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Jon Rafman: Internet Explorer

A box inside a box is where you sit to watch Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2009), Jon Rafman’s nearly hour-long virtual trek through one of the Internet’s early ventures into immersive, avatar-driven experience, and the feeling of suffocating confinement is apt. As Kool-Aid Man, Rafman’s avatar, sallies forth through a series of user-generated environments within the 2,000-some square kilometres of Second Life’s virtual world—which includes such venues as a sex den populated by humanoid felines, a nightclub that’s been built from cannabis fronds and a pristine forest glade illuminated by shafts of beatific sunlight—you’re pulled, and hard, in two directions at once: into the escapist realm of digital reverie (and more than occasional nightmare), but ever aware of the rising heat in your glass cage, anchoring you mercilessly to the unforgiving ground of the real.

“There’s still a physicality to the experience of surfing the Internet, no matter how much you try to escape it,” Rafman says, and it serves as a tidy encapsulation of the artist’s priorities. Hyperconnection versus grim isolation is the polemic at play, and here and elsewhere, Rafman puts a fine point on it: one large installation at his New York gallery, Zach Feuer, depicted a teenager’s bedroom, coated in fine grey ash; the glow of the screen shimmering like a beacon of hope amid the ruins. Its title: I am alone, but not lonely (2013).

Rafman, who at the ripe old age of 33 has become something of a godfather of a generation of Net artists—or post-Net, if you prefer—has always seen things this way: the idealism of the limitless rudely tethered to the mundanity of the everyday.

All is not quite so black and white: as lines shift and blur, there’s a sense of bleeding, one to the other: real worlds imitate digital fantasy while virtual realms edge, in their sterile, uncanny way, closer to the actual. The latter is a twofold deflation, depending on your point of view. To take Second Life as a metaphor, every day, more of its real estate is consumed by no-holds-barred baseness—a kind of ur-porn, symptomatic of the Net as a whole. More disturbing to the Net’s hard core, no doubt, is a different kind of debasement: an ever-rising corporatization, chasing libertarian dreams to ever more distant dark corners.

At the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, which hosted Rafman’s first-ever Canadian museum survey this year, the artist attenuated the two points on his very fine line: a sunken blue-vinyl couch served as the viewing ground for a pair of his videos, Mainsqueeze (2014) and Still Life (Betamale) (2013). A claustrophobic cube coated in ectoplasmic spray-foam insulation contained another: Erysichthon (2015), his newest work, named for a mythic Greek king whose Olympian punishment for razing down a sacred grove of trees was to be cursed to devour himself.

That story, transposed here to a hot, mirrored box fitted with vinyl cushioning, is equally consumptive. On the screen, Rafman unspools a sequence of found images and footage, all culled from his committed trawls through cyberspace: a snake eating its own tail, a man in an enclosed helmet filming himself with a flying drone (the helmet, presumably, allowing him to watch himself being watched from the drone’s perspective).

Unlike the nominal king, the work reveals the punishment is the crime itself: a rabbit-hole of perpetual links, chained forever ad infinitum. A voice-over intones: “You fell asleep of exhaustion at 7 a.m. You were awake all night. The only thought on your mind was: To exist is to devour oneself.” To use an appropriately Seinfeldian meme, it disgusts us, yet we cannot look away.

Rafman’s role, self-cast, has often been described as a digital flâneur—a venturing, virtual naïf whose meanderings of the Internet byways are innocent quests for self-knowledge (hence Kool-Aid Man, his Second Life avatar, who is goofily absurd and anything but discreet).

It may have begun like that, with likely his best-known work, Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2009–). Hours and hours spent on the virtual mapping interface have yielded extraordinary, needle-in-a-haystack moments: a van engulfed in flames somewhere in Brazil, a reindeer trotting along a seaside highway in Norway. The tension of the work, between an earnest—and corporate—effort to catalogue every square centimetre of roadway on the planet and the contingent, perpetual wonder of life simply happening alongside it, packs it tight with compelling force. Here is a simple, objective tool—practical, useful, kind of dorky—turned to a quest for the uncanny and sublime.

Really, though, Rafman is less flâneur and more digital pack rat, hunting and gathering squibs of image and video from the Net’s dark corners—the Deep Web, some call it—and spiriting them home to be bent to his will.

Darkness is far too simple a term to describe either his findings or his manipulations of them. Still Life (Betamale), one of the videos in Montreal, assaults with an opening image: a portly man of undetermined age—partly because his face is obscured by two pairs of little girls’ underwear, pulled down over his head—with a gun aimed at each temple. The film shifts quickly to a series of photographs of computer stations that suggest self-imposed prisons: one almost buried with cigarette butts and depleted cans of Red Bull, another in a room utterly empty but for a bedroll on the floor, the screen perched near the pillow.

These famous “troll caves”—real-world dwellings for an online species of bully that self-anoints to harass, belittle and attack other users—are desperately creepy, but also inspire an odd pathos. “As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into the infinite,” a female voice says, almost as incantation, as the images drift by. It is a threshold, Rafman intuits, and correctly, on which his trolls ever dwell: yearning desperately for a place where they have authority—where they matter—they are locked hard to a world in which it seems they never will.

Futility looms large in Rafman’s work. A series of large photo-collages, You are standing in an open field, hung at the MAC, in which troll-cave images—these ones constructed by Rafman, in studio, of keyboards strewn with crumbs, or Kleenexes, or empty beer cans, on the precipice of high-Romantic landscapes of waterfalls and forests—are almost too-obvious polemics of a baleful disconnect: the screen as a portal to an unattainable sublime. Look, but know you can never touch. To put a fine point on it, Rafman makes the work materially abject: each piece, in varying degrees, is slicked with outsize blotches of a shiny residue.

Rafman is, ultimately, a tragic romantic, whose ventures through virtual worlds mirror the medium itself. He begins as a Wordsworthian figure, drifting through the virtual world attuned to its beauty and wonder, but circles around to disappointment, loneliness, despair. One video here, A Man Digging (2013), sees a forlorn figure wandering the intricate, quite gorgeous cityscapes of Max Payne, a first-person shooter game that cost tens of millions of dollars to produce. Rafman’s flâneur arrives after the fact: bloodied bodies litter the quiet ground. In the absence of action, there is a dark, seductive serenity.

“The analogy I like to draw is between the Romantic movement and the decadence that followed,” he says. “At first, there was an excitement about possibility—it’s the height of the humanist tradition, we believe we’re connected to nature, that we’re free to create our own lives. I think those ideals were also reflected in the dawn of dot-com culture—it was this utopian, democratic ideal.”

Not long to last, though, that unfettered realm, with its promise of the limitless, the transcendent, ended up mired first in base impulses—pornography competes only with cat videos for global bandwidth share—and then a sanitizing corporate lockstep.

“Now, one of the biggest apps in the world is called Uber—even the branding is like an evil empire,” Rafman laughs. The net’s co-option by corporate interests sent him searching for dark corners—the Deep Web, or 4chan, the notorious message boards where users are anonymous and rules of conduct are a foreign concept (“It’s the asshole of the Internet,” Rafman offers, by way of explanation).

It’s here, or on such platforms as Reddit, a devolved hive of vicious backchat, that Rafman culls the majority of his material. (In Mainsqueeze, also on view at the MAC, a string of images of passed-out young people, their bodies and faces festooned with multicoloured Sharpie scribblings—one, an unconscious man, has LOSER scrawled on his forehead—is accompanied by a grim voice-over: “I hate you. I hate looking at you. You’re nothing. You deserve nothing. I hope you die cold and alone.”) Devolution is important to Rafman, running parallel with the medium itself. “I kind of think of myself as a poet,” he says, “moving from that Wordsworthian Romantic idea of exploring the sublime in the virtual world to this kind of Baudelairean character, wandering the back streets of Paris, filled with prostitutes and drug addicts. The troll vernacular rhymes nicely with that.”

I mention that it’s a stretch to compare Baudelaire to an isolated shut-in anonymously broadcasting his unfiltered rage online, but Rafman disagrees. “It’s a rich language,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t really see what I’m doing as any different than a classical composer walking through a market and hearing a beggar’s folk song, and then incorporating it into his orchestral movement. It’s beautiful in its own way.”

Rafman, recently, has been as peripatetic in the real world as he is, perpetually, online; while he was preparing his Montreal show, he was also working on shows for his galleries in Berlin and New York, as well as a public-art commission in New York, and another massive exhibition at London’s Zabludowicz Collection (“Rafman likes to spread it thin,” says Mark Lanctôt, Rafman’s curator at the MAC. He’s maintaining his good humour, but preparations came down to the wire. “I kind of wanted to strangle him—enough already,” he says.)

Each time we spoke, it was through Skype, which seemed to offer an appropriate filter, given the context. We first met in 2012—in person, in Toronto—where Nine Eyes was having its first public airing in Toronto at Angell Gallery. Chalk it up to his growing public profile if you like, but I had the distinct impression that Rafman was more comfortable on screen than in the flesh.

At Rafman’s real-world studio, a floor-through lift space in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Jennifer Chaput, his efficient, affable studio manager, holds down the fort while he bounces from one point to the next. On the glass-top desk where Rafman’s extra-large Mac screen sits, near a floor-to-ceiling window with a view down to Saint-Laurent, a small array of swoopy Lucite busts sit in a neat row. It’s a maquette for one of the sculptures in New York, which were later laser-carved in marble at much greater scale, but in the context of things here, it suggests something else as well. “The Jon Rafman sex toy,” Chaput laughs. “A line of merchandise, right? Maybe at some point.”

Things have happened quickly here. Rafman initially connected with Chaput through Craigslist, then hired her over a coffee meeting not quite three years ago, and she started immediately. “The first time I showed up for work, it was at his bedroom in his mom’s house,” Chaput says. “I knew who he was, that he had had some success, but that was just really weird.”

Rafman, prone to wandering—his first dive into the depths of the online world happened in New York, where he moved on a whim in 2007—was hesitant to put down roots. His mother, Sandra, an ongoing force in his life and career—a clinical psychologist who specializes in childhood trauma, she’s a fixture at every opening and contributed an essay to the MAC catalogue—was more than happy to oblige. Eventually, though, he demurred; it could be anywhere, but Montreal is home. “That’s what I found, living in New York,” he laughs. “I felt like I never had to leave my apartment. I spent whole weekends surfing the Net.”

Rafman’s always been something of a rambler, either online or right here on Earth. When he was a kid, his mother, a single parent, would plan annual forays to decidedly non-child-friendly locales. “I was never allowed to go to Florida, or to Disneyland,” Rafman says. “We would go whitewater rafting in the jungle in Guatemala. We went to the Galapagos when I was 12. I looked forward to it all year.”

When he finished high school, a Jewish school in Snowdon in Montreal’s Anglo west end, he ducked the obligatory two-year CEGEP stint required of Quebeckers and decamped instead for Israel and a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

When he came back to Montreal, he studied philosophy and English literature at McGill University, finishing his bachelor’s and taking off again, this time for California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles County. Rafman had designs on becoming a filmmaker, and saw Southern California’s legendary art school as a means to achieve his experimental ends. What he found fell short of his hopes. “You’re expecting the Truffaut-, Godard-type group of kindred spirits, and I never found that,” he says.

His studies at McGill, which had cultivated in him an incurable romantic sensibility, seemed wasted there. “There was such a lack of humanist education. It was a rude awakening,” he says. “The whole thing was a disaster.”

After suffering a year there, Rafman shipped off again, this time to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He found more kinship there, but was still restless and searching. When he finished, he circled back home to Montreal and settled into his familiar scene. Still pursuing film, he looked for entry-level work at production companies, and became adept at dipping into the Quebec government’s VideoFact program, which provided grants for experimental film and video.

In the swim of the city’s vibrant music scene, Rafman’s old friends had coalesced into a set of indie bands, and he had started producing videos to go along with their songs (one, a video for the band the Lovely Feathers, he admits with a little coaxing, is still searchable on YouTube). But the work was starting to feel like a dead end. “There was something deeply unsatisfying about it,” he says. “Film felt like the medium of the 20th century, like it had already experienced its zeitgeist moment. I didn’t relate to it. I didn’t relate to other filmmakers.”

Alongside it, Rafman was poking into virtual realms, hunting for source material. Venturing into Second Life, which had evolved, in its chaotic, fantastical way, into a distinct society with its own working economy and governing structure, Rafman would interact with other wanderers he found there, recording his conversations for script potential. He wasn’t seeing it as anything but a tool, but his interest was piqued—enough so that more of his days were disappearing into the online world, where the constraints of his struggling-filmmaker life would melt away in the digital flow of endless possibility.

Over time, he developed a kinship with certain group of people calling themselves post-Net artists. It was a self-conscious distinction: they weren’t like the Net artists of a previous generation, who preened on hacker cred and disruption (one, a group called Epidemic, in collaboration with artist duo Eva and Franco Mattes, presented a functional virus as a work of art at the 2001 Venice Biennale that infected computers worldwide); instead, they were guileless gawkers, wide-eyed at the unfettered universe into which the web had evolved, mining its distant corners for moments of wonder.

“I had discovered them completely by accident,” Rafman says. “They were pulling from sources similar to what I had found. I thought I was obscure, but there was this whole community of people with the same sensibility that I had.”

Making contact for the first time—as a gushy fanboy, Rafman admits— the voice on the other end of the wire directed him to deli.ci.ous, the online shared-bookmarking site, where users could post the results of their online explorations and steer others to them. It was a community of shared fascinations, and Rafman got lost in it: obscure, random videos and images, some perverse, some completely innocent: a video of a kid’s pet hamster, a collection of Super Soaker images from the ’90s.

“You could bookmark something and see who else had bookmarked it,” he says. “And when you did, it was like, who is this person? Some of them were artists, surfing the web for amazing things, with this sensibility of ‘look at what the Internet is offering us—this incredible universe where anyone can take part in creating anything.’”

Rafman, adrift, suddenly found purpose. He moved to New York and delved deep into his new community. Clustered around sites like Rhizome, a non-profit online gathering place for Net-based art, the possibilities seemed limitless. Some Net artists would become famous, like Parker Ito or Artie Vierkant. Others abandoned it, or “became legends, and disappeared,” Rafman says. Such is life online.

Can Rafman and his ilk burn out, milking the Net dry of all but its far poles of depravity on the one hand, and slick corporate representation on the other? Maybe so. The tease of the limitless, the promise of transcendence, can only have the rug pulled out from under it so many times before it wears thin. Ito, probably the most recognizable name on the list of Rafman’s contemporaries, has rebuffed his status as a preeminent post-Net artist. In Interview magazine last year, Ito shrugged off his post-Net label, saying he was “making a very big break” from all that.

His is not the only disavowal. On Twitter, artist Jennifer Chan called the whole genre “a massive ideological jerk-off.” K-HOLE, an online collective that reads like a 21st-century Adbusters (they publish an online “trend forecasting report” that is wryly transparent consumer critique) recently declared a new trend: Burnout. They linked it to a desire to go offline and indulge in the rarest of commodities in our over-connected world: uncompromised privacy.

For Rafman, there’s a shift happening too. His newest work at the MAC is Neon Parallel 1996 (2015), a grainy film that uses real live actors performing partially from a script. It has a dated quality—deliberately so—in an overt nod to nostalgia by an artist long committed to the bleeding edge. “I made a lot of films like that when I was younger, and they were terrible—unwatchable,” he laughs. “Maybe in 10 years, they’ll be so retro nobody will recognize how terrible they were.”

Art in any new media can be like that. As for post-Net, only time will tell. But Rafman’s overarching quest, to reboot a new kind of humanism calibrated for the online world, is no passing fad. For all the sheen of digital veneer, it’s simultaneously as old, and as timely, and as relevant, as human expression itself.

This is an article from the Fall 2015 issue of our magazine,
Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To get every new issue of the magazine delivered before it hits newsstands, subscribe now.

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