Friday, October 17, 2008

Steampunk 101

O.K., so the mid-term sucked worse than a make-out session at a leper colony. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, but I can assure you that the test was horrid. However, now that it is over I can pull my head out of the books and put it back into the bottle where it belongs. So, let’s begin this week’s bit of nonsense. Shall we?

I’ve had several conversations with various people in the past couple of weeks about modern electronics (computers, phones, televisions, etc.). The basic premise of the conversations was how (even though they are totally ubiquitous) these devices are basically disposable, crappy, almost completely utilitarian and entirely hideous to look at most of the time. Of course, when I get pulled in on conversations like these, I always bring up steampunk and the handful of artists and craftspeople that excel at making the mundane beautiful. What I’m finding out is that most people have never heard of steampunk before even though the movement has been around for about twenty years. So, I thought that I’d put together a little steampunk primer in order to introduce it to the next batch of possible enthusiasts.

Although many people may have never heard the term steampunk, chances are they’ve run into steampunk somewhere. It’s a term that describes a genre of fashion, art, film, writing, games, and much more. It can be found when the styles of the past collide with the gadgetry of the future. It’s a romantic look back at a bygone era that never was. It can be found in films like The Prestige, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sleepy Hollow, The Golden Compass and Hellboy. It’s in games like World of Warcraft and Bioshock, and in music videos like Tonight, Tonight by The Smashing Pumpkins and Closer by Nine Inch Nails. It’s defined by an entire genre of books and comics. In fact, one of my son’s favorite books is a bit of steampunk lore called Moonpowder. From sort of a retro sci-fi techno Victorian hodge-podge of ideas in the 1980’s steampunk has evolved into a vibrant subculture all of its own. Followers and artwork have the look and feel of someone or something straight out of a 19th century Jules Verne novel. It is all about romance and airships and pirates and submarines and goggles...the ubiquitous steampunk goggles.

It started as a futuristic, apocalyptic genre more like cyberpunk, but the authors of the movement thought, “Why not take all of this technology, all of the scientists, all of these programmers and put them in the past in a world before electricity - before power sources other than steam?” Originally, like cyberpunk, it followed the same dystopian themes and had a similar bleak outlook on the future. But I think one of the coolest aspects of steampunk is that as the genre evolved it dropped the dystopic view and took on a more Utopian view that makes it seem much more romantic and soulful.

On the surface, I don’t think that imitating the 19th century upper class is particularly rebellious or revolutionary, but even though stylistically steampunk takes its cues form the Victorian era, it’s the technological updates to the Victorian look that really give steampunk its edge. Enthusiasts focus on steam engines, clockwork devices, difference engines and employ them to modify clothing, vehicles, mundane modern devices, and anything else they can get their hands on. This is what originally drew me to steampunk. I have designed and built several steam engines, a Stirling engine, and I have been working on a design for a modern sundial. Some examples of objects that others have modified include computers, televisions, cell phones, musical instruments, etc. The goal of such redesigns is to employ appropriate materials (such as polished brass, iron, and wood) with design elements and craftsmanship consistent with the Victorian era. I’ve included some pictures of their genius mods which are all modern devices (a screaming fast desktop computer, laptop computer) wrapped in Victorian-inspired shells.

This is where our original conversations that started this mess come in. There was a period of time in the past when industrial designers actually had the freedom to create devices that were both beautiful and functional. Think back to the automobiles of the 50’s and 60’s. Think of the original locomotives, ships, and planes. Think about early console televisions and telephones. All of these devices and machines experienced a period where no expense was spared on their creation. The best materials were used in their construction. Now think about computers. What did the first computer look like? Essentially what it looks like now, right? A noisy plastic cube that takes up way too much space and is like a fist in your eye whenever you look at it. It’s sad that the device that has arguably made more of an impact on mankind than any other in history has never gotten any fanfare. This is pretty much how everything that is created today is treated – TVs, vehicles, appliances, etc. Why is it reasonable that people spend thousands of dollars on decorating their houses, but you can always find an ugly-ass computer or entertainment center sticking out somewhere like a pregnant nun? Why is this even remotely acceptable? It shouldn’t be, and that’s why I praise the steampunk mod artists and craftsmen that take these pieces of crap and turn them into artistic centerpieces so they can be used and displayed in public without hiding them in a back room like a retarded grandparent. Taking something that is bland and crappy and making it into a functional piece of artwork with a soul is absolutely brilliant.

A few Steampunk links of note: Steampunk Workshop, Brass Goggles, Datamancer, Steampunk Magazine, Coilhouse.

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