In 1896, H.G. Wells, father of science fiction, published a romance about bicycles. The star of The Wheels of Chance is Hoopdriver, a lower-middle-class draper who embarks upon a 10-day cycling holiday. Along the way, he comes across pretty young Jessie, cycling alone, and the two share a magical tour of South England. Jessie imagines herself a liberated woman like the modern ladies of her novels. Hoopdriver is an all-around romantic. “He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him,” Wells writes of Hoopdriver.
It’s not the kind of fantastical, time machine fiction one expects of Wells, but at the time of The Wheels of Chance, the bicycle was in the midst of a golden age. A bicycle was a chariot to near-distant lands and interesting friends. It became a symbol for freedom of movement — geographically, socially, and economically — for women and the working classes especially. “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle,” the famously crabby Wells said, “I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” Bicycles were the fantastical machines of everyday life, both magical and accessible. One can see how they would charm Wells, forever torn between enthusiastic Utopianism and realist gloom.
There’s a classic photo of Pierre and Marie Curie, icons of the modern era, perched atop bicycles they gave one another as wedding gifts. The photograph encapsulates the mood of the Edwardian age, which roughly spanned the turn-of-the-20th century to the end of World War I. It was during this period that technology’s dual role of liberator and oppressor was forged. Technological innovations such as the bicycle and nuclear science were initially symbols of hope and human potential. By the end of WWI, this attitude would shift so radically and deeply that technology would instead become the subject for most 20th-century fears. It was nuclear bombs that made us xenophobic; televisions that ruined our minds and souls. The greatest fear, though, was loss of control. Humanity continued to create glorious technologies throughout the 20th century, and each shiny new toy heightened the terror that our lives were becoming more automatic and less intentional. Who was really in charge, us or the machines? As the 20th century came to a close, we blamed technology less for alienating us from each other and more for alienating us from ourselves. We have today come to expect that new technologies will be wonderful, but rarely do we experience the simple wonder of technology.
The aesthetic movement Steampunk wants to bring the wonder back into our relationship with machines. Its tack is to fully embrace (and affect) an Edwardian orientation to the world. Though Steampunk has been a growing cultural trend for a few decades, it really came into its own in the aughts and is now a full-fledged phenomenon. Steampunks dress like the Wright Brothers and Arctic explorers. They write alternate history fantasies in which alien clones ride around in dirigibles by the light of gas lamps. Steampunks are fascinated by mechanics, and Steampunk art, jewelry, and fashion often involve gears, wheels, pulleys, and, of course, steam: a laptop computer fused with a rickety typewriter; an arcade game redesigned to look like a mini-submarine. What most defines Steampunk as a culture, however, is attitude. The “punk” in Steampunk confronts technology’s alienating qualities with messy DIY defiance. The “steam” (besides its literal connotations) is almost like another word for magic: brute, utilitarian contraptions powered by clouds, and breath — ephemeral energy.
Steampunk tries to capture that Edwardian moment when steam power still ruled and the romance of technology lay precisely in the line it toed between destruction and possibility. Equally fascinated by flying machines and trench warfare, Steampunk is both optimistic and nihilistic. I like to think of this attitude as Gleehilism. It’s this Gleehilism that makes Steampunk one of the defining aesthetic movements of the early 21st century.
It’s been said that Steampunk is a reaction against that loss of agency we supposedly feel more profoundly than ever, caused by the hyper-novelty aspect of contemporary technology. Gadgets, softwares, and social networks have obsolescence almost built into them. By the time you figure out Friendster, you are a yutz for using it. As technologies fall into disuse, obsolescence translates into the old alienation.
Enter Steampunk to rescue us from this madness. It is the 21st-century answer to 20th-century loss via a nostalgic 19th-century sensibility. Is this a reactionary nostalgia? I don’t think so By creating works for the world of tomorrow of yesterday—anachronistic and utterly contemporary and usually useless — Steampunk sidesteps the worry about whether technologies will become obsolete, and takes joy in the plain fact that they will. We can choose to feel alienated by this, or enjoy being engulfed in the exciting mystery of steam. Exploring the relationship between obsolescence and wonder is what makes Steampunk works tick.
In 2008, the artist Paul St George installed two telectroscope sculptures, one in London and one in New York City. They looked like giant Victorian telescopes-turned-tunnels-to-everywhere that had fallen from the sky and landed smack in the street. Inside the sculptures were video cameras linked with a virtual private network so that when London passersby gazed into the huge lens, they saw their New York counterparts on the other side, in real time. The artwork was a play on a 19th-century plan for a device called the telectroscope, which imagined a technology similar to videophones or television. The telectroscope never existed outside its creator’s fancy, but the idea stuck with scientists of the day. “Telectroscope” became the byword for all kinds of systems of “remote seeing.”
I remember the effect that “Telectroscope” had on the Brooklynites that queued past it: They were positively dazzled. It wasn’t just the old-fashioned beauty of the telectroscope sculpture — a brass and wood behemoth — that got them. And it wasn’t the futuristic Web cam technology, which, for savvy Brooklynites, was old hat. It was simply the experience of seeing the London street on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Londoners and Brooklynites told jokes, talked about nothing. Most people just waved and smiled. In the spirit of Gleehilism, “Telectroscope” allowed viewers to redesign their relationship to technology by just enjoying a moment. All they had to do was approach that technology a little differently. To remember that technology is, at the end of the day, just the stuff that people make.
In aestheticizing obsolescence, Steampunk reminds us that alienation can be overcome. For it’s the moment when technologies become obsolete that we can feel like once again they belong to us. That moment is when utility becomes art. • 26 February 2010