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“As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity,” says an absent, artificial female voice in the beginning of Jon Rafman‘s NSFW “Still Life (Betamale)” (2013) video. “You see the things that were inside you. This is the womb, the original site of the imagination. You do not move your eyes from the screen, you have become invisible.”
“Still Life (Betamale)” confronts some of humanity’s newer and more obsessive activities, all things that may be unique to the web (though we’re never sure). The video sets the stage with shots of disgustingly lived-at computer desks covered in bits of food and cigarette ashes, surrounded by energy drinks and dirty dishes. The main character, the fat man with panties covering his face, pointing two guns at his own head, is leading us on a nearly psychosis-inducing stream of various types of fetish and subculture porn — some of the web’s darkest and strangest corners. This is not the safe and corporate internet of Facebook or Google; “Still Life (Betamale)” is drawn from the visually overloaded world of 4chan, as obsessively browsed by a man who lives in his mother’s basement.
Jon Rafman, “Still Life (Betamale)”
The video paints a clear picture of the stereotype we associate with 4chan users: smelly men who obsessively consume, produce, and share socially unaccepted media, never AFK. By splicing together footage and images from these online communities, Rafman places the viewer at the center of a mind-numbing search for meaning in some of the most socially questionable places.
Unveiling the footage to 4Chan is a bold move because it meant taking this video (first posted on YouTube but removed, then uploaded to Vimeo and pulled there as well, and currently housed on OPN’s [Oneohtrix Point Never] website), which is in part, an act of Internet culture vulture co-opting and readjusting, right to its “source.” That stands in sharp contrast to say, Rihanna scooping up some #seapunk signifiers and sending them straight to Saturday Night Live, skipping every rung of the underground-to-mainstream ladder and pillaging an entire Tumblr community. 0PN and Rafman’s decision to feed message board curiosities in the form of a video back to the collators seems like a far more ethical, and implicative approach.
As Soderberg mentions, the music for “Still Life (Betamale)” was composed by Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN), and it somehow helps lend the uncomfortable stream of imagery an almost transcendent feel. (Check out OPN’s other great video, “Boring Angel,” comprised solely of emojis.)
One anonymous 4chan user understood the video’s deep connection with the site, posting on the film’s resulting 4chan thread, “It’s almost like a stream of content posted on 4chan.” Infamous for starting LulzSec and Anonymous, 4chan boards, especially those like /b/, are notoriously lewd, pornographic, misogynistic, and weird. While many people dismiss these platforms as vile and perverse spaces disconnected from reality, and Rafman certainly doesn’t find the most appealing material from these communities, I don’t think that is his critique.
These images reveal more about us, as humans, than they say about the web. We are all searching for meaning and pleasure, which many of us find in places we’d rather not publicly discuss. Rafman has lovingly and carefully documented some traits and segments of humanity that we’d rather sweep under the rug, hoping they’ll disappear — but here they are. Furries, hentai, and monster porn aren’t ‘unnatural.’ The web didn’t create these ideas; we did. Rafman shows how these creations were made in a sincere search for pleasure, meaning, community, and self-expression, as grotesque as they may look to some of us.