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Site Scavenging

Internet content is the "found object" of the 21st century.

The video monitor shows the Kool-Aid Man wandering through 3-D digital worlds. The smiling red pitcher ambles through desolate urban landscapes, slides down a waterslide in a pristine Alpine landscape, swims under the sea, frowns next to a bloody corpse, interrupts two people screwing, dances to "Come on Eileen" at a bordello filled with triple-E-breasted hookers in fetish wear, and break-dances next to a furry man-wolf in a cock ring. Kool-Aid Man is Canadian artist Jon Rafman, and his video Kool-Aid Man in Second Life: Tour Promo Video, is on view at FotoFest in "Poke!: Artists and Social Media."

The 20th century saw artists making work with found objects, from Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Robert Rauschenberg's combines to Jessica Stockholder's everything — including the kitchen-sink installations. Today the glut of consumer crap that provided material fodder for artists in the last century is more bountiful than ever, but in the 21st century artists have an abundant new source of material — the Internet. Its content is the "found object" of the 21st century.

That isn't news to the artists in "Poke!" Curated by FotoFest Exhibitions Coordinator Jennifer Ward, the show brings together unexpected and often provocative works by artists mining the Internet.

Rafman leads tours through the user-­created online worlds of Second Life, whose participants create avatars that inhabit these worlds. It is safe to assume that the avatars look nothing like their human counterparts, unless dramatically surgically altered porn stars are the primary Second Life demographic. In contrast, Rafman chose Kool-Aid Man, this big, goofy, perpetually smiling consumer icon, as his avatar. He moves through Second Life as an explorer, voyeur and apparent buzz-kill. Interrupting the Renaissance fairs or S&M fantasies of Second Life residents has gotten him banned from various areas; apparently, virtual worlds have their own social mores. Kool-Aid Man's absurd presence highlights the elaborateness of these fantasy worlds.

The artist also has another kind of voyeurism on view in "Poke!" He's scavenged Google Street View to create a series of photographs. Google has ticked off privacy advocates around the world with its project to drive and photograph the streets of the world. To do this, cars (sometimes trikes) with nine directional cameras move through streets across the globe, automatically capturing images. Looking at Rafman's work, you see why some people object to Google's plan. Google has inadvertently captured scenes of human drama and comedy, and Rafman hunted them down, often finding them through blogs.

Rafman found images of a raging house fire in Sherwood, Arkansas, and a band of dorks crossing a Pittsburgh street on Segways. Two boys beat the crap out of each other in Glasgow, and in Northern Ireland, a gang of scrawny kids with shaved heads flip off the Google car. A thong-wearing hooker sleeping on a piece of cardboard moons the cameras in Madrid, while the cameras capture the back of a man pissing alongside a dusty outback road in Australia. Rathman has an uncanny knack for picking through the Internet for content that reveals us to ourselves.

Probably the most powerful work in the show is by Chicago artist David Oresick. In his two videos, Soldiers in Their Youth (2008) and After the War (2009), Oresick has essentially constructed a "found documentary" from video clips posted online by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and their friends and family. Youth is a revealing and multifaceted look at these men and women. In one snippet of footage, the soldier with the camera hides under furniture, audibly praying, "Lord, please let it stop..." while he and his comrades are fired upon. One of the men is moaning in fear, and another soldier tells him, "Shut the fuck up, somebody will think you're hurt." It's a stark account of the incidental nature of terror. Other video was shot in military convoys. In one clip, we see an explosion ahead and the truck in front stopping. "Um, yeah, fucking stop in the kill zone," the soldier driving mutters in a voice so jaded that he sounds like he's bitching about traffic on the 610 Loop. The most dramatic shot captures an IED blowing up in front of a vehicle. The asphalt road suddenly becomes a giant bubble that cracks and explodes. The driver swerves around it, and the soldier filming gleefully announces he caught it on film: "Woohoo!"

Other clips capture soldiers hazing each other with a jocular brutality. They tape one man to a truck bumper, making torturing detainees seem like a given. They play soccer with Iraqi children. Elsewhere, a soldier terrifies a little boy, saying, "Hey, you want candy? I don't have any fucking candy; you want hand grenade?" In other clips, soldiers mug for the camera, lip-synch songs and send messages home. Meanwhile, a woman strips down to her bikini and shaves her legs for her boyfriend in Iraq.

In the After video, there are tearful reunions, surprise reunions and drunken reunions. One of the most disturbing, especially after one has just seen a fragment of what the soldiers experienced, are the videos of family and friends playing pranks on soldiers dozing on the couch. They throw things at them or sound airhorns to startle the sleeping men, who leap to their feet terrified for their lives. The pranksters don't seem to understand why the soldiers get so mad. Oresick's found clips give us a better sense of soldiers in Iraq than the national news media has given us in six years.

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