(a.k.a. The tempest in a teapot.)
This past week, the steampunk community expressed both apoplectic shock and exuberant clamoring over a press release from IBM’s Social Sentiment Index predicting that steampunk will be a retail trend from 2013 – 2015. After that announcement, the media picked up and ran with it, as the media usually does: Forbes reported the news, followed by Time, and soon all of the sci-fi and geek blogs were buzzing about the “discovery” of steampunk by the rest of pop culture. Even James Blaylock, one of the old-timers who started the subgenre with K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, put in his two cents on HuffPo to explain what steampunk is to the masses.
Of course, with every new wave of attention, the steampunk community is reminded of all of the other times when people thought the aesthetic movement was hitting the mainstream (for good or for ill). Remember the elation when The New York Times covered it? Or how many cringed when Steampunk Palin went viral? Or how about that Justin Bieber video? (Click at your own risk.)
And wasn’t rococopunk being praised as the next big thing a couple of weeks ago?
After this newest buzz, though, came the instant panic across various steampunk forums, FB groups, and websites. Concern from artists and crafters, fearful of corporations profiting from their designs without due credit, are valid. The most recent incident occurred this past December when steampunk leather crafter Bob Basset had his mask designs initially reproduced without his permission by Toscano. The big dollar sign also lit up people’s eyes: for example, Austin Sirkin pointed out ways to ensure you can do steampunk for fun and profit.
Artists need to make money in order to make a living, true. All creators should be paid a fair wage for their time and effort, true. I’m not dissing that at all, but I’m also uncomfortable with how many people are jumping at the bit with the IBM announcement, as if money should be considered the primary perk to being steampunk or that to be successful as an artist you had to be paid for it.
One of the main attractions of steampunk as a creative community, however, is the democratization of the artisan lifestyle. You didn’t have be a “professional.” You could be that guy who tinkers in his garage, or that high schooler who does amazing cosplays, or that group of amateur filmmakers who made their own sci-fi webseries from nothing but handhelds, Adobe Premiere, and a bit of gumption. The pride of artistic expression didn’t come from having a museum exhibit or a fancy journal publication or even a weekly paycheck for doing your art. Incorporating art into your everyday life in any way possible: that is what steampunk brings to the individual imagination. Like those punk kids in the 70s who started bands with three chords and a hissy fit, the artistic philosophy of steampunk encouraged that idea of “if you can learn it, you can do it and frak anyone who stops you.”
Plus, steampunk isn’t only a “retail trend” projected by Deep Blue’s second cousin. Here are five things that steampunk hitting the mainstream can do (and is already doing), besides fancying up someone’s homestead or adding that perk to their wardrobe.
1.) Steampunk helps raise funds for educational and cultural institutions in need.
As steampunk becomes more popular, events have sprung up that are not just focused on party cons. Instead, they are built for the local community, drawing on renewed fascination with local history and technology because of steampunk. The first major convention to do this was Watch City Festival in Waltham, MA, which was started to help raise funds to fix weather damages to the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. Other events include International Steampunk City at the Historic Speedwell, OctopodiCon in Oklahoma City with its “steampunk academy” theme, and the Steamfunk events held at Atlanta libraries by local sci-fi authors Balogun Ojetade and Milton Davis. In the age of budget cuts and financial losses for our libraries, art galleries, and museums, steampunk events can bring much needed foot traffic and money to important community spaces.
2.) Steampunk encourages artist networks. For a while, people have formed “airship crews” as a cosplay exercise, but several of these crews have become functional performance troupes and artist collectives. The League of S.T.E.A.M. started after two of its members noticed that both of them had dressed up as steampunk Ghostbusters at a costume party. Airship Isabella and Airship Archon are examples of other successful collectives. Dozens of other groups, professional and non-professional, have formed over the years (and the overarching S.W.A.G. website - Steampunk Writers and Artists’ Guild.) Most likely in any place with more than a dozen steampunks in one place would have some sort of community builder space, too.
3.) Steampunk creates opportunities for people and about people from marginalized backgrounds. By discussing the effects of history and playing the “what if” factor of speculative fiction, steampunk storytelling fosters interest in the lost, the obscured, and the oppressed. Moreover, it gives people that are considered an “Other” the chance to be in the spotlight. One of my favorite examples is this photo-story created by Disabled Life Media, featuring differently-abled folk having their own adventure and showing off their prosthetics. People of color have taken advantage with their own books, art and media (as you’ve seen me talk about on Beyond Victoriana). Plus, new opportunities are always happening, such as Steampunkinetics, a university class at UMass Lowell about steampunk design offered to people with autism-spectrum disorders.
4.) Steampunk revitalizes old-fashioned storytelling in new ways. I’m talking about transmedia projects galore. This method of interactive storytelling and world-building across traditional stories, plus comics, games, movies and more has been growing in popularity in general, and I hope to see steampunk stories help push this forward. The League of S.T.E.A.M. wrote about their methods in 2011, and other ventures, such as Noble Beast’s Steampunk Holmes (and their newest project Steam Patriots) and Clockwork Watch are also ongoing.
5.) Steampunk posits questions about ethical responsibility concerning consumer choices and means of production. One of the reasons behind DIY and open source roots of steampunk subculture is because people were interested in creating quality products for themselves and in helping other people create their own, too. The biggest challenge with the mass popularity of steampunk will be about mass production. While artists in the U.S. and Western Europe worry about how to protect their own designs from being stolen, the community should also pay attention to where items are being produced and who benefits the most from this production. Sadly, I’ve read some racist comments about factory workers in China and the developing world in some U.S. artists’ denunciations of steampunk going mainstream. Instead of blaming ordinary workers in countries going through their own industrial revolution, however, we should look at ways of maintaining responsible buying habits. (Oh, and the above image is from Michael Wolf’s thought-provoking installation “The Real Toy Story”).
Ultimately, as cool and trendy steampunk will apparently become, we shouldn’t forget why people love the ideas behind steampunk. Steampunk isn’t about the stuff. Being involved is more than liking retrofuturism mixed in with your entertainment and your street-wear. We have community of people that are looking for an alternate way outside of established institutions of power that have disappointed us. Finding a way out doesn’t mean running back to those same institutions now that they’ve thrown steampunk a bone.
Mad about this “rising trend?” Then keep doing what you’re doing, folks. The steampunk wave is cresting but we’ll be here long after the wave has crashed upon the shores of popular opinion.