Somewhere between the barely wheezing engines of steampunk and the shiny automated world of cyberpunk, salvagepunk is born. Emerging from the refuse heap of discarded scraps of literature and theory, it posits itself as a tentative antidote to our collapsing, post-apocalyptic world of financial meltdown and nuclear fall-out. Coined by young writer and theorist Evan Calder Williams in his manifesto-styled book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, salvagepunk is a “proposed cultural movement”, born from a recognisable aesthetic cobbled up from ruins that run through speculative fiction, movies and pop culture. Formed through a variety of influences, from China Miéville’s genre-defying dystopian novels and Charles Platt’s Garbage World to films like the Mad Max franchise, The Bed Sitting Room, and Godard’s Weekend, to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and other derivations of anarcho-punk music, hip-hop sampling and early DJ culture, salvagepunk emerges both as a cultural form and a material practice of re-appropriating, salvaging, repurposing and scrapping the ruins of contemporary capitalist society.
Attacking the consolatory fantasy of steampunk as “the weak handmaiden of Obama-era capitalism” and the future-oriented narratives of cyberpunk, which zoom in on the increasing immateriality of the digital cosmos, salvagepunk bends things back the other way, insisting on an anti-futurity observation based on materiality. It considers what happens when technology falls prey to entropy and devaluation and looks for ways to montage its debased leftovers into new objects, rising from the wreckage of the old.
But salvagepunk is not a subcultural fad, Williams insists. It is a mode of inquiry into the aesthetics of waste and zombies as a way to ask for a counter-history, built on cracking open the failed moments of radical tactics over the past 150 years. World zones of deprivation and exploitation – “the combined and uneven apocalypse” – that are often presented as imperfections to be engulfed by the tide of globalisation, are not only growing but, as Williams writes, necessary for the capitalist present. The apocalypse is already fact, and salvagepunk is its militant response, casting the “graveside smile” from Kurt Schwitters’ Merz as a destructive blow against the melancholia and static mourning of radical pasts.
However, a certain de-politicised salvagepunk look has updated itself, from the recent Kiwi western film Existence and psychotic videogame universe of Borderlands to Willow Smith’s “21st Century Girl” video, where her gang drags an entire city from underneath the desert. Like other punk predecessors, it will inevitably become incorporated into a mass aesthetic, and processed into cultural memes, to which Williams responds with a militant indifference.
Williams and Miéville have pronounced the death of salvagepunk at least three times. Yet, it continues to gain momentum with a long line-up of salvagepunk performances and readings, and an upcoming film with Miguel Calderon. Even Williams’ curatorial and research project with art collective no.w.here, which centres around the problem of ornament and waste, suggests there is certainly more life to flow through the grave of salvagepunk’s exquisite corpse, even if it is undead.