The Slow GIF Movement

Earlier this year we held the Festival of Rest & Resistance at Battersea Arts Centre in London. On the lead up to that event we commissioned an artist to design and make a brand new chill out space at BAC. That artist was Rhiannon Armstrong and it was a pleasure to see her work fill that space, creating new opportunities to rest and relax in a well established arts venue.

Last week Rhiannon got in touch to tell me about the intriguingly named ‘Slow GIF Movement’ and because today is National Relaxation Day, I invited her to write a guest post to talk more about it.

So while I go and put my feet up, here’s Rhiannon’s post:

Where did the idea for The Slow GIF Movement come from?

I first worked with GIFs in 2015 as part of the launch of web version of The International Archive of Things Left Unsaid. As part of that project we made some to share online that reflected the atmosphere of the piece: a slowed-down experience designed to “emphasize empathy rather than sensationalism” (Lyn Gardner, The Guardian).

Since that time GIFs (as short loops of moving image) have really exploded, so that they’re a form of language now: on our smartphone keyboards we have three options of languages in which to express ourselves: alphabet, emoji, and GIF.

I see a lot of richness here especially around emotional expression, but at the same time the style always feels the same: flashing, jolting, repetitive. As with public space on the streets, increasingly our online public spaces are also being colonised by advertising from companies using animation that also flashes, jolts, and zaps your energy.

I began to wonder: what if we chose to highlight, create and put up on the “walls” around us a different kind of GIF culture to the one we have now, one with an access and wellbeing agenda? What if we created a Slow GIF Movement, what would that be like?


Slow moving GIF showing a snail moving into a storm drain surrounded by a puddle

Slow moving GIF showing a snail moving into a storm drain surrounded by a puddle with a reflection of a man wearing a high visibility jacket walking past

Slow moving GIF showing a storm drain surrounded by a puddle with the water moving very slowly

Image credit: Rhiannon Armstrong, ‘Snail Puddle Triptych’ from The Slow GIF Movement, 2019.


Who is it for?

I have chronic pain that comes in the form of migraines, and using the GIF keyboards is kind of impossible for me because as soon as I go into them my pain levels (and anxiety) go up sharply. I tried typing “slow” into the search bar, but the results were not that much better. I remember a work conversation on Messenger that had moved into using GIFs as a form of expression: when I told the others that I was suffering we tried to find calmer alternatives to put up, but if the options were there they were hard to find quickly.

I’ve been thinking about people like me who have chronic migraine or photosensitivity who find the current situation a difficult one. I’ve also been thinking about other people who might find online social space difficult in the context of the current visual culture: people with neurodiverse experience like those that we might call learning difficulties and others. I’ve been thinking about people suffering from anxiety for whatever reason. I’ve been thinking about traumatized people.

I’ve also been thinking about “content producers” and “asset creators” and “dissemination specialists” and how these people can also be people with the above difficulties, but are not necessarily able to admit it.


Slow moving GIF showing a shoed foot walking on a small, squidgy, red heart

Image credit: Rhiannon Armstrong ‘Heart crushing accidental’ from The Slow GIF Movement, 2019


What is it?

At the moment there are four different collections of Slow GIFs which I developed last year when I started experimenting with my smartphone, some free apps, and some stuff that happened to by lying around to figure out what a Slow GIF would even be. They are:

1. Kaleidoscope Landscapes for Better Breathing: landscape footage shot through a kaleidoscope. Breathe along to these for a reduced heart rate.
– I’m working with the heart failure team at Saint George’s Hospital on this collection, to develop the GIFs into a form of therapy for heart failure patients that will help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and breathlessness that can often lead to hospital readmission.
2. Poems Made from Words Found in the Bin: made from discarded documents and animated into metronomes at 60bpm or less (the average heart rate).
– I’ve just spent two weeks in public libraries in Portsmouth making these with members of the public – I’ll be doing more of this in Brighton and Lincoln in the autumn.
3. Hearts-R-Us (mirror neuron): drawn from research into mirror neurons, these GIFs are designed to connect us to our bodies using the same mechanism whereby seeing a yawn makes us yawn.
4. Reflections (nature): made using microscope footage of the natural and built environment, for example drops of water and bubbles.

I’ve also made a brief: a set of principles for “How to make a Slow GIF”.

What now?

I would like to see a movement generally to take care over public space and make it less harmful to be in. In the case of online public space this is not only about flashy graphics (racism, bullying, misogyny are everywhere), but my impression is that those graphics contribute to an atmosphere that leaves little room for reflection and care.

With The Slow GIF Movement, I’m intending to kickstart the harnessing of this medium by people seeking to intervene in online space with meaning and thoughtfulness, and with an inclusion and wellbeing agenda.

I would love to get others making Slow GIFs, especially advertisers and organisations who put out a lot of content, but also artists and individuals. This is why I’m launching the project and sharing the brief and my collections and hosting workshops on how to make your own. The collections at the moment are only my take on it: I would love to see how others interpret the brief, which is available here.


Slow moving GIF showing a poem saying "the only action now is take responsibility for this caustic his and keep courage standing." A strip of paper with some of the letters on moves like a metronome across the poem.

Image credit: Rhiannon Armstrong, ‘Keep Courage Standing’ from The Slow GIF Movement, 2019.


Ultimately what I imagine is people sharing them with one another and posting them as you would with other GIFs, sometimes as a way of expressing an emotion (the heart GIFs are good for that) and sometimes just as a way of putting something up in online social space that you think will help others to breathe and take a moment of pause, or just as a way of interrupting the constant noise with something calming. I’d love to be able to work with Giphy, so that if you type ‘slowgif’ into a GIF keyboard, all the results would be these perfect loop, calming Slow GIFs from the growing collection.

Update: when I started this project my aim was to infiltrate the Giphy keyboards that turn up on people’s smartphones alongside the alphabet, so that the options would include kinder, gentler GIFs. Well I’ve managed it! If you go into your Giphy keyboard (on Messenger, Twitter etc) and type #slowgifs many of the results will be from The Slow GIF Movement Channel.


Slow moving GIF showing a wooden floor and white wall. Two bubbles float slowly up into the air.

Image credit: Rhiannon Armstrong, ‘Something from Nothing’ from The Slow GIF Movement, 2019


Thanks so much Rhiannon for this thought-provoking and fascinating post. As our digital world becomes more and more central to how we express ourselves and experience our incredible diversity, it’s really important that we think carefully about who might be being excluded from this process by mistake or by design! If you’re interested in getting involved with the Slow GIF movement, make sure you check out her website.

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