In 2013 a Discovery News article proclaimed that: Steampunk goes mainstream!
The temperature of the ensuing debate continues to fluctuate. The distinction should be made, as many of those hottest under the collar do, that ‘mainstream’ in this case appears to mean ‘cheap’, ‘high street’ and without any underlying aesthetic, polemic or artistry.
This led me to look at the ways in which Steampunk infuses various aspects of modern culture, beyond the rubber Biggles helmet and plastic goggles that most novelty outlets stock these days.
In couture as well as art, aesthetic can overwhelm functionality for the sake of the piece, lifting it above mainstream consumerism.
Sidharta Aryan’s 2011 contribution to the annual Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai is an instant example of the visual taking precedent over the functional.
The designer introductory catwalk show was titled ‘Steampunk’. The full range of his couture shows some of the pieces are more punk than steam. His creations are purely visual and not very practical. As haute couture should be.
Aryan’s use of Steampunk was a one-off, but still deserves a special mention. He seems to be the only designer working in India today who has incorporated Steampunk in his oeuvre at all.
The New York Steampunk Loft in Chelsea is a great example of form married to function: One can actually inhabit this incredibly tasty property, though I am not entirely sure the mod cons under the surface hold up to scrutiny as neo-Victorian or retro-mechanic!
A large scale example is of course Oamaru in New Zealand, which has so fervently embraced its Victorian history and architecture that many in the town collaborate in preserving a consistent Steampunk look and feel, culminating in Steampunk HQ. In the curator’s own words: “Steampunk HQ opened in November 2011. It is an art collaboration proudly based in Oamaru, New Zealand. It portrays an industrial version of Steampunk, with a giant sense of humour and larger than life visions of an off the wall Steampunk universe.”
Machinery itself has become ultra-cool and sexy, which means the shell gets ripped off, say, a shower unit to expose the piping for purely decorative reasons. Function becomes the beauty and vice versa.
Through this, we might cease to take for granted that things ‘just work’ without knowing exactly how; it actually creates a lust for greater basic understanding, which has been getting somewhat lost. It is harder to grasp any building process the more computerized things have become: A child can’t simply take apart a radio anymore and by picking, tracing, and fiddling for long enough, figure out how it was built and what makes it work.
Our present wonderment lies in deconstructing the universe to the most infinitesimal particles that can be observed, in order to understand it. The wonder of straightforward mechanics and simpler contraptions of motion, communication, observation and illumination has become something we are taking wholly for granted.
We have become utterly blasé about being able to pick up a pocket-sized lump of plastic housing a tiny computer and speaking to our cousin a continent away, within mere seconds.
In 2012, we watched a man take a jump from space back to Earth: a feat that is such a marvel on so many levels that we’ve brushed over being amazed by the technology which gave us the possibility to view this in real time.
With this particular lack of wonder I believe some romance has been lost. I suspect most Steampunks are driven by romanticism and nostalgia, combined with the benefits of modern science. I believe this perspective even includes those Steampunks who have a more gritty socio-political or ecological agenda and are using the genre as their platform.
The Thinkism art movement founded by David Kam in 2001 has some ideological similarities to Steampunk. It is a socially conscious art movement which operates on the premise that anyone can change society by artistic expression whilst addressing, among other things, social, political, sexual, and religious issues. Certain Steampunk fiction has done this by re-imagining the past, or lampooning it.
An obvious example to Steampunks is the omnipresent Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Then there is the highly satirical and rumbustiously wonderful Dancers at The End of Time by Michael Moorcock, whom I will ever advocate as one of the true First Grandfathers of post-Victorian Steampunk. His Warlords of The Air chronicles speak for themselves.
Thinkism posits the idea that art should no longer be seen as static, something for the wall, but as something that embodies both beauty and usefulness. This resonates with Steampunk as far as invention and utility are concerned.
From a purely functional perspective, Steampunk has played a vital role in alternative lifestyles in recent years. Upcycling, reclamation projects, DIY and off-grid self-sustainability initiatives have given the ecologically aware a wonderfully aesthetic building template.
The moment any Steampunk piece becomes functional, without the help of up to date technology, it becomes retro-lutionary, in that it re-instates the usage of historical industrial machinery and mechanics.
There is some similarity, in our reaction against modernity, to the surge of Art Nouveau in the early Twentieth century. A movement which sprung up as a response to the school of Modernism, which was seen as sentimental, clichéd, conservative, non-innovative, bourgeois and ‘style-less’; whereas Art Nouveau, albeit also working from a different type of idealism, combined distinctive stylistic choices with innovation, especially where furniture and jewellery design were concerned.
The movement wanted to erase the boundaries between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ disciplines and was more inclusive of female artists. They aimed at a unity in the arts, where nature and life held a central place as a source for creation and hoped to create a revolution of new thought.
Steampunk art is perhaps not that revolutionary. Not in the way that Nouveau or Deco were, or even Britart is now. However, socially, I think it may have a minor revolutionary aspect to it; similar to Punk Rock music, which, for all its impact on society brought little That was truly new to the music world.
Making the leap forward, I see a drive for all-inclusiveness in Steampunk, across literature, art, design and even in society; for instance, the way it has rewritten the role of women and people of colour in Victorian society.
The fact that this all seems to have started in what was essentially a roleplay setting (Purists, you may lynch me!) seems to have become irrelevant, as many Steampunks are now embracing the style on a day to day basis, both in fashion, art and practical living.
And there is an irony here: Art Nouveau was greatly a response to the Industrial Revolution but Steampunk has a nostalgic streak for exactly this time period.
As far as makers and crafters are concerned, there is a similar gung-ho approach to creating pieces that incorporate unusual materials or completely revamp basic utensils.
Art Nouveau devotees were hoping to create a style that could be adopted internationally and would be a highly stylistic expression of the modern age. They looked to break through the boundaries of separate disciplines by drawing upon every source and utilizing every possible inspiration gained from books, music, theatre, as well as all visual art and design forms. Some artists dabbled in new materials and mass production, whilst others explored rare and expensive materials, with an emphasis on skill, craftsmanship and the individuality of each piece.
There is a kinship to Steampunk in that.
I also believe there has been a backlash reaction to abstract art (aforementioned Britart) and lavish architecture in the face of economic dearth; there appears to be a growing need for visual warmth and organic shapes that reflect people’s daily reality. The gravitation towards Steampunk is, for some of us, inevitable.
Suna Dasi is a passionate geek with a pen. Her profession as a singer has taken her all over the world. She currently records and performs with Texan artist Erin Bennett. Being a woman in the creative industries led her to co-found female film and music production company Art Attack Films/Attack Agency. Two of her short stories are due to appear in anthologies in 2016.