’re making this a full monograph as much as we can. We’re thinking of this as an art book for Scorpion Dagger that also has augmented reality features if people are interested. To read the book you won’t need a phone. Anybody can pick up the book and it’s gonna be a great read.”
Their emphasis on quality avant-garde art books is a large part of why Kerr chose to go with Anteism, even if another company might have more experience with cutting-edge tech like augmented reality.
“I love how they’re a small operation,” he says. “Most of the stuff they do is completely handmade. It’s gorgeous, really nice quality work. Plus I like that they’re local, right up the street from me.”
In fact, the hardcover limited edition of Scorpion Dagger will be hand-bound and include handmade decorative elements–a rare low-tech touch on a high-tech project. That attention to detail comes from the fact that Anteism and Kerr are not technologists trying to make art, but are rather incorporating technology into the art they produce.
At a time when the publishing industry and bibliophiles are bemoaning the fact that the physical book might be erased once and for all, Anteism is finding success by making technology physical once again.
“I’m obsessed with this idea of taking a digital work of art and turning it into an analog piece,” says Kerr. “I think it’s really neat that you can take this digital stuff and stuff it back into a tangible object that you actually can hold and play with.”
One such tangible object is the “giphoscope,” a handmade GIF player that displays GIFs frame by frame, powered by a hand crank. Anteism is offering Kickstarter backers their choice of Kerr’s GIFs in giphoscope form, a suitable mixture of formats for Kerr’s project.
In a world of information overload and filter failure, Smart is embracing the ability to manage the flow of an experience much more explicitly.
“With a website you always have the freedom to click anywhere and go in any direction, whereas in a book form you can curate the experience,” he says. “You have the physical, tactile action of turning the page. There’s a linear direction as you turn the page and you can really choose what is presented to the reader.”
As for the future of the GIF, Kerr is optimistic that it can claim its place in the pantheon of so-called legitimate art.
“Not all animated GIFs are art obviously, just like not all photographs are art and not all video is art. Most people haven’t even considered the potential for the GIF to be an artistic medium,” he says. “They think of GIFs as a guy getting hit in the nads or One Direction GIFs. I see this field as where digital art was 10 years ago,” noting that these different media become more accepted over time.
Throughout it all, Kerr sees the ability of him and other artists to experiment in this space right now as a privilege. “We get to fuck with all the different realms in which these images exist traditionally and where they will exist in the future.”