The GIF artist Scorpion Dagger (aka James Kerr) presents an alternative version of the Renaissance that cleverly satirizes both that time and our modern world. The transgressive aesthetic and comedic narratives of his work defy all traditional expectations of the medium. His art is joyful and inclusive and has achieved a huge following through his chosen platform, Tumblr.
While digital art continues to blur the line between high art and popular culture, unnecessary, invisible limits are still somehow imposed. The nature of Scorpion Dagger’s GIFs is so far removed from the currently accepted notion of “new media” that some might raise the question of whether it should be considered part of that genre at all. It would be more reasonable to argue that his unique approach is a perfect indicator of the medium’s only partially realized potential. Storytelling through GIFs is a mostly unexplored concept in the new media community, which generally gravitates towards the abstract or conceptual. Scorpion Dagger has brilliantly illustrated that it’s possible to create satisfying and meaningful stories within the duration of a brief animation—a hugely exciting idea that hopefully more artists will explore.
I spoke to Scorpion Dagger about how—and why—he brought the Renaissance into the digital world, the importance of a seamlessly looping GIF, and whether people have trouble accepting humorous work as art.
Christian Petersen: What is the origin of the name Scorpion Dagger?
Scorpion Dagger: Many, many years ago, I was working a landscaping job with a few of my buddies, and one day we thought it would be fun to all have cool, tough sounding nicknames. You know, T-Bone, Scar, Muscles kind of stuff. For some reason the name Scorpion Dagger popped into my head and I thought it sounded cool, but my friends refused to call me it (something about you can’t give yourself your own nickname). Being the pain in the ass that I am, I took every opportunity to try and make it stick. Like, making it my Facebook profile name, bribing my boss’ kids, etc... More or less every one of my close friends hated it, so when I started the GIF project, it only made sense to name it Scorpion Dagger.
CP: When did you first become aware of GIFs as an art form?
SD: When I started learning how to animate, I would upload these 1- to 2-second videos to YouTube and send the links to friends. One of my friends shot back that I should probably look into saving them as GIFs, and uploading them somewhere like Tumblr instead. It made a lot more sense than clicking play on a video every 2 seconds. Once when I started posting on and exploring Tumblr a little, I noticed that there was this little GIF community who were making original, awesome stuff.
This was in early 2012, and back then it seemed like there was maybe a couple dozen or so original GIF creators on Tumblr (I’m sure there were way more). Now, it seems like everyone is making them. It’s a good thing. I love looking at GIFs, so the more the merrier.
CP: When did you start to notice that your work was becoming popular on Tumblr?
SD: I think once I settled on using paintings from the Northern Renaissance. Once the work became more focused in a certain sense, it got a lot better. It was more fun for me to make, and the animation was a little nicer to look at. The first one to get a lot of shares was this one GIF of Jesus behind some turntables, DJing a little party. Things kind of blew up from there.
CP: What influenced your decision to use Renaissance paintings as your source material?
SD: When Scorpion Dagger first started, I was grabbing images to animate from wherever. Places like the Library of Congress, cigar boxes, etc. I would do themed weeks every now and then (for example, “Wrestlers on Motorcycles”), and was always jumping from style to style. One week I started playing with Early Renaissance paintings and really enjoyed animating them. I just kept going back to them. Wouldn’t say that I knew too much about that period before I started animating them, but I do remember looking at certain paintings in art books that we had around the house when I was a kid. I always liked the paintings from the Early Renaissance, but in terms of Scorpion Dagger, the choice to use them evolved somewhat organically.
CP: Do you see all of you GIFs as vignettes from the same world?
SD: Definitely. I really love using the same characters and giving them personalities that are recognizable throughout the different GIFs. I'd like to think that I've built this universe for these characters to inhabit off of the paintings on which they originally appear.
CP: Have you ever considered moving away from the Renaissance?
SD: I've considered it, and have done some jobs using images from different eras of painting. I actually did a job entirely based off people's vacation photos once. It's not that I'm opposed to changing it up, but I feel as if any evolution like that would have to happen naturally. I wouldn’t do it for the sake for doing it. It’s just that right now I like animating these paintings the best.
CP: What is your basic process in creating a new GIF?
SD: It’s pretty simple. I have an idea for what I’m going to make, I start rifling through paintings I have saved in folders for source images, and cut out the pieces I want to use for the animation. If ever I need something that doesn’t exist in the paintings, like iPhones, I’ll usually make them from scratch by collaging together little details in the paintings—the idea being that everything in the animations should be based on the paintings. I try to do this as much as possible, but sometimes it’s just easier to find an image of a cool car and use that instead.
As soon as everything is in place, the animation begins. Usually I try to sit on a finished GIF for a while before posting it. Try and watch it a few times to work out any kinks or timing issues, but I usually get too excited and share them full of mistakes. I think it’s part of the charm.
“I love using Jesus and God, and playing with their relationship as a trouble-making teenager and annoyed dad.”
CP: How often do you make GIFs?
SD: Man, I wish I could make them more regularly. Right now I'm earning my living as a freelancer, and don’t have enough time to make the GIFs as much as I’d like to. Scorpion Dagger has definitely slowed down a lot. I’m hoping, after this current job is wrapped up, to make stuff for fun for a while.
CP: Do you have any favorite characters from your GIFs that you particularly enjoy making stories of?
SD: For sure. I love using Jesus and God, and playing with their relationship as a trouble-making teenager and annoyed dad. There’s a couple of other characters that pop up all the time. There’s this one guy that my girlfriend calls “her dude.” He’s usually partying and causing mischief.
CP: Do you consider yourself part of the wider “new media” art scene?
SD: I don’t really know. I just want to make my silly little things and not worry too much about anything else. There’s problems with taking things too seriously, and I have a feeling if I tried to be more involved in the greater art scene, the work would probably start to suffer. I’d start overthinking everything. It’s who I am. Right now, I kinda just go with the flow, and let things come to me. I’m really lucky that people want to pay me to make these animations, but on the flip side, I’d love to get a little distance from the commissioned work and have some space to explore some different things. It’s definitely a strange struggle.
As for my feelings about contemporary new media art, I don’t really have any. You like what you like, and you make what you make. My feeling on art in general is that it’s completely personal, and that other people’s opinions don’t really matter in the end.
CP: You made an interactive book of your GIFs. How did that come about?
SD: The book came about because I was looking for new ways to share the work off the internet. I had an idea for an Augmented Reality project, and pitched it to a museum here in Montreal. They were into it, but wanted to see some examples of what I had in mind, so I started asking around whether there was anybody I knew who could help me with the tech. One person I asked was my bud Tyson Parks, who just so happened to be chatting with the guys at Anteism about ideas for an Augmented Reality book. He suggested we hook up, and that’s how the ball started rolling. Funny thing is, I never went back to the museum with those examples.
In a sense, the book was a partially a reaction to the difficulty of monetizing digital artwork, but it was more a desire to explore new and different ways of sharing the work.
CP: Have you ever thought about showing/selling your work in a physical gallery or do you enjoy generally keeping them accessible to everyone?
SD: I’ve definitely thought about it, and have sold a few pieces of physical work out of commercial galleries over the years, but generally it’s pretty tough. It goes back to your question about the traditional difficulty in monetizing digital artwork. In general I find a lot of commercial spaces have a hard time selling the work, so they are rightfully reluctant on displaying and promoting digital art. It’s totally fair.
Personally, I love posting the work online and letting them out into the world. It’s a ton of fun seeing where they end up, and I absolutely love seeing people's reactions to them (good and bad). I don’t know if I’d get that same satisfaction of holding the work back just to sell them.
CP: There’s a distinct comedic, juxtaposition of “low” and “high” culture in a lot of your work. What interests you about that contrast?
SD: I’m a fairly politically minded person and want to talk about certain ideas I have in the work, but want to do it in a way that’s fun and not too serious. It’s part of the challenge. I don’t want the message to be too obvious. I don’t know how successful I am in this regard, but it’s that contrast of high and low that excites me, and helps me convey what I’m trying to say. At the risk of sounding like a complete turd, part of the message I’m trying to get out there is we often look back at our western history and judge those who came before us as somehow being less evolved culturally, but the reality is that we are not as far removed from our pasts as we’d like to think we are. The potential of all this unraveling into a shit show is not as farfetched as we’d like to believe.
“...the reality is that we are not as far removed from our pasts as we’d like to think we are.”
CP: Your GIFs always loop perfectly. Why is that important to you?
SD: I hate it when GIFs snap back and/or repeat too quickly. When I started making these things, I really wanted to make sure mine didn’t to that. That’s how I fell upon making multi-scene GIFs. I didn’t know how to loop certain animations properly, so I’d add a little scene at the end to help reset the story. Plus, I find when you loop the GIFs you get a certain rhythm, and that rhythm helps tell the story better. It’s easier to watch.
CP: Do you think some people find it harder to accept your work as art because they are funny?
SD: I’m sure people find it hard to accept them as art, but it doesn’t bother me too much. I’ve come to realize that these GIFs are a really good representation of who I am as a person, and I’m super comfortable with the voice I have with them. I don’t want to sweat what other people think.
I have attempted to make serious GIFs, but they somehow they always end up being “funny” whether I like it or not. Like the breastfeeding and Trump GIFs that I made awhile back—I certainly didn’t want them to looks as funny as they did. I guess I can’t avoid it.
CP: Do you see the internet as a success or failure in regards to its original potential?
SD: I’m not sure what its original potential was, but I do remember people being super optimistic about the internet giving everyone a voice, and unifying everyone into one, harmonious world. In that sense, it’s probably a total failure. When you think about it, all that’s really happened with the internet is that it’s become a replica of the world as it already exists. Banks => online banks, movie theaters => Netflix, encyclopedias => Wikipedia, assholes => trolls, etc. It’s as if all we’ve done is move the systems already in place into the world online. Sure, there’s always exceptions, but it’s definitely not the new frontier that people hoped it would be. I think it’s going to take the new generations, those who have only known the post-internet world, to transform it for the better, and that means old farts like me need not judge them and get the hell out of the way. I mean, they’re already way better than us.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(All images: Courtesy of Scorpion Dagger)
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