Retro-futurism

futuristic retro by Alexey Lipatov

Retro-futurism is a trend in the creative arts showing the influence of depictions of the future produced prior to about 1960. Characterized by a blend of old-fashioned ‘retro’ styles with futuristic technology, retro-futurism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology.

Primarily reflected in artistic creations and modified technologies that realize the imagined artifacts of its parallel reality, retro-futurism has also manifested in the worlds of fashion, architecture, literature and film.

The word ‘retrofuturism’ was coined by sound artist and magazine publisher Lloyd Dunn in 1983 in his fringe art magazine of the same name. The concept took its current shape in the 1970s; from the advent of the personal computer to the birth of the first test tube baby, this period was characterized by intense and rapid technological change. But many in the general public began to question whether applied science would achieve its earlier promise—that life would inevitably improve through technological progress.

In the wake of the Vietnam war, environmental depredations, and the energy crisis, many commentators began to question the benefits of applied science. But they also wondered, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, at the scientific positivism evinced by earlier generations.

Retro-futurism ‘seeped into academic and popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s,’ inflecting George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ and the paintings of pop artist Kenny Scharf alike.’ Surveying the optimistic futurism of the early twentieth century, the historians Joe Corn and Brian Horrigan remind us that retro-futurism is ‘a history of an idea, or a system of ideas–an ideology. The future, or course, does not exist except as an act of belief or imagination.’

Retro-futurism incorporates two overlapping trends which may be summarized as ‘the future as seen from the past’ and ‘the past as seen from the future.’ The first trend, ‘retro-futurism’ proper, is directly inspired by the imagined future which existed in the minds of writers, artists, and filmmakers in the pre-1960 period who attempted to predict the future, either in serious projections of existing technology (e.g. in magazines like ‘Science and Invention’) or in science fiction novels and stories. Such futuristic visions are refurbished and updated for the present, and offer a nostalgic, counterfactual image of what the future might have been, but is not.

The second trend is the inverse of the first: ‘futuristic retro.’ It starts with the retro appeal of old styles of art, clothing, mores, and then grafts modern or futuristic technologies onto it, creating a mélange of past, present, and future elements. ‘Steampunk,’ a term applying both to the retrojection of futuristic technology into an alternative Victorian age, and the application of neo-Victorian styles to modern technology, is a highly successful version of this second trend.

In practice, the two trends cannot be sharply distinguished, as they mutually contribute to similar visions. ‘Retro-futurism’ of the first type is inevitably influenced by the scientific, technological, and social awareness of the present, and modern retro-futuristic creations are never simply copies of their pre-1960 inspirations; rather, they are given a new (often wry or ironic) twist by being seen from a modern perspective. In the same way, ‘futuristic retro’ owes much of its flavor to early science fiction (e.g. the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells), and in a quest for stylistic authenticity may continue to draw on writers and artists of the desired period. Both trends in themselves refer to no specific time.

When a time period is supplied for a story, it might be a counterfactual present with unique technology; a fantastic version of the future; or an alternate past in which the imagined (fictitious or projected) inventions of the past were indeed real. Examples include the film ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,’ set in an imaginary 1939, and ‘The Rocketeer’ franchise, set in 1938.

Although retro-futurism, due to the varying time-periods and futuristic visions to which it alludes, does not provide a unified thematic purpose or experience, a common thread is dissatisfaction or discomfort with the present, to which retro-futurism provides a nostalgic contrast. One such theme is dissatisfaction with modern futurism. In some respects, an extrapolation of the present to the future produces disappointing, or even ghastly results, exemplified in cyberpunk and other dystopian futures characterized by overpopulation, environmental degradation, and transfer of power to unaccountable private entities or governments.

Compared to such a future, retro-futurism suggests a world which may be more comfortable or at least more capable of being understood. A similar theme is dissatisfaction with the modern world itself. A world of high-speed air transport, computers, and space stations is (by any past standard) ‘futuristic’; yet the search for alternative and perhaps more promising futures suggests a feeling that the desired or expected future has failed to materialize. Retro-futurism suggests an alternative path, and in addition to pure nostalgia, may act as a reminder of older but now forgotten ideals.

Retro-futurism also implies a re-evaluation of technology. Unlike the total rejection of post-medieval technology found in fantasy genres, or the embrace of any and all possible technologies found in some science-fiction, retro-futurism calls for a human-scale, largely comprehensible technology, amenable to tinkering and less opaque than modern black-box technology (vendor supplied, closed-source). Retro-futurism is not universally optimistic, and when its points of reference touch on gloomy periods like World War II, or the paranoia of the Cold War, it may itself become bleak and dystopian. In such cases, the alternative reality inspires fear, not hope, though it may still be coupled with nostalgia for a world of greater moral as well as mechanical transparency.

A great deal of attention is drawn to fantastic machines, buildings, cities, and transportation systems. The futuristic design aesthetic of the early 20th century tends to solid colors, streamlined shapes, and mammoth scales. It might be said that 20th century futuristic vision found its ultimate expression in the development of Googie or Populuxe design (e.g. Seattle’s Space Needle, LAX’s Theme Building). As applied to fiction, this brand of retro-futuristic visual style is also referred to as ‘Raygun Gothic,’ a catchall term for a visual style that incorporates various aspects of the Googie, Streamline Moderne (late Art Deco, 1930s), and Art Deco architectural styles when applied to retro-futuristic science fiction environments.

Raygun Gothic’s primary influences include the set designs of Kenneth Strickfaden and Fritz Lang. The term was coined by William Gibson in his story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’: ‘Cohen introduced us and explained that Dialta [a noted pop-art historian] was the prime mover behind the latest Barris-Watford project, an illustrated history of what she called ‘American Streamlined Modern.’ Cohen called it ‘raygun Gothic.’ Their working title was ‘The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.”

Aspects of this form of retro-futurism can also be associated with the late 1970s and early 1980s the neo-Constructivist revival that emerged in art and design circles (constructivism was an artistic philosophy that originated in Russia in 1919, which was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art; it was in favor of art as a practice for social purposes). Designers like David King in the UK and Paula Scher in the US imitated the cool, futuristic look of the Russian avant-garde in the years following the Russian Revolution.

When the German band Kraftwerk issued ‘Man Machine’ (1978), a record whose electronic sound was echoed in the simple geometric shapes and striking red, black, and white album cover the design credited to El Lissiztky, they were also tapping into a larger retrofuturist vision. Their machine imagery was lifted from Russian design motifs that were once considered futuristic, and they presented a ‘compelling, if somewhat chilling, vision of the world in which musical ecstasy is rendered cool, mechanical and precise.’

Futuristic clothing is a particular imagined vision of the clothing that might be worn in the distant future, typically found in science fiction and science fiction films of the 1940s onwards, but also in journalism and other popular culture. The garments envisioned have most commonly been either one-piece garments, skin-tight garments, or both, typically ending up looking like either overalls or leotards, often worn together with plastic boots. In many cases, there is an assumption that the clothing of the future will be highly uniform.

The cliché of futuristic clothing has now become part of the idea of retro-futurism. Futuristic fashion plays on these now-hackneyed stereotypes, and recycles them as elements into the creation of real-world clothing fashions. ‘We’ve actually seen this look creeping up on the runway as early as 1995, though it hasn’t been widely popular or acceptable street wear even through 2008,’ said Brooke Kelley, fashion editor and ‘Glamour’ magazine writer. ‘For the last 20 years, fashion has reviewed the times of past, decade by decade, and what we are seeing now is a combination of different eras into one complete look. Future fashion is a style beyond anything we’ve yet dared to wear, and it’s going to be a trend setter’s paradise.’

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2 Comments to “Retro-futurism”

  1. Reblogged this on peyami.

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