Sarah Zucker’s GIFs remind the internet of the importance of the human touch

Nina Knaack
October 17, 2023

Sarah Zucker's GIFs have been viewed more than 7 billion times. She tells Nina Knaack why a GIF is like life, how her art makes the internet more human, and how they help her navigate our "terrifying transition."

Sarah Zucker is a distinct presence in the digital milieu. Raised in Ohio quietude, her small-town roots have become the foundation of an artistic practice that she has honed since childhood; a means of constant internet dialogue and processing her emotions from the profound to the profane. “Creating art is as natural to me as breathing, eating, or… shitting,” she laughs. 

Sarah owes her career to the internet, licensing her photographs to a French book about a Soviet street camera as a seventeen year old. It prompted a deeper calling to create more work. Inspired by the international world that you could participate in online, Sarah contributed the Ohio perspective.

“The internet let me break free from my physical world.”

— Sarah Zucker

Still inspired by street photography that blended meaning with mundane, she documented her everyday life on an online platform which let her forge kindred connections across the globe. It was the dawn of the 2000s. Sharing art on the internet was a novel concept, and it revealed a brand new world before Sarah’s eyes.

“The internet let me break free from the confines of my physical world, to send my art spinning into the stratosphere,” she reflects. “It transcended language, culture, and distance. My art was speaking a universal language, engaging in conversations with anyone, anywhere.” Here was a landscape in which there was always a community to connect with. From double exposing film to Dadaist compositions, serendipity shaped her creativity.

When smartphones with cameras came to complement the basic mobile, Sarah recalls her interest in photography “sort of glided away”. The internet had begun to develop into a milieu. “Now it was a less compelling art form, since everyone was doing it. However, my diminished interest for one medium opened up new avenues in another.”

“The internet transcended language, culture, and distance," Sarah Zucker.

She studied screen writing and delved into video art, experimenting with internet archival footage that led her to GIFs, a medium that she thought could challenge the prejudice of memes being seen as ‘low culture’. It inspired Sarah to create her own looping narratives. Her GIFs became a means for capturing and refining specific moments, blending the decisive nature of photography with the infinite, rhythmic repetition of the loop.

Sarah’s fascination with GIFs was no passing interest. It was an exploration of the fundamental essence of art; a looping clip is no more a looping clip than a collection of brushstrokes is just a collection of brushstrokes. Today, GIFs she has uploaded to the GIF sharing site, Giphy, have been viewed over 7 billion times.

In her clips, Sarah tries to condense infinite narratives into fleeting moments. “GIFs are like a mantra: each repetition reveals something new,” she muses. “A GIF is like life itself – short, infinite, constantly changing.”

Even as she dove deep into the digital seas, Sarah did not lose her grip on the analog realm. Rather, she intertwined the two, creating a harmonious blend of past and present, nostalgia and innovation. But her artistry is not just about the marriage of analog and digital or the transformation of mundane into extraordinary.

Beneath the captivating aesthetics and rhythmic loops, there is a philosophical undercurrent - a reflection on the uncertainty of our times and the existential dread it engenders.

“We live in a terrifying transition,” Sarah says. “We face a massive question mark about our future, navigating the complexities of lightning fast technological progress. It is intimidating, but if you zoom out, it is also… ironic. We are the ones that got ourselves into this situation. There is a certain cosmic joke to it, don't you think?”

From Sarah Zucker's Temporale series, inspired by the non-linear experience of time that she felt when moving between the physical and virtual worlds.

Perhaps. Sarah’s work is a mirror reflecting the chaos and the beauty of our world, echoing the collective human experience and leaning on the power of humour to navigate adversity. “It's all about connection,” she emphasises. “Art connects us to each other, to our past, to our future, and to the very essence of our existence. And laughter? Laughter is the purest form of connection.”

For Sarah, humour is a critical support to navigate Sarah's work stand out. One of her projects, the Cassandra Complex, presents a blend of Sarah's artistic ethos and philosophical perspective. Through the lens of Greek mythology, she explores the fear of the future and the suppression of novel ideas.

“The Cassandra Complex is a message from the future,” Sarah says. “It is a reflection of the current times, the chaos of the world, and our collective anxiety. It is also a testament to the beauty of the human spirit, our resilience, and our capacity for humour.”

“Laughter is the purest form of connection.”

— Sarah Zucker

In 2015, Sarah's foray into the realm of crypto began in earnest. At the time, the blockchain was an innovative system for internet currencies. But for Sarah, the Ethereum blockchain let her “grant my digital art a tangible presence in the world.”

Beyond currency, the decentralised ledger held a promise to document the provenance of any digital asset, “a kind of permanence creating an indelible link between the artist and the audience,” she says.

“Blockchain is a certificate of authenticity for the digital age,” Sarah argues, sharing how it emboldened her to produce screen-centric art, aiming to harness the power of the blockchain, and with it the promise of the internet, to share her message with anyone who wanted to listen.

Until next time. One of Sarah's 1,500+ GIFs.

Subsequent growth in the ecosystem and her work inspired Sarah’s commitment to create art for the screen rather than the canvas; a medium for a global audience. “It is not just about establishing market value. It is about providing digital art with a heartbeat, a unique signature that resonates with its origins.” With the technology's ability to assert both origin and scarcity, it answered a digital artist's lingering question of “how can you secure the intangible?”

Through her intertwining relationship with technology, Sarah illustrates a quintessential truth: the digital realm isn't just a platform, but a living, breathing ecosystem. Here, art finds a louder voice, stories gain stronger momentum, and connections crystallise more freely.

The power of the digital realm, Sarah’s GIFs reveal, is not just the vastness of its reach, but the intimacy those connections can bring. Her journey is a reminder that in the vastness of the digital universe, it is humanity that leaves the strongest mark.

“We are the ones that got ourselves into this.”

— Sarah Zucker

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Written by
Nina Knaack
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Nina is passionate about telling the stories of artists and documenting their artistic processes, so that they can focus on creating. She’s written for a range of cultural magazines in the Netherlands, her homeland, including 3voor12 and the Groninger Museum. Her work as a contemporary art historian has seen her work at Museum Voorlinden, the Van Gogh Museum, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Today, her main and ever-increasing focus is on the digital art world, and she is fascinated by the endless possibilities of web3 and how crypto artists are pushing the boundaries of creating without gatekeepers.