Rendering the Living
Solarpunk has always had a tricky aesthetic task. It is easy, now, for us to imagine the high energy cyberpunk urban dystopia, with all it’s ugly, garish, chromey grime. Solarpunk set out to envision the alternative to that, somewhere beautiful, temperate, green, and healthy — but still ‘punk,’ still infused with the high energy of urban life. There were always two poles solarpunk was leaning away from: cyberpunk’s jagged neon and the un-lived-in 3D curves of what passed for the last few decades as sustainable design and architecture.
In one of the foundational posts of solarpunk, missolivialouise wrote:
A lot of people seem to share a vision of futuristic tech and architecture that looks a lot like an ipod — smooth and geometrical and white. Which imo is a little boring and sterile.
I echoed this in my 2015 “On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk” essay:
Our canny @Threadbare pointed out to me that too often bright-green design is rooted in the tradition of modernist real-estate development, which sells a vision of places made wholly new. Past mistakes are cleansed. The clean hallways are haunted by render ghosts. It’s seductive, and easy to put in a magazine, but anyone who has sat through a planning board meeting knows how unrealistic it is.
But what if — and hear me out — you could shoot the render ghosts?
This seems to be the premise of a new VR video game that creators Broken Totem Studios have titled “Solarpunk.” A gameplay video depicts a series of elegant, empty rooms, decked with greenery, furnished with stackable Scandinavian bedroom furniture, and occasionally adorned with triumphalist Gaian statues slash water features. The player stealthily climbs ivied walls, crawls through air conditioning ducts, and then uses the power of bullet-time to headshot dozens of menacing robot guards. The gun looks like an iPod, and the android enemies do indeed look like blocky, grey render ghosts.
It is, in short, a farce.
Perhaps I’m being ungenerous to an early-stage trailer for a game that will eventually be very different. But in less than three minutes, the gameplay video seems to embrace most everything solarpunk as I’ve known it has been reacting against: soulless corporate aesthetics (covered up by plants), a future empty of diverse peoples and cultures, gunplay as the answer to delicate social and environmental problems, the centering of individual heroes rather than collective action.
Now, I admit, if you google image search “solarpunk,” you will indeed encounter a variety of pretty-but-boring architectural renders made solarpunk by the presence of plants (and occasional flying cars). Like this:
It’s very r/futureporn, very interested (as speculative architecture often is) in what can be done with high tech materials and engineering — not with sustainability, repairability, livability, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration. You can’t have solarpunk without abolishing the lawn.
Occasionally I’ll see someone post a non-rendered picture of a concrete structure covered in vines, captioned “brutalism plus plants is beautiful,” and I’ll think that these images are quite solarpunk. I feel I now need to amend that formula. Brutalism plus plants plus graffiti is solarpunk. In other words, plus people (and other beings) and all the messy ways they make spaces their own.
As Adam Flynn wrote in “Notes Toward a Solarpunk Manifesto”:
Solarpunk is a future with a human face and dirt behind its ears.
And as Jay Springett regularly reminds us:
The tagline of the Broken Totem game is “What would you risk to save Utopia?” And indeed, solarpunk is constantly engaged with the idea of utopia. But utopia can be just as over-the-top unbelievable as carefully engineered dystopias. This tagline puts me in mind of the 1993 Sylvester Stalone action-satire Demolition Man, in which a peaceful future utopia is powerless to stop the rampages of a criminal maniac. The movie plays with the kind of skepticism of progressive social order that we can now see in reactionary objections to police abolition demands. And it’s power-washed, manicured visuals are right out of the architectural dream of a future without real human life to muck it up.
As a writer, I am always wary of being led astray by second-rate writing advice. Here, I think, we have such a case: when I said “move quietly and plant things,” I didn’t mean in a stealth shooter. Perhaps it’s a well-intentioned project, trying to bring the solarpunk aesthetic to a medium embraced by the market — the VR first-person shooter. But fundamentally the future we want won’t and can’t arrive via products and spaces produced and imagined by the market. A solarpunk future requires a rupture with all that, the kind of rupture we are seeing on the streets of American cities this week, and in solidarity around the world. And it requires a complex, imperfect struggle to try something new.
That rupture is going to leave some scars on the urban landscape (it already has). That struggle is going to fill our lives with the clutter of broken or half-tried things. It is going to mean sleepless nights and mornings where we don’t make our bed. It is going to mean spaces filled not just with plants and gardens, but with gardeners and pests and compost and tools and weeds and dirt and mess. It’s going to mean rendering the living, not the ghosts.
That’s a lot to render — a lot to imagine! — but it’s also the best future we can hope to get.