When Punk Gains Steam

Haruo Suekichi’s handmade watches are anything but practical. With hand-carved faces that sometimes fold outward, intricate, counterintuitive leather straps riveted in brass and copper, and idiosyncratic styling — as in the marriage of a miniature cannon with a watch-face resembling a compass — the watches, while fully functional, are barely recognizable as such. They are odd, fanciful productions, at once enchantingly anachronistic and reminiscent of the torture devices of some futuristic world.

Watch by Haruo Suekichi

Suekichi’s watches are among the many objects that Art Donovan, an artist living in Southampton, New York, has collected for an exhibit at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. Curating the exhibit sent Donovan on a bit of a treasure hunt. Suekichi, for one, lives and works in Tokyo, and has neither email nor personal website. He also does not speak English. These facts did not deter Donovan, who determinedly scoured the Internet for coverage of Suekichi’s work, finally locating an editor, Natsuki Yamada, who agreed to contact the reclusive artist and interpret for him. The other artists were not much easier to find: they hail from all over the globe, and speak many languages besides Donovan’s own. In these cases, Donovan reached out using Google Translator to convert his emails to into their native language.

The artists, including Donovan himself, whose work has been brought together for the first time in Oxford are what is known as “Steampunk Makers.” Makers, inventors as much as they are artists and artisans, create objects that, like Suekichi’s watches, are wonders of imaginative, magical absurdity. The exhibition includes, among other things, a phonograph with ipod dock, a space helmet with top hat and goggles, motors powered by tealights, a mechanical arm, a pachyderm-shaped gas mask with amplifier ears, and a model of a gothic cathedral with caterpillar treads and a gun projecting through its front doors. Their common aesthetic has been called “Baroque retro-tech” and brings to mind a world with sky-pirates battling in dirigibles, clunky robots, cloak-and-dagger mysteries, and the hissing, clattering machines of an era before the silencing invention of electricity. When he first happened upon an image of a steampunk laptop while Googling new trends in art and design, “It blew my mind,” Donovan says, “it looked like something from the 19th century.” Donovan didn’t want to keep it to himself. “I wanted to have a physical venue where people could see these artworks in person,” he says, “I wanted them to be as excited as I was.” Previous to the Oxford exhibition, the only place one could see such works was online.

Gramophone iPod Dock by Jesse Newhouse

It seems appropriate that it was technology that first drew together this far-flung group, whose members know one another mainly through 21st century tools such as wikis, blogs, and the DIY marketplace etsy.com. According to Donovan, steampunk is the first art genre born entirely on the web, a modern variant of the groups like the Cubists, who once met in cafes and coffee houses. “The same thing now happens on the Internet,” he says, “the only thing missing is the absinthe and espresso.”

But steampunk is more than an art genre. What it is, perhaps appropriately, is somewhat nebulous. It is a feeling, says Jason Chen, editor of the technology blog Gizmodo.com, who has been writing about steampunk since the movement first appeared: “It’s like profanity, how we know when something’s profanity even if we can’t say exactly what profanity is.” G.D. Falksen, an author and frequent speaker on the steampunk event circuit, defines it more precisely: “Steampunk is Victorian science fiction,” he said via email. “One could get into the details of saying it’s sci-fi from or inspired by the early 1800’s through 1919, but that ends up getting a bit complicated.”

Mask by Stephane Halleux

Steampunk is a movement without a manifesto. According to Donovan, such a declaration was suggested at one point, but was felt to be too limiting. Steampunk is by definition against such definition — it is broad, democratic. Although the actual political views of steampunk’s adherents run the gamut, in its aesthetic stand against a certain set of modern values, it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is at least an ethic involved. Steampunk is, in fact, a hybrid of the “steam” aesthetic — the mad scientist re-inventing modern technologies — and the “punk” outsider, the DIY artist making a stand against a throw-away culture. The legacy of punk, as Jeff VanderMeer, author of The Steampunk Bible, to be published in 2010 by Abrams Image, writes in an essay for the Oxford exhibition’s Artist’s Journal, defines steampunk as more than Victorian sci-fi nostalgia: “The most vibrant parts of the steampunk subculture use this extrapolation about technology as a necessary antidote to the seamless, unattainable technology of modern times, in which none of us can fix our own cars, for example.” As does punk, the steampunk community applies the idea of individual freedom and openness, beginning with our relationship to technology, to an entire lifestyle involving everything from a unique style of dress to music and film. Through its aesthetic, it provides a way to question the status quo definition of “progress.”

According to VanderMeer, the term “steampunk” was coined by novelist K.W. Jeter in 1987. At the time, Jeter wrote, presciently, that “Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term…like ‘steampunks’ perhaps.” Steampunk, a counter-point to cyberpunk, became a literary sub-genre of its own in the late 1980s and early ’90s, influenced by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley, as well as films like Brazil and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The literature harkens back to a time when technology still held a sense of wonder, and was produced not by large corporations, but by individual artisans and inventors. Steampunk soon spread beyond literature, as fans began to reproduce the culture found in the books. The literary movement became an aesthetic, drawing on an ornate classicism of design comparable to the philosophy of architect Robert Venturi: “Less is not more. Less is a bore.” In opposition to the “magic box” sleekness of the iPhone and iPod, in which design occludes the device’s complexity, Art Donovan says steampunk culture is “about dignifying the object, rather than creating a structure that belies its importance.” As cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling writes in his “User’s Guide to Steampunk”:

We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth.

Perhaps this realization is more widespread than is often recognized: the steampunk aesthetic crops up throughout pop culture, from film (think of Howl’s Moving Castle, 9, or The Golden Compass), to fashion, comics, computer games (the game Machinarium for example), and events like Burning Man.

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

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?”