From Pepe the Frog to cyber landscapes and digital skulls: Vaporwave hits Hackney

V a p o r w a v e.exe. Pics: Nicholas Thompson. Featured Prints: John Karbon, Jackson Payne, Marvin Watkins.

A new exhibition has taken an online genre that glorifies 80s and 90s imagery to a real-life gallery  in Hackney. Nick Thompson and Eve Watling report on Vaporwave.exe

The niche genre, vaporwave, was born out of the fascination for many with sleek, infinite cyber landscapes and glitchy early Internet graphics. Surreal nihilistic dread is communicated through neon pastels and flashing GIFs.

“I’ve always loved the style of the 80s and as a 90s child I felt a sense of nostalgia from seeing some of my childhood video games and cartoons used in this odd way,” said Marvin Watkins, curator of the Vaporwave.exe exhibition at A-side B-side gallery “It’s something that I can look at to feel that nostalgic emotion, as it’s something that I miss.”

There is an interesting tension in bringing vaporwave art from screen to gallery wall – a painting can’t flicker like a GIF, nor can it zoom into infinite computerised space. The best pieces in the show toy with the antagonistic dichotomy between reality and the Internet’s virtual universe.

Jackson Payne’s eye-catching series of paintings of Pepe the Frog memes are evidence of care and labour behind the production of what is usually a throwaway, mass produced image: a reversal of Warhol’s factory art.

Hackney artist John Karborn’s large-scale wall hangings feature dissolving digital skulls printed over thick silk. Fabric as a vaporwave medium works surprisingly well. The heavy folds of the fabric both mimic the sleek computer-generated shapes while working like a curtain to mask something too horrible to look at.

Vaporwave has political offshoots. Some artists use its hollow blankness to satirise the generic infomercial consumerism, but this isn’t on Watkin’s agenda for the show. “I don’t really subscribe to the political connotations of vaporwave,” he says. “I understand for some it reflects an anti-capitalist movement, but personally I just enjoy the aesthetics.”

It’s a shame that these ideas have been side-lined. In purely aesthetic terms it seems to have lost something in translation to real life. Mathieu St-Pierre’s distorted, glitchy collages of porn, logos and ads are thought-provoking; but as analogue images they evade the dynamism of movement and interaction that digital vaporwave art has at its disposal.

“I think vaporwave will maybe undergo a transition to a new format: Virtual Reality being one,” says Watkins. “I’ve already witnessed a few VR pieces that are mind-blowing, so hopefully this is the direction vaporwave will take.” Witnessing some of this futuristic wizardry would have been nice because the show was weighed down by reality.

The installation pieces are too [tangible] real and, on first glance, provoked laughs. John Karborn’s ‘Tremember?-no’ exhibits a sideways standing VHS recorder, 2 tiny SONY TV sets stacked on top of each other, a plant and a column of books.

Being greeted by these pieces is akin to being confronted by reality’s perverse, steadfast ability to disappoint. The absurdity of our collective idealisation for the analogue tech of yesteryear is laid bare here. Just like you have to see it to believe it; you have to see it to snap out of the nostalgia trip.  Karborn’s Tremember?-no is an ironic nod-jibe to our collective falsely implanted memory.

In light of Watkins anticipation of VR, one piece showcased what might be possible in the near future more than any other. Tim Gomersall’s offering: an iPad with changing tropical graphics à la Super Mario Sunshine with GameCube logos adorning the screen itself, was surely the most virtual imagining in the room.

Accompanying the piece were headphones that looped an originally composed vaporwave song combining the usual vaporwave/ lounge music/ Nintendo musical tropes. Gomersall’s work shows how one-day vaporwave art might be as immersive as the place in which it came: the web.

Follow Nick Thompson and Eve Watling on Twitter.

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