WHAT'S WITH STEAMPUNK?

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A bizarre subculture that romanticises Victorian-era machines and Jules Verne is steadily entering the mainstream. Gary Moskowitz investigates ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Kris Kuksi's first artistic creation was a miniature model of a Winnebego, complete with tiny bathrooms made from construction paper. Growing up in rural Kansas in the 1970s and '80s, imagination and glue were his tools for entertainment. He developed a knack for constructing intricate miniatures made from model kits, mechanical parts and toy soldiers. He discovered a taste for the mystique of the Baroque and Gothic periods.

His fascination with tinkering and his old-world tastes have earned him a fan base within steampunk, a subculture that blends Victorian-era steam-engine aesthetics with modern technology. Inspired by the early science-fiction writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, steampunk has a romantic, fantastical sensibility. Or, as Kuksi describes it, there is "a touch of technology with a pinch of antiquity and perhaps a dash of the macabre. There is humanity...and even a bit of social rebellion and transgression."

Kuksi was among 18 artists from around the world whose work was on display as part of "Steampunk", an exhibition dedicated to this quirky genre at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science earlier this year. This was yet another sign that steampunk is creeping into the mainstream, in music videos, iPhone applications and all over the internet. In Northern England a number of secondary schools even introduced some steampunk-inspired art programmes over the past school year, funded in part by an Arts Council England grant. Called "A Fantastic Voyage", the project saw local designers, sculptors and artists offer steampunk workshops to thousands of students. The results will be on view in an exhibition at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle this July.

"There is a lot of steampunk culture at the moment," said Judith Cashman, a project coordinator for "A Fantastic Voyage". "It's a way of engaging young people in Victorian design and literature."
 
Steampunk is like cyberpunk's retro cousin. Its art, fashion and trinkets are lavishly anachronistic, like what you might find on the submarine in Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". (Perhaps inevitably, there's now talk of Sam Raimi directing a remake of the 1954 film.) Old clocks, gas lamps, dirigibles, submersibles, goggles, helmets, compasses and small machines are common items produced by its artists, usually made with brass, mahogany, leather and rivets. Steampunk inventions don't always work; aesthetic often trumps function. 
 
Comic books introduced the look in the 1980s. But the internet has opened the floodgates, letting people share their inventions and socialise with fellow fans. The British blog "Brass Goggles" and the Steampunk Tribune are forums for all things steampunk, and Boing Boing posts regularly on the subject. Steampunk has more than one Facebook page and its own hash tags on Twitter. One Canada-based feed regularly updates more than 9,000 listed followers with tweets such as "Steampunk leather mask with a breathing tube beard" and "My Grandfather Clock Key Choker featured on Antique Clock World." 
 
The sepia-toned steampunk style mixes an obsession with the past with a geeky sense of romantic heroism. Fans are often both earnest and knowing. The Britain-based Steampunk Magazine, around since 2007, puts its finger on the shtick:
 
Before the age of homogenization and micro-machinery, before the tyrannous efficiency of internal combustion and the domestication of electricity, lived beautiful, monstrous machines that lived and breathed and exploded unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. It was a time where art and craft were united, where unique wonders were invented and forgotten, and punks roamed the streets, living in squats and fighting against despotic governance through wit, will and wile.
 
Even if we had to make it all up.
 
The Oxford museum exhibit came about when Art Donovan, an American steampunk artist, contacted the museum's director, Jim Bennett, to show him a sculpture he had made based on one of the museum's ancient brass astrolabes. The two got to talking and agreed that since steampunk derives a lot of its technical and aesthetic influences from the 19th-century Victorian sciences, an art exhibition would complement the scientific devices in the museum's collection. The museum appointed Donovan to curate the show.
 
"Ok, many of its practitioners are not very interested in the science," Bennett said. "But when we see a movement that is using this cultural capital in original and attractive ways, we want to be part of that. From our point of view, it is a creative movement in the arts that has a currency and popularity."
 
The exhibit featured lanterns, wall clocks, non-functioning steam-powered devices, watches and rings, stereoscopes, a twin-plate electrostatic machine and a copying press from the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the contraptions were whimsical and bizarre, such as a "Pachyderm Mask", a breathing device attached to a leather elephant-shaped helmet (pictured).
 
During my visit, the overall vibe was giggly. "That's kinky," one older man said to his wife while inspecting leather goggles adorned with brass tentacles. Considering the same item, a father said to his young son, "Imagine meeting someone wearing that? I think you'd run."
 
Speaking as the exhibit was closing in late February, Bennet said he was amazed at the "sheer volume of interest" it had generated. "It doubled our visitor figures," he said. Donovan has a theory for this fascination. "Steampunk promotes an individual's interest and involvement in the traditional, physical sciences," he explained. Perhaps in a time when so much culture has gone virtual, there is something satisfying about imaging an age of swashbuckling explorers and kooky inventors, of heroes and steam-blowing machines.
 
Tobias Slater works for White Mischief, a London-based group that now regularly curates steampunk parties and events for die-hard fans of rocket packs, wooden rayguns and compasses. "Every day I check my Facebook profile and find another two or three friend requests from neo-Victorian, brass-goggle-wearing folk, some sporting the most incredible moustaches (and that's just the women!)," Slater wrote in an e-mail. Still, he predicts the aesthetic will remain niche. "Can steampunk cross over and become mass market like the original 1970s punk? No. Absolutely not. Whereas any suburban kid could be Johnny Rotten with a ripped T-shirt and a safety pin, the steampunk look takes a lot of time to recreate."

Yet steampunk is clearly not just a look, but an embrace of a nearly mythical era of mad science and weird contraptions at a time when most people rarely use their hands to make or discover anything. It is a subculture that uses virtual tools—blogs, Flickr photo pages, Facebook, Twitter and iPhonesto honour the more crude and tangible kind. "Steampunk is not about being on trend or in fashion," Slater observed. "It is about "geeky, scientific types with an eye for detail and a lust for the craft rather than a sense of how skinny one's jeans should be in 2010. It manages to be both conservative and progressive, backward-looking and forward-looking at the same time."

 

(Gary Moskowitz is a journalist and a musician, now based in London. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was a Q&A with Thet Sambath, a documentary filmmaker.)

Picture credit: angelandspot, pashasha (both via Flickr), Oxford Museum of the History of Science, White Mischief