Utopia in the Polygon: Vaporwave Animation (2019)

research essay, as published in the Journal of Visual & Critical Studies

“Vaporware” is the name given to a product, usually computer software or hardware, that has been advertised to the public, and whose production is either on hiatus, or still in the conceptual stage. It is also the origin of the name for the post-internet subculture that is “vaporwave,”[1] a micro-genre that embraces the sonic and visual aesthetics of the 1980’s through the early 2000’s. The name pokes fun at the late capitalist practice of promising non-existent products, and evidences vaporwave’s preoccupation with consumerism and emptiness, both figurative and literal. It also makes reference to the 20th century conviction that technological advancement would be the harbinger of a utopian society. Enter the internet age, and there is a far more jaded perception of technology. For Generation Y and Z, vaporwave has emerged as a tool for critical commentary of market-oriented, and therefore, socially manipulative, technological innovation.[2]

“Digital natives” find themselves feeling anxiety as victims of this impersonal impetus that orchestrated the cultural elements of their childhood experiences,[3] and seek to repair this anxiety with the pro-sumption of vaporwave products, the warm glow of nostalgia providing the cushion. Criticism is not the only principle that dictates vaporwave, since there is also a grasp at encapsulating the emotion of nostalgia, an action with inherently sympathetic motives. Nostalgia at its heart is already a dual phenomenon, an encounter with the physical manifesting as a positive emotion, with the former acting as a trigger for the latter. Hence, nostalgia is at once the catalyst and material of vaporwave content, and it is only the pervasiveness of internet culture that could have allowed such re-categorization of an abstract emotion into an artistic tool. The “continuously evolving critical dialogue” of the post-internet world,[4] and widespread access to information has opened up pathways for new cultural connections and art forms to be created. Currently, appropriation on the internet is one such pathway, having become “an organic behaviour within the wider context of experiencing life online,”[5] and it has given rise to a self-reflexive relationship in internet art, where the internet condition informs the internet’s output. Vaporwave is simply one of these manifestations, since appropriated material, consisting of external iconography and internet culture itself, forms the basis of almost all its content.

Where does animation enter this dialogue? First, it is prudent to outline what the visual aesthetic conventions of vaporwave actually are. Formal treatment typically follows the principles of early web design/computer graphics, pixel art, and low-poly 3D-rendered objects. Among the highly surrealist scenes, objects are often depicted representationally, but abstractions are embodied in artificial colour schemes and geometric compositions. Typically found elements include: “neon colours, Windows 95 glitch art, corporate logos, images of Greek and Roman busts, melancholy 8-bit images of cityscapes, beaches, and other quasi-utopian aesthetic ‘elsewheres’, and Japanese anime and text.”[6] The overarching theme is “capitalist alienation,”[7] recalling brand iconography, the convergence of high/low art, and cyberpunk. Similar points of reference, such as early computer sounds, corporately endorsed musak, and Japanese vocal samples, are also found in vaporwave subculture’s musical counterpart. The result is a kitsch collaging of various nostalgic references. However, while kitsch is often used to highlight the “aesthetically impoverished” and “gaudy”[8] qualities of commercialism, and in a digital context, represent the information overload mediated by the pervasiveness of technology, when it comes to vaporwave, it instead takes on a sincere, and panged celebration of these “degenerate” aesthetics.[9] The parameters for what dictates these aesthetics are what theorist Raymond Williams calls “’structures of feeling’, referring to a particular set of feelings specific to a time and place that informs formal and stylistic conventions in art.”[10] Ultimately, the set of feelings vaporwave reproduces is “a melancholy affect through its aestheticization of the depthlessness,”[11] digital vacuity substituting for the physical experience of nostalgia, allowing the emotion to remain.

It is clear that animation makes up a massive part of the visual language that comprises the vaporwave visual culture, which has found a life of its own beyond musical spheres and permeated into the internet art lexicon. It takes only one search of the term “vaporwave” into the hashtag search engine on Tumblr, the image-based website built around user-generated content argued to be the platform that launched the vaporwave aesthetic,[12] for a plethora of curated, animated vaporwave art to reveal itself. Some posts are looped .gif excerpts from existing animated films or TV shows, heavily edited in the vaporwave style, or if they possess nostalgic value or encompass the vaporwave aesthetic, they are left as they are. Some posts are original artworks made by online artists, who usually remain anonymous,[13] shared by themselves or other Tumblr users.

The simple fact that vaporwave art’s greatest presence is on a user-generated sharing platform is also a clue towards its intentions. The democracy of such a website is in line with the concept of utopia, harkening back to modernist idealisations of technology’s potential for unifying society, idealisation that was marketed to fuel innovation. Vaporwave’s pro-sumers wish to revisit this time period emotionally, so using digital production techniques that emerged at the time of the internet’s birth is a way to cement this temporal aura. When such production techniques have become outdated, it becomes easy to associate them with amateur talents and low quality, particularly where the development of computer graphics and 3D technology is concerned. This idea of early stage digital artwork being inferior, however, is part of the appeal of vaporwave. The lack of technical proficiency in these artists’ content reflects the core values of online culture, which sees itself as an egalitarian utopia, where even the unskilled have a voice.[14] In my view, this must mean that the inverse is true: low-quality production in web content symbolises utopia. This justification becomes especially relevant when considering vaporwave visual landscapes as representations of an ideal, modernised world, both a critique of such a quixotic outlook and a melancholic yearning for such optimism, spurned by childhood nostalgia.

What does it mean, then, to enliven these images with movement? Why do vaporwave visuals often find themselves in motion rather than static? When interpreting the motives for creating vaporwave art as attempts to recreate the physical experience that induces the nostalgic emotion, or at least, satisfy a learned utopian idealism, it can be ascribed that choosing animation as the medium to translate such desires is the most visceral way for those desires to become realised. Computer animation occupies its own type of materiality that flirts with the boundaries between spirituality and functionality, for its liveliness and mechanical construction respectively.[15]
Considering animation beyond the purely representational allows it to be a vessel for transmutation and fantasy, which vaporwave animation seeks to do by giving a vivid face to the abstract emotion of nostalgic ache, and visualising an idealised universe. The ability to transfer oneself into the universe, and recreate the experiential cues that induce nostalgia in real-time, is a way to travel back in time and satisfy the ultimate goal when it comes to nostalgia: to transform it from an emotional imprint from the past, into a liveable experience once again. Furthermore, the means of vaporwave’s community-based distribution on the internet plays into the utopia-centred content of the vaporwave animation, and the absence of individualistic artist identity encourages transmutation.

In fact, the current social media and video game cultures strengthen this urge to don the identities of those on the screen. The social media landscape, with its emphasis on profiles and shifting user interfaces, rendering it animated in its own right, and video games, which often employ avatars as part of their gameplay, have become absorbed into daily culture. In the post-internet age, culture does not exist separate of the internet and digital literacy, a boundary permanently broken by the explosion of the smartphone in the mid-2000’s.[16] When such transferences of identity onto digital avatars become normalised, it is not too difficult to imagine that digital natives could use the medium of the internet to wear the identity of an individual who could have experienced the cultural elements that inspired vaporwave. This is a therapeutic “memory play” that exacts “compensatory” nostalgia to replace memories that people may not necessarily have had,[17] which philosopher Brian Massumi deems “a paradoxical realm of potentiality in which intensities that cannot otherwise be experienced can be felt.”[18] The pro-sumption of vaporwave animation is simply a cognitive way to decode the source of digital natives’ anxieties by reliving the era’s positivities and affective spaces.

1. Laura Glitsos, “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls”, (Popular Music, Aug. 2017), 106.

2. Sharon Schembri and Jac Tichbon, “Digital Consumers as Cultural Curators: The Irony of Vaporwave”, (Arts and the Market, Feb. 2017), 200.

3. Jennifer Chan, “Notes on Post-internet”, (You Are Here: Art after the Internet, London: Home and Space, 2017), 114

4. Michael Connor, “Post-Internet: What It Is and What It Was”, (You Are Here: Art after the Internet. London: Home and Space, 2017), 57.

5. Elisavet Christou, and Mike Hazas, “Its Just the Internet! Appropriation in Post-Internet Art”, (Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Digital Arts - ARTECH2017, 2017), 132.

6. Alican Koc, “Do You Want Vaporwave, or Do You Want the Truth?: Cognitive Mapping of Late Capitalist Affect in the Virtual Lifeworld of Vaporwave”, (Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, 2016), 61.

7. Ibid., 61.

8. Adam Harper, "How Internet Music is Frying Your Brain", (Popular Music, 2017), 93.

9. Ibid., 95.

10. Koc, “Do You Want Vaporwave”, 63.

11. Ibid., 59.

12. Glitsos, “Vaporwave, Or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls”, 103.

13. Schembri and Tichbon, “Digital Consumers a Cultural Curators”, 201.

14. Nick Douglas, “It’s Supposed to Look Like Shit: The Internet Ugly Aesthetic”, (Journal of Visual Culture, 2014), 315.

15. Kenny Chow Ka-nin, "The Spiritual—Functional Loop: Animation Redefined in the Digital Age", (Animation, 2009), 88.

16. Connor, “Post-Internet: What It Is and What It Was”, 61.

17. Glitsos, “Vaporwave, Or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls”, 104.

18. Koc, “Do You Want Vaporwave”, 62.

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