Netartist Jon Rafman’s Kool-Aid Man avatar is one of his primary characters, taking appointments and leading tours through Second Life worlds both utopian and fetishistic, as well as starring in still images and films directed by Rafman himself, which humorously contrast the avatar’s round red body with the super-sexy alter egos more commonly seen in Second Life. He speaks with Lindsay Howard about his work. Featuring an original Kool Aid Man in Second Life video!
“People make crush art about you all the time, don’t they?” That’s the first question I asked Jon Rafman one month ago after he discovered I was embarking upon an ongoing multi-media performance inspired by his work. Our conversation provided my first hint into Rafman’s process. He wanted to know what I’d done between the time I left work and the time I arrived at home, the name of the office building, where my roommate was born, the details of my relationship to certain net artists, and a host of other very specific questions which I later saw as part of his process for, and reverence toward, the construction of one’s personal narrative. The truth, though he wouldn’t admit it, is that Jon Rafman is one of the net art community’s most respected and beloved figures. This prestige, it seems to me, relates to his ability to position himself in shamanistic roles, as director, storyteller, and tour guide, as the middle man exploring essential concepts of modernity/contemporary experience, and then processing and framing them into narratives. His work is concerned with virtual worlds, self-identity, and the collapse of high/low art. He is the artist/curator behind Googlestreetviews.com and the cartoonish internet flâneur directing tours through Second Life as Koolaidmaninsecondlife.com.
Rafman’s Kool-Aid Man avatar is one of his most primary characters, taking appointments and leading tours through Second Life worlds both utopian and fetishistic, as well as starring in a collection of stills and films directed by Rafman himself, which humorously contrast the avatar’s round red body against the super sexy alter egos much more commonly found in Second Life. The tours are primarily directed between virtual avatars, however Rafman also performs the tours live, inviting audience members to directly interact and inform the journey, as he subtly contextualizes and frames the experience. The Kool-Aid Man avatar, as it relates to Rafman’s body of work as a whole, is an externalized representation of Rafman’s honest and committed artistic struggle to construct and examine self in virtual culture.
When Rafman agreed to do this BOMB interview, our collaboration began with a series of ideas and links shared over g-chat conversations, emails, late-night video chats and Skype calls. We discussed constructing a short film inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s interview of Woody Allen or designing a text interview where every word or phrase hyperlinked to another obscure place on the web (à la the early papperad website). Ultimately, I confessed that my true intention for this interview was to reveal “the real” Jon Rafman. Our discussion over Skype (transcribed below) proposes that perhaps “revealing the real” is… well, I wouldn’t want to give away a story right at the very beginning.
Lindsay Howard Do you think about Kool-Aid Man as an extension of yourself? Is there an evolution there toward the fragmented virtual self and physical self? How are you considering that?
Jon Rafman I think underlying that question is the unease consisting of where, how, and what is my physical self when I am in a social relation in cyberspace.
The Kool-Aid Man avatar relies on me to exist. If I don’t log into Second Life, he is not out there somewhere in the world. He makes it clear to me that it is not necessary to have a computer chip implanted into your brain in order to become a man-machine. To fully connect physical existence with digital existence, it is not necessary to alter one’s body. Perhaps Kool-Aid Man is a cyborg in the fullest sense in that he is combination of computer programming and human agency.
Even more important is that the cyborg/avatar demonstrates there is no such thing as a pure physical self. What we take as the most fundamental aspects of self are mediated through the lens of culture. I don’t think identity is bound to our physical composition. How we feel and perceive ourselves, the roles we play are all socially mediated.
The internet includes social worlds in which an avatar is required in order to navigate and interact with other people. In these virtual worlds, be it Facebook or Second Life, our avatar is our social representative. What we choose reveals many ways in which our physical or ‘real’ self is constructed. So perhaps choosing an avatar makes manifest our fragmented and multiple selves.
Although, having an avatar in Second Life need not change your understanding of selfhood. After all, we are always inhabiting or sending forth avatars in our day-to-day lives. I definitely feel, however, that the way the internet is transforming how we construct our identities deserves more attention. I think the notion of even going on stage has changed with the many varied vehicles the web has provided us.
To me, what is even more important than a fragmented self is, how does this lack of physicality in interaction affect us? Like, what is the impact of the lack of the tangible touch?
LH I want to read a J.G. Ballard quote that I’ve seen you reference before:
“I believe that organic sex, body against body, skin area against skin area, is becoming no longer sufficient… What we’re getting is a whole new order of sexual fantasies, involving a different order of experiences, like car crashes, like traveling in jet aircraft, the whole overlay of new technologies…These things are beginning to reach into our lives and change the interior design of our sexual fantasies.”
I’m curious to know whether or not you agree with him, and how you’re thinking about this subject as it relates to your experiences in Second Life.
JR I agree to a certain extent. I definitely think that our engagement in cyberspace can be seen as an erotic act. An extreme metaphor and example for this is the fetish known as Vorarephilia, or “vore” for short. Vore is a condition wherein one is sexually aroused or obsessed with one living being devouring another. On one of my tours, I showed my friend, Matt Wiviott, a thriving Second Life vore community. Matt subsequently wrote a fascinating article in which he devotes some time to analyzing the fetish. He argues, and I totally agree with him, that despite vore being a marginal fetish in Second Life, it is helpful in understanding the nature of virtual existence and digital mediation.
The fetish can be compared to the desire to return to the womb. The desire to be consumed entirely, to be completely engulfed by a totalizing feminine body is fundamental to the desire to inhabit cyberspace. Making the voyage home into the womb and analogously the process of being swallowed alive is powerful metaphor for the process of fully immersing oneself on the internet.
The state of being in the womb, however, can be considered one of bliss, but also simultaneously one that very closely resembles death. Still, there is a strange comfort in this form of death. Like the cyborg, the act of losing oneself in cyberspace evokes both dread and desire simultaneously.
Technology has given us many new symbols to play with, and our fantasies are becoming more and more divorced from our physical bodies. But I think that, at the core, there are certain impulses and drives that have not changed and are simply expressing themselves in new ways.
LH I’m thinking about your internet experience and the different worlds that you inhabit on the web. I guess I’m thinking about them in terms of neighborhoods: there’s the Second Life world you inhabit, then there’s the net art community where you’re a social figure interacting with others and others are interacting with you, then there’s the accumulation of items from the deep internet that you bring to the social sphere through mediums like your del.icio.us, tumblr, or Facebook, and then you have your artist site, which essentially functions as a business card. How do you consider the relationship between these neighborhoods? What are your goals for each?
JR The initial joy at finding two successive virtual worlds to explore (Google Street View and Second Life) led inexorably to my critique of the real world in which we are trapped. At times I adopt the the role of a member of the community at other times I just re-frame what I find, if not so much in liberating us but in revealing the conditions of our enslavement.
LH Your work is often presented through the voice of an authoritative (if at times unreliable) narrator, whether you are giving a tour in Second Life, directing a film, writing an essay, or performing live. How did you find this role?
JR I was influenced by literary and essay models, but mostly I am drawn to exploring the relationship between memory and identity, both historical and personal. The mix of authority and the faultiness of memory has a particular pull.
Memory is both the basis and the confirmation of selfhood, but it is also unreliable. I am interested in how self-narratives are used to construct the self, but I am also struck by the variety of ways memory seeks the narrative form and fails.
LH Kool-Aid Man in Second Life necessitates a relationship with your audience, whereas with a lot of net art, or art in general, the audience doesn’t have to be so specific. How does the requirement of a participatory audience impact the way you consider and construct a story?
JR There is a more direct conversation going on with audiences and other artists because of the internet. I very much value the immediate feedback I get when I exhibit something online, post a video to my Arcade Hustla youtube channel, or give a tour in Second Life, compared to the endless waiting when submitting films to film festivals or grant applications to government agencies, etc. This new directness is energizing. I feel even more motivated to make work.
LH How do you see net art existing in the marketplace, and how do you reconcile that with your personal artistic goals?
JR Good question. I don’t really have an answer to that. In its original spirit, putting something up on the internet meant making it accessible to all which nonetheless raises the question of how the artist is to live.
I think that artists using any form, medium, or technique in its early infancy tend to be idealistic about it. Whether this is true or not, there is nonetheless the sense that new ground is being broken, and this imbues everything with a certain energy.
One likely path is that netart takes the same path as performance art: it will be assimilated into existing institutions. But like performance art, the issue of selling the work will be a touchy subject. Perhaps video and other sort of documentation of the work will be be sold, but I don’t know.
I also have the sense that a lot of the serious artists that are using the internet are very reluctant to call themselves “netartists,” and I understand why. The label carries baggage with it. There is a triviality that often is associated with the word “netart,” a certain feeling that netart is somehow reducible to either retro animated gifs or a certain kind of ironic kitschy humor or in-jokes that employ a mix of pop-cultural and obscure internet references.
LH Does the internet subvert the idea of a ‘master narrative’?
JR No, I think the master narrative was subverted way before the internet became popular. I think it had more to do with the failure of major ideologies.
But I also think that we live in one world and we are not so different from one another, and that a universal discourse exists. If I experience fragmentation due to being overwhelmed with data, it may well represent contemporary reality and consciousness. Perhaps our subjectivity changes over time, but it is ultimately part of our shared human history. We are narrative creatures. No matter what, we will create stories that have patterns and arcs and consist of a series of events that can be recounted.
Jon Rafman will be showing original work in a one-night-only group exhibition, titled Area/Zone, at Bruce High Quality Foundation University this Friday, July 9th at 7pm. On Saturday July 10th at 10pm, Rafman is performing Kool-Aid Man in Second Life at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg as part of the Game Play Festival. To schedule a guided tour of Second Life contact: koolaidmaninsecondlife [at] gmail [dot] com.
Lindsay Howard is an independent curator and researcher based in New York. She acts as the Curatorial Director of 319 Scholes, a Brooklyn gallery dedicated to promoting works at the intersection of art and technology. www.lindsayhoward.net