Like many creative projects in Montreal, it all started with the boredom of a winter shut-in. A little over a year ago, James Kerr started creating .gifs and posting them on Tumblr as Scorpion Dagger, taking early Renaissance paintings by artists like Lucas Cranach and the Bruegels and tweaking them into pop culture-laced animated memes.
“That winter I did nothing, and I was really dying for a project. I started playing around with these little animations, and a friend of mine suggested that I make them into .gifs and publish them. I did, and I just decided right there — my first day, I did like five,” Kerr says. “I thought, I’m having so much fun with this, I’m going to make it into something for a year, and then I’ll shop it as a gallery show to see where it goes, just to give me something to do. It’s been over a year, and I’m still doing it.”
Kerr posts a .gif a day, more or less, and says that each one takes him around two hours. He starts by looking at the scores of old paintings he’s accumulated, then tries to find a way to slip in the contemporary — Jesus passed out drunk while the apostles doodle on him with Sharpies, or Adam and Eve sending each other sexy selfies.
Scorpion Dagger’s had a huge response, accruing a name check on Buzzfeed and being tapped for inclusion in group exhibitions from Nashville to Belgium. The most popular, like the animation one fan dubbed “DJ Jesus Died for your Spins,” have gone wildly viral, amassing almost 100,000 hits.
“I get a lot of weird press,” Kerr admits. “Vice Germany, they’re doing this thing on me, but they’re giving my .gifs to, like, curators and art scholars, trying to get their reaction. I’m nervous about that, personally — I think I don’t really care, ultimately, but it’s a funny thing, that people maybe take it more seriously than it should be.”
While there’s no shortage of casual sacrilege and button-pushing imagery, Kerr says he also shies away from going too far in that direction — the world only needs so many .gifs of saints smoking blunts and eating pizza.
“I’m not worried about repetition, and I try not to think about what other people would like. There’s definitely a formula I could follow to get a lot of notes on Tumblr,” he explains, “but that’s boring. I think it’s not as interesting as doing more mundane things.”
Now that his initial experiment has paid off, Kerr finds himself facing a new problem: how do you make a .gif into an art object? With a background in video art and collage, he’s been approached by several galleries interested in selling his work, but what do you sell when your art form is a digital file format?
“We’re working on it, and I’m trying to figure out how to make this a commercial good,” he says. “These guys in Italy made me these analogue .gif players — they’re like, you crank them, and it’s a flip-book, like a Rolodex. And then I’m actually literally waiting on a package from China. I bought all these electronic components, like little LCD screens with video boards. I’m going to assemble my own.”
Ambitious? Definitely. But then again he’s got all winter to work on it. ■