Tag Archives: aesthetics

empty, ersatz nature

Damn, but Kate Wagner is a good writer. Here she is on the aesthetics of ruination for The Baffler:

Unlike images of nature’s reclamation of Chernobyl, there is no righteous, morbid, fetishistic pleasure to be found in Superfund sites whether or not they’re remediated. In a secular world free of mysticism, they are perhaps the closest approximation to what it means for a place to be haunted—by invisible poisons that destabilize communities and the bodies that inhabit them. Remediated sites, with their empty, ersatz nature mottled with the uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification, offer no decaying buildings or strewn-about gas masks to aestheticize. Often, the only titillating feature is a humble sign attached to the fence dutifully informing the observer that what they are looking at is indeed a Superfund project. The rather mundane reality can be underwhelming—we want to see visual symbols of death and decay caused by our misdeeds against the land. It is unfair that poisoned earth so often looks like the perimeter of an airport.

I know that “uninteresting sump-pump infrastructure of monitoring and purification” that Wagner mentions; Shirebrook Valley Nature Reserve is peppered with it, if you’re willing to look, as are many such green spaces around Sheffield and Rotherham.

We don’t really have an equivalent to the Superfund site in the UK, as far as I know — but we probably should have. Indeed, I’ve been living not far from one for the last seven years, and what was once the famous Orgreave colliery and coke-works is now half “nature” reserve (which proves every point ever made about the social/natural dichotomy) and half housing estate. I’m told that the Rother, which wends its way across the washlands just down the hill from my front door, was once reckoned to be the most polluted river in Europe (though I find that hard to believe, given the continued state of the Don, which still reeks of wrongness after heavy rainfall); you’d not know it now from a casual glance.

But who knows what lies beneath the silt and mud, lurking in the water-table, sucked up into the buddleja and brambles? A lot of industrial “remediation” projects in this country seem to involve either leaving a place overgrown and neglected for a few decades, or bringing in a layer of heavy topsoil in a manner analogous to capping a moribund landfill site… we can only hope that it’s enough, I guess. Every time I walk around Waverley, I wonder how many of its residents know what once occupied the land their homes are sat upon. Hell knows there’s little or nothing there to tell them about it.

(As a side note, much is made of Sheffield’s status as “England’s greenest city”, not least by the council itself. Less often mentioned is that many of the green spaces within the city boundaries are the sites of former coal pits; these spaces remain undeveloped largely because the excavations beneath make them unsafe and/or toxic, rather than due to the desire of the council or the development industry to make the city “greener”. But hey, if you’ve got a sow’s ear, you might as well make a silk purse of it, right?)

A commodified, nostalgic aesthetic

” …the visual remnants of vaporwave have long outlasted its radical ideological underpinnings. Almost immediately, its pastel, geometric, softcore aesthetics were gobbled up by media platforms, in particular the image-driven platforms Tumblr and Instagram. The pastiche compositions of Arizona Iced Tea cans and old Windows desktops were very quickly made available on all these commercial interfaces, which were not only feeding on a countercultural art movement—they were likewise consuming the ghosts of an internet they had long since murdered. The critique offered by vaporwave—its defiant sense of utopia—was immediately and effectively erased, leaving only a commodified, nostalgic aesthetic. And this aesthetic detritus, its millennial pink, Memphis-esque shapes and squiggles made entirely for Instagram, became cold, devoid of joy and playfulness, something the Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute, an ad hoc, Discord-based volunteer group which runs a popular series of blogs and Facebook pages cataloging various aesthetic tendencies across the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, simply calls the “bougie design aesthetic.”

Jameson, as I’ve mentioned, saw this coming, and he teaches us a fairly succinct lesson about the demise of vaporwave:

This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction—with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself. . . . It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum”. . . Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.”

If Guy Debord, in other words, had lived to see Instagram, he would have absolutely lost his gourd. I barely need to mention the dark side of the platform, the side that leaves people lining up for hours just to get a selfie, that has changed how we design products, furniture, even buildings and neighborhoods—all of this is well-documented. What is not so obvious is the way Instagram recycles the original aesthetics, indeed the political ethos, that arose from vaporwave and even the early internet itself, into a decontextualized set of images: the internet has become nostalgia in search of a platform.”

Kate “McMansionHell” Wagner at The Baffler.