Hey, Portlandians! Brian David Johnson and James H Carrott are doing a talk and signing for their new book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology, a fascinating look at the historical significance of steampunk, and an exploration of what the popularity of steampunk today's means about tomorrow's technology, at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell's on March 25 at 7PM.
Steampunk, a mashup in its own right, has gone mainstream, with music videos from the likes of Nicki Minaj; America’s Next Top Model photo shoots; and Prada’s Fall/Winter menswear collection featuring haute couture, steampunk style. Some steampunk fans revile this celebrity. But James H. Carrott, co-author of Vintage Tomorrows, says that’s just how cultural change happens. “Things get appropriated; they affect the culture in some way or another, and the people who are at the heart of trying to make that change move onto the next key idea.”
So what is steampunk, exactly, and why should we care? Carrott, a cultural historian, says “steampunk is playing with the past.” The world that steampunk envisions is a mad-inventor’s collection of 21st century-inspired contraptions, powered by steam and driven by gears. It’s a whole new past; one that has a lot to say about the futures we want to see.
In Vintage Tomorrows, Intel’s resident futurist Brian David Johnson (@IntelFuturist) joins Carrott (@CultHistorian) in a globe-spanning journey to dig beyond definitions and into the heart of this growing subculture. Through interviews with experts such as Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, and James Gleick, this book looks into steampunk’s vision of old-world craftsmen making beautiful hand-tooled gadgets, and what it means for our age of disposable technology.
Vintage Tomorrows Book Signing at Powell’s Books Cedar Hills Crossing
Nick Harkaway's essay "The Steampunk Movement is Good and Important" does a good job of answering charges that steampunk is cover for racism or colonialism, and does an even better job of explaining the attraction of steampunk technological visions to a modern artist:
Just as it would be tragic to ignore the advantages and consolations of the cognitive - and those who denigrate it in favour of a romanticised understanding of the instinctual or the mystical slander themselves - so equally it is idle and spurious to contend that we are cognitive entities riding around in bony control centres in our skulls, peeping out through windows in the face. We are not just brains with mobile life support. The emerging understanding of embodied cognition is the last nail in the coffin of that idea. We are bodies which think, and we’re at home with Steampunk because it is an ethos of design and creativity which acknowledges the humanly physical, that which we can understand with our fingers. It values our bounded selves, whose world is the middle earth between the flea and the horizon line in which objects obey Newton and relativity is barely more than an academic interest. It is a cognitively limited and incomplete sort of place. In terms of our senses, though, it’s all there is, and Steampunk is about being able to have the wonders of technology while still valuing, acknowledging and respecting that restricted view.
From that one central aspect of its identity, Steampunk mounts a challenge to grey-black plastic industrial design, to the faux-sanitised world of consumer technology and to techno-/neo-colonialism. It insistently re-makes technology as something friendly and even quasi-biological by producing things that owe more to Rube Goldberg than to the Filippo Marinetti-style “faster, harder” culture of Sony and Microsoft or the endless iterations of Apple and Samsung. The ethos admits of failure: Steampunk devices almost are not working properly if they don’t have leaks, if they don’t require maintenance and the occasional thump. That’s where they get character and animation, identities of their own which reflect their owners, while every iPhone can be seen as Apple’s endlessly replicated identity given passage into your every waking moment, a tiny and instantly replaceable cloned shopfront: what role is conferred or imposed by such a device on the person carrying it? It’s not that Jonathan Ive’s designs are poor, it’s that they are profoundly truthful: an iPhone is a vector, not an object, valued by its creator for its purpose and interchangeability, not individuality. Steampunk, on the other hand, repurposes, scavenges, remakes and embellishes in an arena where embellishment is seen as decadence, never mind the inherent decadence of creating the sheer amount of computing power our society now possesses in order that most of it should sit idle or be used for email and occasional games of Plants vs Zombies. Steampunk appeals to the idea of uniqueness, to the one-off item, while every mainstream consumer technology of recent years is about putting human beings into ever more granular, packageable and mass-produced identities so that they can be sold or sold to, perfectly mapped and understood.
The Steampunk Movement is Good and Important
For a mere $500 (which is truly a bargain here), Etsy seller Ramonpiper will make you a custom top-hat with a zoetrope inside it, whose moving images can be viewed through a porthole in its high cylinder.
This is a leather top hat with an illuminated motorized praxinoscope. The praxinoscope was the next generation in moving picture technology after the zoetrope. It features six mirrored surfaces reflecting six images on a revolving cylinder that appear to move when the cylinder is set in motion. The switch in the bottom of the hat powers a battery operated motor that turns the cylinder and illumines two bulbs. There is a lens that magnifies the mirrors. The lens has a velvet-lined lens cover that swings from a brass boss and is affixed with studs at the front and rear. The hat is light enough to be worn at length and it will continue to operate while moving, walking, or doffing it to ladies.
Steampunk Victorian Leather Top Hat with Zoetrope Praxinoscope Movie Player
PeaceLoveMagic sez: "Etsy seller steampunk22 from Thin Gypsy Studios offers these amazing wings crafted from wood, brass and copper.
Fully articulated. the wings rise and fall with the assistance of custom carved black walnut handles. The wings are affixed with bonded vinyl/leather straps with a range of sizing options.
$2750 seems like a bargain, when you consider most steampunks have to die to get wings.
Judging by the images on their website/blog, Thin Gypsy Thief Studios seems to specialize in droolworthy steampunk accoutrements."
Steampunk Icarus Wings - Handmade, Backmounted, Pulley Driven Wings MKII
The latest from steampunk/fetish maskmaker Bob Basset is the "Insect Inspector": "Leather, Brass, Glass, soviet gas mask parts."
Insect Inspector. Steampunk art Leather Gas mask.
This is the creation of Mikhail Smolyanov, whose concept bike designs are, to a one, wonderful to behold. Funnily nostalgic, gloriously impractical, and beautifully rendered.
Funny person and accomplished video storyteller Mark Day sends us this wonderful video he's just completed, and explains its contents: "Operatic shenanigans at the Edwardian Ball 2013, with the Vau de Vire Society, excessive corsetry and several steampunk googles sightings!"
I've previously reviewed Phil and Kaja Foglios' Agatha H books, these being prose adaptations of their spectacular, award-winning Girl Genius comics. Now, the UK's Titan Books has brought out the first two novels in handsome paperback editions, reasonably priced for all to enjoy.
The transition from comic to print works surprisingly well. While the action sequences sometimes feel a little like a script for a comic, they're always funny and delightful. The effect is a little like the high-speed feeling of reading a fast-paced comic, but with the depth of character that you get from a prose-novel's capacity for introspection and internal monologue.
In the Girl Genius world, the Industrial Revolution has all but destroyed the world, thanks to the Sparks, industrial wizards who are born with the mad scientist's ability to make uncanny machines and lifeforms that upend order and send villagers fleeing to the hills. Finally, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach brings some order to the chaos by conquering Europe and grinding it under his (surprisingly benign) iron heel. Agatha Crumb is a lab assistant at Transylvania Polygnostic University, ward of two "constructs" (reanimated corpses) that dote on her and care for her in her parents' absence. When her benefactor is killed by the Baron's men (and monsters), she is forced to flee, but before long, she is the Baron's prisoner aboard his flying airship castle, "the only capital city that was able to patrol its own empire."
Filled with folgian touches -- Borscht-belt comedy accents, things that go sproing, adorkable sentient machines, and laugh-a-minute slapstick -- Agatha H is a tremendously fun addition to the Girl Genius canon.
Girl Genius - Agatha H and the Airship City
Girl Genius - Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess
Bob Basset -- Boing Boing favorites, steampunk and fetish maskmakers -- have issued a rather lovely art calendar for 2013 with Mell Ghandy.
Bob Basset and Mell Ghandy Art Calendar 2013
A fitting tribute to Gerry Anderson, who died yesterday in his sleep at the age of 83, is this lovely little "Space 1899" mashup, uploaded to YouTube in 2007 by illconprods.
(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)
OK, so this is pretty amazing: Etsy seller Brute Force Studios has leather, steamed-out buckler with an equally steampunk wrist-keyboard/touchpad, which talks to your computer over Bluetooth and just, you know, wow.
-- 3-in-1 multimedia wireless keyboard (Keyboard, TouchPad, Laser Pointer)
-- Control your media while sitting on the sofa, lounging in bed, up to 100 feet away
-- Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery with a short re-charge time
-- Includes mini 2.4 GHz USB wireless receiver
-- Wireless receiver stores inside keyboard when not in use
-- Stand-by time: 500 - 700 hours
FUNCTIONAL Typewriter Arm Guard with Bluetooth and Touchpad
Yesterday, I blogged about Bob Basset, the Ukrainian steampunk leatherworker, discovering one of his designs in the Design Toscano catalog without credit or royalty. The publicity that the Internet gave to Basset's cause caused Toscano to contact Basset and offer him a royalty, and they blame an unscrupulous supplier who claimed the design as its own:
To clear up the issue on the Steampunk piece that has some of our customers questioning our motives we would like to explain.
The statue was produced and offered to Design Toscano as one of a portfolio of new sculptures to review. There was some confusion between Mr. Bob Basset and the factory that produced this piece for Design Toscano. Mr. Mike Stopka, president of Design Toscano, spoke directly with Mr. Basset and explained that Design Toscano had been mislead in the creation of this piece. Mr. Basset and Mr. Stopka have worked out a generous plan that the artist will get compensation for his work and Mr. Basset has graciously allowed Design Toscano to continue to sell his fantastic work of art. Design Toscano is appreciative to its customers who informed us of this oversight and as always we celebrate artists and their creative work
To clear up the issue on the Steampunk piece that has some of our customers questioning our motives we would like to explain.
Rob Murdoch sends us a link to his site, where he posts, "Science fiction themed retro looking sculptures of machines, animals etc all made from recycled machinery. Built in Dieselpunk fashion and of very high quality and design!"
They are indeed super cool. Alas, there appears to be no way to buy 'em! Rob, if you're reading this, please drop by the comments and let us know whether and how to buy these things.
Enjin Art System.For The Best Industrial Sci Fi Sculptures This Side Of Jupiter!
Update: Design Toscano has apologized for this and agreed to pay a royalty to Bob Basset. They blame an unscrupulous supplier who presented the design as its own.
Design Toscano, a wealthy, fast-growing company, is selling a leather steampunk mask that clearly plagiarises the work of Ukrainian leatherworker Bob Basset, a favorite around these parts. As Rob Murdoch points out in his post, Toscano could easily spare the budget to work with Basset to produce masks or designs for them -- the ethical thing to do. Basset, a poor artists living in Ukraine, feels powerless to do anything about it. This ugly business calls all of Toscano's products into question: are all the designs in their catalog unacknowledged rip-offs from independent designers, or just this one?
So having known and loved Bob’s work for 10 years at this point, imagine my happiness for him when I came across a sculpture of one of his masks being sold on this site. I thought “Great for Bob! More of his work is out there and it’s a great paying gig for him!” (Toscano is a multi-million dollar company so they can afford to pay their artists well and they often give credit to the artist). Then I had the horrible thought that maybe this isn’t good and it’s a case of a big company ripping off the little guy, which has happened before and will happen again so long as companies can get away with it. So I popped over to Bob’s personal Facebook page and linked him the online catalogue page with his mask and asked if he knew about it. An hour later, he replied with “Yes, I know they simply stolen our design. But what I can do from Ukraine I don’t know.”
So there you have it. There is no mistaking that the sculpture is a copy of Bob Basset work: his style is so unique. Not only was he not given credit for it, but he was not compensated at all for their using his mask. Now I hate to have to bring this to light because I have loved Design Toscano for years. I have a lot of fantastic statues and art from them lining my walls. But something has to be said. And you have to wonder, why did this happen? Toscano makes good money on the art they sell. They didn’t need to copy this work without compensation. Why not have approached the artist who made the masks they obviously liked and wanted to sell and commission a sculpture from him? Artists live or die by their sales. They need to be paid by people who want to make use of their work, and they need to be credited for their art.
Toscano's catalog copy is an exercise in chutzpah: "Get ready for a little anti-establishment, alternate history with our forward-thinking Steampunk gas mask that boasts a gramophone for hearing and no end of techno-Victorian charm!" They even call it a "Design Toscano Exclusive." Well, yes, they are the exclusive purveyor of the cheap knock-off.
Jaborwhalky Productions • Steampunk art stolen by Design Toscano? When you...
Ben sez, "In 'Being More Human,' an essay in the fall/winter issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, Intel futurist and technological optimist Brian David Johnson explains what steampunk has to do creating friendlier, more humanist gadgets."
Steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology. First, they want their technology to have a sense of humor. Humor and jokes give us a way to connect with and understand each other. Also, humor is a great cultural indicator that we understand each other. Studies show that if I can make you laugh, you not only think I’m smarter but also feel a deeper human connection to me. If we want to have a closer relationship to these technologies that are filling our lives, it makes sense that we would want them to get our sense of humor and make us laugh.
Second, people want their technology to have a sense of history. History is the on-ramp to the future. Only by understanding where we have come from can we make sense of where we are going. It might surprise you to realize that a pocket watch is a lot like an iPhone. We carry both around in our pockets. Both give their owners an advantage over other people who may not have them. But there is one difference: a pocket watch was designed to be handed down from generation to generation. An iPhone is designed to be refreshed from generation to generation. For an increasing number of people this doesn’t work. They want their devices to have grounding in history, a connection to the past so we can have a clearer view of our future.
Finally, people want their technology to have a sense of humanity. They want their devices to understand them as individuals. If you sleep with your smartphone next to your bed you want it to know who you are when you wake up in the morning. As our devices become increasingly smarter and central to our lives, we want these devices to understand us as individuals, not as consumers.
Being More Human