The Refracting Eye
On Jon Rafman

(Originally published in Cura.)


An artificial eye scans the horizon. It looks like an immense marble, and occupies the entire screen. Nothing exists outside of it, and within it is refracted the vastness of an enigmatic, industrial world. We see distorted through its glassy gaze abstract representations of industrial wastelands, what appears to be a quarry that carves a black hole into the center of the earth; it anticipates a later image of a sinkhole in a body of water, as if the eye is gathering evidence. A tangle of wires also passes through, as do power lines and lightning in the dark sky. The sky is not night, but the darkness of industrial society in the process of reconstructing night and day as it pleases, lit only by artificial light. Electricity struggles to retain its natural power against denaturalization. Ambiguous, it can be seen as either entropic nature, or as clinically lab-cultivated. The blatant artifice of what is refracted argues that the manmade oblivion flashing before us is not an inevitable outcome of reality, but rather a dreamscape with a peculiar imagination. That the eye consumes the entire screen implies that what is objectively seen is changed by how it is seen.

This occurs in Erysichthon, a video by Jon Rafman that stakes a nearly libidinal theory about the parallel between the distracted experience of the contemporary imagerie, and the Greek myth of a man doomed to eternal hunger, who eventually devoured himself. It is rife with images of self-consuming things: a crystalline magnet being swallowed by magnetic liquid, an ouroboros in a kiddie pool, a cartoon of animals swallowing whole other animals, etc. The video examines vore, a new phenomena in which people want to be consumed as a reaction to social transparency, but the consolidation of self-consuming imagery also gives it the feel of a research or archival project. As such, it has the quality of a distorted manual for how to exist in society. To this end, an abstract concept of man in an office takes notes on the self-consuming magnet in particular, as if he may have something to learn from it. This scene imagines that our generic alienation is a platform for significant changes in human experience. Generally, Rafman’s protagonists are only partial objects, eyes and hands coordinating to analyze culture from a distance. This is a key into understanding Erysichthon, and Rafman’s project more generally: it argues that the hell-on-earth imagerie which is often lamented as nihilistic distraction or the end of experience, can truthfully be a basis for experience. This is confirmed in the video Open Heart Warrior, which proclaims that “your nightmares are the only way out.” The nightmare is not reality, but our contradictory fears and wishes about living in distraction. The sinkholes for instance can be perceived as an allegory for new progressive inwardness – radical thought following the unknown – or a statement on impending nihilism. They can be perceived as an effect of industrialization, or a magical yawning into a primordial abyss. They are probably both, with rational industrialization merely exacerbating age-old forms of society and its attendant symptoms. New technological inquiries are put to the service of completing ancient work instead of creating new work.

Ever since artists have taken up the internet as muse, it has been befuddled by opportunism and uncritical subordination to whatever materials the state provides. As new media art can often serve as promotion for the most recent forms of technological domination, it can appear as shameless prostitution. But the eagerness to sell oneself to the new is a radically new phenomenon. It leads one to believe that there is something about our alienation that is not the end of our freedom but a possible origin. What our net, and post-internet artists often portray is subjective isolation, paired with an accumulation of dead cultural history. The exegesis of found imagery has the feel of ridding itself of the inessential, implying that this is not about promoting reality as such, but rather exposing it as dream, to move beyond it. Rafman’s videos, for instance Remember Carthage, often feature a narrator attempting to reconstruct some memory to a stream of auditory consciousness, while found videos in the contemporary videogame parlance animate skulking glitches of humans sprawled across representations of urban wastelands. That humans appear out of place in these virtual wastelands asks the question, why have we constructed a world we are so uncomfortable in? That there is no humanity evident, and yet no visual experience could feel more truthful, may provide some answer. A monologue fantasizes “about being the last human on earth.” The acute artifice of the imagery positions cultural decay as by no means an objective or inevitable social reality, but instead both a fear and a wish. It exemplifies a subjective contradiction reflected by humans both at home, and uncomfortable in their nervous wandering. Rafman’s project is exemplary in not reinforcing virtual reality, but in submerging the expanse of visual culture into a mediated subjective realm. In doing so, our ephemeral dreamscape is made to appear eternal and primary. Its protest against reality is taking fleeting imagery more seriously than it takes itself, and by doing so it returns the detritus of contemporary imagery back into the shadowy sinkholes of speculation. The coexistence of an endless production of meaningless imagery with its opposite, speculation, creates a charged atmosphere that frames reality as a mere hypothesis. The most advanced technological means are used against themselves, and within a framework of primal disambiguation that questions, but does not do away with the original impulses of technological production.

This contemporary aporia, the fear and the hope of cultural decay, is expressed acutely via specific forms of aesthetic organization in time. The images and the narration invert their usual roles. Typically, a narrator leads the visual experience, often telling a story, suggesting that consciousness is somehow in control of reality. In Rafman’s videos, images often come first, the narrator struggling to make a coherent narrative. Consciousness desperately tries to keep up with production. The narrator’s is a disembodied voice, expressing the feeling of an artificial intelligence that uses, or occupies, images to spontaneously improvise whatever reality can be cobbled together. The voice speaks from beyond the screen, having no evident past and no assumed future. It seems like a mere viewing apparatus coming into life, usually spoken with a subtle, electronic warbling tone, as if the voice has nearly mastered the task of sounding human. But the mimesis remains incomplete, its perfection is also its blind spot. It hopes to exist as a thing in the world by virtue of it merely saying so. Our visual subject is free-associated, a half-conscious searching to build a story about itself that might sustain it in the reality of cultural production and decay that has so far done just fine without a humanity that intervenes in its own self-interest. The underdeveloped narrators, finding productive life in distraction, sound like amnesia patients who are shown random images by a psychologist who expect them to free-associate. But there is no psychologist; the amnesiacs themselves may run the asylum! Isolated and self-psychologizing, they proceed to quickly synthesize a story. But the activity of apperception changes reality in turn, contaminating the social imagerie with its radical unknowingness.

The crisis of subjectivity due to lapse of historical consciousness, paired with the accumulation of cultural imagery, represents a temporal aesthetic inquiry that is not so much broken or isolated as it is refracted. Rafman’s video works are of course investigations into imagery on a basic level, but more so investigations into how to question, via trying different experiments with organization. Although advanced, it pretends as though it were never developed to begin with, operating within primitive aesthetic impulses. The aesthetic organization is not ‘composed’ or determined in advance, but takes a more indeterminist course. The thinking viewer, learning to process images without an overriding structure (e.g security camera), becomes a producer by virtue of its mere existence: it is itself produced as a specialized material. The activity of looking has itself been made productive by late capitalism. Rafman’s is a practice that does not create new things, but rather allows things to filter through a transparent microcosm of speculative organization. Metaphorically, the creative process is not one of a closed skull that in turn virtuosically creates integral structures, but rather a dense glass ball that permits images to filter through, and change as they are refracted through it. Their intermingling is itself framed as a transformative process. The ensuing projections foster a distance that creates of reality a prismatic display of unfulfilled possibility, serving a similar purpose to zoetropes in the 19th century, in which spectators delight at discovering their own faculties of enchantment and disenchantment, but to no immediate end.

The videos aim to preserve the project of modern aesthetic alienation as a protest against postmodern immediacy. As such, the ruminating activity of Rafman’s videos focuses on the underdevelopment of subjective resources to distinguish between forms of artifice and forms of reality, suspended within the medium of rumination. No judgment of the past or future is staked, only a judgment on the present as a condition of possibility. The glassy eye that imperfectly filters reality is something of a crystal ball – images that once were, and things that haven’t yet come to pass – but viewed from a disenchanted perspective that what is seen is more so a projection of the present. This is the case even though images from the past accumulate, and the ideologies expected of artworks orient it somewhat towards the status quo claims of what must come to be. Regarding the former, Rafman’s developmental universe is rife with images from art history. The subject flicks through dozens of classical paintings, discontent with all of them, not because they are irrelevant – they take their rightful place alongside net imagery – but because they are too swiftly comprehended. There are incomplete hints of cultural taxonomy applied to different material: images of shorn animals, renaissance paintings, sinkholes. These are quickly abandoned, evincing dissatisfaction with the activity of classification as a means of organizing experience. The temporal fracture of their display results from the incompleteness of the visual faculty itself: the industrial society we see is under arrested development, but so too is the visual faculty that refracts culture a half-constructed social product. Representation mirrors crippled society only in its own shattered, imperfect forms, but in such a way that society's malfunctioning is made into an immersive and kaleidoscopic effect.

Nevertheless, erudition does not protect one from social experience that sanctions subjective incompleteness. The encyclopedic ability to spot and produce references on call, the visual literacy required to process multiple streams of scrolling texts, and a general facility for visual minutiae don’t add up to what they should. The simultaneous lack and overdevelopment of art historical knowledge exposes erudition for what it has become: trans-historical material within the imagerie that is suitable for scanning, and yet pathologically demands it, because it lacks historical momentum. Thousands of years of art historical development and technological production have finally converged, but it appears in our current society as mere anti-climax. Yet the convergence of crises in subjectivity with the accumulation of art historical knowledge is not nothing. Rafman’s projects ask not, what is it like to be alive today?, but rather, how can one construct subjectivity aesthetically? If Walter Benjamin considered humanity in capitalism to be what you hang your hat on, for Rafman, humanity is a scaffolding you hang your cultural history on.