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Steampunks Elucidate Their Universe!

Professor Jager, detail

Professor Jager, detail

It is with great pleasure that I present to you this evening, an interview with some of Southern California’s most prominent Steampunks.  Here, we get to the heart of Steampunkiness – the hows, whats, and whys of it all.  Never before has there been such clarity!  I am deeply appreciative that they took the time to answer these questions, so we can all learn a little bit more about this beautiful costume aesthetic.  Answers below are from Gail Folsom, Andrew Fogel (a.k.a. Baron von Fogel) , and Nick Baumann (a.k.a. Crackitus Potts).  Read on…

1)  Steampunk: is it a genre?  A subculture?  An aesthetic movement?  How do you best describe what it is?

NB:  All of the above titles seem to fit, though I believe Steampunk is still defining itself and fits into many aspects of our lives.  Some claim this genre started in literature back in the 1980’s, though much of Steampunk is defined by its aesthetics based on Victorian science fiction and literature. We are Neo Victorians with gadgets and influences from the arts and sciences. Steampunk seems to be a combination of people interested in history, alternate history, cosplay, reenactments, costuming, science, literature and an outlet for artistic expression.

Other subcultures seem to have grown from music and musicians who have defined their groups aesthetic and attitudes. The internet has become a useful tool in defining Steampunk and for people to discover each other, share their ideas and push this movement along.  It seems now music is trying to define itself within the Steampunk aesthetic.

GF:  Most steampunks were steampunks before there was a name for it.  The expanding popularity of the genre has drawn a lot of people in recently who don’t know much about the aesthetic or the application, but I tend to think of steampunk as a micro-renaissance of creativity.  Most steampunks are DIYers who create their clothing, gadgetry, and stories themselves.  If there is one outstanding feature of steampunk, it is artistic expression in every available medium.

AF: Steampunk is a genre.  It’s also a budding subculture.  And it’s also an artistic aesthetic.  In short, it’s a contemporary continuation of Victorian science fiction – how did Jules Verne and H.G. Wells envision the future?  Let’s bring that world to life and live there!

2) Are there people who dress in steampunk garb in their daily lives?  I am trying to make the parallel or destroy the parallel to goth (which some/a lot of people wore, to varying degrees, in their daily lives).  Is it a “special occasion” thing, or do people dress like this all the time?

NB:  Both. One of the interesting areas Steampunk is still defining is the daily Neo Victorian style versus the cosplay element.  I know several people that dress in Victorian inspired clothing on a daily basis, though I have never seen any of them regularly carry a ray gun or any Steampunk-style props.  Often these folks will have satchels, handbags, belts or other practical daily gear that are themed to the Steampunk style.  Steampunks have a broad wardrobe so they can wear period-influenced garments in their daily lives, nicer Victorian style garb for an evening out, and more heavy props and accessories for special occasions or Steampunk specific gatherings.

AF: I know of very few people who choose to dress in Steampunk garb on a daily basis.  I certainly don’t go out to the supermarket with my big brass jetpack strapped to my back.  However, our love of Steampunk does influence our daily fashion in more subtle ways.  It’s not uncommon for me to go out wearing goggles, a utility belt, and tall boots over my jeans and t-shirt.  However, it’s only for special occasions (conventions, parties, even a night out at a club) that I’ll break out my Victorian trousers and high-collared shirt.

GF:  Interestingly, steampunk has attracted a lot of the goth crowd, probably because romantic goth has given way in great part to industrial goth, and steampunk encourages the Victorian aesthetic that is so popular in the romantic crowd.  I think that steampunks dress as such less than Goths traditionally do.  Many steampunks pull elements into their everyday wear (vests, goggles, boots) but a lot of steampunk costuming is gadget-heavy. Imagine the League of S.T.E.A.M. trying to enjoy an evening on the town with their ghostbusting gear.

3) People in the movement – what kinds of jobs/backgrounds do these people have? Is there a common experience that you perceive in the group? (As in the anti-establishment punk movement, rejecting authority, etc. – is there any similar undercurrent in steampunk)?

GF: I would argue that love of making things with your hands is currently the most unifying trait!  That and love of old-fashioned objects, attitudes and modes of dress.  Victorians didn’t just make inventions that functioned; they made beautiful objects and artworks that had a utilitarian purpose.  We’ll see what happens to that element as the look becomes more popular – there are already a lot of clothing lines and accessories being marketed to those who like the look of steampunk.  I think, however, that the ideal steampunk will always be the artist who has created something imaginative and wonderful to share.

AF: People involved in Steampunk come from all different backgrounds.  I personally come from a prop- and costume-making background.  Many of us come from a background in the arts, whether it’s as illustrators, costumers, jewelers, actors, filmmakers, or sculptors – in other words, people who are inclined to create things.

Steampunk tends to be a rather friendly and outgoing group of people, and there’s not much of an anti-establishment goal to it.  We enjoy being different and mixing things up in the worlds of fashion and pop culture, but we’re not here to overthrow the government or anything.

The Steampunk aesthetic is driven by a reaction to mass-produced cookie-cutter products that surround us.  We strive to remember a time in the past where people produced products that had unique handmade flair to them.

NB:  I have been involved artistically in the entertainment field for almost 10 years. My Steampunk friends are students (mostly studying some type of art or media), teachers, managers, computer techs, librarians, office workers, mechanics and many other everyday “normal” jobs. One of the cords that appear to tie many of us together is this desire to create, inspire and produce art in all kinds of mediums, from costumes to visual arts to literature and even to digital media.  Though some people may not have a background in (or work in) an artistic field, many have an artistic desire.  Steampunk gives people a focus and a freedom to create.

Though I have not witnessed any aggressive “anti” expressions within the Steampunk community, I do see the common theme of the “Do It Yourself” mentality.  The creative nature of Steampunks seems to have mixed with the frustration from a lot of the garbage being mass-produced for the public.  With these attitudes, many Steampunks are producing their own articles (or heavily modifying commercial products) to make them their own.  There is a sense of pride in one’s creations and respect from the community.  There is also a sense of camaraderie with resulting inspiration when we share each other’s work.

4) Do many steampunks have children, and if so, are those children involved in dressing/living the part?

NB:  Yes!  I know a few Steampunk families and have seen more online.  Of course some of the kids are young enough that the parents still dress them, so the children might not know the difference or care.  But I have seen whole families, with older children, inspired to wear Steampunk styles.

GF: Steampunks are a motley crew!  The movement has attracted people from all walks of life, of all ages.  Many people have children and families (grandchildren too!), and many others are quite young.  Steampunk has the advantage of being accessible to children – the Victorian scientist was venturing out into uncharted territory without most of the restrictions and checks that developed in the 20th century.  Free range exploration with limitless possibilities!   It appeals very greatly to most children, and the League can testify that at most events, we hit our peak of fandom with the kids.

AF: I know of several Steampunk families in which both parents and children are involved in dressing up, but it’s not extremely common.  Many couples, however, do seem to enjoy Steampunk as something to participate in together.

5) Any seminal graphic novels or newly-minted publications worth a mention?

NB:  I am not that familiar with recent publications.  I can mention an artist that has been influenced by the Steampunk culture and has a web comic at www.steamcrow.com, called Monster Commute which takes place in a Steampunk-meets-monster styled world, very charming.  Otherwise there is Girl Genius that has been around for years.  I believe the author called the world in his stories “Gaslamp Fantasy” and was not even aware of Steampunk at the time he created the stories.  There is also a Steampunk Magazine that includes art and literature from current artist involved in the Steampunk genre.

GF: Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio  – phenomenal Gaslamp Fantasy story told with humor and genuine love for mad science.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the book) – IT IS NOTHING LIKE THE MOVIE.  It is a fantastic work of masterfully evocative fiction, written by Alan Moore.

6) Do you consider League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the movie) or even Wild Wild West to be steampunk in their aesthetic?

GF: Yes, in their aesthetic and even in their content.  But that doesn’t mean they’re any good, or that they should be considered at all representational of steampunks and their art and stories.

AF: These movies are Steampunk in that they incorporate anachronistic and fantastic technologies into the past.  Although they aren’t particularly noteworthy narratives, a lot of the production design is interesting to look at.

I’d recommend City of Lost Children instead as a beautiful and visually rich Steampunk film.  In addition to a fantastic array of props, costumes, and sets, the film boasts an engaging story and memorable characters.

NB:  There are elements in these films that fit the time period and aesthetic value of the Steampunk genre.  Aesthetically, there is a grittiness and absurdity mixed with the advanced science and technology I enjoy in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  The western element in Wild Wild West is a Steampunk theme I am particularly attracted too as well as the outrageous gadgetry.  Some other films that have inspired me are Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Back to the Future III, especially the zany antics of Doc Brown.  Both of these films are heavy in the gadgetry (a particular interest of mine) and provide plenty of fun.

Though the Steampunk movement evokes a creative passion in many of us, I, along with The League of Steam, feel it is important to not take ourselves too seriously and to retain the lighthearted element of fun and enjoyment in what we do.

7) Any visual artists out there (painters, sculptors, etc) who are working in the steampunk aesthetic?  Are you familiar with the work of painter Evan B. Harris?  http://www.evanbharris.com/ Would you consider his work steampunk?

AF: There are many people who choose to express their interest in Steampunk not through costuming but instead through the visual arts.  Although the costumes seem to get the most attention, through big public events like Comic Con, visual artists are an important element of the cultural movement.

Evan B. Harris’ work doesn’t strike me as particularly Steampunk – I feel that it lacks the technological element and the Victorian influences to really be part of the aesthetic.  I will agree, though, that he draws some men with fantastic curled mustaches!

GF: I was not familiar with Evan B. Harris’s work, although it is beautiful!  I don’t know that I would consider it steampunk, but steampunk draws on many traditions and looks that are not necessarily steampunk in and of themselves.  For example, the Edwardian Ball, a celebration of the work of Edward Gorey, attracted a huge steampunk crowd this year, because of Gorey’s Victorian and Edwardian look and language, combined with peculiar fantasy and horror elements.  That marriage of the weird and possibly frightening with the refined and well mannered, especially when accomplished with humor, is fuel on the steampunk fire, if that’s not too punny.  There are also a lot of artists (musicians and performers included) who might better be called Neo-Victorians, because steampunk does seem to be connected with building, science, exploration and invention, and artists who reference Victorian and turn-of-the century imagery and subject matter might not be.

NB:  Though I personally would not label this particular artist “Steampunk”, I am curious as to the elements this artist presents that make you think of the Steampunk aesthetic?

For me, the technology of the Victorian era mixed with a little bit of the obscure, the odd and the impossible are very important to the feeling and look of Steampunk.  Steampunk is Victorian science fiction. So far, in my experience, I have seen more visual artists and multimedia being influenced by the imagination and creations of the Steampunk community as opposed to specific artists that are directly influencing the Steampunks.

Painting by Evan B. Harris

Painting by Evan B. Harris

I asked this question of the steampunk community because Evan recently had a show in San Francisco, and the major pull quote from the show was, “Evan B. Harris pumps steampunk pomp into two-dimensional curiosity cabinets.” I thought that was weird, because while I can understand how outsiders see Victorian+fantasy = steampunk, I also know Evan.   The first time he’d ever heard the term steampunk was when I asked him if he considers his work influenced by the steampunk aesthetic.

So the answer is NO, Evan B. Harris’ work is NOT steampunk.  But it sure is beautiful.

Big thanks to Gail Folsom, Andrew Fogel and Nick Baumann for taking the time to answer these questions about steampunk.  It was very enlightening!!  Thanks!

– KMB

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