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Save The Seapunks

How a nostalgic net aesthetic rose and fell in a sea of trash

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In Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris, a sentient, oceanic planet gives birth to the deepest shames of the astronauts who visit it. Whatever guilt the explorers carry in their minds emerges from the sea: abandoned babies, dead wives, secret lovers all appear light-years from home to wander the research base. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film adaptation of the book ends when the protagonist, Kris Kelvin, seemingly returns home. But then rain falls from his ceiling, and the camera pans out to a God’s eye view; he’s trapped on an island in the middle of Solaris’s roiling ocean, in a replica of his house created by the sea.

For as long as there’s been literature, the ocean has served to mirror the mind. It cocoons islands full of temptation in The Odyssey; it shrouds the unknowable, invincible Other in Moby-Dick. It’s fitting, then, that the multimedia web genre known as seapunk originated in a dream. "Originally the term came from a friend of ours on Twitter," Lilium Kobayashi, known online as Ultrademon, told the Chicago Reader in an early-2012 interview. "He hashtagged '#seapunk' because he had this dream about a leather punk jacket that had barnacles on it."

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A visual aesthetic, characterized by rudimentary computer animation, saturated blues and pinks, and lots and lots of ocean waves, grew from the neologism. A musical subgenre, resting somewhere along the seam between new age and house, emerged not long after. Ultrademon and Shan Beaste, a.k.a. Zombelle, are often credited with founding the web movement that would include fellow net artists like Myrrh Ka Ba and Unicorn Kid, and that would burn out not long after its first dizzy, kaleidoscopic videos started to pop up online.

"All of us were really attached to this, like, digital kind of paradise, ocean-themed aesthetic," Ultrademon told the Reader. "We're making music and art based off of it, and seapunk just was a name and a way to unify everybody."

Nostalgic in sound and in look, seapunk yearns for the pristine world of the 1990s. Its operating system is Windows 95; it sources imagery from Sonic the Hedgehog, Flipper, and Ecco the Dolphin, and it nods to breakbeat, techno, dial-up modems, and Pure Moods in its music. The early ‘90s were a good time for the sea. Films like The Little Mermaid and Free Willy depicted its inhabitants as (mostly) benevolent, while environmental campaigns gently urged children to save both water and whales simply because it was the right thing to do, not because climate crisis posed an imminent cataclysmic threat.

The tenor of the ocean in culture soon changed. It swallowed a ship whole in 1997’s Titanic, and two year later Deep Blue Sea reinvigorated Jaws-style horror by casting bioengineered super-sharks as aquatic villains. The Perfect Storm followed in 2000; Open Water in 2003. Ocean horror was back, and though the genre now often takes an absurdist tone (see: Sharknado), it persists.

Perhaps Americans fear the ocean because we see it as something that will take revenge, just as we would if we were treated the way we treat it. We put our trash there — millions and millions of tons of it. It’s where the oil that powers our cars spills, smothering birds and otters. Save the Whales initiatives, started in the ‘70s to cut down on human hunting of the animals, now seem quaint in light of what our species is doing to the ocean as a whole. A harpoon, at least, represents a singular, violent intent. Constant global pollution happens without violence, without malice, simply as a side effect of the way people have chosen to live.

"Of the total materials that flow through the U.S.’s production and distribution processes every day, 99% will be waste within six months," reads the editor’s note to The New Inquiry’s 2015 issue on trash. "In a real, material sense, capitalism doesn’t produce goods nearly so much as it produces trash."

Nothing seems to curb the flow of trash into the ocean, in part because trash disappears beneath the waves. Even scientists have trouble seeing it. A 2014 study of seaborne garbage found that much of the ocean’s plastic had somehow dissolved into its vast depths. "Our observations show that large loads of plastic fragments, with sizes from microns to some millimeters, are unaccounted for in the surface loads," marine ecologist Andres Cozar Cabañas said in an interview with National Geographic. "But we don't know what this plastic is doing. The plastic is somewhere — in the ocean life, in the depths, or broken down into fine particles undetectable by nets ... Sadly, the accumulation of plastic in the deep ocean would be modifying this enigmatic ecosystem before we can really know it."

Humanity pours unwanted matter into a void that vanishes it, and yet we expect the void to have memory. We produce so much plastic, burn so much petroleum, that the icecaps shrink, so the ocean grows. We imagine it’s coming for us, coming to flood the cities that make up the hubs of our excess consumption — sitting targets for the sea’s slow vengeance.

Seapunk holds that dark future in the same vessel in which it holds its idealized vision of the past. Its paradises, however colorful, are obviously false. Oceans shine with impossible luster; palm trees appear metallic; dolphins float above the surface, unburdened by gravity. Inside this fake utopia hides the real world’s end. Zombelle and Myrrh Ka Ba’s "Tropocalypse" video splices distorted footage of ocean liners with scenes of Ecco the Dolphin frantically navigating underwater mazes. A late Myrrh Ka Ba EP is called Eschatonique, a play on the theological term for doomsday.

Rihanna killed seapunk, or so the story goes, in November 2012 when she performed "Diamonds" on Saturday Night Live. Instead of the studio’s usual stage, she appeared against a green screen populated with seapunk and vaporwave sigils: dolphins, Roman ruins, miles of virtual surf. Days later, Azealia Banks — who briefly collaborated with, and later shunned, Ultrademon and Zombelle — released a parody of Rihanna’s performance as her "Atlantis" video. It’s hard to say where, exactly, her blow was aimed, but seapunk’s progenitors felt the sting: "SWAGGERJACKERS," Zombelle raged on Twitter.

Formed as an alternative to mass media, seapunk eventually diffused and dissolved, like anything interesting is bound to do — absorbed by the culture at large like microparticles into the small intestine of a critically endangered sea turtle. Plastic paradises are as fragile as they look, and even memories of techno-optimism get corrupted by capitalism’s eschatological bent. Our seas fill with trash, and so, perhaps, do we.