Jon Rafman has always been an artist with one foot in the Internet and the other in reality. Past works have ranged from his Kool-Aid Man avatar, wandering around Second Life, to his Nine Eyes project, which utilized Google image search to create a new picture of our new physical world. His latest solo show at the Zabludowicz Collection perfectly showcased that overlap between IRL, URL and fantasy. The exhibition was a blend of video and installation, VR work and 3D film. At the centre of it all was a new commissioned film, Sticky Drama.
The video developed out of Rafman’s Gchat conversations with musician Daniel Lopatin. Linking his own interest in “the signs and symbols and tropes and aesthetics of live action role-play” with the character-led narrative universe Lopatin’s created for his Oneohtrix Point Never project, Rafman agreed to produce a non-traditional music video. The result is a faux children’s TV drama of violently warring groups that also brings to life one of the most obvious things in modern culture: our festishistic relationship with computers and technology.
The story roughly centres on a fictitious kid with molten-lava acne who is infected by a virus while hanging out at the musician’s studio. “[Lapotin’s] album is a lot about puberty and the transformation that occurs,” Rafman explains. “These changes are violent and scary on one level, but I think they also point towards a creative transformation.” Similar pre-teen and teen cultural influences feed into the artist’s wider practice—‘80s and ‘90s kids adventure movies like The Goonies, the vastness of a universe like Tolkein’s.
Part of what makes the film unique is its aesthetic. The costumes, created by MA students at the Royal Academy, are refreshingly inventive. The film itself appears to be treated with an acidic metal affect, and sections of the film are framed by a faux computer screen. The aim was to reference retro TV as well as “the compression that occurs when something is regrammed a million times on Instragram,” Rafman explains. “I wanted a unique look that spoke to the past and the present.”
Here technology fuses with the organic. Slime and goo are one of the running motifs: it covers the lumpy, Tamagotchi-like pets (complete with digital screens on their stomachs) that drive the loose narrative. There is something almost sexually obsessive about the relationship between the children and their slime-covered alien toys, as when a boy passionately kisses his toy while lying in bed. (The tech-sex reference emerges in a number of Rafman’s recent films, which similarly focus on online fetish scenes).
“Puberty is a lot about bursts of the sexual. Dealing with the loss of innocence and moving into a world filled with taboos. I think what I like about slime and goo is that is has an attractive and a repulsive quality to it. There is something sensual and sensuous about goo, but it can also be revolting and gross. I like it when things contain those opposites together,” Rafman says. “That occurs also in the claustrophobia and the womb-like comfort you experience in my video installations.”
The soundtrack by Onehtrix Point Never, with one foot in avant-garde experimentation and the other in accessible pop, is a large part of what makes the work so successful. “It has no traditional verse-chorus structure, but at the same time, it almost could be a Britney Spears pop song or attached to a horror movie,” Rafman considers.
When the film was first presented, aspects of the work were installed as installation pieces in the Zabludowicz Collection space. One of the central characters in the film is a young girl, situated in a bedroom not unlike the room in which Johnny Depp was murdered in A Nightmare on Elm Street. There, a lumpy Tamagotchi alien moves around a physical maze (which also features in a VR piece based in the space). “I wanted to create a completely immersive experience in which the screens themselves and the videos in the screens were both portals into different worlds,” he enthuses. “The film imbues things with an aura, a kind of uncanny-ness. I wanted there to be the sense of the moving between the screen and the real.”
Jon Rafman (Canadian, b. 1981) is an artist who lives and works in Montreal. He is represented by Seventeen Gallery, London; Future Gallery, Berlin; and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York. After a groundbreaking recent solo show at Zabludowicz Collection, London, he will exhibit at Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, in February, and at Carl Kostyál, Stockholm, from 7 April.
Francesca Gavin is Editor-at-Large of KALEIDOSCOPE. A curator and writer based between Berlin and London, she is currently the co-curator of the Historical Section of Manifesta 11, opening in June.
Stills: Sticky Drama, 2015, by Jon Rafman and Daniel Lopatin.
Installation views: Jon Rafman at Zabludowicz Collection, London. Photo credit: Thierry Bal.