‘That night she drove through the electric wild, where soft flares danced across her eyes as she scanned the landscape. A fire raged sourceless to the west beyond the city limits, carving a bluish dusk into the sky above the outlying suburbs.’
Jon Rafman’s lost vaporwave classic ‘Neon Parallel 1996’ is set in a futuristic high-rise landscape, a ‘metropolis of some other order, whose true construction was not glass and steel, but fear.’ Our protagonist, ‘ang3l’, wanders across the city’s empty spaces, stopping on the side of a road with her laptop to online chat with ‘sp1der_’ who we see in a smoky room clad in a retro-futuristic full-face mask and LED light string. Resting on a park bench she dreams of WildCat, the robotic quadruped from Boston Dynamics that went viral in 2013. She wakes up and meanders through a trade show, passing demos of now-antiquated 3D printed face masks, robotic gloves and clunky virtual reality headsets. She suddenly becomes panicked as she stares at her image in a CCTV monitor. The narrator, a Voice123.com freelancer speaks in subtle and evocative tones as she offers an interior monologue:
‘Awash in the LCD waters she craved an anchor, something that had definitely happened at a definite time in a definite place. Nothing real could be inscribed on these liquid surfaces.’
A flatline tone rings out as ang3l enters a virtual cave, surveying its walls and sculptures. The narration continues ‘You can survey the surface, but there’s [sic] corners you’ll always miss.’ Frustrated with these limitations and superficiality of digital memory and life, and intent on a ‘rescue of the present,’ ang3l meets sp1der who surgically removes a hard drive from her breast, destroying it and giving her a mask (from artist Zac Blas’ ‘Facial Weaponization Suite’. As the film ends the footage becomes more degraded as if stored on the media it has just shown being destroyed.
Vaporwave was a musical genre begun in 2010, a key instigator of which was Rafman’s longtime collaborator Daniel Lopatin, who that year released ‘Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1’. The genre is defined by its, often dystopian, modulations –slowing down, looping, glitching, pitch-bending, and so on – of the shiny effervescent sounds of corporate mood and background music and in its sampling from musical styles such as Synth Funk and Smooth Jazz. For a musical genre it had an unusually strong presence on Tumblr, first with album covers and later with parody images overloaded with the genre’s core motifs, namely obsolescent computer consoles and interfaces and dated special effects. ‘Neon Parallel 1996’s aerial shots, live action footage filmed in Istanbul, and recordings made in the open world action-adventure ‘Sleeping Dogs’ have been downgraded to match its straight-out-of-1996 chatroom interface, anonymous chat handles, and ‘break bumper’ in which film title graphics and Arabic and Chinese script are embellished in anachronistic video effects.
Hinting at the similarity between amnesia and disappearance in a surveillance society, ‘Neon Parallel 1996’ presents a retro vision of emancipation from technological mediation and simulation. Sharing with Rafman’s 2015 LARP-inspired music video ‘Sticky Drama’ a concern with the “horror of data loss”, its stylistic complexity displays the artist’s ability to not only emulate the technology of a particular era, but to evoke its effects on human consciousness as well.
Jon Rafman (b. 1981, Montréal) is an artist living and working in Montréal. He received his MA in Fine Arts from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his BA in Philosophy and Literature from McGill University, Montréal. Selected solo exhibitions include Arsenal, Montréal, 2016; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2016; Carl Kostyal, Stockholm, 2016; Westfälischer Kunstverein, Munster, 2016; Zabludowicz Collection, London, 2015; Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, 2015; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, 2014; Plymouth Rock, Zurich, 2014; Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran, Toronto and Montréal, 2014; Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, 2013; Seventeen, London, UK, 2013; Future Gallery, Berlin, 2013. Recent group presentations and screenings include Kiasma, Helsinki, 2016; Macro, Rome, 2016; Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin, 2016; 9th Berlin Biennale, 2016; Manifesta 11, Zurich, 2016; Sprueth Magers, Berlin, 2016; Wil Aballe Art Projects, Vancouver, 2016; City Park Hall, New York, 2015 (curated by Andria Hickey); Kunst-Werke, Berlin, 2015; Feuer/Mesler, New York, 2015; Future Gallery, Berlin, 2015; University of Richmond, 2015; International Center of Photography, New York, 2014; Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2014.