For between $4,000 and $6,000, you can own a unique image that lives only on the Internet. Created by 30-year-old Rafaël Rozendaal, each website is public, with its own personal domain name. Without any context, it’s hard to imagine a collector buying a "piece," just for a small credit that says “collection of” in the title bar.
But they do— and you have to see it to believe it!
Collectively, Rafaël’s websites get 1.2 million unique visits per month, according to his analytics from Google. That’s pretty impressive for a project that is now nine years old. When I spoke to Rafaël, even he expressed some surprise at the popularity of certain sites. To date, he’s created nearly 60 that range from passive moving images to clickable graphics.
But each page is oddly immersive, instinctively daring the viewer to click. For example, Rafaël’s most popular site shows just a plate of jello. What do you do to jello? Poke it.
And Rafaël wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Clicking is a little bit like when you’re a small child, you’re taught not to touch things. Your mom or your dad tells you, ‘Don’t touch that, don’t touch that’, but instinctively you want to touch everything," he said. "I’m interested in exploring things with both your hands and your eyes. I just think that the whole history of art always has been about [stepping back] from an object so you’re in a museum. It’s sort of like a temple, and you’re not supposed to touch anything."
Online, that’s not the case. Another one of his most popular sites is simply a block of color; click and peel away to the next color. Sitting at the privacy of your own screen, it’s your own unique conversation with something few would normally think of as art. When I finally flip to another window on my browser, I can’t help but take a moment to wonder: “Is this really art?”
Rafaël acknowledges that internet art is unusual to many.
“It’s so weird doing this, because not many people are doing this, and you’re thinking, ‘This is kinda ridiculous. I could be making movies or I could be making paintings where I have a lot of reference,’" he said. "It’s a little bit like floating in outer space.”
Floating isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. The frame reserved for art is changed when it’s created for the Internet. In some ways, it's more dynamic- you’re not looking at these pieces dressed in cocktail attire with a drink in hand. You’re allowed to click it, allowed to mute it, allowed to move on without a thought if that’s what you want. Instead of only seeing a piece once in a gallery, you can see it at work, at home— anywhere. That context is what makes creating art online compelling for Rafaël.
“It’s different, but that’s the cool thing," he said. "It’s the same thing with music — [can] you imagine someone listening to it while they’re jogging or while they’re having sex or while they’re cooking or while they’re in the shower? Or maybe they should all come to the concert in the stadium or should they see the music video. [Instead] it’s just around and part of people’s lives."
Although Rafaël is an artist, he’s not a programmer. That’s why he has Reinier Feijen to help him to program his concepts. And it’s artful coding; a set of simple rules generating an unexpected result. To get there, each site starts with a sketch sent to Reiner, to see what’s possible. From there, Rafaël finalizes the sketch, finds sounds, chooses colors, and make a rough animation and writes down what he wants, incuding what should be “tweakable”. Then Reiner (the programmer) makes a first version, and the conversation continues until they reach a final site.
It’s quite a process, but even as this project approaches its 10th year, Rafaël intends to continue.
“I still have a lot of ideas I want to make, and the medium is beautiful for so many reasons," he said. "Most of all it is complete freedom, a direct connection from artist to audience.”