IN THE FALL AND WINTER OF 2009-2010, a small exhibition called The Art of Steampunk at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science drew more than 70,000 visitors. Among the exhibits on display were an elegant mahogany early-twentieth-century-style telephone with a velvet cord made by James Richardson Brown; a model dirigible called the “Anglo-Parisian Barnstormer” mounted on a three-wheeled wagon and decorated with Gothic steeples and a copy of the Eiffel tower, all of it swarming with tiny action figures, by Kris Kuksi; an “Eyepod” by one “Dr. Grymm” complete with brass megaphone and a single, prominent glass eyeball; and the startling “Complete Mechanical Womb” made by Molly “Porkshanks” Friedrich out of wood, copper, glass, and antique machine parts. The materials are familiar but the effect is otherworldly in a playful, cheerful sort of way. Like the steampunk subculture’s radically anachronistic fashion statements — aviator’s goggles, Victorian waistcoats, top hats, bustle skirts, leather corsets, bizarre, mechanical accessories, sometimes even a fake prosthetic limb bristling with exposed metallic gears — all of these art objects seem to delight in evoking a whimsical, baroquely ornamented cultural milieu bequeathed by some alternative historical past to a fancifully reconfigured present. Steampunk art and fashion are not sleek or streamlined, but rather richly textured and exuberantly excessive.
A pair of short essays and a roundtable interview at the back of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk Reloaded gathers together meditations on the meaning and the future of steampunk by various participants in what one of them, Gail Carriger, calls “a strange little social movement without any real objective, organization, or political agenda.” Despite steampunk’s lack of an organized program, it appears clear that one of the basic impulses of its fashion and visual arts is to rebel against the slick surfaces of contemporary consumer culture. As Carriger goes on to say,
We are living in an age where technology is trapped inside little silver matchboxes … But with steampunk fashion the inner workings of a machine become not just approachable but glorified. We steampunk DIYers force cogs and gears back out into the open.
Rachel Bowser and Brian Croxall, the co-editors of a recent special issue on steampunk in the online journal Neo-Victorian Studies, make much the same point when they suggest that steampunk visual art is a critical response to the “opacity” of contemporary technology, its imperviousness to tinkering, and its discouragement of amateur repair. Rooted in the “maker” and do-it-yourself movements, steampunk rejects planned obsolescence, and this helps explain its propensity for mixing together materials from different time periods, as in the artist Datamancer’s laptop computers fashioned out of wood and l...read more