Thursday, July 03, 2014

An interview with Jon Rafman, digital artist

This article first appeared in ContemporArt in January, 2013, in Italian. I have dug up the original draft, in English, and reposted it here following my interview with Rafman in November, 2012. I'm posting it here after getting a note that his latest exhibition opened at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Hoping it comes to Rome, too!

It may be one of the most ambitious corporate projects of the Internet era: mapping the entire planet street-by-street, alley-by-alley. This has been the goal at Google since 2007 when it launched Google Street View for select cities in the United States. Today, a fleet of Street View cars equipped with a boom-like camera circle the globe capturing a 360-degree street-level perspective of even the streets you’d never dare venture down. Their exploration will feed one of the most heavily used mobile apps on the planet: Google Maps. When the Street View drivers are finished circumnavigating the world, they will start all over again, driving around the entire planet, photographing as they go, street-by-street, alley-by-alley.

It’s debatable whether Google will ever make a dime off such a time-consuming venture. No matter. It’s become a public good -- it keeps us from getting lost. It is also the inspiration for one of the digital art world’s best-traveled exhibitions in recent years: Jon Rafman’s “9-Eyes,” which rolled into Rome’s MACRO Testaccio this Fall after an extended stint at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

To be sure, Rafman’s 9-Eyes is as determined an effort as Google Street View. Fascinated by the idea Google would attempt to photograph and index every shop, house, and apartment block on the planet (and all the characters who live on the street below), Rafman started his own exploration, retracing their route. Clicking through the world of Street View for hours and days on end, he went in search of the fascinating amid mundane shots of street life.

What he found has startled gallery-goers for more than two years. One screen-grab image (pictured above) he pulled from Street View shows a toddler who was abandoned outside a Gucci shop in Taipei crawling with determination and purpose, destination unknown. Another is a scene of sheer panic: neighbors rushing to the scene of a fire in a residential neighborhood in St. Catherine, Ontario. And then there is the oddly poignant,, like one shot that would move even the most  hard-to-impress Roman: a completely desolate Altare della Patria save for a lone gladiator holding his helmet as if pondering his next battle.

ContemporArt spoke to the 30-year-old Rafman last month via Skype to discuss his inspiration behind the project and what he thought of the future of digital art. He was back in his hometown, Montreal. For a change. “I lived in Rome all summer. I did at residency at the MACRO, and became friends with the curators. That’s how 9-Eyes came to Rome. It was a last-minute addition,” he explained.

There are only a few of Rafman’s prints at the MACRO. Luckily for those of us in Italy, they are many of the ones that have been discussed, debated and dissected on Internet discussion forums. The reception to 9 Eyes has been as intense on Reddit, the popular online discussion forum favored by the Net’s cognoscenti, as it has in leading art publications and in down-market London tabloids who were obsessed with the voyeuristic element of it. “The tabloids treated the exhibition more like a sensational human interest story, while the more sophisticated publications treated it on a much more enlightened level,” he said, touching on the implications of what this means for the future of digital as an art form.

Rafman seemed genuinely impressed by the level of discourse from all sides. “I didn’t realize how much of a nerve this was to going to hit when I started the project. I knew, to myself, that there was something really special here, but I do have to say I’m surprised by the level of interest, and how varied it’s been.”

Rafman got the idea for 9 Eyes in 2008 at the height of his interest in the movement that had him previously exploring, for example, some of the more fetishistic parts of Second Life, a virtual world where users adopt super-sexual avatars and fantastic digital personae to represent themselves. “It was almost a space that was more real than the real world because it exhibited its own artificiality,” he said of the experience there.

Second Life may be passé today, but the compulsive “Internet surf culture” that dominated this world is alive and well in what Rafman tried to achieve with 9 Eyes -- a reference to the 9 camera lenses mounted to the top of the Google Street View car.

“And it’s snowballed from there,” he said.2008, that’s a long time in Internet years.”

9 Eyes has been now shown across Europe, North America and Asia. It’s turned Rafman into a global traveler, enabling him to see in person the same streets of far-away cities that he had first explored from his desk in Google Street View. This is something truly unique to our shrunken Web 2.0 world, he says. “When you go to a place for the first time after you’ve already visited it, it creates a completely different aura to that place.”

Another unique aspect of his work is the thorny issue of ownership. Technically, the images are all Google’s. Rafman just curates the best pieces. Google, he says, has kept its distance from 9 Eyes. The search engine giant does not try to put the brakes on Rafman’s ever evolving artistic treatment of its intellectual property. Rafman, for his part, says he is just paying homage to Google’s adventurous spirit and to the art it creates every day for Street View.

“Never before in human history has anyone tried to photograph the entire world from a human experience,” Rafman remarks. “Not only once, but continuously. That is still inconceivable to me. That is the inspiration for me, the fact that it is an activity that is practically endless. Technically, 9 Eyes will never end.”

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