dispatches from the fruiting body
it’s August 24, 2023. New York is having a cool august this year, no more burning summer heat: wet, humid, bearable. this city still smells like hot garbage, but with the distinctive undertone of a steamed garbage, rather than the bold pungency of roasted garbage that you get in july. beneath the stink of poorly managed municipal waste, in every corner, there is mold and rot. where construction sites are boarded up, under mazes of flourescent lights and scaffold, where it says post no bills, the effects of the humidity are distinctive: plywood curling up at the bottom, disintegrating; flyers peeling up at the edges where wheatpaste has failed them.
we weave our way through this endless contingency, this wasteland of cheap make-do, to the meadows. we take the l train, and i remember when times were simpler, when people dared to be seen on the l, when you could know the slow creep of the gentrification by the demographic changes between bedford and myrtle-wyckoff. but that was then, and this is now. i was growing up. now i am coming up. a little nausea, first; now we are rattling through the tunnels, but soon the world will come streaming in, all bright beautiful multiplicity.
i feel a little apprehensive, at first. i don’t know if i should expect what i should probably expect—the finest of the world’s terminally online, all together to party in this weird weimar moment, this moment when we can feel something beginning, when we know it might sweep us away, when the broken promises of the past are a kinder grief than the harsh mornings we awaken to—i walk with the ticket of the moment tucked beneath my tongue, an open secret that remains unsaid. we pass the door check. it’s 7:50. the event is just starting. the crowd is milling, slightly restless. a few nurse cocktails with the stiff, shy posture of those who partake infrequently. it’s notable that, despite the party lasting into the early hours, nobody gets drunk enough to puke. there is no stumbling, no alcoholic blurriness; only a sense of the emptiness that we hold within us, emptiness that begs to be filled, but not too much. to be overfull would be gluttonous, an irresponsible overload of emotion. no, it’s all for the vibe. a vibe that keeps you hungry. we all know what satisfaction guaranteed means: there is no such thing as satiation.
the first few sets start up; the crowd moves stiffly. the crowd is made of small molecules, charged and yearning. someone is dressed in a jumpsuit with a 90’s computer on their head. some attendees walk with the swagger of people who have found their singular and beautiful scene, where they are beautiful: they wear palm tree shirts, palm treat tees, and they move through this place like water. there are those who yearn to be collected. they look around, wondering if there’s someone they might know. they wonder if they should see if anyone from discord’s there. they do not know if they should speak to each other. they do not know what role the voice could hold beyond the text. it’s okay. for all the awkwardness, they are in the right place. they have found their millieu. this is their crowd: people in cargo shorts, people with tiny bags covered in buttons and stickers; people in bright cartoon print tshirts; people in 90’s windbreakers; goth girls; men and women and everyone in-between. neon genesis evangelion streetwear is in abundance; and i feel, for the first time in a very long time, a sense of homecoming.
we go out to the second stage, a tiny courtyard with a view of a hazy, cloudy sky. there’s a tent, because it’s been raining. but i don’t want to stand there; it feels claustrophobic. i want to stand and bathe in the light of the visual projections; i want to feel good; i want to let the light and sound race over me and through me and give me something that is better than what was before. i stare at the distorted visuals projected on the wall: static and noisy visualizations, entrancing. i smoke a cigarette. someone fishes out a joint and lights it clumsily, uncertain at first, and then puffs it: when it’s really burning, they relax with the sense that they’ve done their part of the puff and pass ritual. they all ease into it. i ease in, as well. the base swallows me whole and i go down easy, a smooth bolus, consumable consumer.
we wander back inside, where it’s become hazy. the fog machines and the speakers bellow vapor. the music is a more pronounced vaporwave, now: less trappy, fewer breakbeats, more vibe. but still, something feels odd about the room. something is missing. something is incomplete. a moment, a happening is on the cusp of blooming into being; but for now, the crowd is stiff-necked, nodding, waiting.
and then it happens: a new visual set appears and it’s a stream of images that we all know so well. we listen to vaporwave at home, on our computers, in the background of our lives; we listen while flipping through memes; we listen while doing our work; we listen when we’re trying to relax. vaporwave is always there, promising refreshments. the crowd says yea, yea, yea when images we recognize come up: memes, political and cultural, shitty quality jpegs projected flat against a white background. this is the moment when the tension dissolves; this is the moment when the show truly begins. this is the moment when whatever this is becomes something happening, all pulled from our terminals and stationed here, in a liminal space, between now and the next thing, between a bow wave and its wake. the crowd goes wild when an image of the capitol building, shittily photoshopped into flames,flashes across the screen.
video clips from french protests; footage from the 70’s; police buses; fighter jets, a-la mission accomplished; a faux newscast. computer handshakes, a woman vomiting, a webcam still, surveillance video, shiba inus, mark zuckerberg peering into a home through the window; slenderman in a suit and tie; pepe; spongebob, a man in an elmo suit on a motel bad. a monster truck, decked out, with AUTISM emblazoned on its side, hot wheels fantasy made flesh. look more closely; it reads:
AUTISM: IT’S NOT FOR WIMPS
there is a sense of levity now; a sense of collective connection over visual bonds. today, comrade, our visual bond is memetic; our visual bond becomes vibe. this humor is nihilistic; self-aware. no one is under any false impressions about where this scene originated. it emerged from 4chan’s /mu/ board about thirteen years ago; it became meme; it started a movement. it proliferated through the networks, propagated across platforms, spreading out roots of community and creativity throughout the internet. it became so ubiquitous that stable diffusion, trained on an image set derived from search engine crawlers, can reliably sort-of-replicate vaporwave memes from scratch.
vaporwave walter benjamin
vaporwave: that cold comfort, your background music for all those lonely hours you spent lost in the internet’s dizzying arcade. and within you it echoes—footsteps through the empty heart of a dying mall, commercials for pepsi that seemed so persuasive back in the 90’s, every one of capitalism’s false promises of working-class luxury free to enjoy, for a moment, from the inside out. and now it has spilled out of you, now it has flooded this space, and you must vibe with it. there is no alternative: smooth dancer or awkward bobber, scene mover or singleton fan, you are here and you are in the moment and without you it is not, so you better party.
we head outside. i smoke another cigarette, yearn for something else. a tired couple bums cigs from us; i ask, how did you find out about this? the man answers while his companion nurses her cigarette. he’d been listening to this on the internet since he was 15; he’d been following these artists for so long; they flew out from colorado and are now on the verge of passing out, yet the night demands more from them: hence, the cigarette. i’m too far gone, too dazzled to reply much; same.
i have hundreds of these lmao
the crowd filters back into the building, to the interior stage, and we flow with them. we are listening to an exuberant jazz saxophone riff. someone comes through, cautious not to elbow me out of the way, squeezing through the crowd and slipping through with the ease of eager electron. they tap someone on the back of the shoulder. the person turns around. they look at each other for a moment, just a missed beat, and then fold into a deep hug. it’s been so long. it’s so good to see you. they dig their fingers into each other, every late-night message chat, every virtual concert, every repost, every moment of online life blooming into being in the real. this is the fruiting body: this is the bloom, the moment when every quiet rhizomatic ideation is made fleshy, so human, so right. some of us do not know others here; some float as isolated atoms, but it doesn’t kill the vibe. we all know why we are here; it goes beyond speaking. for many, to collectively be without speaking is a soothing immersion into an us, we, our. the doors to the dying mall have opened and we have filtered in and now the galleria is lively again.
i look at the merch tables, i look at the people here, and i’m reminded of the old days: all those fan conventions, all the parties that used to rage long into the night. shots that taste like vanilla peanut butter, spicy fireball inhaled through the mouth of a fursuit. someone in a tiger mascot head ambles by, moving their head to the music. four people are wearing puppy masks, almost necking. everyone is okay with it. the security on duty walks through, looking bored. it’s a chill party. nothing to break up, nobody openly doing cocaine, a few sly poppers.
the air is slightly sweet with the fruity tones of nicotine vapes; box mods and palmed elf bars are in abundance here. nicotine is one of the drugs of choice; it keeps you going in that steady state of focus. it’s what you hit when you listen to vaporwave. at your workstation, at your gaming pc, walking or driving aimlessly at weird hours.
the computer person takes a group photo with their friends, shoulder-to-shoulder ribbon across the width of the merch alley. it’s getting late now, and i feel as hazy and foggy as the venue looks. with a whoosh, more cool is emitted from the machine, and it’s lit up a perfectly vaporwave blue-and-pink. a man in a tshirt and cargo shorts stands beneath one of the pink spotlights, face and body all illumination and shadow, staring with intensity at the play of his fingers, the fog, the sound, the light, the digital immanent, the interior wrought open by a night of music and camaraderie.
desert sand is one of the highlights of the night. the crowd begins to dwindle after midnight, but many are held in a hypnotic trance by the psychedelic tones of desert sand’s keytaur. it evokes an emptiness; a laziness; an openness; a solitude; a vibe of brutalist purity. but i’m coming down. the night cannot last forever. we filter out, go back to the subway, and head home. we rattle, cast back underground, through the subway; trace our lives in reverse; fall back into the comfortable solitude of our apartments, feel quiet moments that need music to fill. in the morning, the cold light of friday morning will hang grey and low over the city. but tonight, you can dream of vaporwave, endless and real.