Dark Arts

Meet the architects of Tumblr’s cyberpunk renaissance


We’re in a weird time for the way the future looks; somehow House of Cards can slyly introduce a floating text-message interface to their present-day political drama without so much as blinking, but most of our iconic near- and far-future worlds run on tracks laid down well before the ’90s. And it’s not just the recycling of every franchise from Star Trek to RoboCop: Avatar’s and Prometheus’ huge budgets couldn’t hide their indebtedness to the grandiose sci-fi storyboards of the ’70s. Which isn’t even to mention Oblivion.

It’s an odd misalignment, considering that cyberpunk outran these operatic, alien worlds more than three decades ago. But we haven’t had much innovation in that department, either; the lone leather-clad antihero jacking into the net got old fast, or at least caught up to our present moment quicker than the USS Enterprise.

Save for a few exceptions — Neill Blomkamp’s biotech-heavy District 9, the straight-up horrifying Black Mirror — technophilic dystopias kind of fell off around the time of the last Matrix. The cloud doesn’t exactly have the cinematic utility of, say, a USB cable straight to the back of the neck. Which is where we get movies like Her, and with it an LA that operates as cleanly as a brand-new MacBook Air.

Moore’s law is partially at fault — anyone who watched that video of Boston Dynamics’ WildCat robot knows what it feels like to realize the present is also the future. And it’s hard to blame writers and filmmakers for largely wanting to go with what works. As the novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote in his neurotic review of the Glass Explorers program last year: “To write a book set in the present, circa 2013, is to write about the distant past.”

Or, as the futurist and former champion of cyberpunk Bruce Sterling puts it in an email to The Verge: “Both cyber and punk are rather old-fashioned in 2014.” His contemporary William Gibson has for more than a decade also distanced himself publicly from the dystopic, outsider sci-fi genre, telling the Paris Review that the term only existed “to safely assimilate our dissident influence, such as it was.”

Cyberpunk was assimilated, yes, but these days potent ideas go through a different process. Our collective image-generation machines — often, Tumblr dashboards — look more like a series of sieves than anything else, and they're all running over similar ideas in the sci-fi-obsessed corners of the internet.

Photo by Christian Schweikert lede artwork by Vang Cki

So even though cyberpunk may be dead, the people who grew up on Gibson’s writing, Akira, and Blade Runner are still around. You may have noticed their super-slick, minimalist version of sci-fi cropping up as they wrestle whatever’s left of the dissident genre into a different shape, folding in haute couture fashion designers like Iris Van Herpen and architects like Zaha Hadid, fine-art photographers like Filip Dujardin. Their version of sci-fi is minimalistic and classy, rearranging the familiar players — cybersecurity, futuristic war games, urban streetscapes, and mechanical bodies — into something cleaner, frictionless, and perhaps most importantly, wireless.

What’s emerged is a Renaissance man’s technoculture, heavy on the lifestyle porn and Japanese-inspired mecha, peppered with images of classic black motorcycles and hand-rendered illustrations. It’s a little more yakuza than Mad Max. And, as so often happens in a world where everyone’s a part-time aggregator, this stuff is being hashed not just in big-budget studios but through a network of artists on CGHub and ffffound, on Tumblr, and, gradually, in a smattering of small commercial projects.

"The development of sci-fi design into a slicker, darker, and in many ways more mature beast is something I have noted and enjoyed," says the designer Aaron Beck. If William Gibson is a distant and skeptical father figure to cyberpunk, Beck could be considered one of its favored sons. A designer at the special-effects house Weta, he has had a hand in some of the most innovative sci-fi world-building in recent memory: his name appears on the production credits for Avatar, District 9, and Elysium. Some of the designs he mocked up for the latter — of robo-couture fashion models and villains like the spawn of a werewolf and a stealth bomber — were circulated widely online, though they weren’t ultimately used in the final cut.

The lone leather-clad antihero jacking into the net got old fast

Beck says that as far as "science fiction design and art in general goes," he’s noticed "some cool and clean work ... a blending of European high fashion with Japanese science-fiction design." And for those scrapped Elysium renderings, he wanted to see how "designer label advertising could influence a synthetic body in subtle ways." Beck cites this kind of cross-pollination across genres as a practice that might make his work "stand out in a sea of generic, ‘cool’-looking science fiction art."

He also happens to mention Otaku Gangsta. Maybe you’re seen him around — he has a little over 13,000 followers on Tumblr and at least one person I spoke to called him "prolific." William Gibson is a fan; he shouted him out on Twitter a few years ago. In a given day Otaku Gangsta might post a delicate black-and-white fractal graphic; a rendering of a complicated, fictional police drone; a pleasantly arranged set of stock-photo guns, a clean studio image of a Kendo swordfighter; a classy airbrushed poster of an astronaut, and a page from the manga series Shigurui.

Otaku Gangster, real name Dietrich Groundsel, explains what he does in Gibson’s words, appropriately enough. "The Otaku," he writes, "the passionate obsessive, the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur, more concerned with the accumulation of data than of objects."

Groundsel has been on Tumblr since March 2010, when he started cataloging those various passionate obsessions, of which he has quite a few. In a single paragraph of one email he manages to mention six graphic novels, twelve films, seven anime series, six electronic musicians and four clothing companies he’s influenced by. He claims to take "several hours" each day to scroll through the 515 Tumblrs he follows; his other sources range from unknown users on CGHub to the buried online archives of the Seoul Museum of Modern Art. Groundsel may be a particularly thorough example of an image blogger cleaving together sources like these, but he’s just one node in a vast network, among them the Robotic Network and the Shinobi Gang.

Dress by Iris Van Herpen, photo courtesty Flickr.

The Shinobi Gang was born about three years ago by a group of six people connected pretty much exclusively through their taste; some of them followed each other on Twitter or talked on the forums of lifestyle brands like Super Future. Andrew Berg, who posts on the blog alongside Groundsel, says that when he started following some of these blogs he experienced a moment of instant recognition: "It was like, there’s someone out there who likes almost the exact same thing I’m into," he says.

"We share a lot of the same aesthetic," says Groundsel, "so it’s easy to be tempted to just reblog or retweet what everyone is posting. But instead it creates a positive feedback competition to find the freshest image."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of its members profess near-identical influences; they speak of discovering the canon of classic American cyberpunk in their early teens and devouring it before moving on to the next generation of East Asian cyberfictions like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. Berg says he prefers the Japanese robotic sensibility, with its emphasis on the empowering nature of technology rather than on the monstrous, alienated Frankensteins that tend to appeal to the American imagination.

"Biotech has moved beyond hacking a jack into someone's spinal column."

Matt Marrocco, who posts on the Shinobi Gang group blog along with Groundsel under the name Brave Cadet, says he’s interested in tech but finds traditional cyberpunk imagery overwrought and dated.

"Biotech has moved beyond hacking a jack into someone’s spinal column," he says. "But some of the themes found in cyberpunk — human and machine interfaces, biotech, street fashion — seem to have evolved beyond that genre into a much more current and relevant aesthetic … [it’s] much more minimal."

Now many of the members of Shinobi Gang are graphic designers, industrial designers, front-end developers, products of a computer age where nerds are the cultural producers rather than the outliers. Some of them are nearing 40. They’re people who’ve made the rendering of beautiful images their business.

"We all have a little bit of the addict in us," too, says Berg. Among them, they cross-post from sources as ideologically divergent as pro-Second Amendment blogs and ArchDaily, FastCo Design and DeviantArt. Their little corner of the internet overlaps with other quite similar projects whom they name-check as well: they include the more obviously battle-ready Sink00 and the colder, heavily dystopic neuromaencer.

Artwork by Vang Cki

As a woman, the latter remains an exception to the general rule; she, too, cites Gibson as the primary inspiration for her image curation, though she notes she’s moved toward a more "general approach" as well in recent years. Her color-corrected found images, which run down the page in a slow gradient, are just as influenced by the present-day future as the speculative one: "urban landscapes, architecture, biology, fashion," she writes.

A few months ago, another of Aaron Beck’s projects caught fire. Keloid, a three-minute short he worked on in collaboration with the Barcelona-based studio Big Lazy Robot, was produced by the commercial house as a not-for-profit moment of "creative release." It’s a beautiful and deeply creepy couple of minutes, panning across near-pitch-black interiors, gothic porcelain mecha-like dolls, and waves of boxy robots that might have more in common with Soviet architecture than C-3PO. About a minute in, the camera pans through the hallway of a grand manor house, its damp-looking stones lit by a single chandelier as glistening, inky robots stand guard along the walls. Keloid seems to lack any coherent narrative, but that didn’t stop big studios from speculating that it deserved a feature-length format largely on the basis of its look.

Though these newer strains of sci-fi are the products of an increasingly globalized world and the breakneck speed at which image-sharing is possible, there’s a pervasive sense that many of the sea changes in Western futuristic world-building are the products of designers looking at and being shaped from a young age by East Asian culture, from Cowboy Bebop to Seven Samurai to the ‘80s-era TV series Robotech. Sure, Japanophilia (and the modern pop-cultural Orientalism that that sometimes goes along with it) has been around for quite some time — in Gibson’s words in the early 2000s, "Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future."

But Andrew Berg, the designer, sees something else that’s happened over the longer term; it’s a feedback loop, an exchange of images distorting and influencing each other as they cross cultural boundaries. He uses the example of anime, which he says "now influences the way that Disney and Pixar movies are drawn. Same thing with American culture — they take it and they treasure it and distill it down so that you don’t even recognize it anymore." Which would explain how mecha ended up in The Lego Movie, with Emmett tromping around in something as ridiculously American as the bright yellow "Construct-o-mech."

Artwork by Aaron Beck

It’s not just Beck and a handful of obsessives on Tumblr who are thinking it might be time for the way sci-fi looks to grow up, either. The French directorial team Fleur & Manu have been sculpting something similar over the course of their career, most obviously in their video for Gesaffelstein’s "Pursuit," an oblique montage of firearms and gothic architecture, naked chicks and scientists in lab coats against a high-contrast grayscale that would be familiar to anyone who follows Otaku Gangsta.

"We want to open the gate to a new sci-fi."

Fleur & Manu are no strangers to sci-fi; their earlier three-part video series for M83 was conceived in part as a tribute to
Akira and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In interviews, they’ve been openly critical of big-budget science fiction, describing their projects as being "less about the effects and the huge machines" and "more ecological." In the wake of their success with M83, the team was approached by at least two Hollywood studios, but after reading the scripts declined the offers: in Fleur’s words, "You see that in Hollywood there is a crisis … they reproduce the same ideas again and again."

"We want to open the gate to a new sci-fi," added Manu, and they very well might get the chance. In interviews the duo has said that, having rejected a few, they’re working on their own feature script, and their creepy, antiseptic style recently showed up again in another video — this time a kind of King Midas spin on body modification.

Still from the music video for 'Pursuit' by Gesaffelstein, directed by Fleur and Manu

For people who are obsessed with spaceships and cyborgs and shots of futuristic neon cityscapes in the rain, Tumblr is a very good place to be — so much so that there’s enough room for the high-fashion, gothic sci-fi as much as the endless scrolls of Chris Foss-style neon. But the service has basically made its business being a place for people Groundsel might call "otaku" — there’s a reason fuckyeah(thing you love).tumblr is such a popular URL. If there’s one thing the microblogging site does well, it’s refine eye candy into ever more specific subgenres, creating endless riffs that echo off of a few small visual cues — and are then, often simultaneously, picked up by and adapted further by the people who get paid to render these worlds.

Berg notes that one of the joys of Tumblr is that it doesn’t matter what you think of your fellow bloggers ideologically — "It’s not muddled by their personality, with an image blog," he says. Where cyberpunk, as a genre, was first a set of collective literary ideas strip-mined of its politics for a few potent symbols, this is image-first genre creation. It’s either a reverse-engineering of previous models or a rejection of them. And there is, of course, a chance that something as full and identifiable and eventually rote as cyberpunk will never happen again; that the idea of genre itself is, like pop music or punk, a relic of a pre-internet age.

Artwork by Vitaly Bulgarov.

Still, all this stuff is filling some sort of hole, if only a purely aesthetic one, in the empty spaces left between blown-out ideas: the Hollywood robot Frankensteins and the outdated body mods and what will, of course, continue to be our culture-wide practice of retromania.

If cyberpunk tech was antiauthoritarian, intentionally grotesque, cobbled together in the manner of punk rock, it could be because it was pushing against something monolithic: the Tyrell Corporation or even The Matrix's well-dressed agents, refractions of a very '80s idea of the smooth world order. But we don't really live in that world anymore. The Tyrells of 2014 live inside the machine, tracking our likes and dislikes; they're harder to draw clean lines around. Our era is one of covert viral marketing and a vibrating insistence on the importance of the personal brand.

Some of these Tumblr accounts, while inspired by the cyberfictions of the '80s, are uniquely millennial in that way, focusing more on the trappings of personal taste than on storming the tower. Their decadent assimilation of expensive and beautiful objects tends to power-wash the grittiness of Gibson's vision and leave something more like, yes, the lone gangster; the techno-Scarface whose every environ operates as smoothly as the slickest of Jony Ive's UIs.

In 2014, it's hard to imagine even one of the last modern cyberpunk-ish heroes, Neo, figuring in at all. Our Matrix is so much more diffuse, and our enemies so omnipresent — it's the NSA tapping the iPhone in your pocket, the webcam in your shiny new MacBook Air. There really is no pulling out the jack. So the people who grew up on cyberpunk have become slicker and more efficient, projecting a hyper-refined and expensive sense of taste, favoring clean lines, baller outfits, powerful matte-black weapons, and the kind of opulence telegraphed by machines without visible seams.

Photography courtesy Christian Schweikert and Zach Balbino.
Original artwork courtesy Vang Cki, Vitaly Bulgarov.