An Interview with Solarpunk Surf Club

by J.D. Harlock

It’s too easy to imagine the end of the world.

Much easier, sometimes, than imagining a pathway to a better world.

That’s why Solarpunk Futures was created.

Solarpunk Futures is a storytelling game where players imagine the pathways to a desirable world from the perspective of a utopian future. Through dialogue and collaborative worldbuilding, collective and visionary narratives emerge of a new society, along with plausible scenarios for how to get there. This allows players to practice collective visioning about our real-world struggles for a better world through a mix of sincerity, laughter, and creative storytelling.

This may seem ambitious, but Solarpunk Futures is just one of many projects the artist collective Solarpunk Surf Club has in development. With over $21,000 pledged to help bring this project to life on Kickstarter, we will be hearing a lot more from them in the years to come. For now, project leads Nick Lyell and Max Puchalsky have agreed to sit down with our Poetry Co-Editor J.D. Harlock for a talk on who they are, what they hope to accomplish, and how Solarpunk Futures, and other similar projects, will bring that wonderful vision to life.

SPM: First off, what is the Solarpunk Surf Club and how did it come about?

SSC: We are a group of longtime artists who joined forces in 2020 around our first project, Græn R∞m, where we transformed a public library’s art gallery into a public living room for utopian (re)creation. The project brought our multimedia, transdisciplinary artistic practices together, both through collaboration and assemblage, in a site-responsive, participatory space.

We see the work of Solarpunk Surf Club as the creation and curation of egalitarian platforms for surfing the waves of still-possible worlds. As such, we elaborate on the aesthetics of solarpunk in order to bring forth the latent horizontalism and communalism inherent in its reconstructive vision. This is expressed through works that politicize, historicize, and demystify a collective ecological, utopian future.

Our name is, in part, an homage to the net art history of surf clubs–a collaborative website, usually a blog, where artists link to ‘surfed’ or ‘surfable’ items on the internet and also post their original work. Solarpunk Surf Club was founded with the intention of exploring these intersections of new media and social practice to prefigure egalitarian potentialities.

SPM: Where and when did you first hear about the Solarpunk movement, and what drew you to it?

SSC: Interestingly, several of our members independently encountered solarpunk, so it’s impossible to pinpoint a single origin. One early, shared reference was Andrew Dana Hudson’s article, On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk, which started to inspire our not-yet-formed artist collective. In addition to artistic practices, the group that would become the members of Solarpunk Surf Club were organizing to provide mutual aid and municipalize utilities around the wildfires in California, get cops out of schools in Madison, and do other work at the intersections of social and ecological crises. The solarpunk aesthetic struck us as holding latent political tendencies of horizontalism, anti-hierarchy, decolonization, decentralization, and direct democracy that we wanted to help bring to the fore. At the same time, the aesthetics aligned with our own artistic practices at the nexus of social practice, technology, and utopian politics.

We see solarpunk as a visionary utopian politics and aesthetic that critically engages the reality of capitalist catastrophe while maintaining a radical optimism about humanity’s hopes for a communal, ecological future. In combining oppositional and reconstructive practices, solarpunk is like a restorative justice process at planetary scale—among people and between humans and non-human nature. That means reclaiming pieces of pre-capitalist culture, material accountability for old practices, and radical adaptability toward new ones, all while maintaining a utopian and ecological vision for the potentialities of our interrelations in the present.

SPM: Before Solarpunk Futures, what was the Surf Club up to?

SSC: Our first public project, Græn R∞m, took the form of a domestic environment and biblio-installation, in which we collaborated with the Madison Public Library to transform the Diane Endres Ballweg gallery into a public living room for visitors to read, rest, play, and socialize. The project title comes from three different concepts of ‘the green room’: in theater, music, and entertainment: a space to relax and socialize backstage; a room for artists and guests to prepare before, and retire after, a performance; in the White House: a decorated state parlor used for intimate receptions and tea ceremonies; and in surfing parlance: the sublime yet precarious space inside the barrel of a breaking wave. Drawing inspiration from the unique aesthetics and function of each definitional context, the installation welcomed an intergenerational public to commune, take care, and prepare for, or seek respite from, the many performances of everyday life.

We had originally planned for Græn R∞m to travel far and wide to libraries in other cities, but the pandemic has delayed those efforts. We are, however, still adding titles to our solarpunk library, a key aspect of Græn R∞m, which features a reserve of books, music, and games curated around the theme of solarpunk theory and aesthetics, which itself draws from social ecology, art nouveau, permaculture, the arts and crafts movement, infoshops, proletkult, workers’ clubs, visionary fiction, afrofuturism, DIY, jugaad, and the philosophical-literary utopian tradition.

SPM: How did you get the idea for Solarpunk Futures?

SSC: Solarpunk Futures first came about as a list of affinity values we compiled as we formed the collective. We had an early idea to turn these into some type of game à la Oblique Strategies, that would appear in Græn R∞m, but ran out of time. We came back to it about a year ago, amid isolation due to COVID-19, and concern about the rate the capitalist state continues to fail in its response to the numerous ongoing crises. We had discovered for ourselves some of the joy of table-top roleplaying games as a way to stay connected and reclaim optimism during the isolation of COVID. Both of us (Nick and Max, who led this project within the collective) were also doing a tremendous amount of reading and political study at the time, so Solarpunk Futures was something that allowed us to compile and make sense of the many different political influences we were encountering.

There were a number of other reasons we ended up making a game. One major one is the importance of play as a solidaristic, educational practice. We felt that a game would allow us to reach a broad, and often depoliticized, audience with a fun way to explore thorny political questions. Plus, there is potential epistemological equality in cooperative games that aligns with the ethos of solarpunk. Other reasons were aesthetic: games are an established form whose conventions we can work within (and against) in order to create something fresh. Game-making also connects us to an ancient tradition of art and social practice—from 5,000-year-old Senet and The Royal Game of Ur, to the 15th century Game of the Goose, to the Surrealist games of the early 20th century.

Finally, we wanted to embrace play, fun, and joy in our revolutionary work. Considering how games always reflect the beliefs, mores, norms of their historical context, with Solarpunk Futures, we wanted to flip the script and project, using speculative fiction and collaborative performance, the values and norms of a desirable future.

SPM: What works of fiction and nonfiction did you draw inspiration from to make Solarpunk Futures?

SSC: One of the most compelling aspects of solarpunk is its open horizon of possibility. Solarpunk is more than an artistic-literary genre, it is a rapidly expanding field encompassing philosophy, politics, history, ecology, and more that is being actively defined by the people co-creating it. As such, we felt the liberty to draw inspiration from a wide array of sources, both contemporary and antecedent, in hopes of making a unique contribution to the movement.

Cartomancy practices such as tarot and oracle decks were a major point of departure, as well as collaborative storytelling games that go beyond conventional RPG form. Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is one such game that empowers players with respect to storytelling, even if it doesn’t go so far as to eliminate the role of the ‘game master’ entirely. In Solarpunk Futures we did exactly that in hopes of taking polyvocality and player non-hierarchy in a more radical direction. In addition, players of Legacy experience world-building through a character/family ‘zoom-in/zoom-out’ mechanic. This oscillation between individual and social role-playing inspired us to foreground an interrelationist point-of-view — storytelling that occurs in, and slips between, multiple perspectives.

Another major influence was the political philosophy of Social Ecology, first articulated by Murray Bookchin, which posits inextricable links between the social and ecological crises of our time, and calls for the reharmonization of human society, technology, and more-than-human nature. As others have pointed out, solarpunk can be understood as the aesthetic counterpart to Social Ecology and communalism. Much remains to be elaborated on this connection, and we are in the process of developing our own theories about the interrelation between these political, philosophical, and aesthetic movements. Intentionally in dialogue with humanity’s legacy of freedom, Solarpunk Futures represents the current culmination of our study of the revolutionary tradition, and as such, features the words and ideas of people such as Murray Bookchin, David Graeber, Franz Fanon, Errico Malatesta, Rosa Luxemburg, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seals, among many others.

Visionary fiction was also foundational to our project. We are appreciative of the great works of social and ecological science fiction: from proto-solarpunks like Ursula K. LeGuin, William Morris, and Octavia Butler, to some of the contemporary authors experimenting in more or less explicitly solarpunk writing like Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, and Andrew Dana Hudson.

Regarding the game’s visual language, Solarpunk Futures engages the iconographic traditions of Art Nouveau stained glass, German expressionist woodcuts, and Japanese karuta through a pastel palette informed by palliative design. Computer augmented printmaking techniques involving a robotic drawing arm and AI-image processing concretize a microcosmic example of technology integrated within democratic social processes and emancipatory goals. The entire game is free to play forever and released under a Creative Commons BY—NC—SA 4.0 license. The game’s social structure enables players to approach the seemingly insurmountable challenges of today’s material world through interdependence, consent, and radical possibility. This unity of means and ends in the game’s design, production, practice, and distribution is intended to integrate its politics of utopia-as-process, in which every component forms a supportive aspect of the whole.

Solarpunk Futures can therefore be conceived as a processual system—a dialectic between the printed matter, technics, design, and illustration as well as the relational arts of gameplay, utopianpolitik futuring, and dialogue itself. Through this collaborative performance of memory, visionary narratives emerge of a free and ecological society–rooted in the limitless potentialities of our interrelations in the present.

SPM: Have there been hurdles along the way? How has the reception been? Was there any pushback from the masses?

SSC: Many of the hurdles we encountered were similar to those encountered by so many others during these past few years. COVID-19 remains a challenge for all of us, though this hermetic experience has allowed us to find new ways to virtually collaborate and devote attention to finishing the project. Some of our members struggled with health issues, loss of employment, and paying bills during the period we worked on the game, and the pandemic has also limited some of our plans to host in-person playtesting and game events in public spaces.

Despite these challenges, the reception has generally been fantastic. Solarpunk Futures has received multiple awards in the contemporary art world for its contribution to both printmaking and social practice. Revolutionary organizers have recognized its potential for political education and community-building. We are excited to continue making connections in the tabletop gaming and playable theater communities. The solarpunk movement, which overlaps with all of these, has helped us raise over 200% of our crowdfunding goal in order to bring the project to life.

One recurring piece of feedback we’ve run into is people wondering whether this is “actually a game”, or more of an educational tool, a set of storytelling prompts, or an experimental art project. We understand the desire to categorize, but are honestly thrilled that we have managed to create something that is formally and conceptually syncretic. Most of the primary game mechanics — GM-less RPGs, cooperative gameplay, rules-lite storytelling, world-building, backcasting — have all been done before.Rather than get bogged down in the ontology of a ‘game’ our interest is to create an experience that is fun, visionary, and educational while questioning or subverting some of the traditional ways games are played in order to expand the horizons of what games can be and do.

SPM: Can you tell us about any other solarpunk projects that are in the works (both within and outside the Surf Club)?

SSC: We are excited to continue developing the ideas mentioned in this interview through an ecology of forms. With Borealis, we are making Care Tactics, a podcast that investigates collective care as an ethical ideal for human flourishing—harmonizing our relationships with one another, and with the rest of the living world. A print media project already in development is our Solarpunk Tarot deck—connecting solarpunk to the history and practice of cartomancy to liberatory divination. A third, exciting project we have forthcoming is a series of experimental docufiction film shorts set in actually-existing communalist experiments. By combining documentary film techniques with visionary dramatizations of the utopian futures these communities are building in the present, we hope to explore the creative slippages and ethical tensions between the real and the possible, while highlighting people and organizations on the ground who are building solarpunk futures in the here and now. COVID-19 will continue to complicate this, of course, but if anyone reading this is part of one of those communities, please don’t hesitate to contact us about future collaboration.

You can follow Solarpunk Surf Club on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as well as GitHub.

Download the free pdf version of Solarpunk Futures.
Preorder the Solarpunk Futures game.

J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer and poet based in Beirut. He is the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine and Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @JD_Harlock.

Published by Solarpunk Magazine

Creating a new and better world through speculative literature.

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