This essay was first published by IM1776 on 17th August 2021
A tumble-drier is dragged out into someone’s garden and filled with something heavy — a brick perhaps. After setting it spinning, a figure in a camouflage jacket and protective face visor retreats from the camera frame. Immediately the machine begins to shudder violently, and soon disintegrates as parts fly off onto the surrounding lawn.
This is the opening shot of Mainsqueeze, a 2014 video collage by the Canadian artist Jon Rafman. What comes after is no less unsettling: a young woman holds a small shellfish, stroking it affectionately, before placing it on the ground and crushing it slowly under her heel; an amateur bodybuilder, muscles straining grotesquely, splits a watermelon between his thighs.
Rafman, concerned about the social and existential impact of technology on contemporary life, discovered these and many other strange performances while obsessively trawling the subaltern corners of the internet — communities of trolls, pranksters and fetishists. The artist’s aim, however, isn’t to ridicule these characters as freaks: to the contrary, he maintains: “The more marginal, the more ephemeral the culture is, the more fleeting the object is… the more it can actually reflect and reveal ‘culture at large.’” What looks at first like a glimpse into the perverse fringes, is really meant to be a portrait of online culture in general: a fragmented world of niche identities and uneasy escapism, where humor and pleasure carry undercurrents of aggression and despair. With such an abundance of stimulation, it’s difficult to say where satisfaction ends and enslavement begins.
Even as we joke about the pathologies of online life, we often lose sight of the depressing arc the internet revolution has followed during the past decade. It’s impossible to know exactly what lies behind the playful tone of Twitter and the carefree images of Instagram, but judging by the personal stories we hear, there’s no shortage of addiction (to social media, porn, smartphones), identity crisis, and anxiety about being judged or exposed. It seems much of our online existence is now characterized by the same sense of hyper-alert boredom, claustrophobia and social estrangement that Rafman found at the margins of the internet years ago.
Indeed, the destructive impulses of Rafman’s trolls seem almost quaint by comparison to the shaming and malicious gossip we take for granted on social media. And whereas a plurality of outlooks and personalities was once the glory of the internet, today every conceivable subject, from art and sports to haircuts, food, and knitting, is reified as a divisive issue within a vast political metanarrative.
In somewhat of an ironic twist, last year, Rafman himself was dropped or suspended by numerous galleriesfollowing accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior, leveled through the anonymous Instagram account Surviving the Artworld (which publishes allegations of abusive behavior in the art industry). The accusers say they felt taken advantage of by the artist; Rafman insists that there was a misunderstanding. It’s always hard to know what to make of such cases, but that social media now serves as a mechanism for this kind of summary justice seems symptomatic of the social disintegration portrayed in works like Mainsqueeze.
Even if these accusations mark the end of Rafman’s career, his efforts to document online culture now seem more valuable than ever. His art gives us a way of thinking about the internet and its discontents that goes beyond manipulative social media algorithms, ideological debasement or the culture wars. The artist’s work shows the evolution of the virtual realm above all as a new chapter of human experience, seeking to represent the structures of feeling that made this world so enticing and, ultimately, troubled.
The first video by Rafman I came across reminded me of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Begun in 2008, the visionary Kool-Aid Man in Second Life consists of a series of tours through the virtual world platform Second Life, where users have designed a phantasmagorical array of settings in which their avatars can lead, as the name suggests, another life. In the video, our guide is Rafman’s own avatar, the famous Kool-Aid advertising mascot (a jug of red liquid with the weird rictus grin) — a protagonist that reminds us we’ve entered an era where, as Rafman puts it, “different symbols float around equally and free from the weight of history.” For the entire duration, Kool-Aid Man wanders around aimlessly in a surreal, artificial universe, sauntering in magical forests and across empty plains, through run-down cityscapes and futuristic metropolises, placidly observing nightclub dance floors, ancient temples, and the endless stages where the denizens of Second Life perform their sexual fantasies.
Kool-Aid Man in Second Life is best viewed against the backdrop of the great migration onto the internet which started in the mid-2000s, facilitated by emerging tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. For the great majority of people, this was when the internet ceased being merely a toolbox for particular tasks and became part of everyday life (the art world jargon for this was ‘post-internet’). The artwork can be seen as a celebration of the curiosity, fun, and boundless sense of possibility that accompanied this transition. Humanity was stepping en-masse out of the limits of physical space, and what it found was both trivial and sublime: a kitsch world of selfies and cute animal as well as effortless new forms of association and access to knowledge. The euphoric smile of Kool-Aid Man speaks to the birth of online mass culture as an innocent adventure.
Similar themes appear also in Rafman’s more famous (and ongoing) early work The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, in which the artist collects peculiar images captured by Google Maps’ vehicles. Scenes include a magnificent stag bounding down a coastal highway, a clown stepping into a minibus, a lone woman breastfeeding her child in a desolate landscape of dilapidated buildings. As in Rafman’s treatment of Second Life, such eclectic scenes are juxtaposed to portray the internet as an emotional voyage of discovery, marked by novel combinations of empathy and detachment, sincerity and irony, humour and desire. But in hindsight, no less striking than the spirit of wonder in these works are the ways they seem to anticipate the unravelling of online culture.
If there’s something ominous about the ornate dream palaces of Second Life, it comes from our intuition that the stimulation and belonging offered by this virtual community is also a measure of alienation. The internet gives us relations with people and things that have the detached simplicity of a game, which only become more appealing as we find niches offering social participation and identity. But inevitably, these ersatz lives become a form of compulsive retreat from the difficulties of the wider world and a source of personal and social tension. Rafman’s Second Life is a vivid metaphor for how virtual experience tempts us with the prospect of a weightless existence, one that can’t possibly be realised and must, ultimately, lead to resentment.
Equally prescient was Rafman’s emphasis on the breakdown of meaning, as words, images, and symbols of all kinds become unmoored from any stable context. Today, all ‘content’ presents itself much like the serendipitous scenes in The Nine-Eyes of Google Street View – an arbitrary jumble of trivial and profound, comic and tragic, impressions stripped of semantic coherence and flattened into passing flickers of stimulation. Symbols are no longer held firm in their meaning by clearly defined contexts where we might expect to find them, but can be endlessly mixed and refashioned in the course of online communication. This has been a great source of creativity, most obviously in the form of memes, but it has also produced neurosis. Today’s widespread sensitivity to the alleged violence concealed in language and representation, and the resulting desire to police expression, seems to reflect deep anxiety about a world where nothing has fixed significance.
These more ominous trends dominate the next phase of Rafman’s work, where we find pieces like Mainsqueeze. Here Rafman plunges us into the sordid underworld of the internet, a carnival of adolescent rebellion and perverse obsessions. A sequence of images showing a group of people passed-out drunk, one with the word “LOSER” scrawled on his forehead, captures the overall tone. In contrast to Rafman’s Second Life, where the diversity of the virtual realm could be encompassed by a single explorer, we now find insular and inaccessible communities, apparently basking in an angry sense of estrangement from the mainstream of culture. Their various transgressive gestures — swastikas, illicit porn, garish make-up — seem tinted with desperation, as though they’re more about finding boundaries than breaking them.
This portrayal of troll culture has some unsettling resonances with the boredom and anxiety of internet life today. According to Rafman himself, however, the wider relevance of these outcasts concerns their inability to confront the forces shaping their frustrated existence. Trapped in a numbing cycle of distraction, their subversive energy is channelled into escapist rituals rather than any kind of meaningful criticism of the society they seem to resent. Seen from this perspective, online life comes to resemble a form of unknowing servitude, a captive state unable to grasp the conditions of its own deprivation.
All of this points to the broader context which is always dimly present in Rafman’s work: the architecture of the virtual world itself through which Silicon Valley facilitated the great migration onto the internet over the past fifteen-odd year. In this respect, Rafman’s documentation of Second Life becomes even more interesting, since that platform really belonged to the pre-social media Cyberpunk era, which would make it a eulogy for the utopian ethos of the early internet, with its dreams of transcending the clutches of centralised authority. The power that would crush those dreams is represented, of course, by Rafman’s Google Street View’s car — the outrider of big tech on its endless mission to capitalise on all the information it can gather.
But how does this looming corporate presence relates to the disintegration of online culture traced by Rafman? The artist’s comments about misdirected critical potential suggest one depressing possibility: the internet is a power structure which sustains itself through our distraction, addiction and alienation. We might think of Huxley’s Brave New World, but with shitposting and doom-scrolling instead of the pleasure-drug soma. Rafman’s most recent animation work, Disaster under the Sun, seems to underscore this dystopian picture. We are given a God’s-eye perspective over a featureless grey landscape, where crowds of faceless human forms attack and merge into one another, their activities as frantic and vicious as they are lacking any apparent purpose.
It’s certainly true that the internet giants have gained immense wealth and power while overseeing the profound social and political dislocations of the last decade. But it’s also true that there are limits to how far they can benefit from anarchy. This, might explain why we are now seeing the emergence of something like a formal constitutional structure to govern the internet’s most popular platforms, such as with Facebook, whose Oversight Board now even provides a court of appeal for its users — but also Twitter, Google, and now PayPal. The consolidation of centralized authority over the internet resembles the closing of a frontier, as a once-lawless space of discovery, chaos and potential is settled and brought under official control.
Rafmans’ work allows us to grasp how this process of closure has also been a cultural and psychological one. We have seen how, in his art, the boundlessness of the virtual realm, and our freedom within it, are portrayed not just as a source of wonder but also of disorientation and insecurity. There have been plenty of indications that these feelings of flux have made people anxious to impose order, whether in the imagined form of conspiracy theories or by trying to enforce new norms and moral codes.
This isn’t to say that growing regulation will relax the tensions that have overtaken online culture. Given the divergence of identities and worldviews illustrated by Rafman’s depiction of the marginal internet, it seems highly unlikely that official authority can be impartial; drawing boundaries will involve taking sides and identifying who must be considered subversive. But all of this just emphasises that the revolutionary first chapter of internet life is drawing to a close. For better or worse, the particular spirit of discovery that marked the crossing of this frontier will never return.