Saturday, July 19, 2008

Steam Punk

Although I have my qualms about steam punk, I can't help being very strongly attracted to it. This is partly due to the fact that anything deemed cool and hip ends up being attractive for its coolness and hipness, yet repulsive for just the same reason. How long will it last before it goes the way of 30" pant cuffs and fluoro fun fur? Sometimes I strikes me that a Ren-Fair goth was left with half an outfit so raided her punk rock little sister's closet for the last pieces she needed. It is big at Burning Man, which makes it instantly suspect (there was a vehicle there last summer that ran on propane but pretended to be steam powered with a fake smoke stack). It is full of contradictions. There are purists who actually want to make things run on steam and eliminate all zippers from their wardrobe. This seems more pointless to me than the society for creative anachronism (who pursue the somehow nobler goal of referencing REAL time periods)! Then there are suburban children who want to put on a hobo disguise and spend a summer riding steam trains.
(Photo by the Polaroid Kidd, Mike Brodie -- kudos to him, I love his photography!)

What I DO like about steam punk is that it incorporates the Victorian commitment to beauty through elaborate, superficial, indulgent, and unnecessary decoration into a rather dark, industrial, and apocalyptic functionality. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the contradictions within steam punk connect to my greatest aesthetic conflict: beauty vs. the machine. My undergraduate studies in modern literature and Marxist Critical Theory have me obsessed with how human lifestyles of production, consumption, work patterns and economies were forever changed by the industrial revolution. As a crafts person, Marx's ideas about the alienation of labor resonated most deeply in my mind.

I blame the Industrial Revolution and Bauhaus for killing off the Victorian era's philosophies, described by Baudelaire, Huysmans and others. There are so many people, and they need so many products so quickly, only the ultra rich can afford the beautifully embroidered garments and decorative wrought-iron architetural indulgences that such an aesthetic chases. Bauhaus was populist, socialist and Utopian in decrying the sensual pleasure of labor-intensive, useless decorations and offering instead the pleasure available from the material itself, unadorned. Unfortunately this aesthetic has been bastardized into things made out of low quality plastic, nylon and polyester--materials which don't offer a great amount of pleasure and usually even smell funny.

I find that the Arts and Crafts and Deco movements (which I subscribe to whole heartedly) reconcile the issue to some degree, but they were chasing a dream. It seems even their more subtle decorations could not stave off the institutional sanitarium consequences of Bauhaus.

Steam punk fantasizes a world where Victorian aesthetics, philosophies and even technologies can exist in a post-industrial world. What if it could? Could that part of the industrial revolution ever be undone? Don't tempt me steam punk!

That said, I want to shamelessly plug the beautiful and indulgent garments available at San Francisco's Five and Diamond.
Aviator Helmet by Wild Card

As well as the fun stuff at Well in Oakland:

Oval watch movement cufflinks, by The Weekend Store