Steve Lawler on GIFFEST, how to reach the masses, and, why we shouldn’t fear AI

Unless you’ve been living on Mars in the last few months, chances are no one can escape all the fuss about the inexorable rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), expedited by the omnipresence of ChatGPT (short for Generative Pre-trained Transformer).

Should humans fear the coming of Artificial General Intelligence? This is a sentiment raised in an open letter signed by more than 3,000 technologists, CEOs, CFOs, and others who call on all AI labs to halt training AI systems for six months.

Steve Lawler, co-founder and Head of Creative at EYEYAH!, a visual platform and publication which uses art and design to advocate for social issues, however, is refreshingly, more sanguine than paranoid.

Quizzed over Zoom on his views about AI, Steve is optimistic. “The best artists are going to adopt it into their creative process, and the one who don’t would probably fall behind,” he declares breezily.

Steve knows a thing or two about new technologies. After all, he is the man who launched the biennial GIFFEST in 2017, a showcase of 50 GIFs by young motion graphic artists in an immersive and interactive experience, themed ‘Spellbound’; and the second edition, themed ‘Magic’, in 2019.

This year, as part of EYEYAH!, he just launched GIFFEST: IMPERFECT, its third and most thought-provoking edition and a pivotal programme of DesignSingapore Council’s 20th anniversary celebration. Currently being held at the National Design Centre, it features artists from Japan, Norway, Mexico, Singapore and elsewhere, as well as fringe programming and activities, such as workshops, talks and interactive programmes suitable for all ages.

Clearly, Steve is a multimedia artist at home with new technologies. As his bio describes, he blithely explores so-called Trash Pop culture, “colliding with the old and historical, [and] mixing media such as computer programming, digital sculpture, painting and printmaking.”

There should be no fear of “AI replacing artists at all,” he says – unless humans actively go against it. “It’s the same for designers. If you adopt AI as a new working tool and incorporate it into your working process, it’s going to accelerate all sorts of creativity,” he says. “Get on with the programme!”

At the same time, he is acutely aware of the human impact of every endeavour – hence the theme “Imperfect” and the tagline of GIFFEST this year: “Driving social impact through the power of GIFs.”

I mentioned the theme reminded me of a thoughtful new song by Lana Del Rey called ‘Kintsugi’, which references the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold – a metaphor for embracing one’s flaws and imperfections.

“Kintsugi – yes, absolutely, it is part of the imperfection that we are celebrating,” he muses. “Fixing a broken glass with gold is a good metaphor for what we should do as humans.”

While he has left it to the artists selected from an open call as well as through personal invitations to interpret the theme, he says he is interested in au courant works that take on “self-image, beauty, people’s perceptions of themselves… issues which are prominent today, especially on social media.” He is especially bothered by all these “body-perfect, so-called perfect lifestyle feeds that people follow, and aspire to.”

“They are not very healthy,” he declares.

On a societal level, he feels that the pursuit of “perfection” is anathema to evolution and the creative process: “Without imperfection, there would be no progress. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn. Every so often, mistakes can lead to new tangents of thought and experimentation.”

Steve himself walks the talk, talks the walk. Born in Iran, raised in Hong Kong, educated in Europe, and based in Singapore since 2003, this Third Culture kid has a unique perspective on multiculturism which informs his own artistic practice. One thinks of the work he did here, stitching iconic Eastern and Western pop-cultural influences from The Hulk to Ultraman to Godzilla.

His omnivorous hunger for multi-sensorial experiences certainly chimes with these times when the concept of metaverses or multiverses is commonplace. Whether it’s fashion brands magicking their own virtual habitats, or films such as Everything Everywhere All At Once becoming runaway hits, GIFs – which turn 37 this year – are very much a precursor to all that we are witnessing right now.

“GIFs have come a long way indeed, and they are part of everyday vernacular now. People use them as forms of expression,” he says. For GIFFEST, his intention is to use GIFs as “a kick-off point to create and explore it as an artform.”

He explains: “To see things you normally access on a small device screen but now on a larger scale creates a new impact. It attains a sense of greater importance for a medium that gets dismissed sometimes as cheap.

“We really push the boundary of what a GIF is. GIFs used to be compressed into file-sized data, but these days, you can have full-blown HD videos with looping animation, and which can be streamed pretty much instantly.”

As for metaverses, he opines that we all like “environments people can get lost in. We go into a space and escape reality for a little while, and to be mesmerised by all these moving images, and thought-provoking artworks.”

To that end, he thinks that so-called “bad GIFs are good obviously” in that “there’s a charm about them. You will watch them over and over again. There is something hypnotic about a loop. It holds your gaze for a while.”

That’s why Steve hopes that GIFFEST can reach out across the aisle to make new connections, beyond usual artsy types and savvy millennials. He feels there remains an exclusive, “very much high-brow art world,” which is a hindrance to reaching a mass audience, so there’s a need for a more accessible, punk-rock type of art show.”

In fact, he suggests, “our ideal audience are people who are not in the inner circle of art, and who are alienated by art, or by the mere thought of it.”

“What we do with GIFFEST and EYEYAH! is to catapult all kinds of amazing artworks we are seeing in this “not-high-brow” world into a wider audience. Many of these artists we are showcasing only have a few thousand Instagram followers. Nobody really sees what these artists are capable of, and we hope for them to reach new eyeballs.”

At the end of the day, he says: “Our primary objective is to get the public excited about visual culture, and not necessarily the fine arts. So this a stepping stone for them to get there, if they want to get there.

“We are not judging anybody. We are throwing the doors open.”

Talks, Workshops and fringe programmes at GIFFEST: IMPERFECT are ticketed and open for registration. Find out more at

(Featured image: Steve Lawler and son, Babyman)


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Explore latest trends in contemporary culture