Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

What’s hip ’bout the airship? Steampunk in the UK

January 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

So this is by no means what I am doing or my presentations; however, I felt it would be of interest to you folks anyway. Over winter holiday, I went to visit the MHS (Museum of the History of Science) to see their exhibit on the art that has come out of steampunk movement, both and England and worldwide. It was fantastic, and I definitely recommend it as it is running until  February 21st.

For most people, the idea of steampunk (and the movement surrounding it) is quite foreign, so I will do my best to explain what I believe it to be. I stress that this is strictly my interpretation, as it is a severally decentralized idea with many interpretations. The way I see it there are three major aspects of steampunk. The first being the history surrounding it. The second is the art that has come from it, both literature, music and painting. And the third, is the DIY(do it yourself). 

It is difficult to pinpoint when “steampunk” first originated.  The OED places the term steampunk around 1987 by Jeter in Locus; it being based off of the previous genre of cyberpunk, which is is an entire different subject.  Despite its fairly modern coinage, steampunk has arguably been around since the Victorian era (whence it is based).  Works from Jules Verne to H.G Wells sought to look into the future of technology, using what understanding they had around them.  In more modern works, steampunk looks at modern technology and wonders how the Victorian era would have created it. How would our society have benefits or been illed if the social atmosphere of the 1800s had continued to present day?

As the art exhibit showed, steampunk is still inspiring people today to push the boundaries of what art is. There were beautifully remastered keyboards, fitted with wood panels and type-writer letters, a light fixture that was simply amazing. There were, however, less practical aspects such as a teleportation device. This blending of functionality and impractically is a keystone of the steampunk dogma. It doesn’t truly matter if something makes sense; it is almost as if steampunk asks us to question the rationality of our modernity.

The exhibit itself is very well laid out and organized, and it is a great forum for learning more, seeing its capabilities, and talking with international artists about their motivations and techniques. If anything it was great simply for the people-watching aspect. I will not embarrass myself by putting up the picture of my get up, but needless to say I went in full nerd glory. What was nice about the experience was that dressed up and not dressed up basically gave each other the same looks of curiosity– anthropologists observing a foreign culture. It felt as though there was a mutual understanding of appreciation and acceptance.

What I found most amusing about the whole experience was the music that has come out of the steampunk movement. As with many DIY groups, the instrumentation was weird to say the least.  While it wasn’t at the show this guitar is probably one of the neater things I have seen. You even have entire bands devoted to steampunk such as Abney Park.

Do it yourself comes into play for obvious reasons as there isn’t really a plethora of steampunk outlets. But it also works as a means of expression. Once you’ve sown together your first frock coat, or even your first button, there is a strange sense of pride seldom found in modern activities, not unlike finishing a painting or running a 5k. Obviously with our budges as they are arts and crafts probably aren’t on the top of anyone’s list, but it is interesting to see how much you can create with recycled goods. While it is by no means on par with Dickinson’s removal of the lunch trays (or the creation of a sushi bar), I would argue that steampunk is up there in the sustainability zone.

I think my only quarrel with the whole idea is that people often forget about the societal norms of the Victorian era.  As we have learned there certainly were social reform movements going on through Queen Victoria and Prince Albert such as the opening of parks and the support of artistic movements. Overall, however, the Victorian era was set by ridge social ques and mass oppression.  At the exhibit a young female artist tried to explain to me how the Victorian era was a period of femenistic empowerment, which is absolute bollocks. The idea of sexual equality is something only sense in period pieces when a director needs to have a head strong, coy female lead so as to attract a larger demographic (cough Guy Ritchie cough).  For that matter, sexuality in general was severally hampered. Showing your calves, man or woman, was considered an outrageous fopaux.

Much as its brother genres of the science fiction realm, it allows us an interesting thought-experiment and temporary escape. But the modern interpretation of steampunk has drifted further away from its Victorian roots. This decentralization is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows for vast array of artistic expression. It is for that reason that it is so amazing something like the exhibit at the MHS could have been put together and still seem cohesive.

If you’d like some more info on steampunk feel free to ask me anything. I don’t claim to know too much, so here are some sites that know better.




Tags: Andrew R