Lorna Mills: Trailblazing the GIF Raunch


WTF GIF Poster, 2020

Lorna Mills: Trailblazing the GIF Raunch

In the earlier years of her art practice, Lorna Mills produced still and moving images through Super - 8 film, digital video installations, painting and photography. Additionally, throughout the 1990’s, she co-founded the Red Head Gallery, one of Toronto’s longest-surviving Artist-Run collective galleries that continues to support artists and their work to this day. Since the mid-2000s Mills has been working with digital technologies, garnering international notoriety for her digital art net GIF collages. In so doing, she has carved a compelling space for her unapologetic remixed imagery of raunch, propelling both simple animation loops and like-minded artists into the contemporary art stratosphere.  

Her medium of choice, the animated GIF, the “graphic interchange format”, is used to create simple digital animations; a format that has become more appealing to artists as Internet bandwidth improved allowing for larger GIF file sizes and thus permitting increased pixels of visual information. In an early Canadian Art magazine interview with Leah Sandals, Mills recounted that she first took notice of GIFs through the work of her collaborator Sally McKay, realizing the infinite potential for photo-based GIF work. In his Well Now WTF 2020 exhibition essay, co-curator Wade Wallerstein reminds Internet exhibition viewers that the GIF is not only a simple format to work with but has the capacity to “hold vast complexity and persist despite varying network protocols” that can be continuously updated with little notice.

Mills rarely assigns literal meanings to her individual GIF images and relies more on the relationships and intuitive dialogues that occur between her salacious images of grind.  In her Sandals interview, Mills states that she collects her imagery from an Internet world of seemingly limitless porn and is compelled to use any “raunchy, abject or outrageous” filth…where the notion of decency is anachronistic”. Some of her favorites include “inter-species romance, masturbating penguins, dogs with itchy butts, drunk people barfing, strange fish, car crashes with dummies flying out of them, weird glitches from video games that force humans into unnatural contortions, hilarious porn scenes, dogs humping unsuspecting humans and wanking bears.” For those of us who fully appreciate “out of the ordinary”, Mills’ images are a potent salve for the banal bordering on the absurd.

Her feverish transgressive imagery mined from Internet Reddit trolls, porn fail blooper sites or web net Russian domains reminded me of a trek to a local heterosexual “swingers” club that graced Toronto’s Queen St West strip in the early 2000’s. My queer experimental self and a courageous girlfriend wanted to explore the diverse range of sexualities that might be offered by such an accommodating establishment.  Being the wallflowers that we were at the time, we were surrounded by orgiastic floor mattresses where men and women vaulted from one partner to the next, resulting in a liberated free-for-all frenzy of limbs, dicks and breasts.  It is the same chaotic energy and thrill of abandonment that Mills captures through her pulsating GIFs and orgies of Bacchanalian motion.



The spellbinding, frenetic movements of the images are hypnotic. The repetitive gestures appear thrown together with Mill’s signature ready-made collage style. The quick cut and paste gestures are, however, deceiving. In his 2015 Canadian Art feature profile, Simon Lewson breaks down the artist’s obsessive methodology; “she removes subjects she has chosen from surrounding background frame by frame. The cuts are rough and tend to leave edges of the original background, giving images a grainy, pulsating aura… she then collages the revised images together using Adobe Flash Professional”. Her images are then installed on a unified background where individual image gyrations speak to one another, somewhat like artwork installed in a physical gallery. However, in Mill’s virtual break all barriers space, her extracted images relate to one another through a dialogue of pure rhythmic raunch.

In 2015, Mills donated a 10” touch-screen tablet to the Buddies in Bad Times Art Attack auction in Toronto. Neither a still image of her GIFs in a catalogue, nor a view from an auction stage could convey the frenetic motion of dozens of tiny pixilated flickering frames. Upon closer inspection, a jewel of a tablet showcased the artist’s trademark imagery and anarchic motion where, as Lewison states in Canadian Art, “everything moves according to a complicated internal logic”.



Throughout her numerous projects, Mills continuously embraced, supported and encouraged the growth of the art net community. In 2011/2012 she participated in Rea McNamara’s monthly Sheroes art event at various venues on Queen Street West in Toronto. McNamara invited Mills to curate artists to create GIFS and other forms of digital art based on female icons such as Nina Simone, Dolly Parton and Dusty Springfield. The much-anticipated art parties grew in popularity where invited artists were projected alongside live performances/bands at various local Toronto venues including the renowned Beaver bar. Artnet News claimed that Sheroes “was the first GIF-centric event series of its kind” while the Peripheral Review featured Lorna and her community-based antics as a leading pioneer of net art in Canada, releasing the obsessive Internet sketch loops into the realm of projected art world exhibitions. 


Sheroes, 2021 (Now Magazine, Rea McNamara)

The evolution of digital communities has steadily progressed through large-scale projects providing forums for a rich cross-section of digital artists. Mills has either initiated and/or participated in several international trailblazing efforts to secure space for net-based work against the odds.  In his Well Now WTF essay, Wallerstein sums up the succession in the following summary: “they were born out of a vital need to reinvigorate the online communities of digital art worlds…creating the space for creative connections beyond social media platforms”. A major challenge for digital artists was the need to connect, create and promote without getting lost in the deafening clamor of social media pitfalls or “notions of anachronistic decency”.



In 2014/2015 Mills curated the “Ways of Something” project. The website describes it as a contemporary remake of John Berger’s 1972 BBC  “Ways of Seeing” documentary and consists of “one-minute videos by over 113 network-based artists who commonly work with 3D rendering, gifs, film remix, webcam performances, and websites to describe the cacophonous conditions of artmaking after the internet”.  Participating artists worked with a minute-long audio segment and did whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t edit out Berger’s voice or alter the close captioning. The Lewson Canadian Art profile exclaims that Mills “refused to editorialize (the submitted work) and splits whatever money the project generates evenly between all the collaborators.”  It is apparent that Mills propensity to support and build digital communities factors as much in her career as her individual GIF conversations.   


A rousing GIF response to two years of global COVID “impending doom and virus data overload” is currently captured through the 2020 co-curated Well Now WTF Internet exhibition with 120 Canadian and international artists including master digital artist Alex McLeod, rising star OCADU graduate, Stacie Ant and Vancouver-based Erica Lapadet-Janzen. In an exhibition interview, co-curator Wade Wallerstein describes the project as a “net art revival, reaffirming the value of responsiveness, agility and anti-institutionalism”. Co-curated by Mills, Wallerstein and Faith Holland the enticing viewing rooms contain titles such as “Stay Home And Masturbate”, “Clusterfuck Closet”, “Wash Your Fucking Hands” and “So Sad Because The Artfairs Were Cancelled”.

In her recent text, The Affect of Animated GIFs, sometimes collaborator Sally McKay states that the animated GIFs  “occupy space that is both public and private”, while their meanings “are always informed by the technologized environment in which they function”.  The exuberant energy exerted through the projects often subverts both the institutional art world and the wide web world within which they thrive. Part frenetic porn, part hilarity but mostly a scintillating, formidable culture that is now shared throughout the digital and IRL realms, providing an infinite range of possibilities that attempt to embrace the Lorna Mills raunch ethic culled from the absurd underbelly of the net.

Lorna Mills is represented by Elephant Gallery in Montreal, TRANSFER in Brooklyn, New York and DAM Gallery in Berlin. Her GIF NFTs are found in collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Thoma Foundation, The Sandor Collection, Museum of the Moving Image and EQ Bank.