Vaporwave : Aesthetics of Memory and Nostalgia of An Artificially Constructed Time and Space

By: Jordon Jacobson

I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.

Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)

Vaporwave is a sub-genre of music and internet art trend that emerged in the 2010’s.  Laura Glitsos expands on this description in the article, “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls” defining vaporwave, “As a genre, vaporwave is a style of music collaged together from a wide variety of largely background musics such as muzak®, 1980s elevator music and new age ambience. The vaporwave song structure is usually short and repetitive, often slow (sitting around 60–90 bpm) with vocal samples positioned low in the mix saturated with heavy reverb and often slowed down to produce a ‘stretched out’ effect or a ‘melting’ quality.” (100)

Vaporwave blurs the reality of memory through incorporation of internet historicity, ironic repurposing of capitalistic imagery/space and assemblage of visuals and sounds to achieve a floating nostalgic feeling of an artificially constructed time and space.

To simulate and expand on this experience I have collected stills, GIFS, and tracks from a variety of time periods.  Through the archiving of these tactile elements, I have coalesced an audio-visual project that strives to embody the affect of this internet genre.  The images and music paired together crafts a subjective experience that could spark different “memories” or feelings for different individuals.  In an attempt to capture the affecting essence of vaporwave, I’ve steered away from some of the kitschier imagery and tried to focus more on audio-visual elements that are ethereal and atmospheric.

Embracing the Collage Nature of Fragmented Internet Historicity

Vaporwave blends together aesthetics from a variety of different time periods to create this digital environment out of space and time. “Ann Kaplan in Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture explains this by calling it ‘flattening of historical frames into one continuous present’ (1987, p. 144).” Given this distinct focus the aesthetics of this audio-visual project range from 1973 to 2019.

Vaporwave blends together aesthetics from a variety of different time periods to create this digital environment out of space and time. “Ann Kaplan in Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture explains this by calling it ‘flattening of historical frames into one continuous present’ (1987, p. 144).” Given this distinct focus the aesthetics range from 1973 to 2019.

"Hypnogogic Pop"

“Vaporwave has been labelled as a kind of ‘hypnogogic pop’, a term coined by David Keenan (2009) as a result of its sedative and surreal quality.” (100)

Laura Glitsos describes the floating aesthetic of vaporwave explaining, “This notion fits in with the sound aesthetic of most vaporwave tracks, of which the reverb produces a ‘faraway’ quality that sounds as if it is floating in from another space, or non-space.” (105)

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

“I’ve stepped through too many portals, been present in too many worlds simultaneously. Bits and pieces of me stay on the other side, waiting.  Whenever I return, I bring parts of those worlds back. Do you know what ghosts are? They’re sad, evicted things. Memories without homes.”

“The Render Ghosts”

Similar to this internet genre, James Bridle’s piece “The Render Ghosts” conceptualizes how this collaging can actualize a time and space.  He illustrates this concept saying, “The Render Ghosts are the people who live inside our imaginations, in the liminal space between the present and the future, the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital.”

As Bridle continues, he poetically illustrates the patchwork nature of internet through analysis of The Render Ghosts.  He reveals, “The Internet is like history. History is like the Internet. You can go right to the site of it, to the centre, where it happened, and that’s not where it is. It’s diffuse, it’s everywhere; it’s the structure, not the event. I had been using the Render Ghosts as way to understand something about the Internet, but it felt like the Render Ghosts, the Internet, were trying to explain something to me.  The Render Ghosts are lost too, adrift in history and virtual networks, which increasingly resemble memory. We can’t hear their voices but we can see them everywhere, if we look: those parts of ourselves and others, the remembrance of things, struggling to survive in the churn of information.”

Bridle describes the haunting nature of this digital landscape, “The digital already has a long history of ghosts; things and individuals whose essence has been photographed, reproduced, filtered, copied, repeated endlessly, broken down, edited, reprocessed and projected.”

Georgina Born and Christopher Haworth emphasize this connection to other art trends in the piece “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre”.  They explain writing, “…vaporwave – have been designated postmodern by commentators because of their evocative and ostentatious qualities of nostalgia, irony, and even kitsch.  Indeed, in certain ways the latter four ‘nostalgia’ genres are related: in their common aesthetic focus on simulating auditory experiences of the real or imagined past, and in their overlapping social constituencies connections that prompt some critics to question whether they should in fact be considered distinct genres.” (606)

Glitsos describes, “Vaporwave’s aesthetic can be read as a culmination of a variety of contemporary forms that have come together in the digital medium, collapsing together tropes evident in early 20th century avant-garde with later movements in collage art, and combining this with a layering of plundered and pirated sounds.” (111)


The incorporation of collaging and GIFS add to a level of fragmentation within this experience.  The collaging almost moves past just the action of assembling these images and sounds together, but represents the vaporwave’s collage aesthetics.  It pushes the boundaries with a mixture of aesthetics of different eras.  There is a glimpse of a connection to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ art and certainly Pop-Art.

"The Virtual Plaza welcomes you, and you will welcome it too."

Without the digital landscape that vaporwave molds and contorts, this genre of art would not have a time or space to thrive.  Born and Haworth continue this idea, stating, “… what is remarkable about vaporwave is the extent to which it embraces the internet itself both as an aesthetic medium and as a space for the cultivation of expansive, sometimes surreal, social and material relations.” (633)

Oneohtrix Point Never: Pioneer of Vaporwave

One of the pioneers of this genre is experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, better known as his alias Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin’s work revolves heavily around the use synthesizers, samples and complex layering. He has collaborated with artists such as Trent Reznor and David Byrne and scored the 2017 film Good Time for New York directors Josh and Benny Safdie.

The malleability of this historicity becomes a driving force for this internet genre.  Born and Haworth broaden this adding, “Indeed, vaporwave situates itself entirely within the texture of virtual life.  Through ironic remediations of sounds, images, and practices characteristic of earlier phases of the internet, the historicity of the net becomes focal for vaporwave aesthetics.” (605)

Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. I.

 In August of 2010, Lopatin released an album titled Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. I.  Critic Simon Reynolds characterized it in 2011 as “relat[ing] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio/video entertainment area”.

An echo jam is a dense layering of audio loops mixed with a montage of video footage, which are both drastically slowed down.  Simon Reynolds describes this technique as a “technique derived from Houston’s legendary DJ Screw, whose ‘screwed’ mixtapes involved playing gangsta rap at narcotically torpid tempos.” (81)

Lopatin’s other important critical work was his audio-visual experience Memory Vague, released in 2009. Simon Reynolds explains, “Gathering together his best echo jams for the 2009 DVD Memory Vague, Lopatin argued in the liner note that ‘no commercial work is outside of the reach of artistic reclamation.” (81).  Memory Vague was also released in a limited fashion on the antiquated format DVD-R adding to the esoteric nature of the project.

Late Night Broadcast

A similar audio-visual experiment to Lopatin’s work is a digtial collage crafted by artist Hello Meteor.  Their post offers a poetic entrance to the digital art installation delineating, “Watching late night TV in an unfamiliar, yet cozy place…you’re the only one awake…might as well stay up all night……” 

In an interview with Reynolds, Lopatin points out, “I’m super into formats, into junk, into outmoded technology, says Lopatin.  I’m super into the idea that the rapid-fire pace of capitalism is destroying our relationship with objects.”  Lopatin has a deep relationship with these outdated technologies which relates to the academic field of media archology.  Lopatin himself studied library science to become an archivist.  He states in Retromaina: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past “If music is recessing into some kind of archival period, I don’t think it’s bad.  It’s just natural.” (423)


Ethereal memories of malls are an integral figurative space that the genre of vaporwave haunts.  Imagery from malls in 80s and 90s and their aesthetics are collaged together to create an atmosphere that can be attributed to wandering these shopping centers on a late Saturday afternoon.  These hazy collective memories resonate with James Bridle’s concept of “The Render Ghosts.”  He explains further “Most, however, are more obscure, their origins lost. I spoke to one visualiser who described the images they deployed as “lorem ipsum architecture”: placeholder things and people, pulled at random from vast databases to populate imaginary places.”  Bridle’s “The Render Ghosts” populate these consumer centers in the form of “Coming Soon” store fronts and stock imagery groups of people enjoying a day out.

Now Opening...

Accompanying these ghostly visuals of consumer shopping centers, an ambient diversion of vaporwave sound was created called Mallsoft.  This division of ambient vaporwave is more akin to “elevator music” and on the surface level can be viewed as supplemental to the atmosphere.  Laura Glitsos expands on this, “In a sense, vaporwave’s ‘mall aesthetics’ mimic sedative tones of the shopping centre soundtrack that accompanies the consumer in that soundscape.” (103) At the core of this sub-genre of a sub-genre, Mallsoft reveals itself to be a deeply personal reflection.

In 2018, 猫 シ Corp or Catsystem Corp directed an audio-visual project titled 家族. 劳动. 쇼핑. (-VHS-) FAMILY. WORK. SHOP. that exemplifies the personal reflection inherit to Mallsoft.  This project collages the atmospheric tones from a variety of albums and pairs them with footage shot by Catsystem Corp.  A majority of the 2 hours of footage captures lit store fronts as meandering shoppers wander through the frame being accompanied by the soft atmospheric sounds of the Mallsoft tracks.  The audio-visual collage has a powerful affect, conceiving a warm nostalgia for these places most viewers have never been.  Glitsos explains how this is crafted, “Memory is ‘crowd-sourced’ to and from the vaporwave aesthetic to produce this form of compensatory nostalgia.” (105)  Through this personal footage of malls, airports and business gatherings the viewer can reflect on their own personal experiences and memories within these communal spaces.  Audio-visual experiments like or Catsystem Corp’s 家族. 劳动. 쇼핑. (-VHS-) FAMILY. WORK. SHOP. reinterpret these ethereal consumer spaces into a place for critical personal reflection.

In an interview for AE2 titled “Bask Like Cats: Chatting with 猫 シ Corp,” the artist describes some of the inspirations for this album,” Let’s go back a little bit. I was inspired of course by American culture because we only know America from TV. I mean I’ve never been there.  It’s only something I know from television or video games. So I made Class of ’84. Which is inspired by Saved By The BellThose kind of TV shows. Breakfast Club.”

猫 シ Corp continues, “That was back in 2016. I went to Helsinki because my girlfriend is from Finland. So when I was there I saw this shopping mall ‘Forum‘ and I was like, What the hell is this place? It was huge. It had people, it had shops and it had luxury.”

The description of the video reads “猫 シ Corp. takes you on an analogue trip to the digital world of long-gone memories and collective nostalgia.”

Where Does the Irony End? The Political (Or Not So) Nature of Vaporwave

Irony is concept that permeates to the core of the internet genre of vaporwave.  While I have been interested in this internet sub-culture for quite some time, it is still difficult for me to come to a conclusion whether certain portrayals of the aesthetic are ironic or not.   There are plenty of posts on platforms like Reddit or Tumblr that are explicitly incorporating vaporwave ironically.  Just typing ‘vaporwave’ into the search bar on Tumblr will require you to wade through a variety of vague quotes and ‘selfies’ in soft neon lighting to find more applicable content.

Vaporwave’s irony can be a compelling tool for a political statement or ideology in more nuanced situations.  Laura Glitsos explains an aspect of the political protest, “Vaporwave digs up those waste products of consumer culture, that which capitalism discards, and brings them to the fore: old VHS tapes, technologies that never reached the market, the grating tones of corporate instructional videos, advertisements from the 1980s.” (108)  Through the repurposing of these lost capitalist products and advertistments vaporwave attempts to achieve this notion Walter Benjamin touches on in, “This Space for Rent” from One-Way Street and Other Writings.  He states, “What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism?  Not what the moving red neon sign says-but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.”  Poetically Benjamin contemplates why can’t criticism be more like advertisement, not in its content, but its affect.

Don't Show This Message Again

Concerning the digital aspect of the vaporwave focuses on outdated forms of technology. Born and Haworth point out, “Users typically appropriate ‘bad art’ such as dated computer graphics, GIFs, or icons from historical operating systems.  Characteristic motifs are the Windows 95 desktop view and interface, visual signifiers from the dial-up era of the net, the amateur web design of the Geocities network, 146 and the recovery of obscure injunctions to ‘interact’ with the web manager.” (638)

VHS Aesthetic

In addition, vaporwave relies on the outdated forms of physical technology to achieve its aesthetic. Reynolds characterizes this trend specifying “Cassette-mania also has an aesthetic dimension: tape fans enthuse about the ‘warmth’ of the sound, a lot like vinyl but much cheaper to achieve.” (350)  When it comes to the visual aspect of vaporwave, this sentiment aligns with the embrace of the VHS tape as an outdated mode of physical media.  The grainy picture and messy tracking achieve a feeling comparable to the ‘warmth’ of the sound that a cassette produces.

News At 11

Artist Catsystem Corp’s album News At 11 is an intriguing utilization of this form of irony.  The A Side of the track incorporates news sound bites and clips interspersed with ambient background music.  In addition, the B side contains complete audio tracks from weather service providers.  Saxophones soar over an easy tempo and pleasant piano accompanies the beat.  This all seems innocent enough until it was releveled that the samples and clips were from the morning of 9/11.  This stunning realization gives new precedence to these relaxing beats and nonchalant audio samples.  “Other than that it’s kinda quiet around the country, we like quiet.”

Born and Haworth define, “On the contrary: vaporwave’s ironic embrace of the digitally native platforms and practices in which it was gestated contributes to an almost overly coherent genre identity.” (634)

Simon Reynolds writes concerning the personal politics of vaporwave for one of the founding artists of this genre explaining, “Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin says his decelerated, slurry-vocalled ‘echo jam’ versions of eighties pop songs relate to his interest in ‘slow modes of listening in an otherwise f-ed up/hypersped society.’ … Loop-based or trance-inducing music like hip hop and hypnagogic pop is a balm for ‘the deep melancholy which arises from our inability to stop time just long enough to experience it’ “(352)

Track List

Oneohtrix Point Never – “Betrayed in the Octagon”

18 Carat Affair – “Desire”

Aphex Twin – “Flim”

Burial – “In McDonalds”

Diasterpeace – “Jay”

Daisuke – “El Huervo”

 猫 シ Corp – “FORUM 消費者​[​kuluttaja]”

Tim Hecker – “Up Red Bull Creek”

Pheonix #2772 – “All Night”

Michel Rubini – “Graham’s Theme”

Boards of Canada – “Roygbiv”

Deadmalls – “Grand Opening”

2 8 1 4 – “恢复”


Barker, Sam L. “Bask Like Cats: Chatting with 猫 シ Corp.” AE2.

Benjamin, Walter. “This Space for Rent.” One-way Street, and Other Writings. London: NLB, 1979.

Bride, James. The Render Ghosts.

Born, Georgina, and Christopher Haworth. “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre.” Music and Letters 98, no. 4 (2017): 601-47.

Glitsos, Laura. “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls.” Popular Music 37, no. 1 (2018): 100-18.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, (1983): 111-25.

Kaplan, Ann. Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Keenan, David. “Childhood’s end.” The Wire 306, (2009): 26–31.

Jordon Jacobson received a Bachelor of Arts in History while attending Washington State University and is presently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University.  His areas of interest and research include affect theory, visual/aesthetic analysis of postmodern noir, genre cinema and digital media theory.  In between projects, he can be found adrift in a pulpy crime novel or reengaging with the work of George Romero.