The artist’s ongoing digital archaeology notches up a level as virtual reality takes baby steps into the art world
Jon Rafman’s digital travel adventures are now a few generations of technology deep. He first gained attention in 2008 when his “Kool Aid Man” avatar wandered “Second Life” with Rafman’s classic empathic yet ironic stance. Following shortly thereafter, Rafman’s iconic project “9-Eyes” highlighted manifold perspectives on humanity in shots captured worldwide by the Google Street View’s nine lens camera. Now the digital tech world has offered up it’s latest iteration of virtual reality with the Oculus Rift in creating an immersive 360 degree digital environment.
Represented by the Zach Feuer Gallery in New York, Jon’s installation ‘Junior Suite’ at the NADA art fair in Miami deepens his exploration of the relationship between the virtual and the real and the ever-blurring line between the two. This time, he directly overlays virtual space right on top of the real space of a Miami hotel room, and the audience is invited to occupy that space via the VR headset. Looking through the window of the balcony back into the room, it features a woman lying under the sheet of the bed in the hotel room and ‘Scarface’ playing on the virtual television. When you reach out to the glass in virtual space, you touch the real glass. Behind you, the hyper-saturated aquamarine blue of the ocean appears in pixel form. A short time into the experience, the virtual space explodes and tears apart around you into random geometries. The floor beneath you and the ocean disperse. Your disorienting virtual world is now a place of randomly generated, shrapnel-like abstraction and your brain thinks it’s real.
“I don’t know if it’s useful any more to talk about it as a clear dichotomy between the virtual and the real, as most of our lives are happening in front of screen. There’s just different levels of what the virtual is” – Jon Rafman
Less a digital meander than a move to come to terms with the possibilities of a direct fusion between virtual and real, "Junior Suite" represents a new level of virtual that transcends the traditional rectangular space of the screen. As Jon explains: “Film was the medium of the twentieth century, but it no longer occupies the same place. A similar kind of revolution in culture and experience that occurred alongside the advent of film and TV is now occurring in a comparable fashion with these new technologies. In this case, it reflects a longstanding desire for fully immersive experiences”
"Junior Suite" is the artist’s first piece to reflect on the new VR medium, which will emerge on the market next year with consumer headsets offering VR experiences, cinema, and games for the masses. “I question whether it is useful any more to talk about a clear dichotomy between the virtual and the real, as most of our lives are happening in front of a screen. Always a multi-faceted multi-levelled concept, the virtual is taking on new and different meanings in its relation to the real with these new technologies. What I am interested in is how our subjectivity as human beings has either been transformed, or the transformation in our subjectivity has been revealed, in these new virtual worlds.”
Jon insists that it’s his job as an artist to confront what is happening through both celebration and critique. “What does the Oculus Rift represent? It is, in part, a quest for totally immersive escapist environments. This concept of immersion can be seen as a sign of an impoverishment of our senses but at the same time the next step towards where our profound desires have taken us.” The role of science fiction and the literary origins of our existing and future tech world are well-documented. According to Jon, digital tech leaps like VR are simply a manifestation of long-evolving shifts in consciousness. “It’s interesting how there’s a serious lag. This stuff has been brewing now for decades. I noticed there’s a repetitive motif when talking to VR developers. ‘This is what I thought we would have already, and now it’s finally here.’ It’s clearly been a desire for decades now. It was there prior to William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984. And was articulated well in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash.”
“I’m always interested in new technologies, and not to diminish them, but when you get to work with them you sometimes get caught up with the gimmick” – Jon Rafman
Across town at the Design Miami / 2014 fair, the Miami-based scientific art group Coral Morphologic took a different approach to VR with their Oculus-based piece "Coral Therapy". In their virtual world, the 360 environment operates more like a deprivation chamber. Their stunning meditative experience features a psychedelic arrangement of fluorescent corals and sea anemones that work with a subtle ambient soundtrack to create an out-of-body experience. Coral’s Jared McKay explains: “We are bringing nature back into the future of technology. We reclaim and rescue coral that is endangered and bring it to artificial reefs or our coral laboratory. We grow them there and video them, so here we’ve used time-lapse photography to create this virtual experience.” As a pain-reduction device, the piece is designed for use in a broader therapeutic context. The group plans on releasing the artwork to the public when the Oculus headsets become available to consumers next year.
Hacker collective Ruse Laboratories also brought VR to Art Basel Miami Beach with their subversive “1st Annual Larry Gagosian Film Festival.” To an unaware Gagosian staff, audience members in Gagosian’s booth would put on the mobile VR headset for short bursts of time. Inside the VR world, they were greeted with a 3D replica of Gagosian’s art space. The paintings were swapped out digitally with crime-related films including Evolution of a Criminal (2014), Cocaine Cowboys (2006), F is for Fake (1973), and Hackers (1995). Their ALGO virtual reality glasses combine the immersive experience of VR with a custom satellite-based, geo-fencing algorithm that limits access to specific venues around the globe. “We believe that VR technology itself will soon be standardized, so the true magic is combining it with other powerful technologies, ideas, people, and places,” said Ruse Laboratories co-founder Benjamin Gleitzman.
In our tech-driven consumer culture, Jon has embarked on a form of digital anthropology where the public inevitably become absorbed into these new kinds of canvases. “I’m always interested in new technologies, and not to diminish them, but when you get to work with them you sometimes see people focus in on the novelty. I know this from working with Google Street View in “9-Eyes”. In any case, it becomes a part of the art. With “Junior Suite’”, the reaction that I get when people try the VR is, to me, as thrilling as creating the experience itself.”