Technology’s Impression on the Contemporary Psyche: Jon Rafman in Sobey Art Award 2018
How has the Internet affected human consciousness? In what ways has this global connective resource modified and redetermined social behaviour? How has it come to bear on our politics? These are some of the questions that drive Jon Rafman’s art-making.
Since the “surf club” era in the mid-2000s, when self-styled web adventurers sought out, documented and shared exotic internet ephemera, Rafman has made it his mission to observe and describe the ways he sees the net reshaping human experience. He avoids the large marketplaces, the Facebooks and Instagrams, which he compares to Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris – demolishing medieval streets for grand, easy-to-use, easy-to-control boulevards. Instead he peruses the web’s deeper, darker corners, where outré subcultures, fetish groups and fandoms find community and make their home. Alienation is a common theme in his work. He is interested in how technology mitigates and maximizes it.
The yield of his expeditions is sampled and remixed in video installation, photography, sculpture and virtual reality experiences, which have received considerable recognition at home and abroad. Rafman is one of the stars to have emerged from the post-internet moment, and his work is in the collections of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty Trust and the Saatchi Collection. This year, the 36-year-old, Montreal-based artist is representing the Quebec region as one of the five finalists for the Sobey Art Award.
There is a partition between the physical and the virtual worlds that our screens provide, a divide Rafman’s practice strives to explode. He wants viewers to feel the Internet. His immersive videos such as Mainsqueeze and Still Life (Betamale) have been presented, for example, inside a filing cabinet molded into a cockpit that visitors packed into, or on a monitor fixed to the underside of a portable massage chair, or from a structural visor installed tightly over a waterbed like some horrific, homemade MRI scanner. Viewers are made to feel vulnerable. The enclosures prompt bodily responses — “from claustrophobia to total relaxation,” the artist says — which are echoed in the contents of the videos.
His virtual reality work similarly experiments with immersion. They could reach out and touch the railing. From the balcony of a hotel during NADA Miami in 2014, for the piece titled Junior Suite, Rafman asked viewers to go into a headset where they’d find themselves in a simulated recreation of the same hotel balcony. They could feel the breeze and hear the waves rolling up the beach nearby. Looking back inside, they'd view the room they entered by. Scarface plays on the TV. They could reach out and touch the railing. Then, before their eyes, the building would dismantle itself, crumbling into abstraction around them.
In Sculpture Garden, which he first presented at the Zabludowicz Collection in London, viewers enter the titular garden by first navigating a real-life hedge maze toward the Oculus Rift stationed at its centre. The dead ends of the labyrinth are punctuated by monument-sized sculptures in marble, silicone and copper, which prefigure what viewers will find living inside the virtual scape. He’s excited, he says, for future projects that play with augment reality (AR), where digital interventions can be made overtop real space, so viewers needn’t be “blindfolded” by clunky goggles or headsets. There, the digital and the physical can become, more closely, the same.
Early on, he referred to his video installations as “troll caves.” They mimic and exaggerate the DIY purpose-built spaces devised by those who wish to spend most of their time in the virtual world; some of the same figures who traffic the original content — the videos and memes — that comprise Rafman’s works. The “internet troll,” conceived as a group that’s mostly male, underemployed and politically disenfranchised, is perhaps the artist’s main subject. And It would seem that, in investigating what he identifies as their despair, he intuited a dark power rising. Some of those characters have more recently come to find considerable political power congregating to express their resentful, xenophobic feelings as an active component of the alt-right. Rafman contends it is critical that their alienation is explored and understood, lest they become some inscrutable alien force bent only on punishing society for their estrangement.
The artwork he is bringing to the Sobey Art Award Exhibition is a 2017 video installation titled Poor Magic. From organ-shaped seats made of what looks like burnt flesh, viewers watch computer-generated crowd simulations brutalized en masse, all orchestrated by an unseen manipulator: they are run head-first into a wall or marched off a cliff or bowled over by a spinning girder. It is a short story inspired by a popular dystopian vision, Rafman explains, “where humanity has all been uploaded and some alien super-intelligence is in control of our consciousness.” “We can’t die, we’ve tried,” the narrator states. Although the language might be updated, it is a classical imagining of hell. “Our dystopian nightmares reflect something about the present,” comments Rafman, “be it 1984 authoritarianism or atomic war.” Connective technology has become so ubiquitous and so powerful, Poor Magic suggests, that our present-day evils and afflictions oftentimes feel alien and anonymous.
A respite from the focus on angst, since 2015, Rafman has been recording and animating his dreams. Dream Journals is an ongoing series in which the artist writes down his nightly dreams, free associates from them and then sends the texts to a hobbyist animation community, which turns the stories into short 3D-modelled film segments. Rafman has stitched the installments together into a Homeric epic following his alter ego, Raver Girl, across the dreamscape. It is a way to explore internet surfing in narrative form, the artist says. Raver Girl shoots around the multiverse unaware what’s behind the next portal the same way we click hyperlinks, open tabs or switch between windows.
It is also a cautionary tale, considers Rafman, “of what internet addiction has done to my unconscious”. It is a record of the way his head has processed all that clicking; it is a document of how the internet has remade him.
Jon Rafman is one of the five finalists of this year’s Sobey Art Award. His work will be on view in the Sobey Art Award Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 3, 2018 to February 10, 2019. The winner will be announced on November 14, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.