Jon Rafman is a Canadian artist whose work explores shifting boundaries between the virtual and the real while acknowledging fading distinctions between the two. Here, he discusses his recent work and debut solo exhibition in an American museum. “Jon Rafman: The end of the end of the end” is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis from June 27 to August 10, 2014.
I BEGAN TO KNOW the fighting game community of New York while I was doing interviews for my 2011 film Codes of Honor, which is about a lone gamer recounting his past experiences in professional gaming. That work generally deals with a loss of history and the struggle to preserve tradition in a culture where the new sweeps away the old at a faster and faster pace. I saw the pro gamer as a contemporary tragic hero who strives for classic virtues in a hyperaccelerated age. The very thing the gamer attempts to master is constantly slipping away and becoming obsolete, which acutely reflects our contemporary condition.
When I held the pro gaming tournament at Zach Feuer in honor of the original Chinatown Fair arcade, which was the last great East Coast video arcade, it was as if the whole project had been leading up to that night. This was also true for the release on 4chan of my 2013 film Still Life (Betamale), a work that brings to light the darker fetishes of Internet subcultures—including furry fandom, kigurumi, and 8-bit anime. The community and the artist came face to face, and the reaction to the work was rich and varied. For instance, a 4chan user wrote:
this shit would have been cool in 2005 but you're on goddamn 4chan in 2013, one of the biggest sites for “SUCH A LOSER ;_;” people to ever browse the internet
someone didn't found out your dirty secret life and reveal it to everyone else
we've been doing it since the early/mid 2000's
it isn't special
get over it
Here the commenter is mocking my fetishization of these subcultures in classic 4chan style, while also revealing that sense that the moment you “discover” said culture it has already moved on. It also indirectly hints at the sublime feeling I every now and again experience when I'm surfing the Web and I suddenly discover a new community or fully formed subculture that has its own complex vocabulary and history. It’s this overwhelming sensation that there are subcultures within subcultures, worlds upon worlds upon worlds ad infinitum.
My earlier work is more romantic: There’s a flaneur-like gaze that crystallizes in the Google Street Views of Nine Eyes and the virtual safaris seen in the Kool-Aid Man in Second Life projects, for instance. As the Internet became a ubiquitous part of daily existence, I shared in the excitement of these new communities and was excited to explore the newly forming virtual worlds. Sometimes I see myself as a member of the community, but in many cases I approach the subcultures as if I were a passing explorer or an amateur anthropologist.
My latest videos and installations have a darker tone, delving into the murkier corners of the Web. What concerns me is the general sense of entrapment and isolation felt by many as social and political life becomes increasingly abstracted and experience dematerialized. There is no viable or compelling avenue for effecting change or emancipating consciousness, so the energy that once motivated revolution or critique gets redirected into strange and sometimes disturbing expressions.
I had planned to premiere my latest video, Mainsqueeze, in St. Louis for “The end of the end of the end,” but it was deemed too difficult and disturbing for the context of the exhibition. Some of the content, particularly the section with the “crush fetish,” in which a woman is depicted stepping on a live shellfish, is indeed difficult to watch. But I think the fetishes can evoke repressed desires as well as reveal latent societal tensions. There’s an underlying barbarism that can be found in daily life that I’m trying to capture. That said, I think the film is as beautiful and ironic, or postironic, as it is horrifying.
Currently, I’m developing a sculpture and installation series that has grown out of my intense interest in “troll caves,” which are the spaces inhabited by gamers during excessive hours in virtual reality. These spaces are actualized in a gallery environment and represent a borderland between the real and virtual. The troll caves contain a certain refined depravity that I find especially poignant today. They are at once abject and sublime spaces, revealing the material residue of a life completely dedicated to an online existence, and they point to the impossibility of total escape from physical reality.