Steampunk Week

Looking at Steampunk from the Outside: A Roundtable Interview with Don Spiro and Martha Swetzoff

For Steampunk Week, we’ve featured a variety of perspectives on what steampunk is and what the community is becoming. One thing that fascinates me most is what the frak makes us so appealing to people outside of the steampunk community.

Obviously, steampunk’s become a buzzword and has been getting media coverage up to wazoo; acting as a news sniffer for all things steam for has kept me aware of the best and the worst of what people think. Sure, we’ve got the shiny, but what else makes the community so attractive? Is the general trend of geek chic just expanding to include everything brassy and classy? Are we just a quirky niche that fits neatly into a  five minute evening news segment? Most interestingly, though, is why steampunk now? And what does that say about greater shifts in geek & pop cultures? (Yes, I’m in academia, these questions intrigue me.)

Everyone’s looking for an answer. Besides the plenty of news sources in our own community, I’ve run into mainstream reporters and indie filmmakers recording their own stories about steam for the non-initiated. To wrap-up this theme week, then, I had a roundtable discussion with two documentary-makers, Don Spiro and Martha Swetzoff, who took some time off from interviewing others to let me ask them about some bigger questions about what they’ve experienced in steampunk.

Don Spiro is a director for Wyrd Films, a company in Los Angeles that specializes in niche market documentaries. Martha Swetzoff is an independent documentary filmmaker who also is a faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design.


How were you first introduced to steampunk?

Don: I was living in Los Angeles, working in TV and film (I still do) and taking still photos between jobs. I was familiar with the term relating to sci-fi, I had read several cyberpunk novels in the 80s. Around 2003, my friend Greg Brotherton’s workshop, Brotron Labs, made sculptures out of old metal machines and appliances, and I took some photos for his website. In 2007, Wired Magazine featured those shots I had taken in an article about designers, including Greg, Datamancer, and others, and it was called “steampunk.” That’s the first time I heard of it applied to design. Since then several things I’ve done and many people I’ve worked with have been labeled steampunk.

Martha: I read The Difference Engine and The Diamond Age when they first came out and was very intrigued. I had grown up with a set of grandparents who did their best to live in the 19th century, so the aesthetics and to some extent, the manners, had a familiarity. I worked at the Museum of Science in Boston in high school as a volunteer, and we had stray bits of 19th century apparatus hanging around that I found both beautiful and wondrous. I even, rather clumsily, restored a little Wimshurst machine. It worked again, but foil and silicon gel didn’t quite bring it back to its original luster. Since my readings I had just been following its presence in whatever forms it emerged. I got interested in making a film some time ago but only recently, and rather to my surprise, have I found some funding for it.

What intrigues you most about the subculture?

Don: I think steampunk is a natural evolution in design and fashion as an up-to-date style genre, an aspect of a larger theme in pop culture. Every decade and artistic movement has its own style that departed from the previous: art nouveau, art deco, modern, post-modern, etc… the 1950s are distinct from the 1970s, all unique style that builds on the past. Some fashion critics complain that the 21st century has no style, it just rehashes the past. But that IS the 21st-century style, thanks to globalization, speed of travel, and the internet.  In modern times, the style is to cull art from all previous forms and combine them into what musicians call a “mashup.” It occurs in architecture, clothing and media. Steampunk is an obvious manifestation of that trend, combining alternative history, actual history, and aspects of other art forms (sci-fi and fantasy literature and films, for example) to create a new, 2011 aesthetic, far removed from its beginnings as a nomenclature of a new sci-fi genre.

Martha: We all know that generations like to revisit the near past for inspiration, but steampunk’s interest in this longer jump to a different century struck me as beyond superficial interests for a pop culture makeover. For sure, there are some people drawn in for its lighter aspects, but I’m most interested in those who are using this re-visitation to examine our present in ways that are meaningful to them. 

My main interests lie in two areas: the creativity in the community, particularly where older skills blend with current re-imagings. I totally enjoy the work that I see, and I can’t say the same for much of the “high” art that I come across. There is wonderful wow factor in much of making in this community that elevates everyone. Where the question is, “How did you do it?” rather than “Where did you buy it?” And the side question, “Could I do it myself?” I love this. 

The next is in the area of cultural critique and the extent that steampunk offers a constructive forum to address issues of current concern.

What questions did you have about the community before you started working on your film projects?

Don: I was curious about what tied everyone together. I knew they would come from all walks of life because I was familiar with other subcultures and because the genre is so widespread, so I was curious about each individual’s choice of embracing it. Were they into it before they knew there was a community? Did they discover it through lit, art, vintage events, or friends? Are they consumers or producers?

Martha: The primary question that remains for me is whether steampunks who have ideals in the community can manifest them outside of it. I spent a lot of time in the late 70s/early 80s as a musician in punk and experimental bands in Boston and NYC, and the spirit of DIY had a big impact on me and everyone around me in terms of making music, and performance in general. We had difficulties because of our look, and in some cases, attitude, but it was still possible to find a niche to work and supplement our activities. The times, however, are so different, the economics are scarier, the social attitudes both open in ways and seeking to repress at the same time. 

So one big question is: What does it mean to be a steampunk, and can you live it?

Other questions I had at the outset also remain:

Does this interest in an end of empire reflect our own anxieties about our decline?

The timing of steampunk’s rise into a subculture leads me to wonder, is it a reaction to a general level of anxiety and uncertainty? About all sorts of things: technology that is increasingly intrusive, expensive without adding value, etc; sustainability; economic upheaval….

How do you, personally, define the term “steampunk?”

Don: I see steampunk as modern day science fiction set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and all the present day aesthetic inspired by or associated with it. (This definition can include commentary on imperialism, colonialism, cultural comparison, industrial and technological advances, social criticism, costume, retro-fits, novelties, fan community, real world commentary and fantasy.) However, I generally keep this definition to myself.

Martha: I really avoid definitions. I am deeply ambivalent about them in all sorts of ways. Mostly, because they become a trap that tends to engender division rather than community. I have already gotten a sense that the steampunk community is really involved in defining itself—maybe that will be good, but it does seem rather contrary to the spirit of thing. Too much focus on self-definition tends to fragment communities. 

I suppose that I see steampunk as a conversation with the past, and less of a sci-fi take on it.

That said, I personally find myself using the term in all sorts of ways. When I see an attitude about re-purposing and hacking material culture, a kind of inventiveness that reaches back to that period, I think, “Ah-Ha! There it is.” It’s harder for me to say, “That’s steampunk!” about social attitudes—that’s terribly elusive. And probably should remain so. Meaning, changes in our attitudes, whether in understanding about post-colonial global culture or day-to-day politeness, thoughtfulness and consideration, would only get ensnared by attributing them to steampunk. The community can be informed and involved in discussing those aspects and hopefully, carry them back into the world. That’s where, even if in a small way, change is possible.

Where have you filmed? Who have you contacted so far with your project?

Don: I’ve been to several events in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, California, and plan to travel around the country in the next few months. My recent interview subjects were Doc Wasabasco (manager of the Waystation, Brooklyn), Paul Guinan (author of “Boilerplate”), and Greg Broadmore (Dr. Grordborts). I can say that there are some people I’ve tried to interview that are contractually bound by other companies not to do interviews, and some people that we are in negotiations to schedule. This weekend I will be in Providence, RI, while the rest of the team will be shooting a steampunk event at the Griffith Observatory in LA.

Martha: There are too many individuals to list, and since I intend to follow up with quite a few people yet I’ll give an overview. I started out filming at a lot of conventions, which have proved to be difficult for in depth material but super for getting to know people and communities. I come from a background of cinema-verite documentary, which tends to be more exploratory than structured. I have shot at many conventions, only one outside the U.S.—The Asylum [in the U.K.] a year ago. Art openings at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, and Dr. Grymm’s first Hartford, CT show. Recently did some shooting with 5Ton Crane, the group behind the Steampunk Treehouse, Raygun Rocketship, etc. as they completed an art-car of the Nautilus that would blow your mind; Michael Sturz the founder of The Crucible in Oakland. I also shot with the founders of ADX, a new Maker space in Portland, OR, and will follow the thread of maker spaces a little more in the coming months. Not to mention… Live steam! Kinetic Steamworks, The Steam-Up at The New England Wireless and Steam Museum (an event not to be missed) and the Kew Steam Museum in London. Also many one—on one shoots with artists.

One of the interesting aspects of this community is how disparate people’s definitions of steampunk is. In your filming experiences, do you have any observations about the different perspectives people hold about the meaning of steampunk? Do you think the range of opinions you’ve encountered are a positive or negative to the fan community?

Don: I’ve personally noticed that it takes all kinds in any subculture. In steampunk there are many people who are opinionated about what they believe steampunk to be, with narrow definitions, sometimes at polar opposites. There are also people who find it encompasses a broad spectrum, and still others who feel the definition evolves with time. With regard to how this affects negatively or positively the fan community I have no opinion, my only interest is whether or not the community is affected at all. An aspect of Wyrd is that we do not have a premise we are trying to prove, instead we treat all aspects as objectively and comprehensively as possible and make a presentation of a subculture, offering the viewer a slice of life of a genre without subjectivity or agenda. By presenting all sides fans with particular tastes may not be completely happy with the documentary, but we feel that not showing various contradictory aspects would be misrepresenting the genre.

Martha: First of all, is this a fan community?

As I mentioned above, I am very wary of definitions. I rarely ask people for one, now. At first I did, but I didn’t find it very insightful. Some have definite ones, that they want on record, some resist defining themselves as steampunk at all, some want to have a good time and not be bothered, others have a very pat answer, that they have put together from the “current definition” for such a question. The more interesting question to me is, What is meaningful to you about steampunk? What brought you to it personally? Those of you out there that are up to responding, let me know!

Can you speak about what kind of people tend to be involved in steampunk?

Don: I can honestly say that steampunk fans come from all walks of life. By this I mean all religions, all levels of living standards, all regions and nationalities, all mainstream cultures and all ethnic variations. Likewise, steampunk communities in different regions each have the flavor of that region.

Martha: At the conventions I’ve been to I’ve seen some lovely cross-generational attendance. Outside, I find many interesting artisans and creative people. It is rare to find a wide ethnic diversity, in either case. I worry that it is a white, somewhat entitled group that gets involved at the convention level. It seems to be a wide group otherwise in terms of involvement, maybe the only common thread is some kind of enjoyment of history and curiosity about that period.

What other subcultural influences have you noticed as present in the community?

Don: Steampunk is a mashup, and as such it can encompass any and all subcultures. I’ve noticed this occurs not only for obvious influences of similar aesthetics, but also commercial and political reasons. First, each person in the fan community has his or her reason for joining and naturally brings a connection to any other subculture in which he or she is already involved. I’ve talked to people who are involved with vintage dance communities, role-players, SCA, sci-fi clubs, ren faires, and cosplay cross-pollinate their various passions. I’ve met both industrial designers like Greg Brotherton who were creating steampunk works before the term was applied to them and industrial designers who were inspired by steampunk and incorporate it into their daily lives. I’ve also met people from other subcultures and niche markets, such as belly dancers, musicians, fashion designers,ren faire vendors and other people with goods and services who have found a new market in the steampunk scene.

Martha: I’ve noticed a lot of diversity at conventions, at least. There’s ren faire and re-enacting communities, but also burlesque and circus/performance scenes, a wandering pirate can feel at home, obviously anyone coming from a pure appreciation of Victorian dress and manners finds another place to convene and possibly, learn some new dance-steps. I’ve certainly heard many people talk about their goth pasts, not so many about their punk ones. There is such an emphasis on creativity that it seems to help build a welcoming environment for the most part. I’m trying to think if there is any regional pattern to this, but am not sure, so maybe others can speak to whether this exists or not.

How important do you think the sartorial aspect is to the steampunk community? How does that compare to other aspects of steampunk fandom (politics, maker culture, literature/publishing, music, visual media?)

Don: I think the fashion of steampunk is extremely important to the community as an emblem. The community is much larger than just the people who have it as an everyday lifestyle, or even the people who occasionally will dress up for an event, but the sartorial (and accessory) aspect is what draws attention to the community and helps it grow. Many people who are interested in other aspects of steampunk were initially made aware of it by the fashion, then later explored it more broadly. Although I personally am more interested in things like lit, art, and visual media, many of the convention fans I’ve talked with cannot name a steampunk author or title.

Martha: This is a little hard to answer in that, if I judged from conventions, then I would say dress is almost the point of attending for many people. And of course, for people with personas it is part of the endeavour. Though I wonder, if people feel they can maintain their steampunk persona in your day-to-day clothing? Hmmm, interesting. I can’t really speak to the second part of the question too well.

Martha, I remember once in conversation you mentioned that you wondered why the steampunk subculture seemed to emphasize the military, weapons & warfare. Since then, have there been any answers to your question?

Martha: Not yet! I suppose one obvious answer is that that period in many parts of the world was dominated by a military class, there was pretty constant warfare on land and sea, and correspondingly we see great leaps in the technology of warfare. In other words, there was a ton of weaponry around, and much of the time it was pretty visible. However, in a what-if world of the imagination, why bring weapons? Please respond, readers. I await with interest.

Don, I know you first got into steampunk through other costume scenes in New York City. How much overlap do you experience between steampunks and the other scenes you are involved in?

Don: In the first question I mentioned I was into it unknowingly in LA since 2003. I got into the NYC scene through the overlap of subcultures, but I think that the NY steampunk scene is fairly recent, and although I’m involved in many costume scenes I can’t really consider myself a costume person. However, I’ve been associated with so many groups over the years, especially with various music genres, cocktail cultures, and vintage performance scenes that I have experienced an overlap of people in steampunk and those other subcultures. Of course, there are fans who will dress in steampunk fashion for every kind of event, whether it is an art deco picnic, ren faire or vintage dance party, but many more are like myself, who either dress appropriately for the setting or simply wear everyday clothes, and one would never know they have an interest in steampunk.

What do you hope your documentary can contribute towards understanding the subculture? 

Don: Our plan is to give a wide-scope vista of the world of steampunk so that the viewer will be informed of the genre from its origins to its present day form. We want the viewer to have a comprehensive understanding of how steampunk has developed, why it is so interesting to so many people, and why those people themselves are interesting. However, we expect to highlight much more than just the subculture: we want to cover steampunk as a literary form, as an aesthetic style, as a catalyst to other subcultures, as a niche industry, and as a crossover to other forms of expression such as music, video and performance.

Martha: I’d like to think it will encourage an audience to look beyond the subculture aspects and think about the importance of creativity and personal expression in their own lives. I’d like to communicate the “Wow!” experiences that I have seen, the fun and whimsy that has some grounding in history, unlike most pop culture. I’d also like to make audiences think about the wisdom of doing away with certain kinds of learning and consider bringing back skills that may seem obsolete or old fashioned. After all, steampunk is a celebration and re-appreciation of the so-called old-fashioned—I hope that seeing it makes an audience slow down and think about where we are and how we got here.

Ay-leen the Peacemaker broods about the fate of humankind from rooftops by night and pickets that the end is nigh by day. She is also currently a graduate student at NYU studying performance in subculture, edits for the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana and runs Steampunk on Facebook and Twitter


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