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Documenting The "Vegas Of The Maghreb" Through Virtual Environments: Q&A With Jon Rafman And Rosa Aiello

Last night Jon Rafman held a lecture to inaugurate the second season of Palais de Tokyo’s “Imagine the Imaginary” exhibition. The Canadian artist, mostly known for his 9 eyes project, which utilizes the robotic eyes of Google Street View, has been an active artist on Second Life for the past five years, documenting his virtual peregrinations with movies like Kool-Aid man in Second Life.

For this exhibition, he made the video Remember Carthage (above), directed in collaboration with 3D animator Rosa Aiello. It continues his quest for the sublime in new landscapes, those of Second Life and of the video game Uncharted 3. It relays the story of a man looking for an abandoned hotel in the middle of the Sahara desert, and draws the viewer into the remains of the legendary city of Carthage while dealing with “the impact of a post-internet world on notions of national identity, physical traces of the past, and the issue of decline and nostalgia.”

We spoke with Rafman and Aiello about their collaborative work, the foreign nature of the past, and the importance of documenting virtual worlds.


The Creators Project: Can you please introduce your project for those who haven’t seen it yet?
Rosa Aiello:
I like to describe it as a modern day experience of the uncanny, like a renewal of that trope with modern technology. We wanted to deal with the unconscious and this strange feeling you might have in real life, which is perfectly depicted in video games—seeing the same thing several times. It’s a very literary and overused idea of repetition, but with a new twist.
Jon Rafman: We came to this work through a process. At first, we wanted history to be the main subject of the movie, with a cyclic narrative—a little bit in the same way you surf through Wikipedia articles. While we were continually writing the scenario together, we arrived at this point in a pretty organic way. When looking very carefully at video games and virtual spaces, you notice several repetitions, looped movements, and the form of the footage really dictated the form the film took.
Aiello: It may have to do with the way video games are developed. Sometimes, your character is meant to be running, because he’s being chased or whatever, and you run through these spaces rather than look closely at them. Developers can easily repeat things without you noticing. We wanted to look at those aspects that people may not pay attention to.


What’s your opinion on the fact that the Palais de Tokyo chose to also exhibit your work in a physical space? Do you prefer the virtual platform?
Rafman: I like to put all of my films online because I don’t like the fact that so many art films are inaccessible, and that you can only watch them if you happen to be at the screening. For me the online aspect is not so much necessary, it’s just a great way to distribute the work. I think it would be best seen in a theater but I want it to be as accessible as possible. I didn’t think of it as an internet piece, I was thinking about film and literature, and majors works from artists like Chris Marker or W.G. Sebald.
Aiello: It didn’t ended up being something particularly historical in the end, but one of our first impulses was to make a certain part of history relevant again through artistic forms.

Don’t you think that if we simplify history through the prism of modern technologies, future generations might have a false image of what was really going on?
Rafman: We’re actually trying to criticize that danger. It’s true that things are going on at such an accelerated pace that we tend to forget ancient history, and our knowledge of it is sometimes limited to generalized articles on Wikipedia. I think the best films about the past highlight how foreign it is to us. While we were working on the movie, we asked ourselves what it would be like to go in a completely foreign land, a place you’ve never heard of before, and that you’ve never even imagined. There’s no place in the world that’s totally foreign anymore. Somehow, even if it’s through images or any kind of media, you never go somewhere and have your mind blown because you’ve never seen such a thing. The idea of foreignness has completely changed.


What advantages do you find in exploring the world through a virtual environment? I know that Jon said that what he liked best in Google Street View was to have the spontaneity of a robotic eye, free from human sensibility. What are the benefits of Second Life or games like Uncharted 3?
Rafman:
What’s interesting is that this is a unique, completely human-constructed world becomes an exploration through consciousness, symbols, and desires. That’s why the repetitions become more interesting—because they’re purely human. We were watching The Adventures of Tintin yesterday, and it was actually an uncanny experience. The environments and the stages were actually the same as in our movie or the game we were looking at. At the beginning, there’s a museum, a ship, they crash a plane, go to an Eastern exotic place…they obviously picked these locations because they look so good when using 3D graphics. Perhaps we have a desire to construct something around those places. There’s a thing about the limitations of the 3D medium that dictates the content of games and movies.

Have you heard the story of that North American archeologist who thought she discovered pyramids through Google Earth?
Aiello:
Ahah, that’s one of the drawbacks of technology, you might see things that are not actually there.
Rafman: Our memory is also affected by our interaction with technology and media of different kinds. When I visit places that I’ve already seen on Google Street View, I always have this weird feeling “I’ve been here before… on my Macbook Pro.”


Do you think it would be a good idea for schools to give internet courses so that future generations can fully understand the works of net artists?
Aiello:
Well, it’s hard to tell what going to be relevant in the future and what platforms will remain. Second Life will probably be gone in the next 20 years, who knows? The original platform doesn’t even exist anymore. The point of making a film like that is to document a virtual world that might be destroyed and put it in a medium that can survive, like a video. There’s an historical dimension to document a virtual world.
Rafman: I think that this idea of internet archeology is pretty interesting, it’s important to recognize that digital things have a historical value too. In a way, they’re in the most precarious position because they can just disappear without leaving any trace whatsoever. It would be pretty egotistical for me to say that my work will be remembered—I’m not sure of what would be part of the history of the world. Anything digital is in a very precarious position. Archivists and historians do need to recognize these challenges.

Photos courtesy of Jon Rafman and Rosa Aiello.