When Punk Gains Steam

by Jennifer Hendrix

15 February 2010

Watch by
Haruo Suekichi 

The Way Station embodies many of the defining qualities of steampunk.

“Pachydermos” by Tom Banwell

The average person probably runs into the steampunk aesthetic with some frequency, but, if they live near Brooklyn, will soon be able to literally drink it in.  Andy Heidel, a Brooklyn-based science fiction writer, is about to open the Way Station, which he calls “Brooklyn’s first steampunk bar,” but which is, to all appearances, the first steampunk bar, period.  The Way Station embodies many of the defining qualities of steampunk.  For one thing, though still in progress, it looks right.  Quilted red leather banquettes line the walls of the small, brick-walled room, parts of which are covered in faded reddish wallpaper, and in the center of which, inexplicably, sits a barbeque.  At the end of the bar is a blue structure that says “Police Call Box” above a door, which on further inspection is found to contain the restrooms, which seem slightly too large to fit inside it.  This “TARDIS” (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space), Heidel said, is inspired by the television series Doctor Who: “The police box is his time traveling spaceship—which is larger on the inside,” he grins.  The bar will be a venue for live music, and there is a small stage in one corner swathed in brocaded fabric. 

“I just love the aesthetic,” Heidel said, “People were doing these ‘mods’, like taking their computer and making it look like it was from the Victorian age, and when I finally decided to build my bar from scratch, I thought, wow, this would be the biggest modification ever—making it look like Industrial Victorian.”  He says the aesthetic is “very DIY and crafty,” and has worked well both design-wise and financially, combining inexpensive modern elements with pricier antiques.  “Because you do things like get these beautiful 500 dollar fans,” he says, pointing out two pairs of rotating, retro industrial fans mounted to the ceiling as though they had been in the building all along.  He motions toward anther wall, “and you complement them with these 10 dollar industrial lamps, which are my sconces.”  The entire bar, being so very DIY, could be seen as a sort of meta-steampunk object.  Although it has not yet officially opened, the Way Station hosted the official after-party for Steampunk Day at the Brooklyn Indie Market, attracting hosts of costumed patrons from the city’s steampunk community, those who adopt the steampunk aesthetic as a lifestyle, dressing in more formal Victorian and Belle Epoque styles.  These “steampunkers” became part of the bar-as-object as well:  “What’s great about them is that they actually become living design aesthetics that are part of my bar,” Heidel says, “They didn’t seem out of place or out of the ordinary being totally dressed up and hanging out here.” 

Sometimes, though, Heidel has to explain his bar’s theme, acting as an unofficial steampunk ambassador.  His explanation is that it is “a return to design—really beautiful design—instead of just function.”  Heidel shares steampunk’s emphasis on inclusion as well.  Beautiful design, he says, is “not for the wealthy—it’s for everyday people.” 

The diverse crowds attracted by the ornate artwork on exhibit at Oxford prove the point of inclusion beautifully: “Everybody from costumed fans to people who hadn’t heard of it,” Donovan says, from “nine year-olds to people in their 70s.  It appealed to all different cultural backgrounds—men and women, young and old—it’s a wide, democratic movement.”  So wide, in fact, that Donovan says the museum had to cut its hours in order to accommodate the number of visitors.  Donovan adds, “I mean, modernism is great, but a lot of people I think are weary of conceptual and modern and post-postmodern art, and many want to see something that is actually hand-crafted.” 

New Work by Kris Kuski

New Work by Kris Kuski

As steampunk spreads, some canny entrepreneurs are catching on, purveying mass-produced items than adopt the steampunk name and aesthetic without the ethic behind it, thereby presenting a contradiction in terms.  It is now possible to buy on Amazon.com a “steampunk” laptop skin, a sort of trompe l’œil sticker showing a computer’s inner workings.  “Right now, it’s at the stage where you can buy those skins, or a USB drive that’s handmade by somebody, but you can’t call Dell and get a steampunk laptop from Dell,” says Gizmodo’s Jason Chen, “But it’s getting there.”  Chen, for one, has had enough.  “To me it seems to be kind of over.  As soon as the mainstream catches on, it’s done.  It’s like, first the nerds like it, and then it’s cool, and then your parents hear about it, and you’re like, ‘Aww, mom.’”  Gizmodo, he says, has been “reading the nerd sites” for so long that it has become inured to all but the most outstanding of steampunk creations.  “If we see something that’s really well made, then we still go ‘Wow’,” Chen states. “But it can’t just be some guy sticking a bunch of wires to his laptop anymore.” 

Within the steampunk community, a certain amount of commodification is expected as interest in steampunk grows.  “Steampunk is inevitably going to become commodified,” Falksen said, noting that even the clothing chain Forever 21 is putting out Victorian-inspired clothing. He is, however, not terribly concerned.  “The important thing is people having fun,” he said.  “So long as they’re enjoying themselves, we’ll make do with whatever mainstream involvement comes along.”  Ever the broad, democratic philosophy, steampunk has the capacity to make way even for its imitators.  And there is a way in which the breadth of the genre could actually insure its survival.  As Jake Von Slatt of the website Steampunk Workshop writes for the Oxford Museum’s Artist’s Journal, “I’ve come to view steampunk, the combination of a Victorian aesthetic and a punk rock attitude, as a sort of cultural mule.  A mule is a hybrid creature that is strong and robust but can’t reproduce… What we call steampunk today will likely run its course, but as long as there are horses and donkeys there will continue to be mules.”

In fact, the next mule may be already taking shape in the North of England.  There, Donovan says, some schools are beginning to include steampunk in their science curriculum.  “It has great appeal for students,” he says, “and kindles an interest in traditional science, which teachers love.”  Because of steampunk’s tactile quality, students can see the workings of machines and get excited about them, which, he says, isn’t possible with most of the technology the contemporary young person encounters, “I mean, what could get someone who owns an iPhone interested in gear ratios?”

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Authenticity Issues and the New Intimacies

// Marginal Utility

"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

READ the article