Calling from Canada

Calling From Canada: Virtual Reality Bites

“Maybe the Internet is for me what Paris in the 20s was for Joyce, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein or New York in 50s was for Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.” — Jon Rafman

Canadian new media artist Jon Rafman may be best known for his Google Street View project and his clever and poignant web art series Brand New Paint Job, in which recognizable 3D objects (and entire rooms and scenes more recently) appear to be wrapped in famous paintings as though the paintings themselves were wrapping paper. Because of the easy, crude techniques used to produce some web art, along with its reproducibility and disregard for the original copy (but we’ll leave that Pandora’s box for another post!), web or net art is still finding its sea legs in the fine art world. However, as a conversation with Rafman maintains, and as his live virtual tour project Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (see promo video here) in particular reveals, these conceptual works are as relevant as art gets today: they arise from our decentralized Internet age and draw attention to how contemporary subject formation is increasingly co-constitutive of the virtual, the actual, and the real.

Jon Rafman, "Kool-Aid Man in Second Life," installation view, 2010. Courtesy the author.

I caught Rafman’s presentation of a live virtual tour of Second Life as it was delivered to an audience at Montreal performance venue, Il Motore. The presentation, which has happened in numerous cities now (and received much press), entails Rafman’s live navigation of Second Life with his avatar, Kool-Aid Man, as in The Kool-Aid Man — that exaggeratedly large jug of toxic-colored “drink” whose weird deep-voiced proclamations of oh yeah! and penchant for jumping through brick walls you may remember from marking commercial breaks on Saturday morning cartoons in the eighties. According to Rafman, Kool-Aid Man is identified with a specific demographic, one which grew up before the Internet age. Kool-Aid Man also represents an empty signifier from the decade that defined excess: “you can inscribe whatever you want onto Kool-Aid Man.” Much like Second Life itself, the reappropriation of Kool-Aid Man here, is both a source of ironic humor and a place for self-conscious critique: what is he and what does he represent, if anything?


Rafman refers to the project as “virtual ethnography.” The tours are interesting as anthropological studies and sociological vignettes into today’s subcultures too. Rafman’s Kool-Aid Man mingles with furries, medieval fetishist avatars, and every kind of kitsch reference imaginable in Second Life. Teleporting from one NSFW scene to another, audiences don’t know whether to mock what they see or take it seriously. After all, behind each avatar and each fabricated scene in the virtual online world exists a human being, probably on a home computer or in a cubicle at an office. Hypothetically, you and I could sign up to Second Life any time and navigate in the privacy of our own homes, but Rafman’s virtual tours’ re-presentation of this phenomenon occurs in a special context: a public group setting. The group setting pushes people’s understanding of Second Life. The audience amplifies the social awkwardness, self-consciousness, and curiosity of the themes explored in Second Life, leading one to wonder, how real is virtual reality? At one point an audience member sitting by me referred to the “fake fantasy: we were exploring on Second Life tour, to which Rafman retorted, “But it is real. I mean, this is actually happening.”

According to Rafman, it is the live navigation of Second Life that constitutes “the performance,” which goes down something more like an experiential, group lecture that favors extroverted participants. It is Rafman who navigates Kool-Aid Man; however, he asks attendees for their input on what to do, where to go, and what to say to other avatars while perusing the program. Like a physical tour with an informed tour guide, Rafman invites the audience to ask questions throughout the tour. During the performance, we stumbled upon virtual parties, orgies, dystopian wastelands, and the most bizarre social encounters occurring between other avatars. Rafman warned us, “if you can imagine it, it exists in Second Life.” At one point, another avatar even discovered that Rafman was giving a virtual tour of Second Life to our group and allowed us to interview him. He also told us about some cool places to check out in Second Life and teleported with us to a few of them. Chance and improvisation are the opportune words in this performance.  Neither Rafman nor the audience knows what will happen when the artist logs in Kool-Aid Man. What ensues for sixty or so minutes raises myriad questions that deal with how we live and where agency lies in virtual reality — can the web, and a virtual game specifically, have agency?

If Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, in which he postulates the agency of objects, is extended to include the net and the web, then living online with different and various selves – through Second Life and other social networking programs and applications – is to be given more credence. Latour states:

For the thing we are looking at is not a human thing, nor is it an inhuman thing. It offers, rather a continuous passage, a commerce, an interchange, between what humans inscribe in it and what it prescribes to humans […] What should it be called neither object nor subject. An instituted object, quasi-object, quasi-subject, a thing that possesses body and soul indissociably.

This is the very philosophical stuff we’re grappling with in our digital era now, and that art is being made to draw some of these connections together. To provokingly represent them through recontextualization is exciting to me.

With net art gaining popularity, it is becoming clearer that virtual reality cannot be reduced to being phony nor fake, insofar that it is happening; it occurs, it occurs in the virtual realm, and the virtual folds into the actual, although sometimes through subtler manifestations. Take, for example, how virtual-reality has been experimented with in healing burn victims in physiotherapy; the victim watches an ice cold scene on a screen which in turn, actually lowers his or her body temperature. In this case, the incorporeal event is virtual and actual (in the actual is changed because of the virtual). Too heady yet? Bear with me. This idea stems from philosopher Constantin V. Boundas’s idea that “the virtual is the real that has not yet been actualized.” In the realm of Facebook and avatars, subjectivity is the constitution of dynamically constructed virtual and actual aspects creating reality as we know it. Fifty years ago, this notion would be some far-out scene in a Kubrick flick. But Rafman’s recontextualization and presentation of one aspect of the virtual web world brings it home.