You Are Standing in an Open Field: Memory, Loss, and Digital Immortality

“As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are looking into eternity,” proclaims a video installation in Jon Rafman’s You Are Standing In An Open Field, “You do not move your eyes from the screen. You have become invisible.”

Melting into the narrator, we—the viewers, the voyeurs—find ourselves growing transparent, our anime innards displayed and flayed on the screen. We become aware of the ways in which our identities are fluid, our histories negotiable. Our darkest fantasies reveal themselves. The things we have created have outlived us, have become us, as our on-screen avatar drifts in an immense, fluctuating universe. The systems of memory we have generated now exceed us, creating worlds whose hyper-reality we can never truly inhabit.

Explorations of the capacity and potentiality of memory are not foreign to the artistic sphere; Marcel Proust examined the sensations related to involuntary memory in his meditation on the dreamlike nature of recollection (In Search of Lost Time). Michel de Certeau wrote that “memory is a sort of anti-museum; it is not localizable. Fragments of it come out in legends. Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps” (108). Virginia Woolf mused about memory as a capricious seamstress of the movements of the world (Orlando). In Rafman’s exhibition at Zach Feuer Gallery, his footprints overlap with many of these philosophical forebears as he delves into the verisimilitudes of memory as a personal cache within both human and digital systems. With several of his pieces, Rafman, personifying a kind of digital flâneur, has displaced the isolation of impossible virtual fantasy, contorted it, and deposited it within the white gallery space. Memory and nostalgia are given pedestals and plaques, commemorating the deviant, the proud, the fetishistic, the desperate, the disturbing and the hopeful. Pieces to shock and pieces to lull the viewer into a dreamlike state are carefully juxtaposed. Rafman skillfully maps the gallery as a space to engage with histories existing simultaneously and eternally, susceptible to many possible personal and collective realities.

Jon Rafman, a Canadian artist, has crafted an artistic heritage out of the collective interwoven virtual experience. Fascinated by notions of digital technology’s impact on memory and consciousness, he now channels these interests into an obsessive treatise on the fluidity of perception. Each of the pieces in the exhibition holds a key to his amorphous thesis, unlocking fragments of experience, maniacal eroticism, or occasionally startling intimacy.

Rife with the kind of sexual fetishism most often confined to dark corners and shameful obsessions, an online world populated by furries in bondage gear and disproportionate girls performing household chores in wide-eyed anime masks, the opening video installation entitled Still Life (BETAMALE) explores a voyeuristic online fantasy world, equal parts fascinating and macabre. “Whenever a shift in your spiritual life occurs, fragments such as these surface,” a disembodied female voice intones, accompanied by images of the disturbing and the profound. Crafted carefully from snatches of YouTube channels and Tumblrs, this piece explores the nature of subjective memory; reality is entwined with virtuality until an unsettling collage occurs.

In many of Rafman’s artistic remembrances is an assumption of humanity’s eventual ends; I am Alone but Not Lonely leads the viewer into a crumbling, dust-covered corner of the gallery—a relic of a teenage gamer basement room which, without the presence of the viewer, seems necessarily apocalyptic, a Pompeii for the modern age, frozen just post-disaster. Two bright videos playing on separate TV monitors with usable headphones are the only thing not covered by the grey soot that presumably follows human annihilation.

On a small chest of drawers, action figures are placed alongside reproductions of historically important artistic and archeological objects (including the Venus of Willendorf), all homogenized by the same dark metallic grey patina. A tombstone-like doormat of a plaque at the entrance to the central gallery remembers the names of deceased shopping malls in engraved block letters. Three different colored busts perch on one wall, each head contorted or disfigured beyond human recognition. Half-lives led online leave traces very different from the archeological sites of the past; no longer can a traditional stone structure hold the archival material generated by this era. These pieces all shout the question: which objects will this age be remembered by?

                 A Man Digging, the final video in the journey of the exhibition, immerses the viewer in another video game universe. Fragments of machinima caught pre- or post- climactic battle hang forlornly as virtual architectures spotted with dead video game bodies balance precariously between action and temporary death. These moments deny the traditional game structure—the Hero’s journey leading up to eventual conquest—but retain something true to life itself. “I know that memory is not a tool for exploring the past, but a medium,” intones the narrator, our disembodied avatar. “It is the medium of experience, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried.”

With A Man Digging, Rafman has created a reality out of a virtuality; he has reversed the common equation to find unsensationally poignant moments amid the worlds we have constructed to prevent us fully inhabiting our own. He has foiled our master evasion, enabling us to reflect our own unreliable humanity back onto the screen, creating a visible loop, all of our vulgarities and hidden ugliness revealed, our tenderness on display as much as our isolation.

“One afternoon I traveled back to the edge of my memory,” the narrator of A Man Digging pronounces, “This was the far edge of the real.” With this exhibition, Rafman asks the subtle yet obvious questions: What is lost, found, and lost again in the vast, seething archive of real and virtual experience? Emerging from a murky past into an unknown future, what is to be remembered, and how?

Upon exiting the gallery, we notice again the large rack of colorful video game cases we wandered by but failed to examine on the way in. All of the cases are empty.

Works Cited/Consulted

Certeau, Michel De. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. Print.

Proust, Marcel, C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D. J. Enright. In Search of Lost Time. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

Rafman, Jon, and Oneohtrix Point Never (Track Still Life). Still Life (BETAMALE). 2013. Video. Zach Feuer Gallery. Rafman, Jon. A Man Digging. 2013. Video. Zach Feuer Gallery.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando; a Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. Print.


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