21 March 2016

Vaporwave Art - The 90s Comes to Nostalgia as Commentary on Electronic History

I'm definitely coming late to the party in commenting on Vaporwave now; it's been a thing in music for so long now that there's a decent writeup of the genre on Wikipedia. In terms of visual art, less has been written, but it is by no means something hot off the press: there are long-running threads devoted to it on 4chan's wallpaper board, where "dank papes" are traded amongst the anonymous userbase like some form of performative currency (that the whole website reeks of the very nostalgia referenced in Vaporwave itself is probably not lost on those posters). 

What is visual Vaporwave? You get a sense of it from browsing the images people put up online. 4chan's own /wg/ board does a good job of summarizing the aesthetic in higher-res (itself almost a contradiction in terms, but more on that later):  

A pretention to magnetic/digital/compressed decay is evident throughout, layered over yet another filter of 90s consumerism, rad-ness, and postmodern technological optimism salad; a sort of visual recompilation of that decade's corporate attempt to co-opt "cool" from the subculture(s) that can look back on that era's boogie-man (the evil corporation) with a bit of soft nostalgia, safe in the knowledge that technology's acceleration of time has also accelerated the decay of that vision. What companies once thought to commit to the immortal 'net is now the quaint flotsam of Web 1.0, VHS tape records, and woefully outdated tech demos which now, inverted from their temporal position at the cutting-edge, ensconce their product referents in the obsolescence of the past.

- "web-friendly" images
- magenta filters
- "digitized" reality/tron-ness
- pop-culture references (muscle cars, personal computers, VHS tapes, "miami aesthetic")
- corporate allusions
- the mixing of "high" culture with "low" culture
- conversion of human/natural into technological/synthetic

These are the hallmarks of the aesthetic in the above images, themselves a sort of curated sampling of the art as it is presented to me by 4chan, selected on the criteria of what I feel best embodies the aesthetic. The semantic process each of these visual elements produce in us is worth a whole different post, but my own response may be best summed up with the keywords nostalgia, decay, comfortableness/fuzziness, warmth, technological/digital naiveté, and perhaps past ambition

Why am I commenting on this now? What relationship does this have to the thematic restriction of this blog (SF, futurism, etc.)? Mostly tangential. I have recently commissioned a logo for my own custom computer building service, which I (appropriately enough) advertise through another Web 1.0 site - Craigslist. You can take a look at my logo here and judge for yourself how close to the mark it is, and why I would want to associate a high-tech service that I spend a great deal of time keeping current with this nostalgia-fest:

If you want a quote on a custom computer HMU @ adamwykes@gmail.com
Insofar as Craigslist, the act of building your own desktop computer, and garage web entrepreneurship are elements of the 90s scene, it seemed to make sense to me to go with the flow instead of fighting it. 

I do think this also has a little to do with futurism. Not that I'm saying anything particularly new here, but our retrospection on the dawn of the information age is itself a reflection of our current attitudes toward its ongoing evolution - there is a sense of paradise lost, a feeling of the inevitable erosion of time that we now know creeps through even our most bit-perfect incarnation of our own culture (the digital web). Vaporwave is a reminder that the present becomes history - even the present this generation used to know. Indeed, it seems to indicate that technology's Moor-ish rate of progress is going to press historicity on past moments sooner than before. The illusion of control over technology and culture is eroding. The sooner we realize that we don't really control our own products so much as we exist in a maelstrom of recursive iteration, the better we will have aligned ourselves with reality. 

Remix culture is not new, but our awareness of it is.