The sound of magick for a post-human age

, 19 July 2013

The triumphant reuse of technoutopian aesthetics and visions of imaginary hyper-capitalist paradises is a tiny and fleeting, but surprisingly powerful, current in Internet art. While rooted in music – practically all of the artists which fall under this category, Daniel Lopatin’s eccojams included, are predominantly occupied with music – the microgenre described as ‘vaporwave’ is actually a multimedia experience, built of equally important sound, visuals and a web of semiotic references.

This holistic approach to creativity surprisingly echoes a similar, but much earlier and more ideologically laden movement – ‘industrial music for industrial people’. The “wreckers of civilization” of the late 1970s proclaimed an information war on all possible fronts, in which music (or rather ‘antimusick’, designed not to be pleasant to the ear) was only one of many weapons. Vaporwave – consciously or not – follows a similar pattern, in which music plays a certain, yet not the most important, role. The main difference lies in the aims and purposes; while industrial was a deliberate movement which continued the 20th century artistic traditions of declaring war against society, online microgenres remain half web-savvy sarcasm, half – Warhol-esque commentary on the collective dreams of wellbeing and wealth, in which creators are more curators than artists. With a stretch of imagination, one can envisage vaporwave as good old industrial’s much younger, less rebellious, and slightly spoiled cousin, which doesn’t attempt at forming a separate underground movement, but remains an elusive, plasmatic, and still quite a fascinating being.

The main problem with vaporwave, raised by many commentators, is that there is not much worth in the music itself. Borrowing from the sonic detritus of all sorts – deformed radio hits of yore, elevator music, utilitarian, placeholder sounds – it often blurs the line between pastiche and actually becoming what it pokes fun at. The recent PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises was indeed a step too far –an exhaustingly long excursion into the shiny void of corporate sound –which contributed to the feeling of doubt. Others try to find their own ways, Transmuteo sets in the direction of a more auteur version of ambient, Nmesh takes old vaporwave tropes –like slowed down, grotesquely bent chart pop – to disturbingly hallucinatory territories, resembling Psychic TV’s take on Serge Gainsbourg or a lighter version of V/VM. Another artist, Contact Lens, balances, with mixed success, between ‘instrumental rap’ and wonky Windows 95 inspired hauntology.

Contact Lens ‘ tracks, collected in three Bandcamp releases, often resemble the ‘contemporary library music’ –royalty-free sample loop collections, given away with music magazines. They’re sensibly balanced with a dose of healthy sarcasm or thoughtful, bright, cultural trolling, at which internet artists identified with the vaporwave circles excel. When Contact Lens utilises fragments of prepared, pastiche 1980s pop beats (half melancholic italo disco, half Stock Aitken Waterman), making them purposefully devoid of any soul whatsoever, where the mind immediately skips to the audiophile thread in American Psycho and Patrick Bateman’s appreciation of Whitney Houston.

There is also Psychic LCD –perhaps less interesting musically than it is as a conceptual phenomenon (with a genius name for a start). The project’s Tumblr site fascinates with thoughtfully-curated visions of aseptic office spaces and stock photography’s very own universe. But the most interesting things are happening when they allow the spirit of techgnosis in. A mysterious video called ‘Super Wealth Manifestor’, posted on Psychic LCD’s Facebook page between regular tracks, leads the listener to “re-programming tools are unique and built to imprint your subconscious mind with new beliefs leading to new habits which will help you to be successful in life (…) create your own reality in a period between 30 and 90 days”. Intertwining a manipulative file (at least, one which promises to have a manipulative effect) in between music tracks dressed up as their pastiches is an act of technology-enhanced magick in the tradition of chaos magick, Temple Ov Psychick Youth, and self-improvement guru speak which Cut Hands’ William Bennett declares to be fascinated with. Even if it’s a mere prank on a purely aesthetic level, the unexpected connection with a modern approach to widely understood spirituality reveals a spark of curatorial genius.

All of which leaves us on a ground still unknown. Recently, TRURL of Tiny Mix Tapes expressed his uncertainty about the condition and nature of the genre (“perhaps the things that vaporwave has promised and never delivered on have been twofold: its own demise, and an understanding of itself”). Rumours about the supposed demise have been circling for quite a while already, and maybe they’ve become a component of the genre itself, its natural companion. Maybe then vaporwave –or whatever else this multidisciplinary current will be called in the future –is like the postmodern condition, which it mirrors, criticises and parodies. That is, one which can never be escaped or left, like a real Tumblr with a genuinely infinite scroll. **

Header image by Advanced Systems Array