If you’ve never heard of Steampunk, you’re not alone. When I was asked to cover the Steampunk Worlds Fair last weekend I wasn’t sure myself. Of course my first reaction was to jump to Google for an answer. But as I quickly learned Steampunk is much better explained given some first-hand experience. And so, if you’ve never heard of Steampunk I urge you to hold off on that search until after you’ve finished reading this post. Or, if you would consider yourself Steampunk and found yourself at the fair this past weekend I hope this post does you justice.
By: Danielle M. Raymo
I showed up to the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Sumerset, NJ around 1:30pm on the second day of the fair- Saturday, May 21st. My excitement grew as I walked into the hotel and saw over-sized mustaches, bustles, and goggles abound; a friendly crowd lifted from the pages of a science-fiction novel enjoying the beautifully warm day. I checked in, received my press pass, and was given a schedule printed on actual newspaper- the creativity points were already adding up....
Being as I am Steampunk newbie, I figured there was no better introduction than to see the 2pm screening of a documentary called “I am Steampunk”. This rough-cut documentary was part of a full-length film that will be out in October 2o11. The film is aimed to describe Steampunk through a series of interviews at an annual art show assembled by Dr. Grimm (a popular character in the Steampunk world) called the Steampunk Bizarre. From the film I learned that there is no one definition of Steampunk more true than another.
The Subculture- which began in the 1980's- is based around a set of ideas that does not limit the fantasies of its creative participant (i.e. the participants dress, musical-taste, artistic interpretations, and so on). In fact, it gives the participants a comfortable platform to create their own characters within different fantasy worlds that combine the past and the present in a functional way. Steampunk has no age boundaries and is open to all types of personalities.
The Fantasy and The Art: Steampunk is often associated with the Victorian Era, steam power, and the early industrial era. This is because the materials found in those eras are used to create functional, modern-day products or artwork. Steampunk as a subculture is the perfect home for these otherwise obscure and beautiful pieces. A great example of this is a man I saw walking around with a "metal arm" that also doubled as a cell phone holder. There was also a vendor at the fair that built iPod docks out of salvaged parts, steel and metal. Salvaged parts and the absence of plastics are a common theme among Steampunk accessories and dress- it's actually a quite sustainable and sturdy theme.
The Character: Steampunks develop their own character through their personal fantasies. This is one reason why the subculture is so diverse. There are diesel punks, explorers, and tinkers just to name a few. This character then lives in the creator's past and present fantasy world and comes to life through their unique style of dress (often handmade). Steampunk blogs, videos, books and art are all used to support the different personalities of characters. Those with a bit of Steampunk in their blood might be inspired by Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Hellboy 2, Back To The Future 3, Wild Wild West, Dr. Who and H.G. Wells-esque entertainment.
After I left the screening I decided to take some time to find out how other attendees found Steampunk.
Throughout history, no matter the state of the economy, one thing survives. And guess what that is? Entertainment." - Professor R.B. Buttons
Professor R.B. Buttons (left) seemed like a nice gentleman and as I soon found out, he also fixes things!
In the non-Steampunk world, Professor Buttons is an actor. To fine tune his trade he attends different festivals soaking in the energy from those around him and challenging himself to develop his own characters. A few years back Buttons (What is his real name?) was at a pirate convention and came across a different kind of pirate who just so happened to have broken his goggles. Buttons immediately offered his assistance, leaving the festival with goggles in hand to grab his tool kit which, conveniently enough, was in his car. This tool kit consisted of both conventional and unconventional parts. If you see where this story is going, you can probably predict that Buttons used an unconventional part (a metal piece) to reassemble the goggles. And, also conveniently enough, the owner of the goggles turned out to be the Dave Clifton of SteampunkSpectacles.com. Thus, the story of Professor Buttons both ends and begins. He has loved Steampunk and has been working on Professor R.B. Buttons, his Steampunk character, ever since.
Amy (right) is a former art major who discovered Steampunk through an anime convention in Baltimore called Otakon. She noticed someone in Steampunk dress, did a bit of research, and decided to dress herself for this years Worlds Fair.
"I love how Steampunk allows you to mix the past and the present and anything goes. It uses a lot of natural items." -Amy Rosenthall
The Music: At 5pm I turned my sights on the music of Steampunk. There is no specific genre of music Steampunk follows but it is easy to see how each artist or band that played at the fair relates to the subculture in their own artistic way. My favorites of the festival included Eliza Rickman's flawless yet unique voice as well as her use of the toy piano; Jason Weebly and his minstrel-esque performance of "Dance While The Sky Crashes Down"; Professor Elemental's exploration of English rap during "Fighting Trousers"; and Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys show-stopping cover of "I Put A Spell On You."
Saturday evening was headlined by Murder By Death, a band I have enjoyed for years without any knowledge of their association with Steampunk. Around 8:30pm I had the pleasure of sitting down for a leisurely chat with Adam Turla (guitarist and lead singer) to get his take on the festival.
Much like myself Murder By Death was just discovering Steampunk. It was Turla's belief that the connection lay through a soundtrack they did in 2009 for a book called "Finch" by Jeff Vandermeer. Vandermeer is a a Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror author as well as a member of the Steampunk subculture. Recently Vandermeer released a book called The Steampunk Bible which the band was immediately forwarded. They then used the book to brush up on their Steampunk before arriving at the gig.
“We didn't know what to expect at first so we did some research. It was great to walk in, look around and pick out who was which kind of Steampunk. We we’re all deciding which kind of Steampunk we would be if we were to dress the part. It's great to see people being creative and having fun,” Turla said. “ I can see now how our music fits in since our songs take place in a fictional world."
The band spent the day soaking up the festival, listening to music and picking up gifts for friends at the Merchant's Bizzare before gracing the Steampunk stage just after midnight.
If you happened to be at the festival and liked what you heard of Murder By Death, Turla says that the band has begun writing new music for an album he hopes to record in the fall. Turla followed saying that it's good to have goals, but he would not want to record something that he doesn't think is great.
After my conversation with Turla, my evening came to a close with a bit of The Gaslamp Cabaret- a 21+ event filled with booze, burlesque, and music. I drove home impressed and inspired by the imagination and creativity of the Steampunk subculture as well as this man's mustache:
If you want to continue to learn more about Steampunk I have two suggestions for you. The first is to enter to win a copy of The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer which will surely give you a more experienced view complete with glossies (Shout to Kerry at Abrams, The Art of Books since 1949, for sending us a copy of this new book to give away!). You can enter one of two ways:
1. Follow @artsyfartsyshow on Twitter and then reply to us with the words "I AM STEAMPUNK!".
2. Befriend us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/artsyfartsyshow and post "I AM STEAMPUNK" to our wall. The winner will be announced right here on the blog on June 25th. Tell your friends!
My second suggestion is to mark your calendars for Dr. Grimm's 2011 Steampunk Bizzare. The final cut of the documentary "I Am Steampunk" will be shown at the art show and judging by the peak I saw of last years event, the art is sure to be nothing less than inspiring. I will definitely be in attendance myself, reporting for The Artsy Fartsy Show blog.
Please leave your thoughts in our comments below!