Virtual Reality Sickness
Artist Jon Rafman Sees Virtual Reality
As the Medium for
a Post-Fact Planet
Interview: Timo Feldhaus
Photography: Christian Werner
With his video works on SecondLife, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, and the spectacular Live Action Role Play-inspired narratives of Sticky Drama, Jon Rafman, who was born in 1981, has become a celebrated artist of the digital era. He is not only a sculptor and filmmaker, but a commentator on the archeology of the present and the impact that new technologies have on our world. 

Virtual reality is supposed to be the next big game changer. Its development has felt inevitable since science fiction introduced the concept decades ago. Today, as the technology matures and becomes commercially viable thanks to well-funded startups like Magic Leap and Oculus Rift—the former funded by Google, the latter owned by Facebook—we seem to have accepted it as the future of communication, of recreation, and of combat. Rafman is at the forefront of a new artistic practice that experiments with immersive video in an effort to learn and shape the language of this new medium.

When I first met Rafman, two years ago in Los Angeles, he was researching 360 degree cameras. We met again to clarify why Kanye West’s memeability might make him president one day, why Facebook is already a softer form of VR, and why there is no longer any meaningful distinction between the real and digital.
Timo Feldhaus: Can you tell me a little bit about the way you work? 

Jon Rafman: My overall artistic practice often blurs the line between the virtual and the real. VR was a natural progression for me. The truth is I’ve been waiting for its development since I was a kid when I tried very primitive versions of the technology. Up until recently, I had been only exploring virtual worlds that already existed, and I now find it really exciting to have the tools to create my own virtual worlds. What I find unique to VR is its very physical quality, and I focus strongly on that aspect in my work.

How often have you been VR-sick? There is a thing called Virtual reality sickness or cyber sickness, with symptoms like headache, nausea, sweating, or apathy. 

Always. What’s most interesting about VR for me is that you are able to reflect on the haptic nature of it. One way I do that is by situating the viewer in a physical space that relates closely to the one they are experiencing in VR. 

Are you sometimes afraid of VR?

There is something violent about VR. It’s the closest thing to the Matrix, complete immersion. I try to explore this new language and develop it into a narrative and poetic form. By challenging the viewer in different ways—by failing or disorienting them—key attributes are revealed about the nature of VR. But I am also asking a more critical question: “Have we reached the point that in order to have a truly transcendent experience we need to be completely trapped inside a headset?” Maybe in the past you could have received this immersive experience from staring at a painting on a wall. And now, because of how distracted our society is, maybe we need to be literally ripped out of reality.
Last time we met in Los Angeles we were talking about the internet surfer as a digital form of the Parisian flâneur of the 19th century. There is this theory that free internet culture is dying off in the same way that the arcades of Paris did in the 19th century. 

You know that I love Walter Benjamin. 

You mean even in VR we can’t get rid of the philosopher?  

Benjamin is actually perfect for thinking about virtual reality. He reflected on new technologies before many others. I do not hold the view that technology has changed everything. It is very important to recognize that many contemporary tensions existed in different forms in the past. For instance, the experience of information overload that is thought of as defining the internet era dates back to early modernity and the emergence of the modern city.
“The change in our consciousness precedes the change in our technologies.” 
Where exactly do you see VR’s potential for fine art?

Two things tend to happen when a new technology is emerging: most commonly, it can be that it is just a novelty—like the hologram, for instance—and less commonly, it is transformative. A lot of great artists worked with the hologram because they thought it would be the new medium, with great potential. In retrospect, it didn’t have a big impact on human culture. I like engaging with new forms because I think they represent something about the changes in the way we see reality. The things that ultimately became popular, like cinema and photography, in the end changed how we saw the world around us and they changed how we remember it.

Whether VR is going to be this new thing everybody will have next to their TVs will be decided in early 2017, right? If it does not push through directly, it will probably never be that popular. 

There are a lot of people betting on it. It will definitely be big for gaming culture. In terms of cinema and fine art, I am convinced that artists will help to define what this new medium is and what its language will be. If the work succeeds you will start to understand the changes in human perception that the changes in the media reflect.

In what way do you mean? 

When there was no photography, only painting, we saw the world differently than we do now. I am not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg, but in pre-modern times, things had an essence. A sword had a name, it had magic to it. Objects and paintings had auras—that’s what Benjamin talks about. In a way, philosophy parallels perfectly the rise of photography, and cinema, and all these new forms of mass-produced images. With the rise of the modern concept of consciousness, no longer can we perceive “the thing in itself,” the noumenal world, we can only have access to our perception of reality. There is no way of knowing what is outside of our own consciousness. There is no way of perceiving the magic core of a sword, like in pre-modern times. For me, photography parallels this Kantian concept of consciousness. In a court of law, photographs can be used to prove something while a painting can’t, even though the painting can maybe show more of the essential nature of the object it’s depicting. But we see the contemporary world in the mechanical nature of the photograph, which captures reality as objective. 
But where is the magic going? 

The magic has been long gone. Perhaps it is coming back, since everybody is talking about meme magic now and how memes became more powerful than news from serious news agencies. Perhaps that is the basis of the whole idea of the post-fact era we live in. Maybe VR reflects that. We all have our own Facebook feed with all the fake news in it and that’s our own virtual reality. 

When you talked about magic, I was reminded of this startup called Magic Leap, which apparently is one of the most highly-funded startups in the world right now. They are working on something they call Mixed Reality. It would be like VR that you experience every day, without a headset, as a permanent layer on top the real world.  

Yes, augmented reality. We’ve been moving this way for many years now, but what is new is that it is much more embodied now. You are actually able to incorporate more than simply just looking through a portal of the screen. Now we can actually incorporate our whole bodies into it. 
It doesn’t seem very difficult to imagine it as an instrument for torture. 

That’s what I was saying about the violent aspect of VR. The brain is so ready to believe that what it is seeing is real, even after a short time. If you were placed in VR as a torture victim for 18 hours a day, you would naturally think that this is actually the only reality there is. Maybe VR already is being used as a method of torture.

Have you been surprised by the outcome of this so called ‘Great Meme War of 2016’ in America?

The war that was waged by the alt-right against liberals had an impact on the election of Donald Trump. The alt-right’s philosophy is that meme magic is real and that memes have a great impact on consciousness and affecting people’s opinions. The guy who invented Oculus Rift, Palmer Luckey, turned out to be secretly funding the think tanks that generate the memes for the alt right.

And when you infiltrate the algorithms of the Facebook timeline you get news that looks trustworthy but that is actually spiked with these memes. 

Do you know the artist Deanna Havas? She said recently that we live in an immersive meme reality right now. Donald Trump is a meme. His personality is very much a meme. And that is also the reason why Kanye West might become president one day. Because he is so memeable. In politics, truth has become something that is really fluid and can be manipulated in ways never seen before. And I don’t think it’s only the alt-right, it’s true for many ideologies. One of the more horrifying scenarios would be if VR was used as a torture device, but actually Facebook is already a softer form of VR. VR is the crystallization of this reality, which is no longer stable like this dichotomy of real and the virtual. 

And this has a lot to do with the rise of the first person narrator, right? This is one thing that the ego-shooter, the Facebook-timeline and the VR-experience have in common: there is no more authorial perspective anymore, but only your subjective visual perspective.

It’s very solipsistic and narcissistic, yes. But it’s honest. That is why I don’t like it when people blame technologies for changing the world. The change in our consciousness precedes the change in our technologies. The technologies that come out are a product of what we have become. 
Interview: Timo Feldhaus
Photography: Christian Werner
Images courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal