As Fact and 180 Studios present the Canadian artist’s new film Minor Daemon: Volume 1, we look back on his explorations of reality in the digital age, from excursions into Second Life and Google Street View to a 3D-animated dream journal.
In Jon Rafman’s latest film, Minor Daemon: Volume 1, two young men who share an extraordinary gift for virtual reality gaming attempt to secure their freedom from a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape. The feature-length film, showing at London’s 180 Studios until 25 March 2023, pulls together many of threads that the Canadian artist has been exploring throughout his career – online communities, identity, the increasingly thin boundaries between the digital and physical worlds – and tells a story that drills into the anxieties surrounding our fast-moving technological present.
Rafman first came to prominence in the late ‘00s with two ongoing works: Kool-Aid Man in Second Life and Nine Eyes of Google Street View. In the first, Rafman would conduct live guided tours in the online world of Second Life through the avatar of a soft drink mascot, contrasting the absurd character with the often overtly sexualised alter egos many participants would create for themselves. In the second, Rafman trawled the vast database of Google Street View (then a new venture for Google) for strange vignettes, accentuating the odd glitches that transpire when images are stitched together.
In both of these formative works, Rafman acts as a digital flaneur, wandering around the strange corners of cyberspace to document our strange new reality – a role he has played ever since, archiving the digital detritus of the modern web. “When I’m surfing Google Street View or exploring Second Life, the narrative impulse is always there,” Rafman said in a 2009 interview. “An underlying theme or goal is a constant search for artistic tools and methods that best represent or reveal modern experience. So I look for ideas and inspiration from those who also struggle to represent their experience of modernity, whatever the time period or era. In fact, I believe the different generations or time periods that have been termed modern are more similar than different. I mean, be it Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages or the contemporary artist Cory Arcangel, the artist has searched for how to represent and critically examine the present.”
In recent years, Rafman has continued to push the boundaries of digital art with a host of challenging narrative works such as Dream Journal, a feature-length film soundtracked by Oneohtrix Point Never and Andy Morin that explores the effects of technology and information overload on the contemporary psyche. Last month, he provided the album cover for Lil Yachty’s new album Let’s Start Here, which plays with the nightmarish aesthetic of AI-generated imagery. As we are bombarded with art created by AI tools such as Midjourney, Rafman’s early work feels particularly relevant to our present situation, showing us not just the deepest, darkest corners of the web, but an early indicator of what would ultimately become mainstream digital culture.
Caution: Some of these videos contain NSFW content
Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2008-2011)
Second Life, launched in 2003, was one of the earliest examples of what would now be classed as a ‘metaverse’, a digital space where all forms of high and low culture collide. By conducting tours in this digital domain, Rafman acknowledged its role not simply as a video game, but an extension of human creativity. “It’s not so much the amateur technologies themselves that inspire me, but what amateurs are doing with these technologies, what they are using the technologies to create,” Rafman said in 2009. “I just love looking at stuff that people have created without the intention of it being called art. I mean, stuff that is made by people semi-naively, by people who are simply excited to create things.”
Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008-ongoing)
Rafman’s exploration of Google Street View, an archival project that came to be known as Nine Eyes of Google Street View (named after the nine lenses on the 360-degree camera used to capture the images), can be seen as a search for a more honest representation of the world than traditional photography can offer. Horses wander streets, people fall off bikes, suspects are apprehended and a farmer chases his sheep. “In Street View, I first believed I had found a more truthful and more transparent world because of the seemingly unbiased and neutral way in which reality was photographed,” Rafman said in 2009.
You, The World, And I (2010)
You, The World, And I can be read as a companion piece to Nine Eyes, in which the narrator attempts to recapture memories of his lost love by trawling Google Street View for chance images of her. “That Google Street View image began to replace all other memories of her,” the narrator says. In the end, the original image disappears, presumably overwritten as Google periodically updates its image database – a reminder that even in an age of technological permanence, the internet is an ephemeral place.
Remember Carthage (2013)
As Rafman’s experiments with narrative filmmaking evolved, so did his source material. While You, The World, And I created a haunting collage from Google Maps, Remember Carthage constructs a documentary-style narrative with footage from Second Life and PlayStation 3-era video games. Imbued with a sense of loneliness and isolation, the narrator’s commentary recounts a search for an abandoned resort in Tunisia, unable to determine ancient remains of the site from their reproductions – an idea mirrored in the fictionalised culture depicted in the digital footage.
Named after Erisichthon of Thessalay, a gluttonous king from Greek mythology who was cursed with an insatiable hunger, this film concluded part of a trilogy of works that includes Still Life (Betamale) (2013) and Mainsqueeze (2014), films that studied niche internet culture such as cosplayers and hentai pornography enthusiasts. ERYSICHTHON‘s subject is the infinite loop of user-generated content – a reference perhaps to the Greek king, who eventually consumed himself.
Sticky Drama (2015)
Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2015 album Garden of Delete was initially teased through an alternate reality game, which hid arcane lore about a fictional ‘hypergrunge’ band called Kaoss Edge and an acne-afflicted humanoid alien called Ezra amongst PDFs, MIDI files, a fake label profile on SoundCloud and an obscure Blogspot scattered via hyperlinks across the web. This was expanded on in the video for standout track ‘Sticky Drama’, a grossed-out tale of teenage cyberpunk LARPers that plays on the gamified aspect of the Garden of Delete backstory.
Dream Journal (2016-2019)
Rafman’s latest work, Minor Daemon, wasn’t the first to dive headfirst into full 3D animation. Dream Journal (2016-2019), spawned from Rafman’s practice of animating his dreams using 3D software, and turned into a feature-length animated film that explores the psychological effects of technology and information overload. Its absurdist landscapes and vaporwave soundtrack (provided by Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro and Death Grips’ Andy Morin) play out like a fever dream, with a visual style that recalls the slew of cheaply-made, algorithm-baiting kids content that flooded YouTube during the same period. From our current perspective, Rafman’s work can sometimes look dated – but together it creates a historical document of our strange and ever-changing digital reality.
Punctured Sky (2021)
Punctured Sky is the strange tale of a video game designer trapped by his ex-lover in the game they were designing together. Structured like a point-and-click adventure game, the film has its origin in a personal story of Rafman’s, in which an old friend tells him he can’t find any mention of a video game they used to play with each other after school called Punctured Sky. Subjective reality is a common thread in Rafman’s work, but in Punctured Sky it takes on a personal dimension, of a reality reconfigured by the broken memories of someone else.
Minor Daemon is showing at 180 Studios until 25 March 2023. Tickets are available now from the 180 The Strand website.
The presentation at 180 Studios coincides with a solo exhibition of Jon Rafman’s work at Sprüth Magers, London (3 February – 25 March 2023).
Jon Rafman: Minor Daemon
180 The Strand, London, WC2R 1EA
2 February – 25 March 2023
10am – 7pm, Wednesday – Sunday
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