My first short post on this blog was titled “As a luddite…”, but visiting the steampunk temporary exhibit at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science has made me reconsider my Luddite position (aesthetically as well as functionally – as my use of a blog indicates, of course, I have my uses for techology, but before now, I rarely found it appealing in itself). In a short article in the broadsheet for the exhibit, which opened in October and closes this week, Brian Catling from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford notes, “Steampunk rewrites technology without the aid of electricity or nuclear power. It gives its sermons and tells its tales in an ornate courtly language that has never been mass-produced or suffered the humiliation of being simplified by plasticity.” Catling’s article is called “Steampunk: A Calibration of Longing.”
“Pachydermos,” gas mask – Tom Banwell
It is plastic-ness above all things that I dislike about technology. While I sometimes fear that the internet is giving me ADD, taking up too much of my time that could be spent with people in the flesh, etc., it’s more often than not the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of modernity that really get to me. I am more shallow than I’d like to think?
I’m not a huge fan of lab science, or of the celebration of hard steel and churning gears. In, say, Atlas Shrugged (which will certainly get a post when I’ve finish reading it), these elements creep me out aesthetically as well as morally. But I really like the aesthetics of steampunk. There’s enough old-ness and history in it to counteract the new-ness. It’s personable and dirty. Catling writes that in steampunk, “the mechanical is given a new status that elevates it beyond slavish function.”
I thought this guy’s bio was especially cool:
though I’m maybe less excited about his pieces than some of the others in the exhibit:
The blurbs of several artists in the exhibit stated that they had always had the steampunk aesthetic – the future imagined from the past – but hadn’t realized that it was a distinct subculture with a name.
That is, in part, because steampunk is a pretty new movement. While it got its name in the 80s as a more nostalgic relative of cyberpunk, recently it has been gathering…steam. It is principally a literary genre, but it also surfaces in other forms, like the The Wild Wild West TV show from the 60’s, before steampunk had its name, and the movie remake, in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book and its movie, and (again) in Sherlock Holmes. These are not stunning specimens of quality cinema, etc., but then again steampunk in general doesn’t take itself too seriously, and maybe that is refreshing in itself.
Steampunk goggles, “Squid Attack” – Dr Grymm
Looking at these goggles and other wonders in the exhibit, one little boy, probably about six years old, said to his mother, “So this is what was meant to happen?”
Electric Skull – Amanda Scrivener/Professor Maelstromme
His Dark Materials is apparently considered to be steampunk or steampunk-inspired, with its zeppelins, clockwork, etc. So is the computer game Myst.
Most of the artists in the exhibit have unusual pseudonyms: Datamancer, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich, Doctor Grymm, Mad Uncle Cliff, Professor Maelstromme, Herr Doktor. It seems there is a certain sort of person who creates steampunk art.
Arachne Mechanica – Thomas Willeford
Many current – would they be “steampunks”? – cite Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and the like as inspiration. I am and especially used to be a fan of those authors myself, and maybe I have a little steampunk in me: here’s a mechanical fish I drew my freshman year in high school – long before I knew about steampunk:
I don’t think my fish would actually work, but that’s ok: Catling points out that mystery of function can be one of the most appealing aspects of a piece of steampunk art.
Incidentally, when I was in London a few weeks ago, before I went to this exhibit, I bought myself a quite steampunky pocketwatch for just £9.
The long chain lets me wear it around my neck rather than in my pocket. I’m a little embarrassed to actually take it out and look at it in public – even around my neck, it is, so obviously, a pocketwatch – and I can’t tell if this embarrassment will get better or worse when I return to the US.
The issue of what constitutes steampunk music is apparently hotly debated. One group often classified as steampunk is Rasputina. Observe the steampunky wooden-gear-contraption at work around the middle of the video:
I liked that one, I think.
This one, not so much:
It reminded me of what I really don’t like about technology. Also, I swear the little boy near the end is Spoilsbury Toast Boy.
Some of the pieces in the exhibit were also quite creepy, sometimes in a fun way and sometimes not. For example, Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s “Complete Mechanical Womb”:
Less ambiguously than cyberpunk, steampunk seems to delight in what is to me often disturbingly mechanical. And the delight is for the mechanics itself, rather than for any sort of dystopian message, though I can’t help but see a mechanical womb as dystopian. I like a good creepy image, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in a steampunk world, or at least not in Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich’s.
…and now my laptop’s hard drive is apparently fried, reminding me of why actually I do hate technology. Now come barren days of work in Hertford College Grad Centre’s stark, modern, fluorescent computer room, without the pretty view out of my room’s two windows:
back when it was snowy here…
and without a pretty steampunk keyboard:
Ergonomic Keyboard – Datamancer
to keep me aesthetically satisfied.