The Old New Wave

Two Jon Rafman shows in Berlin suggest a return of post-internet amorality. Or that young people are tired of identity politics.

Jon Rafman, Counterfeit Poast, 2022. 4K stereo video, 23:39 min, film still.

One night in August, hundreds of fashion-goths in their early twenties gathered at Schinkel Pavilion, the Berlin kunstverein directed by Nina Pohl, for the release of a magazine collaboration between Instagram phenomenon The Opioid Crisis Lookbook and the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard.

Rarely have I seen so many chic young people in Berlin. Where did they come from? Everyone was in black, lots of hoodies, chains, heavy leather boots, long coats, and short skirts. The style is sexy and slightly morose, think Lara Croft meets Slytherin. Melgaard told a story about how at some point in the 00s he’d set someone’s head on fire at their own request. “Yeah, Brussels is a fucked-up place,” he said, by way of an explanation. It was a fun night.

The Opioid Crisis Lookbook celebrates the aesthetics of the drug-using community to say that although drugs are damaging to one’s life, there is some beauty, some togetherness in the lives that they affect, too. When I suggested a certain element of nihilism, founder Dustin Cauchi said he’d rather call it amorality. Regardless, combined with the throwback to Melgaard’s 00s death drive, the magazine’s internet-underbelly aesthetic speaks to the renewed relevance of a logic and (a)politics in art, which was, of course, never quite gone, but had waned in favour of other, more prominent tendencies. My guess is that the stylish people stood outside Schinkel that night would have been 16 when DIS curated the Berlin Biennial in 2016, and 14 when Beyoncé came out as a feminist. They do not remember post-internet art, and they’ve lived their whole conscious lives under the sign of identity politics, inside the paradigm that art is supposed to ‘do good’ (for society, the audience) and/or make the artist ‘feel good’ (as a practice of self-care or empowerment).

This backlash against the cruel first decade of the 21st century, embodied by artists like Melgaard and with Britney Spears as its sacrificial lamb, was orchestrated by traumatised millennials who are now in their thirties. For the young people it’s the lay of the land, not a hill to die on – certainly not something to make art about. And what’s more, it might seem to promote a brand of benevolence that is foreign, if not irrelevant, to the ruthless indifference of techno-capitalism as they experience it online. Like any corrective narrative, it reads as false once what was being corrected has been forgotten.

A few weeks later, Schinkel opened two exhibitions to further flesh out my hypothesis: Anna Uddenberg, whose selfie-mannequins were among the most emblematic works of that 2016 tombstone Biennial, and Jon Rafman, whose video-installations rose to prominence around 2010 and offer perhaps the most succinct illustration of what post-internet meant at its outset: the nascent historicisation of internet culture; the development of digital aesthetic self-consciousness; and, crucially to Rafman’s work, the possibility of web-nostalgia. That Rafman now has two solo exhibitions in the German capital – the other at his blue-chip representation Sprüth Magers – has been the subject of some light squabble in the scene in light of the #MeToo allegations issued against him in 2020. Does this mean that cancel culture is over? Even the pious millennials can’t bring themselves to care anymore. 

Melgaard was one of the early subjects of said culture when, in 2014, he was accused of racism over a remake of Allen Jones’s already controversial sculpture Chair (1969) for which he cast a Black woman instead of a white one in the titular role. His gallery Gavin Brown since released a statement which did not dispute the charge, but asked why the artist should not make work that is as ugly as the world we live in.“Our tragedy is so evident in our daily experience that Melgaard has nothing left to portray but society in its utter decay” – an argument which back then read as opaque, but now might offer a key as to the sentiment of Rafman’s work, too, and why it is garnering fresh appeal.

Jon Rafman, Punctured Sky, 2021. Installation view, Jon Rafman, Egregores & Grimoires, Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin 2022. Courtesy of the artist, Schinkel Pavillon og Sprüth Magers. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Punctured Sky (2021), the animated film work that opens Egregores & Grimoires at Schinkel, sets the tone for the ensemble. It is a classic Rafman tale, which follows the narrator in his search for a computer game played in his youth, but which seems, mysteriously, impossibly lost to history. There is no trace of it on the internet, and only an old friend, now abject and dying, has any memory of the countless hours poured into it.

Variations on this story have been told time and again across Rafman’s oeuvre. As early as 2002, the narrator in Ad-vice for a Prophet collects old television adverts in order to hold on to experiences he soon doesn’t know were ever actually his own. “I turned off the TV and let the wave of nostalgia wash over me,” he says. In You, the World and I (2010), another Rafman-esque first-person searches Google street view endlessly for a picture of a lost girlfriend.

In Counterfeit Poast (2022), on view at Sprüth Magers, a woman is likewise looking for confirmation that she is not crazy for remembering The Travelling Salesman, a filmdirected by Kevin Costner and starring Kevin Costner,” as she keeps saying in her slightly staccato computer-generated voice, which really does not seem to have existed. Another story in the same work tells of a man who gas-lit his girlfriend into thinking she never had a dog to avoid admitting that he had killed it.

So-called reality, in Rafman’s portrait, is something profoundly slippery and nebulous, and mediated experience is not the home or even the trigger for memories, but an outline of their absence. Perhaps this excessive repetition of the theme is designed to match Rafman’s cluttered fin-de-siècle aesthetic and the morbid sentiment he describes. Still, the point arrives somewhat ham-fisted the second, third, and fourth time around. All the same, the works are successful as a kind of pop: well-produced and well-written, engrossing and enjoyable.  

But what distinguishes Punctured Sky from the previous films is the mounting layers of nostalgia. Judging from the bulgier, shinier icons on the iPhone that appears in the video, and the narrator’s white MacBook, it is set about ten years ago, while the mysterious game in question was played ten years before that. If nostalgia can already be defined as a kind of missing unhinged from its source, at this point, then Rafman is nostalgic for nostalgia itself, and Punctured Sky is an infinity mirror for lostness. The subject of photography, as both Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag wrote, is always-already lost, making melancholy and nostalgia endemic to lens-based media. And so we might understand Rafman’s image-world as a type of immersive and self-generating ultra-photography in which the fact that the lens itself has largely been removed from the equation only adds a chill-factor.

Jon Rafman, Counterfeit Poast, 2022. 4K stereo video, 23:39 min, film still.

Romantic art was always fashion-adjacent and slightly cheesy; it was always popular, hollow, and repetitive, and always actively self-conscious of all those things. Whether one likes that genre or not, Romanticism is the most enduring aspect of Rafman’s art. Not so upstairs at Schinkel Pavilion, where Uddenberg exhibits a series of sculptures: furniture reminiscent of baby carriers, which are routinely activated by performers dressed up in diapers.

Riffing on the adult baby syndrome, a niche within sexual dominance and submission fetishes, the piece asks: do we use the furniture, or does it use us? But contrary to Rafman’s sentimentalism, and the genuinely disturbing world of Melgaard’s cancelled chair, if Uddenberg is signalling any kind of loss, it is the loss of distinction between people who are actually fetishists and people who just look like it on the internet – or dress like it for art openings. Certainly, no one is having their head lit on fire here. I make this point to emphasise the difference between a hollowness founded in loss – that is, the Romantic kind – and one founded in, what, actually? Satire? PR? 

Sprüth Magers presents a more recent formal development in Rafman’s work: images that were made by an algorithm that converts text into visual compositions, and which first appeared on the artist’s Instagram account, now printed onto canvasses and painted over with primer to achieve a semblance of the famously auratic brushstroke that certifies a painting. This self-aware addition of the naturally absent textural surface reminds the viewer that there is no reason for these pictures to exist as paintings, except, perhaps, to point to their own inadequacy as such – and that with such an ample hint of romantic longing, it’s almost cynical.

The new paintings show deformed blobs of flesh, a glitched-out child in his glitched-out room, a couple kissing in front of a mushroom cloud that also looks like an embryo, a group of bicycles disintegrating into a sickly orange atmosphere. Counterfeit Poast, on view in the adjacent room,  is generated by the same algorithm, and shows similar scenes ,at one moment sublime and the next repulsive, that make a more arresting impression as video projection than on the canvasses. Rafman’s characters are wrecked like Otto Dix’s Skat Players (1920)and uncannily human; their hair, acne scars, and bad teeth testify to all the tender fucked-upness that we share between us as a species. In this accumulation of image-waste, he has really found a rich visual language for the present.

Jon Rafman, Counterfeit Poast, Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin2022 © Jon Rafman Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers. Photo: Timo Ohler.

The underlying logic of these works is that the meeting of capitalism and network technologies has spawned an image production so profuse that any signification is superseded by the sheer fact of production itself. Of the ideas that circulated in the post-net discourse of the early 2010s, this was certainly among the more depressing: that every image, because it contains a million others to inflate and replace it, in itself is insignificant. And maybe the same goes for us? Human life, when seen through Rafman’s woeful stories, looks pitiably small and confused.

One widely held interpretation of the French collective Tiqqun’s notoriously puzzling Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (1999), wickedly popular in art circles after its release in English translation in 2012, was that taking control of her own image could afford the Young-Girl – entirely commodified, anyway – some agency; that is, that the selfie could be a tool for empowerment. This reading was applied to the work of artists such as Maja Malou Lyhse and Arvida Byström, as well as Amalia Ulman, whose Excellences and Perfections (2014) became the first Instagram performance to enter the collection of the Tate.

German artist Hito Steyerl issued another proposition in her work How Not to be Seen (2014), one also echoed by Zach Blas in his Facial Weaponisation Suite (2014), namely, that strategic defacement could help secure our privacy online and function as a kind of resistance to web-surveillance. Even though seemingly contradictory, the accellerationist Young-Girl and the masked hacker both suggest that when post-internet became feminist and activist, and thereby pulled towards art’s political turn in the second half of that decade, it did so on the assumption that images matter, and that their production could be controlled. 

By contrast, in Rafman’s work we are being defaced by despotic algorithms all the same, and left to roam the expansive image realm like Frankenstein’s monster in search of our own humanity. Here is a bleak existentially laden question as to the value of the image-agency so ferociously fought for by millennials, that privacy so stubbornly protected by Steyerl et al. What do we need it for? he seems to ask. And I wonder if the Gen Zers out there are not nodding their heads in affirmation. The activist turn of recent years might just have come to an end with two fairly botched German mega-exhibitions this summer, and as it does, the convoluted optimism that fuelled it is becoming increasingly clear.

Millennials may have been battered by the brutal libertarianism of the 00s, but we did grow up believing that images are actions, and actions have consequences. But on that point, the chic hordes of the new generation know – as Rafman, less than chic, always seems to have known – that they just are just feeding an insatiable beast. It is in such a context that Rafman’s worlds, beautiful,  gross, and ruined as they are, seem to be able to resonate all over again.

Jon Rafman, Counterfeit Poast, 2022. 4K stereo video, 23:39 min, film still.

– Jon Rafman, Counterfeit Poast, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, until 17 November; Jon Rafman, Egregores & Grimoire, Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin, until 31 December.