Failed Futures: Vaporwave, Capitalism, and Dan Bell’s DEAD MALL SERIES

“My name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog/motherfucker you can live at the mall” – Kenrick Lamar, Wesley’s Theory

“I love the smell of commerce in the morning!” Brodie (Jason Lee), in Mallrats (1995)

I can think of few more effective metaphors for capitalism’s destructive effects than filmmaker Dan Bell’s ‘Dead Mall Series’, a collection of YouTube videos in which Bell visits malls that no longer attract commerce or people, and which have largely ceased to function with their intended purpose. Bell provides commentary, and watching the videos one after the other, one notices little commonalities, such as collapsed signage;

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Or a sparse, artificial interior design which recalls The Sims;

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Watching the series, one is left with a lingering sense of unease, as if Bell is continuously providing us with a glimpse of the uncanny. To witness something which is contingent on human activity be almost completely emptied of human activity is a remarkably effective aesthetic mode. Indeed, emptiness in general is something of an Internet obsession; one needs only look at ‘The Backrooms’ meme, which mines a kernel of genuine unease out of a faintly recognisable generic ‘non-space’, and the intimation of a Lovecraftian sense of the infinite (for my money, the Backrooms remind me of two toilets in a cinema I used to work at, which often seemed to creak and swell and breath with a life of their own).

Bell’s videos recall Grafton Tanner’s assertion that we ‘risk facing the uncanny in its destabilizing guise’ if we ‘disassemble the tool’ of the ‘interior workings’ of technology. In fact, Tanner’s book ‘Babbling Corpse’, the first notable academic work about vaporwave, shines something of a light on Bell’s methods (which are heavily influenced by vaporwave).

If, as Tanner describes, some of the hallmarks of vaporwave are ‘glitches via repetition or audio effects such as distortion, pitch shifting, and high doses of compression’, then Bell is working well within these parameters. Alongside the eerie, gently swaying shots of the abandoned malls, Bell usually starts, and occasionally punctuates, his videos with repurposed pre-digital VHS footage of public access information videos, corny news reports, and cheesy infomercials. Bell also utilises other left-field aesthetic techniques such as slow zooms into arbitrary elements of the frame (such as a human face), which are popular amongst internet-adjacent comedians like Tim and Eric, and Eric Andre.

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And this is before we get to the phenomenon of ‘mallsoft’ music. Described as ‘a micro-genre of music buried inside another micro-genre of music’, it is a particular form of, or offshoot from, vaporwave which works within a fetishized arrangement of various acoustic accoutrements of ‘mall culture’, centring around a clear loci of nostalgia where traditional vaporwave is content with more generalised visual and aural cues. Although Tanner does not mention mallsoft by name, he does mention malls, as well as write about vaporwave’s presentation of ‘peripheral music’, in relation to vaporwave’s fixation with ‘music of “non-times” and “non-places” because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space’.

In terms of the music itself, mallsoft is slowed down samples of generic, off-brand cheesy 80s pop, ultimately much more familiar as a series of musical signifiers (crisp saxophone solos, twinkling piano, repeated vocal phrases) than as music that has come from a movement, with key players and influences. In the same way that filmmakers like Godard and Listorti are creating ‘post-cinema’ from already available cinematic materials, vaporwave is post-music; the originality of the composition comes from the treatment of the pre-existing materials, as opposed to anything newly created. This speaks towards our obsession with the recurrence of ghosts as mediated through errors within common technology; as Tanner writes, ‘we are immediately struck by the characteristics of their ghostliness because their malfunction, actual or perceived, indicates a rift between them and their carried messages’.

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Pastel Lounge LLC – Dream Vacation (2014). A pretty archetypal mallsoft record, in sound and cover aesthetic

The breakdown of the relationship between intent and effect within technology indicates something otherworldly, something that does not belong. This can be categorised as eerie; as Mark Fisher puts it, ‘the eerie is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence’. Something which should not be there, or something missing, is a hallmark of the eerie. Thus, vaporwave (and the malls) contain within them the kernel of the eerie, because they extrapolate the trappings of various analogue cultures and place them in the present (in a hybridised form, in vaporwaves case). They don’t belong in the present, and they should have ceased to be. Indeed, vaporwave and the mall’s impact is largely contingent on an awareness of their outdated and anachronistic nature; to put it another way, the only true appreciation of vaporwave/malls must be derived from an awareness of how its constitutive elements are no longer ‘enjoyable’ (relevant).

(As an aside, from a political angle, vaporwave/mallsoft perhaps works as the perfectly orchestrated model of ‘working from within’, or the often maligned ‘reformist’ political structures. Mallsoft makes an explicit critique of hypercapitalist incipiencies by climbing inside and wearing it like a grotesque, ill-fitting skin (or a body without organs). This is arguably a post-Situationist arrangement, whereby the critique cannot be subsumed by the organising system, because the lines between the ‘system’ and the critique are blurred (mallsoft critiques as well as simply being an example of an exacerbated version of the thing it is critiquing), and yet the full enjoyment of the vaporwave/mallsoft aesthetic only comes with accepting and understanding its anticapitalist credentials. The only downside to this is that a heavily diluted version of the vaporwave aesthetic has become popular, so.)

In short, vaporwave only exists by being here when it shouldn’t be. It is an exhumed corpse that has had sunglasses placed on its shrunken head, being wheeled around, fooling nobody. And in the same way that vaporwave ‘exhumes corpses’, Dan Bell does the same with the malls that he films; the act of filming them is the act of exhumation, cinema as graverobber, camera as embalmer, retro-future-fitted Gothicism for a generation raised on ghosts in the machine.

The malls, as Bell films them, with his gently swaying shots and occasion glimpses of mirrored figures, feel ‘evacuated’. The malls are sites of activity drained of their purpose, which makes them feel dystopian (as we will see below, this dystopian feeling is more visible in some videos than others). It is this quasi-dystopic angle at which the critique, or comment, on capitalism can enter.

Capitalism thrives inherently on activity; in many ways, it is the ideology of expansion. For capitalism to succeed, it needs to expand beyond its conditions, to reproduce, to grow. It resembles a virus. And yet, there is also the sense in which capitalism is vampiric. It is never self-contained, and it acts upon the world, shaping it to its will. Areas of economic growth move where capitalism makes them; we go to where capitalism tells us to go. This makes the abandoned malls uniquely fascinating; they are an area delineated by capitalist logic, which have served their purpose and yet remained intact. 

Mark Fisher wrote about the ‘fungibility’ of capitalism, and the way it sustains itself by being constant adaptable, moldable, pliable. To succeed or accept a capitalist society, you have to be willing to take on different personas at will. It is at its most successful when interrogating the individual at the level of personal identity. We become agents of capitalism by being pliable with our senses of self, and moving through various zones of activity in which we have to ‘play a role’, be it as middle-manager, corporate go-getter, or career-oriented motivator.

Thus, despite the malls operating strictly within capitalism’s logic, by being hubs of commerce with theoretically everything a human being would need to survive, they also seem to flout that logic. Once capitalism is done with a thing, it rarely has a use for it (one needs only to look at Thatcher’s dismissal of various working-class industries to see how this mechanism operates), but most often this ‘getting rid’ is supplanted by the capitalist ethos of expansion and growth. The old thing makes way for the new.

The malls are an outlier in this sense. Whilst they have been replaced by online commerce, nothing has come to fill the geographic sites themselves. The empty shops have not been filled, and the spaces are often stripped of their innards yet left intact as abandoned structures. They are, in a sense, far too brazen, not that capitalism needs to worry about being brazen, too obviously a clue to capitalism’s underbelly of decay.

Further, the malls are so obviously spaces devoid of individuality, non-spaces of incipient functionality, a punctured illusion, when capitalism usually operates best with the wool pulled nice and tight over our eyes. This is likely down to the fact that the malls violate capitalism’s rules of flexibility. While they allow for the individual spaces/units to be gutted and filled with different shops if one shop disappears, the mall site stays put. Capitalism grew more flexible, and the malls outlived their usefulness. #

This ‘tossing aside’ of the malls is displayed effectively in one shot I noticed of a wall with stickers on. The stickers show which shops are in which unit of the mall; some of the stickers have been removed, and because there are no businesses to replace the old ones, the outline of the stickers has remained visible, presumably some years after the spaces were filled with business. With nothing to fill the gap, only the memory of previous commerce can remain, taking up the same amount of space, but weighing significantly less.

Indeed, the fact of their functionality means that there is a particular dissonance when they are viewed in a strictly aesthetic light. Yet, this is where Bell often finds his most disorienting effects, as he is often quick to pass judgement on how a mall looks, feels, how it is optimised for the public, and how it falls short. It does not feel right to think of a mall in these terms, and when Bell describes images such as the below as pretty, or beautiful, it feels wrong, or incorrect. To make qualitative judgements about a mall recalls the metaphor of ‘dancing about architecture’ (although I do not mean this to question Bell’s very sincere commitment to the mall).

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Beyond the handy visual metaphors, however, a large part of the impact of Bell’s videos comes through the sub-visual; a tone, or mood, of absent-presence. To put it in vaporwave terms, they’ve got serious vibes. Despite being liminal spaces with limited applicability to human nature, they do facilitate numerous modes of human behaviour (such as the completion of the commercial urge, consumption of food, and most importantly, a place to ‘hang out’ with friends with no clear purpose). This means that there are rules to a mall. A mall’s functions can only be performed when humans are themselves active. This is why they open during the day, why they are often fitted with skylights to allow light to enter, and why they provide for so many basic areas of human need. They are centres dependent on human activity.

When Bell exhumes them, as he does, he is destabilizing their inherent logic (which is disorienting and uncanny). Never is this more apparent than in the videos where Bell visits a particularly old dead mall, or, more frequently, when he visits a dead mall at night. In his K-MART video, for example, one can see the ‘body’ of the mall grow ill, and slowly succumb to its ailment. The shelves grow more bare, the products on sale less essential/more extraneous, and even the food in the freezer seems to somehow degrade.

The video reaches a climax of sorts when Bell returns after the mall has been completely closed, and stripped of its innards. The once rigidly demarcated spaces between aisles are no more, rendering the space bare and naked. As Bell walks around (triggering an alarm, entering previously closed-off areas, inspecting the toilet), the tone is almost unspeakably creepy. Stripped of light, activity, and purpose, the space seems to become one on which we can transplant the shadowy workings of our unconscious (social and otherwise). .

Or perhaps it is the other way round, and the space is repeating our fears back at us, the fears which have been dictated by media, which were modelled on our fears, and so on. Seeing Bell wander navigate the desolation of the abandoned K-Mart, for example, one is reminded of the uncanny tone of the Shining;

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Or perhaps it is easier to recall the stillness and empty space at the heart in Rosemary’s Baby;

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Maybe it is reminiscent of the abnormal noises which punctuate the dreams in Nightmare on Elm Street;

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Whatever the case, it does not seem fair to say that we bring our fears to Bell’s videos, or even that Bell’s videos articulate those fears. The reality is likely to be somewhere in the middle, an uncertain reciprocity between what we can read into the videos, and what the videos can read into us, giving with one hand and taking with the other.

Sometimes, although not often, this frisson of dangerousness can transcend the psychological, and become actual. In the Rolling Acres Mall, for example, Bell examines a place which has fallen so far into ruin that it has become genuinely unsafe, a place where rubble drops from the ceiling, where bullet-holes litter the walls, where guards have been removed leaving potentially lethal drops into pits that seem to be reclaimed by nature.

Indeed, Bell talks about the sound of frogs below the mall, a sound which dissipates when someone walks near. This is the closest Bell gets to a literal representation of a post-human dystopia, in which man has been gone for so long that nature has overwritten it. And, almost poetically, the video ends with a group of police officers finding Bell and escorting him out the building. There is a shot as they lead him out, in which their boots loudly crunch glass and detritus, that is so perfect it feels almost staged. It consolidates so many fears, in the failure of commerce, a police state, empty space, controlled behaviour, that it leaves the viewer (and Bell) unnerved, uncertain.

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It is, of course, hard not to escape the shackles of hauntology in Bell’s videos. As proposed by Derrida, hauntology can broadly be defined as an obsession with ‘lost futures’, a regressive, fixative urge to ‘return’ to a moment which never happened. Tanner writes that ‘hauntology posits that the past notions of the future have in some way failed, causing a disruption of time as an orderly sequence of past, present, and future.’ This is certainly the case for vaporwave, which revives old trends, layers them with the contexts of our time, and makes something new out of them; and yet, despite the sinuous link between vaporwave and Bell’s videos, the direct application of hauntology to the malls is much more slippery than it might seem.

One angle of approach would be to posit the malls as hauntological sites by virtue of their failures. Yet hauntology is typically concerned with the past bearing on the present; whilst Bell’s videos consider the malls in present contexts, they almost invert the hauntological urge. It is as if they deliver a missive from an unknown future, in which the sites of capitalism are decomposing and broken.

It is not hard to see that the malls drip with decay. Whilst it could be argued that this decay, this rot, has always been present, and it is only with the corroding force of time that we have been allowed to see them, they are too pointed as failures of capitalism to truly be considered a future which has not come to pass; they are a future which is likely to come to pass in the next few years. This is perhaps the clearest distinction between the malls and the vaporwave aesthetic. Where vaporwave derives its power from asserting an almost accelerationist future, in which the processes and false edges of capitalism have crystallised into their own weird simulacra, the malls simply… Exist. There is only so far theory can take you; I believe it is to here.

If the malls are indeed sites of failed futures, then Bell’s videos act as funerals for those futures.

His tone is certainly mournful. Though he approaches the malls fairly neutrally, and in his first-person viewpoint allows us to experience them without being guided, there is a pervasive sense of sadness. In the Rolling Acres Mall, for example, he talks over lingering shots of a geometric metal ceiling-piece about how nobody is around to appreciate them any more, and how that’s a shame. When he does talk about the malls, it is as if he is a parent, with a very keen sense of both their successes and failures. What can’t be denied is his genuine appreciation for their beauty, their architecture, and design.

I wrote above about the dissonance between viewing the malls aesthetically and considering their actual function. Bell is no doubt aware of this, and this peculiar kernel of novelty is likely a direct factor in his channels’ continued success. And yet, I feel it would be disingenuous not to make the observation that the videos also derive their effects from the way in which Bell has so obsessively nominated himself the visual archivist for his subject(s). Further, if we accept the idea that we only archive that which is no longer present, or current, Bell is also the mall’s guide into the afterlife. This is something he does carefully, and almost certainly out of love.

You will always find beauty in that which you love.