Monday, January 04, 2010

Steampunk My Ride

I recently got the opportunity to wander around Art Donovan's fabulously eclectic and wonderfully appointed Steampunk exhibition at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. It's the first such exhibition ever put on in this country and is well worth a visit if you're in the area. Even more so given that it's completely free to go and see.

So what is Steampunk? I like to think of it as utility's evil twin. Doctor Grymm, one of the exhibitors at the show, describes it thus: 'Steampunk offers a melding of late 1800's aesthetic with scientific discovery and other-worldly technology ... Steampunk artists create an alternate world not bound by the modern millennial conventions of physics, science and convenience technology. Today, the movement is alive with artistic creation and ideas to bring a world that never happened into reality'. If you want a populist, if fatally flawed, take on what the good Doctor just said, just go and watch the film version of Phillip Pullman's excellent The Golden Compass where Lyra's Oxford is very much set in a Steampunk universe.

You can go too far down the route of mere utility. Take music for example. Maybe it's my old and sadly fur-lined ears but I'm not convinced that there is a substantial difference between the sound quality of a vinyl LP and an MP3 file. It seems to me that the only real improvement has been music portability. I love my i-pod and the fact I can have music wherever I go (even though it's often hard to hear above the tinny hissing and farting of overcranked MP3 players on the London Underground, or over the conflicting cacophony of 12 schoolkids all playing some ghastly dozen R&B tracks out loud on their mobile phones on the bus). But is the digital sound quality really any better than vinyl? I'm not convinced that my normal human ears are good enough to tell the difference. And what we've lost in square inches, we've surely lost in soul. To play an LP I need a turntable, amplifier and speakers. There is a sensual pleasure in placing the needle in the groove and hearing that first crackle. There is something primal and, dare I say it, sexy about the throb of the sub-woofers. You just don't get from pressing a button with a triangle printed on it and stiking two rubber nipples in your ears. A hand-made wood, brass and velvet gramophone has a beauty and solidity that is entirely absent from my cleverly designed, tastefully moulded but utterly soulless Bose sound dock.

It's the same with telephones; there is something immensely satisfying about slamming the receiver onto the cradle and cutting off the complete arse that you've been arguing the moral toss with. Pressing a little button with a red phone symbol on it just does not do it for me and leaves me unsatisfied no matter how hard I stab the bugger. When I needed a new mobile phone recently I actually went out of my way to find one that had some weight to it so that I felt that I was holding something substantial to my ear. As things get smaller, lighter and ever-more plasticky, I'm yearning for the old clunky analogue stuff. I want tactile pleasure as well as utility. I want good design but I also want substance. I find that as I get older I want green racing Bentleys and not the anonymous jelly moulds that fill our streets and which I can no longer tell apart. I want music that is raw and natural and passionate instead of digitally-remastered recordings with all of the clicks, hisses and imperfecions removed. Which would you prefer - the Mona Lisa or an anodyne, airbrushed Vogue cover girl?

Oh right. Just me then.

Anyway, that's part of what appeals to me about Steampunk. Things should not only work but they should also be a joy to see, hear, smell, touch and, possibly, even taste. That's the ethic behind the work of chefs like Heston Blumenthal who insist that a meal is an event rather than just taking on fuel. It's why Clarkson, Hammond and May drool over certain cars on Top Gear; any competent engineer can make a car go fast but only an inspired engineer can make it look like a Bugatti Veyron EB16. It's why Stephen Fry gushes over Apple products; not because they are Apple but because, in the otherwise dull as lard world of IT, Steve Jobs and his boys are as much concerned with style as they are with function.

After all, most products - from sofas to kettles, and from chairs to mirrors - offer us a range of styles, colours and textures to suit our tastes. Technology, particularly IT, has been outrageously slow in taking this idea on board with the result that most IT is still dull, brutalist and downright ugly.

Steampunk is the absolute antithesis of utility. Bill Gates will give you a white ergonomic plastic keyboard that does the job very well. In Oxford, Datamancer gives us a brass keyboard with old-fashioned typewriter keys and a plush velvet wrist rest (sadly I have no photo but you can see it here). What I actually need is something between the two extremes but, given the choice, I know which one I'd prefer on my desk.

Elsewhere in the exhibition there are the quirky sculptures of Belgian artist Stephane Halleux, who I featured on my blog a month or so ago (see here), and pieces by the aforementioned Datamancer and Doctor Grymm, Tom Banwell, Molly 'Porkshanks' Friedrich, Daniel Proulx, Eric Freitas, Haruo Suekichi, Herr Doktor, Thomas D Willeford, Amanda Scrivener, James Richardson Brown, Jesse Newhouse, Jos De Vink, Kris Kuksi, Mad Uncle Cliff, Vianney Halter and the exhibition's organiser, Art Donovan himself.

There is some truly wonderful work on display and my few photos taken here don't do the exhibition any justice at all. Therefore, I'd ask you to visit the exhibition's blog where you'll find hyperlinks to most of the featured artists' websites. I'd also suggest you visit Art Donovan's website here. And if you're interested in making your own Steampunk art, try these sites for size: Aether Emporium has an excellent 'how to' resource here and the Steampunk Workshop has plenty of useful advice and tutorials here.

And, on a final note ... ever wondered what a Steampunk Dalek would look like? Wonder no more. Just click here.


Anonymous said...

my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

Anonymous said...

Let the dead bury the dead