Interview: Jon Rafman, The lack of history in the post-Internet age

Jon Rafman is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in Montreal. He recently gave a talk about his work entitled “In Search of the Virtual Sublime” at the Gaité Lyrique, a new space devoted to digital culture in Paris. I met up with Jon in a café near the Jardin du Luxembourg to discuss Google Street View, street photography, the cyberflâneur and what the future looks like.

How did you start working in the digital space?

After I graduated I discovered a community of artists on the social bookmarking site It really felt that an incredible artistic dialogue was taking place informally: a new vernacular was being formed online. There was so much energy to it. The dialogue was so exciting, mixing humour and irony, critique and celebration. was the platform on which I really started working with the Internet. At this point Facebook and Tumblr have pretty much replaced it.

I had known about early net art but I was never attracted to its glitchy aesthetic. So when I discovered this community I felt like I had found what I had been searching for all through art school. led me to various different collectives like Paintfx. That is the period when I started my Google Street View project.

The project started out as PDF books. And then I started to print out the images just like photographs. I experimented with the printing for a while and eventually decided to print the images as large format C-prints. In 2009 the art blog Art Fag City asked me to write an essay, and that was when the project really took off, but I already had a huge archive of material by that stage. The 9-eyes tumblr blog came directly out of that. I had already been working with Google Street View (GSV) for one or two years when I created 9-eyes.

What was your process to find the locations and images that you used?

At first it was just long, arduous surf sessions. I went to places I wanted to visit, mainly in America (GSV had not been launched in many countries at the time), but not in a systematic way. As the project grew, I learned certain tricks. For example the best place to go for images is to check where the Google cars are and to follow those. Otherwise, Google may have removed any ‘anomalies’, which often make the most interesting images.

Once the project went viral I started getting tons of submissions from people. Some of these I used directly and some would act as a departure point to search for images.

What were you looking for specifically?

I was working a bit like a street photographer: keeping an open mind and responding to my intuition. The process was really about editing down. The entire project is a process of subtraction: since everything has already been captured on GSV, it is about editing down until you find the core, essential moments. I think it could be considered as a major editing project.

Are there any online GSV communities or forums that you use to find images?

There is a forum for pretty much anything you can think of. There is a forum where people only collect images of prostitutes, some of which I used in 9-eyes. I don’t like fetishizing labour. I don’t want to play up the amount of time I spend finding these images. This can become a kind of artistic crutch. The greatest works of art for me can be a single gesture that took very little time at all.

Even though this project is inherently time consuming, I don’t want that to be its central focus. It could easily have become an endurance piece, a kind of artistic marathon. If I had an algorithm to find all these amazing images, I think I would be equally as happy.

Take Duchamp’s ready-mades: they changed art. If everything can be art, then what is art? I see that as the healthiest state for art to be in: questioning its very nature.

How conscious were you of specific street photographers’ styles when taking these images?

I was very aware of photographic history when working on this project. I really believe that photography was the medium of the twentieth century, because of the ambiguity surrounding the question of whether it was or was not art, due to photography’s mechanical nature. I saw GSV in some way as the ultimate conclusion of the medium of photography: the world being constantly photographed from every perspective all the time. As if photography had become an indifferent, neutral god observing the world.

The perception of reality associated with photography is very modern. In the past, representations in the form of images were always imbued with a certain magical quality. The photograph shows a world that is empty of that. It is just a reflection of the surface of things. In that way the photograph is the perfect embodiment of our perception of the modern world. More than specific photographic history, I was thinking of photography from a philosophical point of view.

Most of your work deals with digital media of some kind. Do you consider yourself to be a digital artist?

For a while the term “Internet-aware” was used in relation to artists working with the Internet. Nobody was happy with the term, or with “net artists” which felt too ghettoising. In the same way, many people do not feel comfortable with the term “new media artist”, because it implies a kind of fetishisation of new technology.

I would prefer to be recognised simply as an artist. Unless you are very specific to a medium, which I’m not, I don’t think it is necessary to add these labels. I’m fine with championing net art, but I don’t want to be wedded to it forever.

Take Elad Lassry for example. He is one of the most successful young photographers that I know, and in some way I think that is because he doesn’t position his work as photography but as art. I have a lot of respect for those ‘purists’ that are attached to the formal qualities of their medium, but I don’t want to be associated too closely with a particular medium as I’m interested in exploring many different approaches.

There are other artists, including Michael Wolf and Doug Rickard, who have worked with Google Street View. Do you see GSV as a territory where there is only room for one or do you see it as a vast territory that more and more artists are likely to explore?

GSV is in the zeitgeist and it is a vast territory to explore. In a way I’m surprised that there haven’t been more artists working with it. We all have different methods of working. For example, Michael Wolf photographs the screen to make his images, whereas I think that Doug Rickard removes all traces of Google from the images: the symbols, the Google copyright. My process is more akin to the ready-made.

You have also referred to the flâneur in relation to your work. How does this term that is generally associated with nineteenth century art in Paris relate to your practice?

I’m very interested in the notion of the flâneur. The lack of history in this new post-internet age is making it harder to have a sense of self. The Internet has already become so ubiquitous, that it is now a banal part of our reality.

In Internet years things are forgotten so quickly. The importance of history in building a sense of self is one of the main themes running through my work. Many of my projects focus on very marginal sub-cultures such as gaming (ed. Codes of Honor, for example). They feel the lack of a sense of self acutely because their culture can die out any day. The game is everything to them but from one the day to the next the culture of that game becomes obsolete.

The reason I tie in the flâneur is because I want to find the connection between the cyberflâneur and the flâneur of the Parisian arcades of the late nineteenth century. On one level the comparison is absurd, but on another level it is very apt. In the same way that Internet cultures die off, so did the arcades of Paris.

People talk about how the Internet age is so new, and the idea that technology has changed everything. I think it is very important to see that many of these things existed in different forms in the past. For instance, the information overload that is thought of as defining the Internet era dates back to early modern times and the emergence of the modern city.

The NYTimes recently published an article by Evgeny Morosovabout the death of the cyberflâneur. Morosov makes the point that in the age of social media, web surfing is essentially over, that the information we get from the Internet is essentially pre-digested. Do you agree with that view?

People often ask me what the future is going to look like… I’m not really sure why… maybe simply because I work with new technologies.

In the past we relied on dystopian and utopian views of the future. The future was thought of as fundamentally different from the present. Today, there is a sense that the future is going to be a lot more banal, that we are already living in the future (like with the phone that you are recording this conversation with), that the future is going to be more of the same… more apps and technologies that are designed to mediate and ‘improve’ our experience of reality. It is essentially a more Facebook-like future. This is very different from the early Internet, which was more like an exploration of a vast unknown territory.

Note: Jon Rafman's latest exhibition, MMXII BNPJ, opens at American Medium in New York on May 5.

Notes on 2010

Some self- or independently published photobooks from 2010 As the year draws to an end and more top-10 lists (and non-lists) than you can wave a stick at make their annual appearance, I thought I would take a broader look back at the past year in photography. This time last year I focused on the chronic over-use of the word curating, a trend which shows no signs of abating. As for 2010, the major development in the world of photography has to be the exponential rise of the self-published and independent photobook.

This year has seen the launch of Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom (LBM actually launched in December 2009, Soth once again proving that he is ahead of the curve), the online listings database The Independent Photobook, the Indie Photobook Library, the Off Print photobook festival in Paris, a big online discussion on the future of photobooks and (perhaps another sign of Soth's prescience) the growth of countless independent publishers like so many little brown mushrooms. This frenzy of activity wasn't only limited to the periphery either: the (deserving) winner of this year's book prize at the Rencontres d'Arles was an independent publisher from Berlin, Only Photography, for Yutaka Takanashi: Photography 1965-74. If there were any doubts remaining as to the importance of this trend in 2010, while writing this paragraph I received an email from yet another freshly-launched website devoted to the self- and independently-published photobook. I think this explosion in 'indie' publishing is a great thing, particularly given what was being said about the future of photobook publishing a couple of years ago. However, although we have learned that publishing it yourself can make you happy, it can also make you very confused, even overwhelmed. It is truly amazing how many photobooks are being made now, far too many for one poor blogger to even begin to get his head around and (surely?) far too many to sell to a very limited pool of buyers. The problem is that only a very small percentage of them are any good. By good I don't mean "containing good photography" but rather good as a stand-alone artwork where the design and production matches, or even enhances the content rather than a brochure for a series of photographs. Not every series of photographs deserves (or is suited) to becoming a book. Hopefully the publishing effervescence of 2010 will give way to a 'more quality less quantity' scenario in 2011.

Another phenomenon that has accompanied this rise in self- or indie publishing is the rise in luxury, super exclusive, VIP, signed, numbered and sealed-with-a-kiss editions. Despite the rise in the number of photobooks being published, only an infinitesimal number of these make any money and publishers are still searching for the winning formula. Rather than the 'limited' print runs of the past (700 to 1,000) it seems that a number of publishers are moving towards deluxe extra-limited editions (100 to 500). To mention just a few examples Germany's Only Photography and White Press are both producing books which will generally set you back at least 80 euros ($100), and in the US Nazraeli Press has completed ten years of its One Picture Book series where (for $150) you get a small original print thrown in with the eight or nine plates in the book itself. One final publishing trend worth noting is the growing number of re-editions of classic photobooks. In addition to Errata Editions' full series of books on books, this year we were treated to a range of re-editions from Takuma Nakahira's A Language To Come to John Gossage's The Pond. Given how much the originals are sell for at auction these days, I'm grateful to be able to get my hands on some classics without having to sell all the other books I own in the process.

Press opening of the Larry Clark's Kiss the Past Hello exhibition

And what of photography itself in 2010? Looking beyond the book, this year feels far less exciting. As with the rest of the art world, photography galleries are still gently and nervously probing the market with little space given to new or 'difficult' work, while museums are staying well away from anything risky with big-name blockbuster retrospectives, shows assembled from their own collections (which is not necessarily a bad thing), or shows lasting from 4-5 months instead of 2 or 3. Just as with books we're also seeing the reedition of landmark exhibitions, with the New Topographics show touring the US this year. In terms of museum shows a special mention has to go to two examples of ludicrous censorship: the recent removal of a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington after the Catholic League and members of Congress complained that the piece was sacrilegious due to a sequence showing ants crawling on a crucifix, and the Paris Museum of Modern Art's Larry Clark exhibition which got itself an X-rating from the government and therefore a shed-load of media attention.

On a positive note, a more interesting trend has been the use of Google Street View by several artists as a new photographic tool. Michael Wolf (see the grid below), Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman have produced exhibitionsbooks and tumblrs of images taken from Google Street View's online tool. This is clearly not everyone's cup of tea and, particularly in street photography circles, there tends to be a "that is not photography" response to this kind of work. Whether you like it or not, it raises a number of interesting and important questions about the way the practice of photography and the hypocritical rules governing it are evolving .

Michael Wolf, FY (forthcoming 2011)

Another technology-related trend has to be the massive growth of online social networking in the photo community. Of course this is a phenomenon that is by no means limited to photography, but it is astounding how quickly Facebook has gone from an interactive high-school yearbook to a major marketing tool (alongside its younger cousin Twitter). Some have even used it as a tool through which to publish a series of photographs steadily over time. I'm not sure how this is going to affect photography (if at all) and others have thought about this harder than I have, but it will be interesting to see where this goes in 2011.

Finally, I get the feeling that there is a bit of a reemergence of street photography going on. With in-public's 10 (review here) and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren's Street Photography Now. This may be because we're all photographers now and the most obvious place to start is the street, or perhaps because people are growing tired of the cold, detached formalism that has dominated recent contemporary photography, or maybe even the fact that the abuse of anti-terrorism and privacy laws is making it more and more difficult to photograph in many of our cities and that street photographer's tend to like a challenge.

To wrap up this look back at 2010 (despite last year's rant) seeing as we all love lists (because we don't want to die), here are a few highlights from the past year in no particular order: