Tumbling ungracefully into a ball pit filled with glistening orbs, might not feel like the beginning of a serious encounter with the dark side of digital life. Suspended on screens above the pit, ‘Still Life (Betamale)’ is a 5-minute trawl through Youtube and Reddit, gathering gyrating cosplayers, filthy computer stations, pseudo-philosophic voiceover and a mesmeric trance soundtrack. After a few minutes of watching and sinking deeper into the pearly mire, it’s surprisingly difficult to extricate oneself, both physically and mentally. It’s a viscous introduction to a solo exhibition that seems - on the surface - to be all about submerging, immersing and holding the viewer captive.
‘Mainsqueeze (Hug Sofa)’ is a perfect example. Viewers compress themselves into tight cushioned chairs in front of a video, in which a washing machine is violently spun to death, ‘drunk-shamed’ teens are defaced by biro, a 90s-era office worker assaults his desktop computer, and in a ghastly sequence, a woman strokes a lobster before crushing it callously with her heel. With antennae waving wildly, its exoskeleton shatters and viscera gloops out. Here is how Rafman’s videos work: an addictive medley of banal frivolity and abject horror.
Tackling the subject and adopting the tools of computer-constructed worlds is expected of Rafman, but here the corporeal is also markedly present - from the glutinous sounds of flesh and fluid to the close attention paid to the viewer’s embodied position. ‘Sticky Drama’, a music video created with London teens who enact a nightmarish game - brutal and revolting and ridiculous in equal parts - is projected in a mock-bedroom, neon snot daubed on the walls. Another video is surreptitiously contained in an MDF cupboard, with space for one person to squeeze in and close the door, invisible to the outside world. The conceit is less convincing in ‘Oh The Humanity! (Waterbed Teal)’ where a looping clip of a crowded Tokyo wave pool can only be seen by lying prostrate on a water bed. But even this proves a comfortably-numbing position and near impossible to escape. No artist has better recreated the stifling all-consumption of the computer game: the loss of awareness beyond basic motor responses, the dull thrill of completing a level or scoring a point, the giddy confusion when forced to return to the real world.
Reached through a simple maze of camouflage walls - interrupted by various transformed busts – ‘Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze)’ at the heart of the exhibition feels, in contrast to other works, quite gentle. Wearing an Oculus Rift headset, the viewer is transported via a slightly glitching 3D animation above the maze, into a stormy rainforest and towards a blinding light. The power to choose where to look is a given, but there are no options to physically move, manipulate elements within the environment, or receive sensory feedback beyond sound and vision. In other words, it’s a passive experience, an artwork that doesn’t play up the wild promises of the new technology.
In ‘Codes of Honor (Cockpit v3)’ a teenage Rafman stalks boyhood in game arcades and metaverses. “It took years of hard labour,” he comments on his top score. “Up, Down, A, A, B, Left, Right, A, B , Up, A, Down, Right, Right, Left, B …” At a moment when technologies like VR are on the cusp of commercial reality, and some are excited by its radical potential, Rafman reminds us that, in the end, all games are pre-programmed. Possibilities are limited.