Phenomena: The Internet / Intra-actions: Surfing, Seeing and Feeling
The Internet, in the work of Jon Rafman, intra-acts as a source of cultural objects and dynamics, which he appropriates and then turns into apparatuses that, as I will argue below, re-think the Internet as a carrier of agencies of observation that constantly make and un-make social realities. Rafman's work is constantly referencing and speaking to these agencies of observation by indicating how they construct our reality in a strategic move similar to ethnographic cinema or film essay. Rafman has declared his admiration for this kind of cinema and he has been called the ethnographer of the Internet for the way he uses and works with images, videos and text from the Internet. However, whilst in the context of documentary film making these strategies can range from uncovering the cinema set in the film to direct allusions to the way of filming within the film itself , Rafman creates installations that make the body re-think its position towards an image – his installations reference, re-create and create, not just the sensory feelings, but also the anxieties generated by looking at a screen.
In 2016, he had a solo exhibition at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam titled Jon Rafman: I have ten thousand compound eyes and each is named suffering. The title comes from his video Erysichthon (2015) and it seems to allude to the insatiable need of seeing despite the ambiguous pleasure/pain this desire produces by referencing the myth of Erysichthon (in the myth, Erysichthon is punished with a hunger so insatiable that he eats himself). The title of this exhibition also recalls his work The Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008-ongoing), a series of images captured from Google Street View. The nine eyes refer to Google's hybrid electric automobiles equipped with nine cameras on a single pole for portraying the world. In his search, Rafman found more than contemporary landscapes: he encountered landscapes “interrupted” by people as well as weird situations that were not the priority of Google Street View. He was interested in how the automatic vision of Google could not avoid the presence of humanity, imperfection or weird and sometimes illegal situations. By pointing to these images, he also points to the agencies of observation of automatic vision and how reality gets real within or despite Google’s eyes.
For the exhibition at the Stedelijk, Rafman became the eyes and re-created the experience through his video and installation work. Since what was presented in the video was curated and edited by him, Rafman himself became a sort of Google-like artist. For me, Rafman's work, insofar as it consists of curating Internet culture and rendering it accessible via the art exhibition, fits with Google's aim “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Roubert 2010, 5) . As Artie Vierkant points out, “artists after the Internet thus take on a role more closely aligned to that of the interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect” (Vierkant 2010, 8). In this sense, Rafman’s aim is not pedagogic per se, rather he seeks to “constrain” the agencies of observation over certain areas of cultural context within the Internet. This strategy is similar to what Erin Manning and Brian Massumi call “enabling constraints”. Manning uses this term to define her own participatory installations in which she plays with mobile architectures: enabling constraints are “not about creating an ‘easy’ space, but about crafting an ease of entry into a complex environment itself always under modulation” (Manning 2015, 8). Even though Rafman’s installations are not mobile, they activate the Internet as a relational composition, and with the intention of “moving experience beyond the way it has a habit of taking” (Manning 2015, 7). For example, when Rafman makes the spectator watch a video through the hole in a massage chair, he is enabling constraints of vision and recalling the bodily experience of watching a screen.
In order to understand how he enables constraints and what that means, his video installations need to be understood as moving away from cinema-set style installations. Rafman's video installations are more like the “sculptural theatres” of Ryan Trecartin, although their works are radically different. As Michael Wang points out regarding Trecartin's sculptural theatre: “Medium translation loops back on itself (from digital to sculptural to digital)” (Wang 2015, 404). And something of a similar loop logic happens in Rafman's installations. For example, while watching and experiencing his work Still Life (Betamale) (2013), in which there is a fox sinking into mud in one of the videos, we sink into a ball pit. This is a mirroring effect that delves two aspects of the Internet that Rafman explores with his work. One is his interpretation of the ambivalent experience of surfing the Internet – something between a playground and hell, a theme that is repeated in many metaphors throughout his videos – for example: in scenes in which we see people dressed up and bound hand and foot, trying to move while a phone vibrates somewhere close by; or when we witness a washing machine self-destruct because it cannot stop spinning. The apparatus of the Internet is extended to the video installation as a discursive-material arrangement to suggest or to produce a body (the spectator's body) that feels “trapped but happy”, attracted but repulsed (Quaranta 2014).
Another aspect of post internet art, as revealed in Rafman’s work, is the unstable nature of any distinctions to be drawn between physical/real and digital/virtual. Rafman has pointed out his interest in creating “immersive aesthetic experiences” with his installations in order to question how the virtual and the real world intra-act  – a question that might have to do with the way he re-creates bedrooms, chairs or beds in a rather non-familiar way. In his installations, he creates environments and objects that resemble elements, colours or shapes that are closer to those belonging to the virtual world experience. Throughout his work Rafman, as mentioned above, reflects on the experience of feeling cosy but trapped in another reality as an Internet experience, and he seems to translate this through: chairs shaped to embrace the person; chairs used for massage; or a bedroom, in a ruined state, as if it were a relic from the past, and the only thing alive is the screen. This is not a game of representation, but a game of experiences, ways of seeing and feeling that disclose both the Internet as an apparatus that constructs not only reality but also the bodily attachments and dis-attachments we go through while on the Internet.
In Rafman's work, the Internet disappears to be replaced by the physical experience of the medium, it seeks to perform and extend what Marshall McLuhan called the “massage” of the human sensorium by a medium. Following Barad, Rafman’s artistic practice makes the object of observation, (in this case the Internet as exhibition object) disappear, replacing it with the activation and experimentation of those agencies of observation that derive from the medium. Thus, not only the discursive of his videos, but the installation of agencies of observation (through, for example, the placing of concrete apparatuses such as a swing-chair or a ball pit, as the context in which the spectator views the video), become both the material and discursive intra-actions of the Internet as object of observation and phenomena. His installations are a game of re-creation of the Internet, through the experiences, ways of seeing, feelings, etc. this same medium produces. The task here is not to make the Internet more intelligible as an apparatus but to ask what the effects of the Internet might be, as an experience. In that sense, the exhibition, as a space in which intra-actions materialise, is at the core of how Rafman's interpretation of the Internet as an ambivalent world comes to matter.