It was on a friend’s floor that Clairissa Mulloy found the laser disc she wore tied above her head like a charming sunhat—better than a CD; “More coverage,” she explained. And looking out over those dancers from an upper balcony, Nisey Shanks fluttered her eyelashes so they glowed blue—the deep cobalt of a screen with the input off. She had bought the motion-sensitive LED-strip lashes more than a year ago by supporting the project on Kickstarter, but they had only arrived that morning. “A sign,” she said.
Behind her, a projector broadcast a Windows screensaver against a 20-foot wide wall. Thirty-two cathode ray tube televisions flashed old clips of Fern Gully between tutorials by the US Geologic Survey. Couples stood in a line to mix VHS channels in real-time, turning a video of their faces green and pink and black. And in a wooden booth lined with mirrors and ceilinged in cameras, a man with a CD taped on a hard hat gyrated slowly, then emerged to watch his own performance—delayed by a TiVo, now blaring back at him from a teetering stack of television monitors.
This is the Carnival Ball for the Krewe of Vaporwave—a “krewe” being the local lingo for one of more than 40 private clubs whose members tug their parades through the city streets over the weeks ahead of Mardi Gras; and Vaporwave being the term for a musical genre born on the internet that came to embody a broader aesthetic movement, a cross-stitching of cultural symbols that, like Mardi Gras itself, mocks power and makes clear life’s absurdities. Unlike traditional Carnival krewes who toy with aristocracy by plucking debutantes to serve as “queens,” the Krewe of Vaporwave sends up a power structure that does more these days to rule our lives: the power of screens.
Founded in 2015 and organized over the internet (Craigslist ad, Reddit post, Google Shared folder) the group touts itself as the “first and only virtual Mardi Gras krewe.” Its parades can only be viewed in pixels: as a multiplayer video game available for download this year on February 6th, a broadcast on Twitch, or a recording taped onto VHS and sold at the ball for $12.
The concept pays homage to Vaporwave, an online movement that coalesced as YouTube users chopped, slowed, and spliced found audio in resistance of the site’s anti-pirating algorithms. Producers such as Ramona Xavier and James Ferraro gradually pushed their idea toward a cohesive sound—a pastel, neon wash that shimmered like an oasis above a dry critique of capitalism. Like Dada artists who repurposed the commercial flotsam of the past with scissors and glue, the collage of soulless muzak, retro advertising, and commercial pop reflected a culture at peak absurdity. For a generation that plumbs the attics of their fathers not to discover war relics or antique trunks but rather old computers, Vaporwave serves as nostalgia and resistance: an homage to old technology, a re-taking of its control.
“In that early TV-centered society, you were at the mercy of what was put on screen,” said Rachel Lin Weaver, a professor in the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech who teaches courses on video art, and came to the ball to run a mapped projection on a wall of spiky tetrahedrons. “We are so bombarded now. But Vaporwave references those earlier eras, the times when we could have still made a change.”
“It’s about the deep sadness of the internet,” said Win Butler, the Arcade Fire frontman and recent New Orleans transplant who DJ-ed under his latest pseudonym, Windows 2000, spinning analog vinyl of Whitney Houston’s 1992 “I Will Always Love You” and Washed Out’s “Feel it All Around”—a remix of a 1983 Italo-disco hit. In a crowd twisting below the DJ booth, Jesse Shamon wore a costume inspired by the program Microsoft Word, with the red zip of a spell-check underline painted on an eyebrow and earrings meant to look like the program’s How To host, the infamous Clippy. “As technology gets more threatening, we’re nostalgic for our humble beginnings, for a more docile precedent,” she said. “We’re quickly getting more Black Mirror than clip-art.”
The party Friday at The Music Box Village in New Orleans’ quickly gentrifying Bywater neighborhood drew about 600 people, according to the venue, but is only the group’s second ball. The first, dubbed the “IRL Ball,” drew 250 of the city’s growing class of artistic transplants out to a rented Daiquiri shack for headliner LilInternet, a Brooklyn DJ who is best known to Vaporwavers for inspiring a goofy dolphin-stuffed subset of the movement known as “seapunk.” “The vibe I got was ‘singularity kitsch,’” he said. “And a knowing, winking celebration of the self-awareness of our slide into hyper-reality.”
This year’s party had a more pointed target. Dubbed “The World’s Unfair,” the ball parodied the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans that, like other global expositions, aimed to sell visitors on the promise of a connected future. Booths repping countries and corporations from Canada to Chrysler advertised potential innovations. But the very human failures of the present rocked their arguments. It was the first World’s Fair to go bankrupt over the course of its run, as a group of Louisiana businessmen mismanaged it into the ground before the state stepped in. But contractors never got their full paychecks. And minutes after blessing a $10 million gondola ride, the Archbishop of New Orleans boarded a car, headed across the Mississippi, and lurched to a stop as the ride broke on its inaugural run.
One of the original gondola cars was on view at the party; a rented kiddie train was transformed into the fair’s monorail, and a local improv troupe that specializes in critiques of video technology—Special Features—recreated a cringe-y four-hour live broadcast filmed on the fair’s opening day.
“I just love the idea of something so grand that just fails so horribly,” said Visqueen, a member of the drag trio High Profile, who closed out the ball by stripping to lip-synched Vaporwave remixes of George Michael songs, deploying oversized cellphones, a mountain of fake cocaine (flour), and printouts of the singer’s face atop their jiggling rears in a goofy send-up of celebrity.
“This is a living meme that’s also a Mardi Gras organization,” said Max, a 15-year-old who joined the krewe after he was dragged along by his 50-year-old uncle. “It’s literally the internet.”
Only his uncle, who goes by the pseudonym Transceiver, didn’t see all that much new about Vaporwave. A tech designer who wired early social experiments about the internet for Josh Harris, the tech millionaire captured in the documentary We Live in Public, he only learned about Vaporwave at a recent maker faire. “Once it was explained to me what Vaporwave really is, I said, ‘I’ve been doing that forever.’”
For the ball, he affixed 48 donated computer monitors to the outside of a truck, controlling them with 48 raspberry pi’s via an iPhone app that let him flick through videos in real-time. Krewe members followed his lead to an after party at a former storefront church nearby, where the krewe’s captain closed out the night with a performance of his rap group.
As a DJ behind him sampled a guitar riff, the 37-year-old Harvard-educated religion major picked up a white, plastic controller from the game Guitar Hero and, windmilling his arms, stroked the toy like it could make real music, smashed it like he could foment a real revolution.
“If there’s anything I do that could leave blood on the walls, it’s this,” he said.