Jon Rafman at his virtual desk. — Photo courtesy of the artist.
Every day the artist Jon Rafman wakes up, drinks a TwinLabMass Fuel Gainer Vanilla Power shake, checks his three email accounts, five online social-utilities, the forty-eight blogs that he contributes to, makes some internet-aware art, brushes his teeth, and goes to sleep. He wouldn’t let me meet with him IRL (in real life), but sent me a portrait of himself in his Bushwick studio.
That he lives and works in the neighborhood might not seem so relevant since much of his work is inspired by, made from, and often consumed in cyberspace. Since obtaining his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, his work has been shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, Rhizome.org, Clubinternet.org and in physical galleries both here and abroad. But the majority of what Rafman does has less to do with his own place and more to do with where everyone else is (i.e. online all the time). His daily work involves surfing the internet for epic finds and inspirational banality, and much of his oeuvre involves compiling the serendipitous moments of web pathos and comedy that he stumbles upon. He places his new media work in contrast to other artists who hack software counter to its original uses, or guys like this, who use the internet as a marketing tactic for the sale of very analog paintings. Currently, his biggest influences are fellow net artists he discovered through his del.icio.us network, like Guthrie Lonergran, Oliver Laric, and Harm Van Dendorpel.
One of Rafman’s projects is an impressive selection of Google Street View images that he has collected; viewable here and here. Captured by the Google-cam at random, and then captured by Rafman as screenshots, the images are either bizarre abstractions (thanks to blips in the digital photography) or surreal scenes like a Segway tail gate party. With the Google Street Views, Rafman creates surreal narratives using a medium intended for neutral mapping. He says, "The individual Street Views are like photographs that no one took and memories that no one has." The work is presented as a PDF pack of images online, or, in a gallery setting, he can present large-scale digital prints (which you can see at his show this weekend).
Rafman’s Google Street Views are about the act of surfing the web, and how the deeper you go, the more likely you are to come across some pretty out-there stuff. Often scouring for hours, sometimes days, it’s a trial-by-fire search, ("I’ll drop the little yellow Street View man icon randomly somewhere on the planet and start exploring,") while other times he’s tipped off by friends, but ultimately, he says of his images, "it’s the act of framing itself that gives things meaning."
Rafman is like a roguish anthropologist or explorer, documenting his adventures on the World Wide Web. For another work in progress, Rafman gets even deeper. Setting up an avatar for himself on Second Life in the guise of the Kool-Aid Man, Rafman wanders its underworld like an internet flaneur. Of course, the often clichéd graphics and CG stock characters of Second Life are no Weimar Berlin, but Rafman still takes considerable psychological risks, entering into some of the most out-there fantasy lands, sexual and otherwise. Sometimes a voyeur, other times an annoyance to those who play SL in earnest, in his absurd rotund costume, he positions himself as the anti-avatar, in complete opposition to romantic characters (pneumatic babes, furries, extreme Goths) that the majority of players fashion for themselves. Like a tourist, Rafman’s Kool-Aid (username: Theodore Hartono) documents his travels, and over time, the artist has compiled a hilarious album of snapshots. In each, Kool-Aid Man’s indefeatable grin renders the role-playing a little absurd, proving that context is everything, even in the artificial reality of Second Life.
Taking up the mantle of the artist as an interpreter and medium of popular culture, Rafman sees his work in Second Life and elsewhere as an in-depth examination of our social consciousness and the way that technology mediates and affects our interactions.
"Throughout history, artists’ have celebrated and critiqued the world around them. The world I live in cannot be critiqued without confronting the ubiquity of the internet in our society… I don’t want to fetishize these new media, I by no means think they are our salvation (for example that they will lead to a more ‘authentic’ democracy). But I feel the need to understand why the internet and all the social networks associated with it have become so damn popular. Like Siegfried Kracauer‘s analysis of cinema in the last century, I’m attempting to understand what the success and popularity of the internet reveals about our consciousness today."