Tech-nostalgia and Making Things: The Oxford Steampunk Exhibition
This weekend I finally got to the Steampunk exhibition - on at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science till the 21st February.
Steampunk, if you don't know what I mean, is probably best described as retro sci fi. Imagine if HG Wells wrote The Time Machine today, but exactly as it was in 1985. In some respects, it turns the futurism of science fiction inside out, or least aims to pull us back to older versions of it. It's heroes are people like Charles Babbage, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and TH Huxley. I first came across it a few years ago when I was researching images of progress in children's books (published as the anachronistic fantastic). As the Guardian books-blog puts it, Steampunk tells us that "it's the Industrial Revolution we've got to look forward to". Alongside 19th century maths, science and engineering, there can be a fair few literary allusions too (most noticeably, perhaps, in graphic novels). It's also very British, with empire and colonialism a key theme alongside industrialisation, modernisation and mechanisation.
Some find Steampunk's origins in 1971, some say it all kicked off in 1990 (see Cory Gross' history of of Steampunk if you are interested). Wherever it came from, as with its sister-genre, Cyberpunk, Steampunk has extended across media, into film, television, art, craft, fashion and costuming, club nights. There's been a lot of it about the last few years. Even if you haven't heard the term much, you've probably seen something Steampunk-ish: Dr Who, WALL-E, the recent Sherlock Holmes movie. If anything, all this retro-sci fi is a bit passe these days.
A sign of how establishment Steampunk has become is the fact there is a museum exhibition about it. According to the MHS's director, Jim Bennett, talking on the accompanying youtube video, liked that the aesthetics of his museum had inspired Steampunks, and felt they should engage with the movement. Arguably, a museum for the history of science is a very fitting place for a Steampunk exhibition. Personally, I'd say the Oxford MHS is a bit too much on the 'ornamental instruments' side for Steampunk; it'd be better off in the London Science Museum, MOSI, or Kew Steam Museum (which has a whole wall of bits of toilets and a wind-up radio signed by Trevor Baylis). Still, from the looks of Steampunks dressed up for a fashion event at the museum that day, the Lewis Carrol references of Oxford were thoroughly appreciated.
Significantly, the large explanatory panel as you enter the exhibition introduces Steampunk as a celebration of the "unqualified pleasure of making". This is not how you would necessarily describe Steampunk in books or films, but Steampunk as a genre of arts and crafts is primarily about building and taking apart and enjoying seeing the insides of things. Reading the smaller panels which describe each of the featured artists in turn, it was interesting to see Lego mentioned as an inspiration, and amongst the impressive range of tie-in events (pdf) the museum's been running, was a workshop from the Henley Society for Meccano Engineers. It's all very hands on compared to literary/ filmic Steampunk, aspects of which could be read as the epitome of post-modern play with surfaces and symbols.
Exhibition curator Art Donovan (again on the youtube vid) describes Steampunk as "a celebration of the arts and sciences of Victorian era". Part of me wants to shout "not really" at him, simply because in many respects Steampunk in general (and this exhibition in particular) is more a celebration of the fantasies of science of that era. As Donovan himself emphasises, a lot of Steampunk is obsessed with "what ifs". What if we'd had access to digital technology, what would it look like? No sleek iPods here, but computers made of brass, full of rivets and displaying an exposed mechanical element. It's make believe. Still, it is make-believe in a deliberately realist mode. Many of the Steampunk crafters feel it is important that their pieces do actually work. The best example of this in the exhibition perhaps being the Fin de Siecle 'candlestick' mobile phone. It's also worth mentioning exhibitor Jos de Vink who spent 32 years working in computer technology before finding Steampunk-ish engineering art in retirement, and hopes his works inspire a love and understanding of technology in today's youth.
To me, however, there was something slightly pathetic of Steampunk in context of a museum for the history of science - all these recent fabrications amongst the actual bits of sci/tech detritus which inspired it. I'm not normally one to cite the authenticity of primary referents against fantastical reinterpretations, but here, to me, the comparison made everything look a little like a sad parody. Which is a shame, as several of the artists were intending parody, just in a more positive way. This comparison was noticeable in the museum itself, but I also felt it after I'd left, when I took the opportunity of being in Oxford to walk around the Pit Rivers museum and the Natural History Museum next door. Especially the latter, perhaps. If you've never been, the building could be straight out of a Steampunk movie set - a sort of cross between the London Natural History Museum and Paddington station. In comparison, the Steampunk exhibition seemed boring and silly. Unnecessary even.
I suspect this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that Steampunk is a bit, well, "old", for the want of a better world (by which I mean, maybe it's a bit 1990s, or at least naughties, obviously it's trying to be "old" in an 1890s/ 1900's way...). Even BBC prime-time shows like Dr Who have been there, done that, sold millions of tshirts and are reinventing themselves for the next aesthetic. A few years ago, a Steampunk exhibition might have been really fresh and exciting. Now, there is a huge audience for it, but it just seems, to me, a little dull. I'm probably just being snobby though, having spent too much time working around/ studying retro-tech. Reading the panels on the influences of featured artists, I noted references to Dr Who and Back to Future III as well as classic Steampunk heroes of HG Wells and Jules Verne. Maybe this exhibition reflected a form of second generation Steampunk then, as the kids of the late 20th century work through the ideas thrown up in the media culture of their youth: an extra layer of tech-nostalgia to be aware of too.
So, ignore my grumpiness: Steampunk is a fascinating movement. It reflects creatively on our feelings towards technology in (post/ late) modern society. It shows us how much of an impact science and technology have had on our cultural identity; celebrating industrial junk as a key part of British heritage, at least as any green rural idyll. In particular, this exhibition's emphasis on craft and invention goes to what I think is at the heart of today's relationships with new (media) technology: a matter of making things. As a thoughtful piece in the Boston Globe puts it, "in their embrace of the toothy cog and the sooty pipe" Steampunks may represent a rebellion against the magical sleekness of today's technology, but key to the anachronistic aesthetic of Steampunk craft is a fusion of the Victorian spirit of invention with a do-it-yourself mentally heavily embedded in cultures of the web.
If you can't get to the exhibition yourself, check our the galleries at WIRED-uk or New Scientist. Read their commentary and specially commissioned comic (pdf). Explore the movement more broadly: read The Difference Engine (and/ or Larklight, which I really can't recommend enough) watch Steamboy, The Prestige and the odd Dr Who. Then get your sewing machine out, and make your own costume.