When thinking about the retrofuturistic side of science fiction, people have categorized it in various ways. Just recently, Lorenzo Davia went all the way as to delineate the various uses of “-punk” in science fiction, sorted by time period. Although this is one helpful way of thinking about retrofuturism, it is also quite limiting in the sense that that time periods and examples he lists run in accordance to Western history.
Does that mean non-Western cultures don’t have a concept of retrofuturism? Of course not, but one of the challenges of conceptualizing retrofuturism in a non-Western context is the understanding that non-Western cultures may conceptualize time itself in a completely different way than how it is realized in the West. In this manner, the flow of time can be circular rather than linear; a person can look forward into the past instead of backwards; destines are repeated or mirrored or fractured in a dream space; the relationship between one’s perception of history can fully exist in the now as opposed to happening back then.
Thus, a non-Western retrofuturistic aesthetic take may not necessarily translate to anachronisms within known history, but change the flow of time, technology, and human advancement to truly create an alternate world divorced from our own. Take, for example, the school of Afrofuturism; though stemming from Futurism, the concept behind this science fictional aesthetic combines ancient African myth, legends, and non-Western cosmologies with sci-fi tropes of space travel, alternate universes, and alien planets to carve out a space where the racial and cultural Other can exist in this extraordinary “future” outside of normative time.
I’ve seen Afrofuturism have a big impact on non-Western aesthetics in science fiction. There is also a distinctive musical element to this concept of retrofuturism too, especially with the involvement of jazz, techno, hip-hop, and dub (all genres that also have roots in the African diaspora).
The dynamic of this past-future-musical influence is seen in the latest work of visual artist and writer Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca, who identifies as Columbian-American with African, Native, and European ancestry. He has been published in the United States and internationally, and his works have been on display in numerous mueums, including the Mori Museum/Mado Lounge in Tokyo, Japan; LACMA in L.A.; MOCA in L.A., the Institute of Contemporary Arts [ICA] in London; and Parco Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Much of his work also incorporates collaborations with a diverse group of artists, writers, and spoken-word poets known as Unification Theory. According to their website, the art collective is described as:
street futurism: visualizing the possibilities of the future through the prisms of Graffiti, Hip Hop, Spoken Word, Digital/Video Artwork, Techno, Funk and Jazz. The unification of these diverse creative minds builds new visual and sonic structures. This innovative collaboration of live music, DJ mixing, digital/video artwork projections and live painting is a new form of performance.
Now how much of Vaca’s work can be considered retrofuturistic, when it is also futurist? The key is the conceptualization of his art as working under the same guidelines that Afrofuturism had established: as an artistic method that recognizes the importance of the past when re-imagining the future. So it’s not too difficult to see how Vaca has become interested in the steampunk aesthetic. After the jump, I talk a bit more with Gustavo himself about his recent work.
Vaca’s newest Native steampunk work uses college to design empowering Native imagery that blends impossible tech with ancient tradition. In his story and art collection, The Multiple Entrance, he writes flash fiction that are retro-spins and re-evaluations of classic nineteenth century speculative fiction and non-Western legends and fantasies. These “remixed stories” take on the classic scientific romances such as The Time Machine, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Sherlock Holmes, 1001 Arabian Nights, Japanese ghosts stories, and Native folklore.
Welcome to the blog! It’s been a pleasure to see your work and it’s cultural inspiration. To start, may I ask, how you identify with being Native?
The way I identify to being “Native American” is in the broadest sense — as opposed to being specifically from this tribe or that tribe. That is because I am from Columbia in South America and I was born and grew up in North America. I speak English and Spanish and I have Native (Calima and Sinu) blood as well as European and African blood.
What indigenous tribes were you working with in creating this art? I notice some Pacific Northwest and some Aztec ones here, but am curious.
I work with elements from various tribal artworks and imagery, again because I view the being “Native american” in the broadest sense. In this way, the Native Element is a signifier for the Indigenous people and thought of all of America (and, essentially, the Earth).
What is your artistic relationship with Afrofuturism? I sense a bit of Sun Ra inspiration, with the use of the cosmic in these pieces.
It’s great that you noticed that. Actually, I visually collaborate with the various music artists who have been termed “Afrofuturists”: The John Coltrane Estate (spiritual jazz), Jeff Mills (Detroit Techno), Underground Resistance (Detroit Techno), Francois K’s deep Space (Dub) and George Clinton/Overton Loyd/ Parliament-Funkadelic (Funk).
Is your work a response to how the Native self can be reconstituted to challenge their history in the 1890s?
A response, yes. An answer, a solution to one way to rebuild our identity in this system of living that was forced upon us. A form to empower. A visualization of strength.
In the spaceship image above, where is that quote drawn from?
H.G. Well’s “First Men on the Moon.” For that image I created a space vessel out of various steam-age machinery parts. I believe in adapting from our pasts and surroundings (no matter how dark) to build a positive future.
Thanks for stopping by, Gustavo! Readers can get more info on his work on his website: http://www.chamanvision.com.