Surveying the Energy Aesthetics Landscape and its Possible Permutations
Extremely scattered thoughts regarding solarpunk, math totems, equatorial brutalism, Van Der Graaf generators, xenochrony, threnodies, machines that talk to god, and sun worship
A lot of energy and trade publications show the same stock photos of wind mills, solar farms, and transmission lines over and over again. The over-use of these images lends itself to a bland, generic aesthetic.
And there’s no reason why energy, which is the most important thing in the world, should be reduced to boring aesthetics.
So I went on a mission to explore some other energy aesthetics and to contemplate new aesthetic permutations.
A lot of people are familiar already with solarpunk, which riffs on a green, “sustainable,” futuristic motif. Anyone who falls into the category of “extremely online” is probably familiar with solarpunk imagery, which features dazzling waterfalls, vertical farms, and massive, organic-seeming structures.
I find the solarpunk aesthetic kind of cool, but as alluded to in the following Twitter thread, I think an update or a competitor aesthetic would be good. Something about the overall solarpunk vibe is too Tumblr or too Reddit — too mired in trite politics — and, as is the case with more mainstream energy aesthetics, many of the solarpunk images have a sameness to them. It’s as though every sustainability-minded urban-planning firm with a generous design budget hired the same five artists to provide renderings of a futuristic vision over and over again.
Still, solarpunk has its moments and a quick google search reveals several real-life installations in such places as Singapore that look like they jumped off the pages of a solarpunk coffee-table book. (I believe the upper left photo in the tweet above is an actual location in Singapore.)
I’d like to plant a seed in artists’ minds for something new. Maybe something that dips into the realm of tropical brutalism. Now granted, tropical brutalism, an architectural/design aesthetic that really seems to have caught fire in recent years, has no explicit ties to energy (yet). But let’s throw it into the mix anyway.
As the name suggests, tropical brutalism places concrete architecture in lush, verdant settings for a powerful contrasting effect. This New York Times piece explains that brutalism, though European in origin, has strong ties to other parts of the world and has reached an apotheosis in Brazil. And this piece at Something Curated does a nice job explaining tropical brutalism’s appeal in the Southern Hemisphere (calling it “equatorial brutalism,” which has a nice ring to it).
One suspects that nuclear cooling towers, hydroelectric dams, and massive infrastructure projects could be woven into an aesthetic that weds energy concepts with tropical brutalism.
However, given the fact that the cement industry is said to be the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries — and given that cement is an ingredient in concrete, the defining material of brutalist buildings — my vision of an energy/tropical brutalism marriage might never see the light of day. (Unless it’s seized by energy maximalists, whose leanings might become more fashionable in the coming years as a counterweight to “degrowth” enthusiasts.)
Electricity itself is a striking aesthetic. This could be exploited to great effect via installation art.
I’ve always liked how film director David Lynch uses electricity as a signifier of connectivity to the supernatural world.
And then there’s “the Lightning Field” in remote Western New Mexico, which is the product of sculptor Walter De Maria. On a plot of land in the desert, 400 stainless steel poles sit on a grid, waiting to act as lightning rods during a thunderstorm, purportedly to great artistic effect.
Also: xerography, once called “electrophotography,” utilizes electricity as an aesthetic tool. Artist Luke Evans works in this field, using a high-voltage Van Der Graaf generator to fire 400,000 volts of electricity into acrylic, which generates a static discharge.
Maybe we can also entertain uses for another “x” word, xenochrony, which, though associated with music, could provide our aesthetics with a “cut-up” effect that’s also present in literary techniques popularized by William S. Burroughs, et al.
Frank Zappa took a xenochronic approach to some of his recordings, as Wikipedia notes, “extracting a guitar solo or other musical part from its original context and placing it into a completely different song…”
The spirit of xenochrony could be applied to, say, solarpunk, to introduce clashing elements that perhaps don’t intuitively jibe, to generate something alien and new.
Lately the world seems a heartbeat away from nuclear annihilation, so maybe apocalyptic themes are worthy of our aesthetic consideration. In this sense, my mind randomly pivots to a Portland man’s 80,000-pound “Ragnarok Engine” and other possible embodiments of occult technology. Machines that talk to god.
The apocalyptic pivot may also bring us back to David Lynch, whose insertion of “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” into the atomic-bomb sequence of Twin Peaks: The Return was a “wow” moment.
Continuing down the rabbit hole of aural aesthetics, I posit that the music of Iannis Xenakis and Edgard Varèse has such mega-kinetic power that these mens’ compositions might align well with energy concepts.
“Varèse,” wrote Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, “wants to bring about a veritable cosmic disturbance. If he could control the ether waves and blast everything off the map with one turn of the dial I think he would die in ecstasy.”
And the “stochastic music” of Xenakis channels the branch of mathematics involving particles. It too could be mined for fascinating aesthetic content — sorcery using math totems. Algorithmic sigils.
Xenakis was trained as an architect, and it shows. The visual power of his songs is described ably in the following passage by Tom Service at The Guardian:
You'll hear clouds of minutely detailed orchestral sonority wrap around the solo part, like flocks of small birds mobbing an avaricious raptor; and you'll hear a near-continuous rhythmic intensity and textural violence that takes your breath away.
These are arrows that can be added to an energy-aesthetics quiver.
ESOTERIC SUN WORSHIP & ALCHEMICAL REGIMES
Over at The Outpost, a great substack that’s in the same friendly orbit as ours, Cornelius Stahlblau breaks down the artful weirdness of Kazakhstan, which produces more than 40% of the world’s uranium and is also a major fossil-fuel exporter.
Kazakhstan is not only an underrated energy center, it’s also a locus of strange aesthetic power. Of specific interest is Kazakhstan’s Astana/Nur-Sultan, which Stahlblau writes, “was turned into a weird, ultra-modern ‘shining city,’ saturated with occult imagery of Masonic or Luciferian undertones. The main theme found in buildings and monuments seems to be a sort of esoteric Sun worship.”
Esoteric sun worship seems perfect for incorporation into an energy aesthetic.
In the grand scheme of things, who’s to say we can’t inspire entirely new movements? Justin Murphy recommends a fun exercise, almost a psychic roadmap, to help you maximize your ideal personal aesthetic.
“Look for hidden coherence,” he says. “If you notice a correlation, what is the latent dimension? Then go find other artifacts reflecting that dimension.”
Subconsciously, I probably did that very exercise throughout this entire post. Justin calls this a personal pantheon — writing down your aesthetic and philosophical “pantheons” and then searching for ways to tie them together into your own personalized expression.
At this point, I’m about to maximize the word space available in substack emails, so I’ll end here, with the potential to generate “Part 2” at some point. Thank you for reading.
The Lightning Field isn’t far from the Very Large Array, whose giant satellite dishes point skyward and generate an aesthetic grandeur all their own.