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
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
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
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.