The Venice Biennale and its Digital Worlds

In the age of fake news, how can technology and art merge to create the ultimate experience of oneness? The answer may lie in the immersive technology of the post-internet era.

On the second day of the opening of the 58th Biennale di Venezia, I rush past the entire exhibition in the main space with one specific art piece in mind. I wandered through the exhibition in the Arsenale, the former navy yard of Venice, to see Alex Da Corte’s Rubber Pencil Devil, alongside some new sculptures by Nicole Eisenman and a new Arthur Jafa video, not to mention some old favourites such as Christian Marclay, Hito Steyerl, Dahn VoHenry Taylor, George Condo.

But the Biennale is also the place where you discover new artists. For example, the strong portrait photography in b/w by self-proclaimed South African “visual activist” Zanele Muholi, the piritual and political paintings of Michael Armitage from Kenya, and the Instagram-sensation of artistic duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s creepy AI-machines all caught my attention for the first time as I moved through the former Venetian shipyards.

The title for this years edition of the Biennale “May You Live In Interesting Times” was originally believed to be an old Chinese curse used in the 1930’s by a British politician. This turned out to be a rather unfortunate misinterpretation. But I imagine this is somehow what the curator Ralph Rugoff is after – to display our world of misinterpreted sayings and fake news in a strange post-digital (and interesting, to say the least) period. For this edition of the Biennale, the American curator, who has been the director of the Hayward Gallery in London since 2006, has invited 79 global artists with almost half coming in under 40. With the large scale exhibition he wants to show “how art works in an era of lies”.

When I reach my destination inside the Arsenale, I part the curtains and a very different world awaits me. The massive screen in the dark room is covered with a patterned carpet and sculptural lounge chairs are spread throughout the room, an easy place to immerse myself into the world that is Dream Journal by Jon Rafman. A surreal, animated fantasy world with strange hybrids of humans, animals and monsters. Or sometimes, just body parts. The main character, a young girl with a cap that reads “Xanax”, evolves during the story to a body built hero in her quest to find her companion – a sort of a seal animal hybrid with the head of a boy (!?). That’s kind of the plot. The one hour and 45 minute long journey takes the viewer through a paradox of landscapes, from cityscape and deserts, heaven and hell, nightclubs and schools, and is accompanied by a cyber-punk digital soundtrack.

I first stumbled upon Jon Rafman’s work in London when he showed at the Zabludowicz Collection a few years back. I’ve been a fan ever since I was floating in a pool filled with plastic balls to watch one of his surreal videos. The catalogue for the Biennale mentions that this fantasy world was conceived by the artist “through a combination of lucid dreaming and automatic writing”. It explores a personal world which we all have in common (the dream) but rarely share. The dream is even more free than the internet and in Dream Journal we together experience a digital interpretation of this. With its computer game aesthetics it feels very direct, almost logical. Rafman has been named the godfather of post-internet and Dream Journal is a masterpiece not to be missed.


Earlier in the day I had a different kind of digital experience. This time on my own, within my own world, but in the company of Marina Abramović. It was just the two of us, lots of water and then a collapsing raft. Her latest project is a Virtual Reality piece produced together with Acute Art, which is the leading VR producer of contemporary art. Rising [2018] is shown at Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico with art and culture organisation Phi, and is an impressive experience. But you don’t have to go all the way to Venice to try to save Abramović from drowning. Through the companies app, her and several other VR artists work can be viewed (don’t miss Djurberg Berg’s creepy tale). However, of all the digital realms I’ve experienced, Rafmans 2D dream is what I long to go back to.

The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale goes on until the 24th of November


Team Credits:

Words by Jonas Kleerup

Picture Credits:

#1, #3 Jon Rafman, Dream Journal 2016-2019, 2019. Colour HD video with stereo sound. Music by James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never. Runtime: 94 min 01 sec. Courtesy of the artist.
#2, #4 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live In Interesting Times, Jon Rafman, Dream Journal 2016-2019 (2019); photograph by Italo Rondinella, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
#5 Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Acute Art ((2018)
#6 Marina Abramović, still from the behind the scenes of Rising. Courtesy of Acute Art (2018)