When Punk Gains Steam

Jennifer Hendrix
Watch by Haruo Suekichi

Steampunk's turn toward the past is more than merely aesthetic. Technology is viewed with a turn-of-the-century sense of wonder that opposes our contemporary tendency to take it for granted. And it is now more pervasive in pop culture than some may realize.

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 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, 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 '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.

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