Explorer and wanderer: Mapping of Jon Rafman

by Paulina Brelińska

He wanted to tell important stories and he is using augmented reality to do it. By exploring the internet and using it as a research tool, Jon Rafman created something partly rational and definitely convincing. It is not surprising that he was selected for the curatorial concept of Ralph Rugoff. The reason why his art seems to be so strong, is the fact that it might be directed to Millennials – the next generation of collectors, according to Brian Boucher. The Canadian artist emphasizes the decadence of the upcoming future in general, but also shows how relevant nowadays technology is and how important might be for visual creators. And this tendency is already starting to be reflected on the global art market.

Jon Rafman, Disasters Under The Sun, 2019, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, Photo by: Avezzù, Rondinella, Galli, Salvi –  Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Tragic irony

As he admitted, his works – mainly video art – are based on tragic irony. Specialized techniques enable him to explore unknown environments of selected areas of the internet. The aesthetics of video game instead highlights the fictionality of Rafman’s films. We are faced to what seems to be an intro to the second life of the artist. His alter ego called Kool-Aid Man, like the popular mascot of an American drink, explores and interacts with imaginary and symbolic scenarios such as eccentric parties, taking drugs, acts of vandalism, wars, violence, drug or sex addiction, rape, social changes or even the apocalypse. “It is somehow a transition point between documentation and the process of self-discovery”, like Rafman once said. He also has admits that: “we’ve reached a point now, my generation, where we don’t even know if we are celebrating something, and saying its great and affirming it, or if we are engaging in an ironic critique and mocking it, we’ve almost collapsed the two.”

Real person and fictional character

Another key factor of his art is the fact that Rafman is not the only subject involved and this is crucial. In fact, Kool-Aid Man is a big red glass pitcher with a wide smile known for his catchphrase “Oh yeah!”. He became a pop culture mainstream for Americans and Canadians in the 80s and this is when Jon was growing up. In the original advertisement, he was the only part totally computer-generated which makes the artist’s decision more understandable when it comes to alter ego choice. At first glance, his artistic endeavors might be considered as a chaotic narrations, filled with random situations. The only thing which does not change is Jon’s alter ego as well as the monotonous voice of the narrator explaining the situation like in a mockumentary film. This can be found for example in A Man Digging (2013) in which a male voice explains the author’s internal needs, narrating it as if it is in the form of a secret diary.

Jon Rafman, Disasters Under The Sun, 2019, 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, Photo by: Avezzù, Rondinella, Galli, Salvi – Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Google Street View

Google street view has become an important tool for many creators. The never-ending base of new images allows artists to see the world impersonating the role of an investigator. This combined with the  atmosphere of Jon Rafman’s creations leads to the development of something that resembles a retro-thriller where Jon becomes a true detective of the 21st century. His most recognizable and ongoing project based on this concept is 9-eyes. What does Rafman show as the search results of this photo project? Men and women fights, skirmishes and other situations of crisis which catch his artistic attention. There are many situations, which might be captured by the photographs made by Google cameras, that’s for sure, but somehow there is no certainty regarding the outcome. 

Second Life as a tourist destination

Could Jon Rafman be identified as a nerd? According to the stereotype, that would be a person who does not break away from his computer. His virtual tours may suggest that indeed his attitude may have something to do with the classic nerd approach to the Internet and its technology. Even more nerdish is the fact that he is, to all effects, a tourist exploring the virtual world of Second Life . But the most interesting part of this journey is, in fact, the destination. What is his final goal when most of his time on the platform is more like free wandering? It might be assumed that his tours do not always have to bring definite results to be considered as satisfactory.

New discoveries, a mixture of architecture, landscapes and artifacts

The whole environment, which Rafman builds in his video creations, is based on visual eclecticism. It is a loosely defined mix of monuments, cultural references, conventions and approaches to life. This phenomenon can be seen as a consequence of globalization, mainly because it is increasingly difficult to create something original in the era of a global culture. Alternative reality remains a mix of images observed by the artist in the real world, and it is fundamentally interesting that his dreamworld is built from not-so-positive components when it comes to social situations, but this is extremely impressive when it comes to consider it as the heritage of our civilization.

Jon Rafman 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, Photo by:
Avezzù, Rondinella, Galli, Salvi – Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Dancing Avatar

Last but not least there is the fictional element. The balance between what is real and not real is clearly shaken in Rafman’s works. Elements of the two worlds alternate with each other. Thanks to this, the artist efficiently speaks about important problems and topics, although many situations are absurd anyway. Each of his videos is like an episode of a series, in which the absurd becomes rational. This element requires from the recipient many levels of interpretation. The dancing avatar from Kool-Aid Man is the example of the act of deep processing of 21st century symbols. Keep going Jon.