Project 3

Due: Friday, July 28 by 5pm
Objectives: Digital Curation
Grade: 20% of final

In Theory

The word obscene derives from Latin theater. Obscaena meant literally “offstage,” indicating offensive action such as murder or sex that took place beyond the clear view of audience members. In the United States, obscenity law has functioned similarly to keep offensive material out of public view. Obscenity cases deserve careful consideration because they can impose limitations on one of our most cherished freedoms—the freedom of speech. For many years, the Supreme Court has balanced obscene content against “redeeming value” as defined by community standards.

The Internet has complicated that balance considerably, in part because online forums invite much content “onstage” that still remains inappropriate for public venues such as bookstores and movie theaters. The Internet has also complicated the measure of community standards because online content is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, potentially even minors. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in 1996 to try to regulate pornographic material online above and beyond regular obscenity laws. In 2005, photographer Barbara Nitke challenged the CDA in court with inconclusive results. The measure of community standards (aka, the “Miller Test”) remains, although the court determined that it would be unconstitutional for someone to use the CDA to prosecute Nitke for obscenity.

As many scholars have noted, the notion of “redeeming value” varies considerably from one cultural context or historical moment to another. While many of us enjoy reaction clips and random GIFs, we might find it harder to argue for their redeeming social or artistic value. Yet demonstrating the aesthetic value of cultural detritus is precisely what experimental artists have done for over a century (probably longer), often by reveling in disgust. Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain makes a good example: it is a urinal, signed by the pseudonym R. Mutt and displayed at an art exhibit. Duchamp explained the concept as a readymade: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” Duchamp reduces the artistic process to a matter of selection.

Although not quite readymade, Dennis Cooper’s GIF novels involve a similar process for a cultural landscape filled with digital media. Like Duchamp, Cooper selects ordinary objects, arranges them in a way that accentuates their aesthetic qualities, then displays them as art. The artist here works as a curator, selecting banal objects of ambivalent cultural status to redeem them as aesthetically valuable. Digital curation plays an important role in establishing the value of media, but also contributes to preserving and maintaining them. What would become of the GIFs Cooper picked if not exhibited in his novels? GIF artists are asking the same question about their work even as they worry companies like GIPHY and Apple are profiting off their work by making it widely available.

In Practice

This final project asks you to create a poem the same way Cooper created his GIF novels. You will recontextualize the banal, the off-scene, the potentially irredeemable media we look at everyday by arranging them into a poetic form. Poetic forms stipulate rules (what we could understand as literary laws) for how to arrange language. Because you’ll be working in a multimodal medium, you should take poetic form as a curatorial principle or guide, rather than a strict law. The first step will be to pick a poetic form you want to use. This will help you imagine how to arrange GIFs according to formal correspondence.

Think about how to translate rhyme, alliteration, or meter into an arrangement of GIFs. You should also think about the overall structure, whether you decide to compose a series of couplets, a sonnet, a villanelle, or a sestina. The poetic form you pick should point in some direction for establishing a theme. For instance, if you pick the heroic couplet as your form, it would make sense to explore heroism. Or if you pick the sonnet as your form, you should take seriously the need to establish some tension in the first eight lines and resolve that tension in the final six lines.

In addition to selecting GIFs, you will need to create at least three of your own. I recommend GIPHY’s GIF Maker app, but you may use any platform you like. The final draft of the poem should include at least twelve GIFs total and no more than fifty. You can begin the drafting process in WordPress by saving your work without publishing it. The animated GIFs will work in preview mode. You can also create working drafts in Google Slides or PowerPoint (use slideshow mode to see GIF animation).

As you explore the limits of artistic expression, keep in mind that the line between art and obscenity always depends on context. Cooper may include semi-pornographic materials in his GIF novels, but those GIFs appear in a particular context that changes their meaning and their effect on viewers. Be mindful of your GIF poem’s context in an educational setting. You will have the chance to explain your rationale for the materials in an artist statement that will accompany the final draft. The artist statement should be 200-500 words. It needs to identify your poetic form, explain how your arranged the GIFs with that form in mind, and offer some context for appreciating the social or aesthetic value of GIF content. See the online prompt for additional resources.


Online Resources

Online Obscenity Materials

Dennis Cooper Materials

GIF Poem Materials

Further Reading

GIF Poem Rubric

  Inadequate Adequate Outstanding
Source materials Not enough GIFs or none of your own creation.  

Between 12 and 50 GIFs total, at least three of which are your own creation.


Appropriate number of GIFs for poetic vision, with particular images selected from beyond the pool of common memes.
Poetic Form  

No discernable poetic form, or no correlation between stated form and achieved form.


Clear poetic form that corresponds to goals as articulated in artist statement. Clear poetic form that corresponds to goals articulated in artist statement and that enhances poetic meaning.
Thematic Arrangement  

No discernable theme, or no correlation between theme and stated goals.


Clear theme that runs throughout poem and corresponds to goals articulated in the artist statement. Clear theme that runs throughout poem, corresponds to goals articulated in artist statement, and shows care in the arrangement of images.
Artist Statement  

Doesn’t meet word requirement; fails to articulate creative choices and process; does not provide necessary information for reading poem, such as poetic form.


200-500 words; clearly articulates creative choices and process; provides necessary information and context for appreciating poem, including poetic form. 200-500 words; clearly articulates creative choices and explains process in well organized paragraphs; provides context and information for appreciating poem, including poetic form and honest assessment of the project’s outcome.