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"The Wheel of the Devil": On Vine, gifs and the power of the loop

When Vine launched last week, a new format for looped media was born. While visual loops have been in existence for centuries, they have arguably enjoyed special attention over the last hundred years. In this essay I want to consider the purpose and power of the loop. I also intend to propose that the reign of the loop is greatly empowered by digital media, and that today loops have enriched culture while offering new perspectives on the nature of reality.

It is William George Horner, a 19th Century British mathematician, whom we may credit with the invention of the modern zoetrope. Horner described the mechanism in an article for the journal Philosophical Magazine in 1834. When spun by hand at a steady pace, a cylindrical tub with slits around the rim would produce a looping animation, usually of a person or animal. Horner called this device "the daedelum", but it was known popularly as "The Wheel of the Devil."

This new hand-powered zoetrope defined by W. G. Horner differed slightly from the early looping animation devices attributed to Chinese inventor Ding Huan around 180 AD. In Huan's zoetrope, heat convection from a lamp would cause vanes at the top of the machine to spin the zoetrope's cylinder, which in this version had translucent painted panels displaying frames of the animation.

Huan's invention was referred to by some as "The Pipe That makes Dreams Come True" while "zoetrope" itself, a word coined by American toy manufacturer William F. Lincoln in the later 19th Century, means "wheel of life". Horner's word, "daedelum" passed out of use quickly - probably because it was not until toy makers like Lincoln capitalised on the zoetrope concept, decades after Horner's death, that the machines became widely known.

Daedelum, however, is a reference to Daedalus, the skilled craftsman of Greek mythology. Why Horner coined this term is difficult to ascertain, but it seems to be related to the fact that "daidala" was a type of sculpture attributed to Daedalus who was supposedly famed for his lifelike and exquisitely detailed carved figurines. He was also responsible for "agalmata" which were striking representations of the gods with open eyes and moveable limbs.

The realism of the agalmata is said to have captivated Plato, and this general sense of bringing the inanimate to life, of conjuring magic through artifice and the movement of an object, probably informed Horner's choice of name in "daedelum". The nickname "wheel of the devil" captures a certain public distrust of, or hesitation towards, the hypnotic magic performed by the daedelum in an age which pre-dates the arrival of cinema.

The thaumatrope, however, a pre-daedelum toy which dates from the 1820s, had prepared audiences for the arrival of the visual loop. The thaumatrope consisted only of a piece of card with part of an image on the front, and the other part on the back. When flipped back and forth rapidly by pulling twirled lengths of string at either end of the disc, the two images would appear to combine and form a whole (For example, a bird on one side and a cage on the other merge together to form the image of a caged bird). Although no actual movement is represented here, the creation of a new, third image, from two separate images, offers an embryonic suggestion of how the loop (as distinct from the animation in, say, a flipbook) could be used to bring imagery to life in seemingly magical ways.

The thaumatrope, daedelum and later toy zoetropes of the Victorian period are in my opinion the original realisation of the idea of a visual loop. Shadow puppets, marionettes, automotons - all have long histories in both Western and Eastern culture, but the magic of the zoetrope was its perpetuity. Start the zoetrope spinning and suddenly a collection of static pictures begin an endless and mesmerising dance. That metamorphosis of something stationary into a vivid display of repeated movement is surely what makes the otherwise crude drawings, of a clown falling over, or a horse galloping, so wonderful.

"Start the zoetrope spinning and suddenly a collection of static pictures begin an endless and mesmerising dance"

When a zoetrope is stopped, the individual frames of its animation appear to fall out of a coloured blur, immediately static against the walls of the now motionless cylinder. The story has been un-ravelled, disintegrated into a neat set of individual parts, ready to reassemble whenever the viewer desires.

The zoetrope effect presents a kind of paradox. Something, some action, is fixed for us within the confines of the loop. It is divorced from the linear nature of reality in this way. However, the zoetrope also brings "dead" frames of an animation to life, pulling static imagery together into an illusion of something composite and real.

The modern gif is different insofar as it is not part of the natural mechanism of the gif to be stopped and started by the user. When you see one, it is already looping and will loop continuously while you keep the web page it is on open. However, it's important to note that creators of gifs can determine the number of times an animation will loop should they desire that it will not loop endlessly.

Animated gifs (GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format) were effectively invented in 1987 with the creation of CompuServe's 87a file format. Looping was a key part of the original concept for 87a and the the filetype became popular, especially during the 90s, as a means of adding moving imagery to otherwise static web pages without the high bandwidth required for video streaming services or embedded media. Gifs, as they were soon known, were designed from the ground up to be portable in terms of being cross-browser compatible and also lightweight as files. Their popularity was ensured.

As you are probably aware, that popularity has not faded over time. Animated gifs, in the age of the meme, are frequently deployed en masse as visual responses to events. From newsreader bloopers to Presidential gesticulations, the special power of the loop is now a familiar element within remix culture. The loop is more than a framework for animation, it is the engine at work within a new kind of critical tool. The loop seems inherently comical, and absurd looped scenes like this one become funny in a new way through being repeated so relentlessly. The gif can even be cruel, capturing a moment of utmost embarrassment and repeating it ad infinitum for all the world to see.

"The loop is more than a framework for animation, it is the engine at work within a new kind of critical tool"

Some zoetropes showed natural loops like a bird flapping its wings. Gifs, however, are most striking when they avoid cues from the natural or mechanical world. Actions which seem absurd because they are repeated endlessly make excellent fodder for gifs. A single wink or wave may be looped over and over a thousand times - and that in itself can seem humorous.

But there is also a movement of digital artists who prize the gif as a lightweight format which, using today's technology, can carry sophisticated high-definition animations. Paolo Čerić is one such exponent. Others, like Max Capacity explore the "low-res" identity of the gif by reproducing glitches and digitising clips of VHS recordings which show their age through the presence of white noise or colour imbalance.

More generally, artists have for many decades explored the power of the video loop in installation settings. This excellent article from frieze magazine entitled "Loop Guru" notes: "What these film loops offer is a mental state rather than a series of events. They convey a meditative, almost somnambulist, form of pleasure: nothing really happens, yet it's hard to stop watching."

This quality was surely understood by certain 20th Century playwrights - not least Samuel Beckett whose work Play (1963) closed with the following stage direction: "REPEAT. The repeat may be an exact replica of first statement or it may present an element of variation. In other words, the light may operate the second time exactly as it did the first (exact replica) or it may try a different method (variation)."

And in Krapp's Last Tape (1958), as Krapp pokes through boxes of tape reels while constantly repeating himself he marvels at the word "spool" which, of course, is the backwards spelling of "loops". The play contains various other motifs of symmetry and palindrome (Krapp is 69 years old; he mentions equinoxes; etc.).

The hypnosis of the loop, combined with the idea that, devoid of true beginning and end, it is somehow meaningless and self-defeating, is what makes a loop seem so uncanny. Nonsensical yet enthralling, the loop of zoetrope or gif is like a broken record in that it captures a moment in which time has been made to maniacally repeat itself. This narrative dissonance, this psychotic imagery which implicitly begs to be halted or somehow set free is at odds with all other un-looped media.

"This narrative dissonance, this psychotic imagery which implicitly begs to be halted or somehow set free is at odds with all other un-looped media"

This brings me to Vine. Vine is a new app from Twitter which allows users to upload short (six seconds maximum) clips of looping video. The six seconds may contain a single shot or, more often, many shots cut together. Users record videos for Vine by holding their finger on their smartphone's screen. Letting go pauses the record function, allowing the user to move to a different angle or subject. When ready to begin recording again, the user simply presses their finger once more on the screen. This continues until the six seconds are full, or the user is happy to finish recording and upload.

The ergonomic interface design is part of what makes Vine fun to play with. It's easy to scrap what you've done and start again, and the variety of uploads - from six-second long shots of snow falling to stop-motion animations of food being consumed - suggest that the limitations of the form already offer plenty of inspiration for the creative and the curious.

One of my gripes with the roll-out of Vine, however, is that so far the videos only seem to loop within Twitter's web interface, which few use as their main platform for accessing the network. Vine videos viewed on Twitter's mobile apps (I've tried both Android and iOS iterations) only play through once without looping. And the popular site, which presents new uploads to Vine in an endless stream, also does not offer the videos in looped editions.

This, I feel is a shame. The looped videos have a noticeably different quality to the un-looped ones, which feel like little more than very short video clips, not necessarily something special or self-contained. Luckily, embedded tweets with Vine videos do loop. Here is an example:



I found myself wondering why the creators of Vine decided to make looping a feature of the platform. Did they simply want to capitalise on the idea of the gif? Vines have been referred to as "the new gif" in lots of media reports, but there's nothing to guarantee they will achieve the same kind of widespread popularity. 

Whatever the reason, and whether or not it was pitched in the boardroom or included as an afterthought, the fact that Vine videos (sometimes) loop makes many examples, like the Back to the Future tribute above, wittier perhaps than they otherwise would be. At the same time I wonder whether or not this looping feature was arbitrary, added almost unthinkingly since we are exposed to loops so much more frequently these days with the rise of the gif, the digital billboard and the iTunes playlist. Maybe the question ought to be, "Why shouldn't the videos loop?" What if all media naturally looped like gifs? What if the notion of teleology and of beginning and end was really redundant; a feature of past media now considered archaic?

Much of the discussion around Vine has focused on predicting whether or not it will be popular. This is in many ways a silly question. Either it will become popular in the long-term or not. The important thing, in the event that it does become popular, is to ask why that might be. Vine is certainly popular in the short-term, with hundreds of videos currently being uploaded every minute and clichés perhaps beginning to emerge.

For now, Vine is successful because of marketing/media hype and the fact that it is blissfully easy to use. And, for the long-term, that may be enough too. We'll see. Regardless of the app's fate, I wanted to situate it in the history of looped visual media in order to suggest that our contemporary familiarity with loops is perhaps an inevitable side-effect of digital technologies.

It is easy to create loops of digital media. Indeed, the idea of the loop is fundamental to programming and languages like Java and PHP include loops as part of their core syntax. This facility is used in order to get computers to carry out the same task or run the same script a certain number of times depending on a set of conditions. For example, to input information for each day of the month in a calendar's database, but avoiding weekends, until, say, the 25th day of that month.

This technology of the digital loop has allowed for the abundance of man-made aesthetic loops like those we know so well as gifs. Loops we can see require a structure, a set of rails to run on, just as the "looping" motion of our planet in orbit around the sun depends on the principles of gravity.

"The complete absence of teleology and catharsis within the loop destroys our sense of self, our idea of progress, our intention to accomplish anything"

That the visual loops enabled by computer technology are always, in my opinion, disturbing, is perhaps best explained by noting a diametrical clash of ideals in human culture. The broken record, the Groundhog Day effect, the punishments of Hades which involved endless repetition, all of these things, as the term "wheel of the devil" indicates, signify disruption through relentless order. The complete absence of teleology and catharsis within the loop destroys our sense of self, our idea of progress, our intention to accomplish anything.

The loop is certainly demonic, for it is a dance of fire, it is uncompromising and incessant - like a recurring nightmare or the sound of knocking on the door at Macbeth's castle. From criticising media coverage of 9/11 (in this example of a contemporary zoetrope) to mocking celebrities, the loop has announced itself as a powerful way of undermining the world as it wishes to be seen, of amplifying absurdity and overturning normal.

Long live the loop and its intensity. It unsettles us and lets us question everything.

Play it again - and again - and again - and again, Sam!


Photo: "Zoetrope" by Danish Film Institute. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Zoetrope at rest" by tempo/Thor Muller. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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