Sounds like a dream ticket, actually. The Kew Bridge Steam Museum, one of London’s little treasures, has been having an exhibition of Steampunk art, which ended this weekend. After this, the bulk of it will be heading up to Lincoln for the big annual Steampunk festival there in September. Actually, much of it looked familiar, and indeed, quite a bit of it was also at the Steampunk exhibit up in Oxford last year we wrote about.
Much if it is gorgeous stuff, as we have highlighted, and much if it is quite funny, as anyone who has paid attention knows. Steampunk artists have to have a sense of humour in the first place, obviously—when you start out in tongue and cheek mode, there’s only one direction to go. But this is serious stuff, too—steampunk art, unless it’s dirigible posters or something, is more steampunk crafts—because this stuff, like, say, watches, is constructed, designed and assembled with great care in most cases. And the level of craftsmanship is brilliant. How about a steampunk sonic blunderbuss?
Or an air pump? (One of the pieces we saw in Oxford)
How about a Steampunk Dallek (for those Dr. Who fans out there?):
And, of course, the obligatory death ray:
And we couldn’t possibly get by without our steampunk bomb disposal suit:
The museum itself is fantastic—an old (and quite large) pumping station for the Metropolitan Water Board, this was one of London’s largest water stations, pumping gazillions of gallons of water. And what pumps! These are all intrinsically simple, but the craft that went into manufacturing and maintaining them as working instrument was considerable. Honestly, whoever decided to array a bunch of Steampunk art around some of these pumps, which are stunningly beautiful combinations of form and function, is a genius. The line between steampunk and steampump has been obliterated here.
Or this, in operation at the time of the photo, which is three stories high:
Or this small but perfectly formed one:
These are all steam pumps that pumped water to London’s millions. But steam pumps powered the industrial revolution, starting with Thomas Newcomen’s engine, then engines by Watt and scores of others. And there was a time when every man in England was familiar with how these steam engines worked, because they drove everything—not just water pumping stations, but manufacturing, and mining (for which Newcomen invented his engine), and rail and sea transportation as well. This was a world powered by steam and coal, and it often was brutal, and certainly was loud. It’s tempting to get nostalgic, but let’s not get carried away.
But still, these are items of beauty in their own right. And they speak to a world where craftsmanship was essential. We’ve lost that, and I suspect that’s part of the allure of steampunk, which, like Goths, shows no signs of going away. Cherie Priest has commented that steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown. And there were plenty of both steampunk fans and Goths at the museum. What gets made these days that requires craftsmanship? Certainly not machine tools, which get churned out on the back of computer-aided design. Large gas turbine engines these days are impressive as hell, but they’re large, and the scale is wrong. Or pretty much anything else, for that matter. When is the last time we picked up anything made in the past fifty years and marveled at its elegance, its beauty?
And that’s what steampunk gets us back to. Yes, it’s nostalgia, but nostalgia always has its roots in what we think we’ve lost. And in this case it’s pretty clear. It’s the loss of control of things, not just our built environment, but the things that make it go—what can anyone fix these days? Cars? Appliances? My CD player, all of five years old, has conked out. Is there a chance in hell of getting it repaired? No, of course, not. I’ll be told it’s cheaper to get a new one. And so the culture of modern obsolescence continues its degrading run. And our cultural degradation as individuals continues apace as well—our inability to actually do anything increases proportionally to our inability to actually connect to the material world.
No wonder men are pissed. We see it all around us, the testosterone-fueled rage that infects our American culture, ranging from hip-hop to redneck country, and American politics, where the Republican Party has succeeded brilliantly in capturing male rage as a sure-fire vote getter. For most of our history men did stuff. Often it was stuff upon which family survival was at stake. And for most of the population, it was stuff that involved both knowledge and craft of some sort. Farming, for example. And for the past several hundred years, sustaining the mechanics of the industrial economy. But little by little this has been chipped away. Neal Stephenson had it right in the Baroque Cycle—for all our fascination with the digital, it’s the analog that still keeps much of the world going. And we’re steadily losing control of this.