Jon Rafman: A Man Digging
Seventeen Gallery, London
29 May - 27 July 2013
Review by Marianne Templeton
Spatial metaphors have been used to explain and visualise internet processes since the technology’s earliest incarnations in the 1960s. Ranging from the banal (site; portal; window; archive) to the once-futuristic, now hackneyed (digital frontier; information superhighway; cyberspace), these metaphors are now entrenched in the popular consciousness. Yet the naturalisation of these terms obscures their function as ideological constructs that helped shape the development of internet technologies, by defining their surrounding discourse, projected uses and power dynamics.
Jon Rafman draws forth the constructed nature of spatial metaphors by re-applying notions of the frontier, highway, landscape and archive to online content and systems in literal or uncanny ways. Like any dedicated cyberflâneur, Rafman rejects the familiar information pathways generated by applications and search engine shortcuts. He is interested in modes of mapping, but not direct routes or predetermined destinations. The internet developed (and continues to develop) without guidelines: not exactly organically, but erratically and unevenly. Rafman’s works mirrors this growth, privileging the search over the result.
‘A Man Digging’ brings together several components of Rafman’s recent practice, including a print and bust from the series ‘New Age Demanded’; several moving image works; a reworking of ongoing photographic series ‘The Nine Eyes of Google Street View’ as a microfiche archive; and a selection of works entitled ‘Annals of Time Lost’ in which online-sourced imagery is overlaid onto display media, including a blueprint hanger, a canvas, and a flatscreen television. This latter work contrasts an abundance of visual content’today’s online experience is still largely optical’with linear schematics of virtual reality equipment that recall science fiction’s promises of full sensory engagement: cyberspace in real space. Rafman juxtaposes the enthusiasm of mid-1990s net art with the sense of banality and lost opportunity that dampens contemporary attitudes towards the internet.
In ‘Remember Carthage’ and ‘A Man Digging’, Rafman reanimates the notion of the Internet Explorer by launching expeditions into desolate, digitally-rendered landscapes compiled from video game footage. The foregrounding of background content is unsettling: the scenery is visually rich but lacking focus, and therefore hard to remember. The narration’ruminations on the nature of reality, fragmented time, and the difficulties of becoming truly lost’and slow, panning movement of the clips are hypnotic, capturing one’s attention with an endless flow of imagery but without the pauses or varied pacing that allow it to be processed. The internet itself also possesses this glut of non-hierarchical data. Different forms of cognition are required to cope in the virtual world: as memory is outsourced and uploaded, the relevance of remembering information is replaced with the need to know where information is stored and how to access it.
Rafmans’s digital digressions are not social exercises, though they do reference channels of online communication and content sharing, and the communal memories formed during video gaming. Instead, Rafman reasserts the validity of individual experience and the importance of personal decision-making at a time increasingly characterised by frictionless sharing, big data analysis and the social networking mantra that life is automatically richer as a collective experience.