Interview: The Current Sea

Editor Trace William Cowen, Interview, April 22nd, 2014

Sure, but a MOVING picture is worth a thousand MOVING words...


Keeping the Internet Human: A Conversation with Sarah Zucker and Brian Griffith of The Current Sea

There comes a point in the comments section of seemingly every post on any given site, regardless of topic, wherein someone eschews traditional language outright, opting instead for a GIF of, say, Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Pecard initiating a slow clap. Or two giraffes thrashing their necks back and forth with the caption PARTY HARD. A picture is worth a thousand words, sure; but a MOVING picture is worth a thousand MOVING words.

The GIF medium, as ubiquitous though it may be, is often downplayed by some as simply a sort of proverbial sandbox full of versatilely relevant pop culture references for dedicated Internet “trolls” to wallow in with squeamish glee. Trolls be damned, that sentiment is an exaggerated reaction to a thoroughly engaging and era-appropriate medium—the reliably unpredictable GIF.

Thankfully, a small slew of artists have finally started embracing the limitlessness of such a form with brash gusto. After all, if a moving picture is worth a thousand moving words (it is), why not make grander movements?

A prominent mover in the GIF medium (and in visual art, in general) is Los Angeles-based design team The Current Sea, headed by artists Sarah Zucker and Brian Griffith. Their aim is simple and contagious – to “explore the confluence of the analog and the digital,” and their continually expanding catalog of work proves this exploration to be a rewarding and fruitful voyage.

NAILED contributor Trace William Cowen reached out to Sarah and Brian to discuss The Current Sea, The Simpsons, Transhumanism, and even Jeopardy! victories. Enjoy their conversation below.

+ + +

NAILED MAGAZINE: You claim to “explore the confluence of the analog and the digital.” After having explored that confluence myself, I’d say that’s an apt statement about the work of The Current Sea. For those less familiar, could you delve into that statement a bit further?

SARAH ZUCKER: It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I think it’s the great blessing of our generation that we’re built to be adaptable. We were born right before the exponential curve of technological change (I’m 28 and Brian is 27), and our lives have been contemporary with the advent and widespread propagation of the Internet. I’ve always felt that this makes us a hybrid generation . . . “Digital Analog Human Machines,” as I like to say. Those born five years before us had to learn how to use computers as if learning a second language, and those born five years after are true digital natives who had computers even in their infancy. We focus on the ways the analog led to the digital and the ways the digital echoes back to the analog because we’re the only generational cohort to have first-hand experience of both paradigms.

BRIAN GRIFFITH: Both of us grew up during the same time period, give or take a year, around the early-to-mid 90s (born mid-to-late 80s). This was a time when computers were still clunky and it was not a given that your house would have one; they were seen as the wave of the future, but still a little too esoteric and complex for the average user. I remember using DOS, for example, when I was 6 or 7 as the gateway to open up Windows, something that would never happen in our world of today where you have a dedicated UX/UI person to make sure people can access you product quickly.

It was a very formative age, too: you learn social skills, language and start to gather information about the world. At that same time, I was lapping up all computer-related ephemera I could sink my teeth into. Couple that with my Grandmother, for who-knows-what reason decided to get a computer and I was then forced (as we all were) to not only become quite proficient with computers, but also be able to explain why this worked that way and how you can use it more efficiently.

We had these two forces that were really, really trying to work with each other: the old-school, industrial mentality where you specialize in a very particular field and technology was “simple” and the more computer-centralized, digital mentality where you are not only expected to be able to create an amazing painting, but you need to be able to photograph it, edit the picture, upload the image to you website and social media and promote your next show and keep your books straight. The latter sounds like the work of small team (old-school mentality), but in actuality, it is all quite simple nowadays. Especially for our unique generation who grew up with technology, yes, but also at the same rate as technology.

This was the exact moment in time when the clunky, simple, analog tools (film camera, tape/DAT recording, typewriter-ing) were being made obsolete by smaller computers that tried to replicate all of those functions and more. By having the luxury of second-hand, used-to-be-top-of-the-line-before-computers technology, we were able to see how these functioned. Computers only model reality, these analog technologies are what computers were modeling; thus, we know more about the computers and can negotiate with them easier because of our access to old technology.

NAILED: The GIF is, for whatever reason, still a relatively “untapped” art form. What I mean by that is: though the presence of GIFs in our culture is downright ubiquitous, the presence of a form and a disciplined medium existing behind the act of creating GIFs has been, seemingly, relatively absent (art collectives like 15 Folds notwithstanding). Did this play a large part in your inspiration for The Current Sea?

ZUCKER: We work in GIF because it’s at once sacred and profane: it takes an ephemeral art form to best represent a period of great change in human history. I imagine us, and our fellow gif artists, as an analog to the Maniera painters who popped up in Italy after the High Renaissance but before the Baroque era: they felt that everything that could be said by High Art had already been said, and so they started deconstructing all the technical approaches so painstakingly developed by the artists before them, and struck out to develop new forms by means of experimentation. They are often lumped together as a group rather than individually acknowledged, but it was only through their experimentation that the next great wave of art was ushered in.

Of course no artist (or human, for that matter) wishes to be forgotten by time or merely conflated into part of a larger group, but that’s neither here nor there: we work in GIF because it is the best way for us to express this concept of the Analog flowing forward into the Digital, and the Digital reaching back into the Analog. The GIF, like the Internet itself, is completely contemporary to us, which is why it feels so organic to use it as our primary means of expression (though, I will be quick to point out: we specialize in designer GIF, but we work in a myriad of forms, and we’re built to evolve).

We initially formed The Current Sea as a web design company, and it was our motto to “Keep the Internet Human,” as we’re big proponents of Transhumanism. In all honesty, we moved towards being a GIF design team when we realized that web design is a mundane and thankless profession that’s quickly becoming obsolete with the advent of code-less design interfaces like Wix or Virb . . . we found time and time again that our clients were most blown away by our custom graphic art and animations, so we decided to do the unthinkable and take a step away from the small business model, and a step toward the “Art for Art’s Sake” model. I’m happy to report that it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

GRIFFITH: I don’t think it did. We started as a design collective and as a way to pull our resources together to create our own jobs, essentially. It was as much about creativity as it was about “let’s make a small business” and see if we can do it. The first few months of our inception we were doing GIFs and adding our own visual aesthetics to websites, logos and brands that were going for a much more “buttoned-up” look—we’re bare-chested, covered in UV-reactive paint, so we decided to focus on what we really enjoy doing. We are artists doing digital art and not a Design Firm or Agency.

Our GIFs were something we would do for fun and came out of our photography background—Sarah quite a bit more experienced in that world than I—as well as a love for the Glitch Art aesthetic and vintage psychedelia. And Alan Watts. We’re a NetArtist Team that just happens to be obsessed with GIFs.

NAILED: In your recent feature on The Creators Project, Vice writer Mike Sugarman mentioned an episode of The Simpsons entitled “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” positing The Current Sea as a sort-of bridge between Homer and Lisa’s ideas of what a GIF should really “be about.” I thought this was a lovely comparison. Do you consciously view your work as a proverbial bridge in this way? GIFs, by their very nature, often lend themselves to the irreverent side of any conversation. Yet, they clearly possess the power to transfix on a much deeper level.

ZUCKER: We’re BIG fans of The Simpsons, so I absolutely love this comparison. And it’s funny you use the word “Bridge,” as we often use the term “The Spirit Bridge” as a visualization for our present spot in human time. What I love about GIF is that it is both super cutting edge, and sort of old hat at this point. So, in making a GIF, we are being at once futuristic and retro. Retrofuturism is pervasive throughout all of culture right now: I think our fixation on the 1980s vision of our present day depicted in Back to the Future II is a great example of this. Or the “seapunk” fashion phenomenon, which reclaims the cultural detritus of our 90s youth in very futuristic ways.

“The Spirit Bridge” is a sort of visionary look at our present humanity: I place the epicenter of the cultural flip in 2012 because it feels apropo, and is also a fitting nod to the end of the Mayan calendar (which, as we know, predicted the dawn of a new human era, rather than the “end of the world”). As we venture forward, the Ancients of a Future Civilization (which is what we are, even if we feel very petty as we lurk on Facebook posting selfies), the first wave of art we must create is referential to the art that came before the great change. Now that we have the Internet, we truly have the entire 6000+ year-old canon of human creation at our fingertips to explore, reference and remix. I stand by my statement that the Irreverent will inherit the future: just like the Maniera painters who came after the High Renaissance, we have been given the task of striking out in search of new forms.

I’ve started referring to this present youth culture trend as “EraMosh,” because you see people appropriating the styles of many different eras. In the 90s, we had a big 70s revival (Think That 70s Show). In the 70s, they had a big 50s revival (think Happy Days). The linear revival was commonplace pretty much throughout the entirety of human history up until now. With the Internet, we are able to immerse ourselves in the fashions and styles of EVERY era leading up until this point . . . so even our personal style choices reflect this evolution from linear thought to Boolean thought.

GRIFFITH: That is such a great Simpsons episode—I am almost positive I had a or AngelFire site that looked like that when I was a wee lad! It’s actually a constant topic we have here in the office: the idea of bridging that gap between the old-world analog and the new-world digital. We must use technology responsibly and try to instill value into the all-too-often ephemeral world of Internet, but not let needless sentimentality or nostalgia hinder us. Key word is needless: nostalgia is what we can keep in this new age, but as a means to keep our (virtual) world meaningful and strong. GIFs, as we have seen, have the power to seemingly contradict the notion that we now have such short attention spans that nothing sinks in. Time and time again, these simple moving pictures transfix and it’s not because they are GIFs alone, which is why those banner ads don’t really work at captivating, it’s because we’re treating them with respect and whimsy—not as a means to get a precious click.

NAILED: What is Art? Give a personal definition.

ZUCKER: Anything created by a human being, or created by a creation of a human being (i.e. a computer) could be considered art: it only takes the creator and/or the viewer qualifying the creation as Art for it to be Art. Nature is the only thing ineligible for the qualification of Art . . . because Art implies “artifice” which implies a creation beyond that of organic nature.

GRIFFITH: Art—a personal expression of beauty and whimsy in perfect balance that informed by the world, but never kowtows to it.

NAILED: When was the last time you NAILED it?

ZUCKER: Personally, the last time I “nailed” it was when I won Jeopardy! on September 27th of last year. Felt pretty good. The last time we “nailed” it as The Current Sea was the release of our first animated GIF webitorial, You are the Prism Through Which the Universe Shines, which I feel really shows what we are capable of . . . and indicates that there are only bigger and better things on the way.

GRIFFITH: The last time I nailed it was was with the our development of You Are the Prism—we learned a lot about how we want to present our work and after a solid process of design and development; and photoshooting and GIF editing, we crafted a unique display of this art and got the first glimpse of how we want to develop this further.


For more information on The Current Sea, please visit their official site: here.

+ + +

the current sea interviewBrian Griffith and Sarah Zucker are the creative directors of The Current Sea. They are located in Los Angeles, but they work everywhere. They teach Creating the Animated GIF online through Skillshare. They curate Prism Pipe, a live score event at Pehrspace on the third Monday of every month.


Trace William Cowen

Trace William Cowen is a writer currently based in Spokane, WA. He considers himself to be a student of pop culture, and publishes work and reviews often, in several publications.