Where form meets function

So-called “Web Art” has taken quite some time to develop credibility as a genre, largely due to the fact that at first glance, much of it looks like the work of an aspiring 3D graphic artist – the type of thing that makes “The Sims” look Pixar-sophisticated. Jon Rafman’s new piece Woods of Arcady, however, plays directly off of these preconceptions, and creates a precise statement on the interaction of daily life and technology.

– by Adrian Pellicia

The aesthetic characteristics of web art straddle a fine line between fodder for cynical derision and genuine nostalgia for a recently bygone era of Internet culture. The crude, low-res renderings from early and not-so-recent video games that serve as source material for much of this new school are often ascribed an imagined mythology that heightens the fantastical distinction between real and virtual worlds. It’s strange to see a supposedly ancient statue in this imagined state, where a worn down stone surface is simply a repetitive and weakly rendered skin.

Jon Rafman, who studied literature, philosophy, and cinema with the intention of becoming a filmmaker, presents a new way of thinking about these mythologies in Woods of Arcady (2010). His previous work (which includes funny, insightful tours of Second Life hosted by the Kool Aid Man and surprisingly poignant Google Streetview captures [], has dealt explicitly with our daily communications in real and imagined web-worlds; Arcady examines what it is about those worlds that holds our attention so well in the first place.

Woods of Arcady is a takes a virtual tour through a fictional city of statues and ruins, unimpeded by the presence of human beings. The video is set to William Butler Yeats’ Song of the Happy Shepherd, a poem that immediately seems to be at odds with the visual accompaniment, due largely to the high-low culture contrast. Each verse is read in a mechanically distorted voice, with accents obscured by a heavy layer of audio rendering. In the context of this imagery, the poem itself is repurposed as a sort of eulogy to an imagined past; an age of virtual-lives and graphics rendered obsolete by the passage of time.

It could be that Rafman hopes to leave Woods of Arcady as a symbolic testament to the testament to an early era of virtual reality – or it could be that Rafman is, in fact hoping only to create a tension between the work of someone like Yeats and that of someone using relatively obsolete technology.

Yeats’ shepherd says: “The kings of the old time are dead / The wandering earth herself may be / Only a sudden flaming word / In clanging space a moment heard / Troubling the endless reverie.” As these icons continue on their infinite loops, the world that created them is in the process of remaking itself, and in developing the technological capabilities to create more realistic virtual realities – they, in turn, are made obsolete relics of a bygone era, whose “wandering earth” may be nothing more than a bit of server space in a warehouse somewhere.

In interviews, Rafman has mentioned the degree to which he is drawn to the unbridled excitement for creation that he sees in amateur renderings and web-based outlets. The evident aesthetic flaws of the renderings in Woods of Arcady create an experience that is, while (intentionally) weak in terms of technical execution, genuine, haunting, and strangely beautiful.

Jon Rafman’s work will be shown this fall in Austria (Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria – September 2-11), the Netherlands (Breda Photo Festival, Breda, The Netherlands – September 16-October 2), Rome (Fotografia, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma, Italy – September 23-24), and Saint Louis (‘Permanent Collection,’ White Flag Projects, St. Louis, USA – October 1-3)

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