Vis-Ed: Rafaël Rozendaal and the Information Superhighway to Nowhere
- Words: Su Wu
With his disarmingly stark websites, Rafaël Rozendaal has created exactly what Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn once famously said was the mark of artistic genius: new, original clichés. For those who grew up with cartoons, animated GIFs, and a certain online color palette, the work of the 31-year-old Amsterdam native will look exactly as you remembered, except that you've never seen it before.
Poignant in their simplicity, Rozendaal's singular websites—start with hotdoom.com and see what magical place it takes you to—and drawings manage to encapsulate even the most expansive moments: a pebble next to a bottomless hole, an endlessly exploding volcano, a road to nowhere. "Art is more useful than you think," says Rozendaal, the great-grandson of a former Brazilian president, who now "lives and works in hotels." But making art, he says, is a duty, a pain, a 24/7 job in which there are no restful moments: "Even dreaming is work," he claims. Here we talk to him about infinity, the desire to be understood, and what it means to own a web domain.
XLR8R: A lot of your work seems to be about endlessness: an endless mountain range or a deep black hole or thepersistenceofsadness.com. But this infinity runs up against the limits of attention, of the time the viewer is willing or has to spend. Does anything last forever?
Rafaël Rozendaal: Our perception of time is very primitive. I expect some major discoveries very soon. There is no "now," by definition—we are to slow to witness it. Everything we observe has already happened. I believe that once we realize that time is not an absolute force, our lives will change drastically. All our concepts will be wiped out and rebuilt from the ground up. Imagine manipulating time as you desire. We will have to rethink our purpose in life. The consequences will be so severe that it is impossible for me to really tell you what life will be like. Without time limits, there is no scarcity and no one will ever be busy. The idea of work, necessity... all gone. Boredom would be the new frontier. Imagine having no obligations, and having millions of years in front of you. I avoid making images that have a beginning or an end. I like the idea that time is frozen but everything stays in motion. Images behaving like waterfalls, always moving but never towards a destination.
Your work requires action from the viewer, in addition to the act of viewing, and I'm curious whether you think the internet—and your web-based work—creates a sense of the surety of consequence, that we click and something happens right away, and it's the only thing that can happen. Is interactivity a demand?
Somewhere in the 1400s in France, a church was built. The stained glass windows were colored with a new pigment that was bluer than anything anyone had ever seen. The church was finished and the visitors looked up and saw this incredible light. They were convinced they were looking at heaven. Not a picture of heaven—they were convinced they saw heaven itself. One of the strangest things in our time is the use of the word "virtual." For centuries we have known drawing, painting, writing, all of them are very virtual. Money is virtual. Phone calls are virtual. But now that the screen is interactive, people call it virtual. Visual interactivity has been thoroughly explored in videogames. Mario starts running when you press a button, and he runs faster when you hold two buttons. But videogames are always goal-oriented. Interactivity is usually a means to an end. What if it is a destination? As children, we are taught not to touch things, even if we instinctively want to. When we look into the world, we are not distant observers—we are involved. I am interested in this area of perception, looking into the world, using our eyes as well as our hands.
What would you be doing if the internet didn't exist? Or, what can you do only because the internet exists? There's something lovely about medium-specific work or era-specific work—that it has to be exactly as it is, that it captures the time in which it was made, and so forth—but what changes and what doesn't change?
It is hard to imagine living without the world wide web. The true power of the internet is the lack of authority. You can start a magazine or a TV channel in a second. My ideas seem quite silly and insignificant when I start making them. The internet is the perfect place for things that seem irrelevant. There is no editor, curator, or gallerist telling me what to do and how to do it. I can imagine that in a world without internet, I would be forced to make things that make more sense. But irrational and intuitive work has existed before the internet, so who knows? Maybe I would have found a way to do that even without the world wide web. I want it to be clear that I am eternally grateful to be living in this time, doing what I want to do every day and sharing my work instantly with everyone.
What tools do you use to make your work?
I've been drawing all my life; first with pencil, later with ink. I never really liked to paint, although I love paintings. I liked photographing a bit, but photography doesn't really connect with my perception. At some point the computer came along and I played around with drawing programs, getting to know the mouse... I did not start seeing the computer as an artistic tool until I discovered vector softwares. Vectors are mathematical shapes: not made of pixels, but of points and curves. Once I got into it, it felt like being weightless. Copy, move, drag, change color, warp, adjust, scale, duplicate, moving perfect shapes in an infinite space. There is nothing like it. I always enjoyed mathematics, and vector software makes you feel like you're in a mathematical world. There is nothing on earth that is mathematically perfect, and even if perfect objects existed, our eyes are too imperfect to see them. But spending time using vectors makes you feel like you're maneuvering in this ideal conceptual world where squares are really square and circles are really round—a world without noise or distraction.
Going back to the topic of specificity, many of your drawings and websites are abstracted, with the minimum of cultural markers. Is there some sort of admission in the idea of a universal language that we want to be understood?
I've always been interested in abstract paintings. All his life, Mondrian wanted to find a universal visual language. In some ways he did, but in some ways he perfected a very particular style that reminds us of a specific period, and of a specific culture. Mondrian's paintings will always remind us of art more than anything else. I've always been interested in animated cartoons. Early cartoon characters had to be very simple because each drawing was done by hand. A seven-minute cartoon requires a minimum of 10,000 drawings, so you'd better get to the point. The limitations of cartoons created a very specific language based on exaggeration, simplification and abstraction. It spread around the world fast and is now recognizable to anyone. It is universal. The art world is full of inside jokes and historical references. Sometimes that's great, but very often it excludes people. I do not want to exclude anyone. I want to make work that draws people in and makes them feel welcome. A good artist is a magnifying glass, guiding sunlight into a focal point. If the artist does his or her job well, the focal point is sharp enough to start a fire.
Sometimes I think that this drive to be functional and contribute to society and be useful is what makes people miserable, and I mean no offense at all when I say that this is what I love about your work—that, like all great art, it doesn't have a point. Why make art?
Making art is not very enjoyable to me. The process is quite painful. It is an obsession and a duty, but is also wonderful. I think my identity is so connected to my work that if I do not work, I feel empty. It sounds negative, but at the same time I am really grateful every day that I get to do what I want. Art is more useful than you think. Artists were around before lawyers, bankers, professors, mailmen, all the "useful" professions. It also depends on your definition of art. If you include film, literature, music, it is clear that no one wants to live without art. What makes people miserable is stress, which comes from spending more than they can afford. People should stop shopping so they can afford to work less and relax, and leave the hard working to artists. Art is a 24/7 job, every moment is an opportunity, day or night, awake or asleep. Even dreaming is work because the best ideas might come from your subconscious.
Collectors can buy your domain names and your work, and it remains publicly accessible. What does it mean to "own" a web-based work, to own a Rafaël Rozendaal piece?
At first it might seem strange: Why would you buy something that is available for free? We live in an age of sharing, and everything gets passed around all the time. In this ocean of digital content, nothing has value, except domain names. The old way of collecting is based on keeping a piece of art locked in your house, so you have exclusive access. To collect a website, is the opposite. You own it, and the more people see the work, the cooler it is. People who own a domain name know this special feeling: It is your property, even if anyone can walk in—especially because everyone walks in.
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