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.