Flitting from one image to another, between different fragments of information and imagery, the experience of Jon Rafman’s exhibition at Seventeen was somehow analogous to our everyday use of the Internet. The films and other works presented in ‘A Man Digging’ plunge into different histories and roam around virtual worlds, shifting from quasi-anachronistic to cutting-edge technologies, from a tactile experience to a perusal of flat-screen monitors. Rafman’s imperfect digital worlds encapsulate violence, destruction and melancholy, yet also seductiveness and beauty.
The Montreal-based artist has been producing videos for ten years, but employing the techniques of video-games and the online virtual world Second Life for making these works is a recent departure. Rafman does this by actually playing a video-game that is simultaneously recorded; he later edits it, adding sound and a voice-over. In the resulting works, these virtual platforms are an encounter between romanticism and artificiality – even moments of rapt contemplation become disturbing.
In the Realms of Gold (2012) opens with a pastoral landscape, which is rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a camouflaged soldier. He seems to lack autonomy, unable to exit this rural environment. This inability to escape the ‘real world’ is also evident in the 14-minute Remember Carthage (2012–13), in which the narrator travels back in time, trying to locate an uninhabited ‘resort’ in the Sahara desert. His journey remains unresolved. An uncanny feeling is instilled by the narrator’s descriptions: he seems somehow familiar with these places, such as a Tunisian marketplace, even though he has never visited them before. Unlike the video-games – with their fulfillment of desires and multiple choices – that provide the sources for these works, in Rafman’s films there is no possibility of autonomy. Real and virtual worlds collapse in on each other, until one comes to seem much like the other.
Rafman sees himself as an artist-archivist, attempting to contribute to the cataloguing of history: ‘Framing my own experiences to create my own archive that is aesthetic […] but not necessarily rational.’ This recalls Mark Leckey’s influential performance-lecture Mark Leckey in the Long Tail (2009), which traced the recent history of communication technologies while trying to locate the tangibility of digital information storage on the Internet. Leckey came full circle by returning to two towers of computers, implying that we always seek material form – however outmoded – for information.
Rafman’s subversive archiving gestures are present in two new works, Nine Eyes of Google Street View Microfiche Archive and Annals of Time Lost Microfiche Archive (both 2013), in which he has transferred images from Google Street View onto quasi-obsolete microfiche readers. These works evolved from an earlier project based upon enlarged Google Street View images. Another archiving gesture employs schematic drawings from online artist communities layered over fragmented digital images of paintings taken from The National Gallery’s collection, printed on chiffon and presented on an architectural blueprint display rack. As with the microfiche readers, Rafman here seeks to set aside the dichotomy between technologies, displaying the latest technology hung on a classic method of archival storage.
These pieces reflect Rafman’s aim, which he has described as ‘to eliminate the dichotomy between technologies’. Critical of real and virtual worlds, the artist sees both as limited and deterministic. Whether heavily programmed or controlled by socio-political structures, for Rafman neither world offers greater freedom. By including historical references in his virtual works, he always emphasizes the ‘real world’ origins of digital products. He also raises awareness about the continuous change in how we view, perceive and store images due to technological change. Rafman’s traversing of online and offline platforms allows him to intervene in the past, but also the future. His attempt to archive digital content might be, however, ultimately Sisyphean.