Jon Rafman may not be a mystic, but he believes in the mysteries of the deep internet. He’s an obsessive Googler and a frequenter of online forums—the kind of user who searches and searches, until there’s no stone left unturned, no search result left unseen. That mindset, he told me by phone recently, is more related to Renaissance and medieval ideas that it may initially seem. “There’s so much information and codes out there that, if you were, I don’t know, some wise man who goes into the mountains with your PC and internet connection, you probably could find a secret code for the universe with this stuff,” the video artist and sculptor said with a chuckle.
Rafman, who is normally based in Montreal, was speaking from Madrid, where he was overseeing the installation of a new video installation at the Teatro Real. The video appeared in April as part of the set for a production of Alberto Ginastera’s opera Bomarzo (1966), which focuses on a hunchbacked man who is poisoned and, in his dying moments, reflects on his insecurities. “He’s promised immortality, but at the same time, he hates himself and has a really fraught relationship to his self-image,” Rafman said. “My interest in trolls, beta-male characters—I felt there was a deep analogy between [them and] this psychological portrayal of this individual, and I brought that to the table.”
Like many of Rafman’s videos, it relies on computer-generated landscapes, and it goes to very strange places. Using animation software and video game footage, Rafman reconstructed Italy’s Bomarzo Gardens, which feature an entrance shaped like a gaping mouth, and created what the artist calls a “Tron-like environment.” He did this all while working on two projects for New York—a sculpture of a “speculative food chain” made for the High Line, and an immersive video installation commissioned by the Frieze art fair that premieres at its New York edition today.
For Rafman, whose videos and sculptures ponder an internet packed with disturbing, violent, erotic, and sometimes beautiful images, these are all works about immersion. “In an age of Attention Deficit Disorder, there’s a sense in which immersion speaks on a critical level to what is a required to completely encompass a viewer,” he said. “With virtual reality, you’re blindfolded. With IMAX theaters, you might have vibrating chairs. . . . I’m reflecting a time in which one needs to almost arrest the viewer in a violent way.”
“And then,” he said, “there’s the work on the High Line, which is another kind of immersive experience.” This was a joke, of course, because the High Line sculpture, which is part of a show called “Mutations,” features a ring of animals—an androgynous human, a snake, a horse, a dog—that appear to swallow each other, their mouths opened unnaturally wide to take in each other’s bodies. Based on an online fetish subculture known as voraphilia (“vore,” for short), in which people swallow objects whole, the sculpture is about “consuming and being consumed.”
“There’s something sensual about devouring and being devoured, but at the same time, it’s violent,” Rafman said. “It’s not like being ripped apart. It’s being swallowed.” The work, which is titled L’Avalée des avalés (The Swallower Swallowed), 2017, might be “similar to something you’d find in an old Soviet playground.”
Consumption is also the subject of Dream Journal, his Frieze project, an hour-long video with a soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro, who are two of Rafman’s favorite musicians. For nearly a year, Rafman has been posting excerpts of the digitally animated video on his Instagram—a sequence that includes clips of two children sucking on a cow’s udder and a girl whose eyes pop out of her head, among other scenes.
At first, the work was based on erotic dreams, but Rafman later shifted the video to focus on his dreams in general. “There’s different characters, and they [live in] a dream world,” he said. “It’s an impossible and long narrative—I don’t think anyone will be able to follow [it]—but there is a story . . . It uses a very primitive animation software, but with it, you can respond really quickly, like the way that the internet responds to culture and politics.”
One day, Rafman hopes to “penetrate mainstream culture” with Dream Journal, possibly by getting television networks to air pieces of it as interstitials. For now, he said, he’s comfortable with how freeform it is. “It can go in any direction and follow any logic, and it can be really spontaneous and responsive to something that’s happening right now in culture,” Rafman said. “It’s ambiguous and esoteric. It uses the language of the internet, of 4chan communities, but in a way that’s honest and true to them.”