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Jon Rafman's Second Life art

The digital adventurer on art in the age of the infinite and creator of Kool-Aid Man

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

The first time Jon Rafman gained serious online art attention was within the confines of Second Life. Rafman created Kool-Aid Man, an avatar based on the sweet pink drink’s brand icon who melancholically travelled the virtual landscape’s far reaches. It gained a sizeable following but was nothing compared with the subsequent 9-Eyes, a project which captured the strange, disturbing and marvellous things falling under the lens of Google Street View cameras. The response got the cyberflâneur international museum shows in places that ranged from Moscow to Provence. When spaces like Palais de Tokyo and the New Museum pushed their online art wings, Rafman’s work (created in collaboration with artist Rosa Aiello) was their first port of call. On the eve of his first major New York solo show at Zach Feuer Gallery this September, Rafman talks about blurring the lines between real and virtual space. 

Dazed Digital: A lot of your current work references art history. why?

Jon Rafman: Growing up, my own artistic influences came mostly from cinema, comic books and literature. I didn’t have a background in art history. So in one sense Brand New Paint Job, in which I wrap 3D objects in canonised modernist paintings, became a way to engage in the history of art in a personal way. 

DD: How are you choosing the artworks you use to wrap models with?

Jon Rafman: There’s no specific formula. The work from the BNPJ series emerges out of a conversation between the underlying structure and the surface or skin of the 3D model. There’s an ambiguity that happens in the clash that is not simply about obscuring the distinction between high and low art. A new meaning is created that is akin to a marriage as the form and content merge.  

DD: One plus one is three?

Jon Rafman: Or what is evoked is not the same as the sum of the two parts. Sometimes marriages between paintings and objects or environments work and sometimes they don’t, but it’s hard to pinpoint why. Often I only realise in retrospect why it was successful.

DD: Many of the 3D spaces you work with are interiors. It’s an interesting play on public and private space, or online and offline space.

Jon Rafman: The BNPJ interiors started off as a play on interior design chic. Historically, the greatest fear of the painter was that his work would become design objects. Now it’s common for contemporary artists to take inspiration from commercial visual culture. The design of a Nike cross trainer or a Samsung monitor is as important to contemporary art practice as intense light and dark shadows are to baroque painting. I’m exploring the line between art and design, in which a great work of art can be reduced to a shrinkwrap or add-on surface and functional objects and spaces elevated to the purposelessness of artwork. I’m interested in those forced marriages. 

Our Twitter, our emails and our social-media identities are a huge part of how we conceive ourselves and how we interact today. In a very real way, the virtual bleeds into the real

DD: You’ve begun to create your simulated realities in real spaces. Why did you decide to do that?

Jon Rafman: The move from the simulated into the real, from the virtual into the physical, is a goal I’ve focused on for several years. Initially, making internet-based art was a great way to distribute my work to those who shared my excitement about the emerging online cultural languages. But now that my practice has been digital for many years and so many of the people I knew online have become part of the art world, many of us are facing this challenge of how to translate the digital to the real, because the art world is still so dependent on physical objects as a form of communicative currency. For me, the worst approach is to just stick a computer in a gallery and say ‘interact’. The beauty of art that exists online is that particular feeling you get finding something for the first time, surfing alone late at night. In a gallery that sense of intimacy and discovery is lost. 
So when you translate the work into a physical space, something new happens. But you have to accept that the work has changed in a fundamental way. The digital version of Brand New Paint Job plays with the imaginary, with historical ideals and unattainable design fantasies; whereas the physical incarnation is immersive: it makes you forget the artwork while you’re inside of it.

DD: a total artwork?

Jon Rafman: Yes, and there are both negative and positive aspects to this quest for the ‘total artwork’. I fear this increasing desire for an immersive experience is a result of the impoverishment of our imagination. Sometimes I wonder whether in the past a painting hanging on a wall had the same power as an immersive 3D installation does now.

Your concept of reality gets very fuzzy In a real environment when you’re aware of its digital version. Actually, the first time that I made one of these immersive BNPJ rooms, people posted online, ‘Whoa, you’ve really got amazing at 3D rendering Jon. It looks so real!’ Perhaps that indirectly reflects how much our virtual lives have become blurred with our real lives. Our Twitter, our emails and our social-media identities are a huge part of how we conceive ourselves and how we interact today. In a very real way, the virtual bleeds into the real.

DD: 9-Eyes and Kool-Aid Man addressed the idea of landscapes. What do you like about that idea?

Jon Rafman: It comes down to seeing myself as an online explorer wandering an endless virtual expanse. I’m trying to draw a historical line with the great explorers of the age of discovery and the romantics’ connection to landscape. I believe in the romantic quest for truth and I value the connection to the world. But the experience of the sublime – being totally, truly connected with nature – seems lost. At least in these virtual online environments, in the way you’re trapped in the screen. You can’t go anywhere you want. On another level there is a sense of the infinite, because the internet is so massive it’s impossible to even conceive how vast it is. I have the same feeling when trying to conceive of all of Google Street View. Never before has anyone tried to capture the whole world from the street perspective. There is a vastness that points to the sublime. Second Life is a whole world that’s been constructed by users, and it’s constantly evolving and changing – even though there’s a melancholy because it never achieved the utopian or mainstream success it was striving for. In all these projects I’m asking whether contemporary man can experience that sublime in virtual or video-game environments.

DD: I love the idea of Kool-Aid Man being the contemporary version of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a man on top of a mountain in Switzerland...

Jon Rafman: Yes! I see my Kool-Aid Man avatar as a contemporary representation of the 19th century explorer. Not in a pastiche or a postmodern way, but in a very genuine way. Kool-Aid Man was my alter ego in search of the sublime in the online world of Second Life.

DD: What interests you about the idea of surveillance brought up by 9-Eyes?

Jon Rafman: In many of my Street View images, you can see the variety of reactions people have to the passing Google camera. Some stick up their middle finger, others try to hide, but many wave smiling at the camera, clearly excited by the idea of being captured on Google Street View. There is a mild feeling of celebrity attached to this culture of surveillance. It represents a new type of surveillance very different from the totalitarian version depicted in books like 1984. The technology of Google Street View is for the most part accepted by this society of spectacle; as with tools like Facebook or Twitter, people participate in the sharing of their private lives and find a great deal of meaning in it.

DD: In a lot of your work there’s a narrative or voiceover. What draws you to that?

Jon Rafman: I’ve always been interested in the anonymous first-person narrator. It suits the content of a video game. This is particularly true of first-person shooter video games: you’re alone, and you’re trapped in the mind and body of this character. I’m also attracted to the essay form, in which one person tries out a statement and sees if it works. From the writings of Montaigne to the films of Chris Marker there’s this notion of an anonymous character who’s not necessarily reliable. I may be pulling from my own experiences and, in a way, it is likely to be an exaggerated version of one of my neuroses. Or one of my obsessions. It’s a good way to hone in on some sickness that exists in our culture, to observe it expressed in myself and to thoroughly investigate it from a subjective perspective.