Jon Rafman

Text by Dean Kissick

Tank _vol 7issue 102

The Age Demanded #1 (2010) 

Montreal resident Jon Rafman is at the forefront of a new wave of internet artists and filmmakers from around the world. He’s best known for his tumblr blog The Nine Eyes of Google Street View – a collection of found photographs – and for his narrative films made in Second Life, and he has just finished a new film about professional video gamers. Rafman spoke to Dean Kissick via Skype about finding Shangri-La in a run-down Chinatown arcade, and finding ’20s Parisian café culture on the internet. 

Image courtesy the artist

Dean Kissick Why did you decide to make a piece about an arcade?
Jon Rafman It started about four years ago. I was hanging out at this arcade in Chicago, where I was going to college at the time, and I met this gamer who had reached a certain pinnacle in his short career that was so high – you’re at your best when you’re still in your teens, because your hand-eye co-ordination is at its peak – and from that moment on he lived in the past. I liked the idea of this character who was reminiscing about his glory days at the joystick, and I had always wanted to tell the story of the end of an era. So the film would be an elegy to the arcade era, and also to a person living in an age where everything is so accelerated that you can be outmoded when you’re still in your 20s.

Then I moved to New York and I discovered this arcade in Chinatown: just this little smelly hole in the wall, packed with teenagers, reeking with sweat and bad Chinese food, and all the machines were dilapidated. But at the back there were four new machines playing Street Fighter 4, with massive amounts of kids crowded around the machines, betting money and competing against each other. And it turns out it was considered the last great arcade on the east coast, and it’s where all the greatest east coast players emerged. I already wanted to tell the story and I had started playing around with it, and shooting stuff with actors, but when I found this place it was like, everything’s so much more real – my fantasy of this world didn’t even come close to the richness of the reality of it. Every day I’d go there and hang out at the arcade.

DK So what happened?
JR I learnt about one guy who was considered the first east coast champion: his name was Eddie Lee and he pioneered the New York style of gameplay, “turtle style”, an extremely defensive form of fighting where you just constantly run away. Anyway, he disappeared after a while, and everyone had different stories, but apparently he was picked up by these Wall Street types who thought that pro video gamers would make amazing day traders, because it requires the same skills: fast-paced decision-making and just going with your intuition; under- standing these limited rules and working within them, and working fast. So he became a day trader and made millions of dollars, and he hasn’t returned to the game. And everyone wants him to return, but he’s moved on. He was an inspiration for my film, which uses the interviews that I’ve shot at the arcade and “machinima” – basically, using video games to make movies – shot in Second Life. The whole movie takes place in Second Life, and the story’s told in a nostalgic voiceover from a character who was once a great video-game player, but is now thinking about his past, and whether anyone will actually remember him. Ultimately, gamers are not playing for money, so a huge part of it is playing for respect and having their legacy live on.

DK Did you have any filmic influences?
JR Structurally I’m most influenced by Chris Marker, who uses montage and found footage to weave together narratives.

DK I’ve heard that he uses Second Life himself, that he’s constructed his own virtual archipelago and museum.
JR I have a feeling he got help building that world, and he’s in his 80s now so I wonder whether he actually hangs out in Second Life. But he was one of the pioneers of interactive models of art back in the ’90s, and he very much embraces new technologies. I think he’s a modernist in a postmodern world, which is kind of how I feel. There’s this fragmentation that’s occurred, and it’s taken to new levels with the increasing amounts of information that we’re constantly processing every day, and as artists we need to confront that. There’s a sense of loss in Marker’s films, but it’s never nostalgic to the point of pure pessimism. His magnum opus, Sans Soleil, is all about in Japan in the ’80s, which was the most technologically and economically advanced culture of the time, so he’s definitely interested in the future as well as the past.

DK Are you nostalgic for the past?
JR Every generation migrates to a new centre, and I think the internet is the equivalent of Paris in the ’20s – with all the great expatriate writers from Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce to Gertrude Stein – or postwar New York. I can’t visit my friend’s studio, or meet in a café, but I can communicate through Skype, like with you right now. The “net art” community that I found online is who I’m in dialogue with, and they’re basically providing the inspiration and audience that is helping forge this new vernacular that is very much tied to the internet. You don’t have that tangible touch and physicality of hanging out in New York in the ’50s or Paris in the ’20s, but at the same time it’s way more international, and I’m able to reach way more people – it’s reflecting the modern experience, which is extremely tied down to the computer.

DK On that note, can you explain the process of exploring the world through Google Street View?
JR I’ll usually go to places that I really want to go in real life, or places that the Google cars are exploring at the moment, because often if there’s something crazy in these photographs it won’t have been caught or deleted yet. On the Street View website it tells you where the cars are at the moment – so right now, Romania and Brazil – and it’s great because they’re progressively moving towards the less developed countries, and those are often more exotic and less documented. For instance, I now have a far better understanding of the geography of a Brazilian favela than I ever did before. And when I first started, I would go on these marathon Street View runs where I would almost enter a trancelike state of just clicking and gathering and not stopping until I found an incredible image. §