Jon Rafman (b. 1981)
Kool-Aid Man in Second Life, 2008-2011
Wherever Rafman’s Kool-Aid Man avatar goes in Second Life, he finds environments and other avatars apparently created for the sole purpose of having weird sex – or at least some facsimile thereof. Watch as Kool-Aid Man encounters a male figure in baggy jeans and a bucket hat masturbating a recumbent unicorn, or as he observes a hermaphroditic centaur mounting a fox-humanoid from behind, or as he approaches a fire-breathing, three-headed dragon in a torch-lit castle (a moment’s hesitation, a hint of relief – has Kool-Aid Man finally encountered a legitimately majestic creature?) only to see the dragon get up on Rafman’s avatar and start humping it. One has to wonder what kind of satisfaction Second Life users were really deriving from these crudely-animated sex acts. Not to belabor the obvious, but CGI models don’t experience pleasure, and making it look like they do takes a lot of effort – a fact that becomes more clear when Kool-Aid Man visits the “Pompeiian Delights Sex House,” where the walls are plastered with pixelated ads for 3D-rendered body parts, animations, and sound effects to make one’s virtual sex experience more lifelike.
It’s not all quite so sordid, though. As with Rafman’s Google Street View images, Kool-Aid Man’s journey through Second Life is punctuated by as many moments of surprising beauty and meditative reverie as absurd or pathetic spectacle. Half of what makes the project so intriguing is how often those two poles co-exist – parody, nostalgia, and celebration are virtually indistinguishable in this, as in many of Rafman’s works. Consider, for example, Kool-Aid’s Man happening upon a synchronized dance routine, performed by furries, goth-raver avatars, and a blue-skinned Na’vi, all the while set to Darude’s 1999 trance hit “Sandstorm.” The patent absurdity of the scene crosses over into touching pathos: a lot of work went into crafting this moment of strange togetherness. The figure of Kool-Aid Man himself (itself?) condenses these contradictory aspects as a commercial mascot from Rafman’s childhood (and my own, I should add, since we’re more or less the same age), noted for peddling a cheap, sugary drink with outrageous party attitude. Contrasted with the more adult situations through which Rafman pilots his protagonist, however, Kool-Aid Man’s blankly euphoric grin and goofy dancing animation take on a beatific innocence, uncorrupted and eternally enthused.
In Kool-Aid Man in Second Life there is another layer of nostalgia that has to do with the datedness of the platform itself. Launched in 2003, Second Life was already a bit passé by the time Rafman began exploring it in 2008. Though its user base peaked around 2009, its graphics have remained at a fairly clunky 2003 standard. More importantly, its free-for-all ethos is closer to the cyberpunk future imagined in the 1990s than to the mundane, contemporary reality of social networks exemplified by Facebook’s “real-name” policy. Despite the sensationalism of much of Kool-Aid Man’s content, the project is pervaded by a sense of loss and melancholy provoked both by the relegation of the utopian dream of a virtual world to the fringes of internet culture, and by the thoroughly abject ends to which this technology (and the imaginative resources of its users) has been employed.
-- SAELAN TWERDY in Momus, "This Is Where It Ends: The Denouement of Post-Internet Art in Jon Rafman’s Deep Web," July 2015