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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.

Brian Piana's Journal of the Collective Me culls Twitter and status update posts with the word "me" in them. Created as a part of a virtual residency for Glasstire.com (where I am editor, full disclosure), they appear on Piana's Web site, www.thecollectiveme.com, in real time. A 30-second sample..."At work bored out of my mind...some1 entertain me plz..." "Just had a cafeteria worker talk me out of getting a donut. Thanks man!" "The guy who's beside me in math is creepy. It's his birthday." "My bro-N-Law, Stephen, has cancer/needs help. We're selling raffle tickets 4 a chance 2 win ATV Accessories & guns. Contact me 4 more info!" "Fact: Internet Explorer has caused me more grief than any woman could ever hope to."

When I explained Twitter and Facebook status updates to my sixtysomething mother, she said, "That's so self-absorbed, who would care?" But in the 21st century, it seems like everyone has something to say about themselves and wants their voices to be heard. And it seems many of us want to listen. Clicking through the posts, even the most mundane is fascinating and revealing. It's like surfing the lives of strangers.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a saturation point for self-absorption. Marivi Ortiz's Matter of Two Months and Three Spaces (2007), built around the artist's online conversations with an older man, pretty much finds it. The work includes two large photographs, one of the artist in her cluttered home/studio wearing a dressing gown. She's got one breast showing and is wearing a wig cap; a wig lies on the floor as if she's dressing for a role. Her glowing computer monitor rests on a table, and the guy taking the photograph is visible in her mirror. In another image, a wiry, middle-aged guy sits at his computer in a cluttered office. In between the two photos, a large video monitor displays video, presenting a text and video chat between the artist and the guy in the photo, bassman98. Ortiz has chosen the screen name sexycindy72. What you have is an obvious dynamic in which a lonely old guy is really happy and excited that an attractive young girl has taken the time to chat with him. The chat, at least what is shown, doesn't turn salacious — Ortiz presents herself as some sort of magnanimous counselor — but the artist's screen name no doubt lured her subject.

I sat down and watched the whole thing. Ortiz comes across as narcissistic, and Bassman comes across as sad and needy and self-absorbed. The content of their conversation isn't profound, revealing, amusing or especially poignant. Ortiz's role seems convoluted, and if the content isn't interesting and the characters aren't appealing or sympathetic, what's the point? We all know people all over the world connect with each other virtually. The idea of the project is far more interesting than the reality. I later found out that while the text in the video was from an actual chat, the guy in the video and the photo is not bassman98, who wouldn't allow his image to be used. It's an actor. Then why use an image at all?

Less self-involved and slightly less problematic, Curtis Mann's work applies traditional artistic media to a digitally derived product. Mann finds Flickr photos from war-torn sites of conflict in the Middle East. He prints the photos out and then selectively bleaches out areas of the prints, sometimes scribbling over parts of the images. The viewer is left with bits of a bombed-out building or clusters of tiny figures. With rare exceptions, the subject matter isn't illuminated in any especially interesting way by the process, and the results aren't particularly visually successful — it's just a lot of white space and some fragments of images. Mann is trying to be arty with his found material, but he just doesn't add anything — he detracts.

In spite of a couple of less-than-stellar pieces, Ward has done a great job pulling together a lot of strong works that aren't just novel in their source material but emblematic of a burgeoning social media-derived avant-garde. "Poke!" is a smart, intriguing and eye-opening show. Tweet your friends about it.

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