Beyond French Steampunk: Multiculturalism with Maurice Grunbaum

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Maurice Grunbaum, left, with a fellow steampunk. Photo courtesy of Bernard Rousseau.

Striking. Powerful. Imposing. These are some of the words that come to mind when viewing a costume piece by Maurice Grunbaum. Maurice, an artist based in Paris, is well-known in the French alt and cosplay community for his amazing detailed costume and prop work, and images of his outfits have circulated throughout the steampunk aethernetz. I first noticed him in group shots with other steampunks of color (he’s the masked gentleman on the right).

On his Facebook, you can find detailed cosplays from Bioshock, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and other steampunk-inspired sources. On the rise nationally in France, his art was included in the exhibition “Future Perfect: Retrofuturism/ Steampunk/ Archeomodernism” («Futur Antérieur: Rétrofuturisme/ Steampunk/ Archéomodernisme») at the Agnes B. Galerie in Paris (watch the museum trailer below for a clip of Maurice talking about steampunk).

When I read his interview included in the exhibit’s catalog, I was blown away by his articulate passion for everything steampunk and his need to broaden the definition of steampunk to include influences outside the Victorian and the French «La Belle Époque». So with a little help from a French friend-of-the-blog, I was able to get an interview with Maurice.

Hello Maurice, and welcome to Beyond Victoriana! To start off, let’s talk about your definition of steampunk.

The word Steampunk is used to describe a new genre of science-fiction literature set in the end of the 19th century and mostly at the time of steam machine and industrial revolution. So, the origins of steampunk as a literary genre are authors like Jules Verne and HG Well, who through their books gave the aesthetic characteristics of that movement. The background of Victorian England before First World War, inspired by the design of the 1900’s with a touch of Belle Epoque set the founding stones on which steampunk fiction will take place, on which man and machine work together. No petrol or electricity, technology is stuck in the coal and puddled steel era, constructions are gigantic and levers and keyboards goes alongside the most complex pipping. And contrary to the usual science-fiction stories, steampunk characters are more genius mechanics than super-heroes.

Besides, the “steamer” is above all a tinkerer with a mind that leads him to create, experiment and build objects and art by himself. The motto of steampunk sums it all up quite well that ethics: Love the Machine, Hate the Industry. DIY is one of its most important fundamental element.

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Photo taken at Japan Expo 2012 of Maurice in a steampunk’d cosplay from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Image courtesy of Gilles Michel.

To me, steampunk has to be international and multicultural! I’m fighting for my own personal vision of steampunk! To me there shouldn’t be a sole steampunk clothing style but many! Everybody can have their own vision of steampunk!

But when one think about steampunk, one visualizes some kind of aesthetic form based on the British Victorian era. Steampunk evokes the image of moustached gentlemen, aristocrats with fitted coats, pale-skinned dandies lacing their explorer’s goggles on their top-hats and driving their revolutionary zeppelins. It’s a very reductive and even cliché image to sum up steampunk!

Alas, many are consciously stuck with this description and do not go further. Yet multiculturalism does exist in steampunk. The Victorian heritage is only one of the many sides of the steampunk culture. Someone said that one enriches himself in contact with other cultures.

To me, steampunk is multicultural!

To me what makes the richness of the steampunk culture is its cultural diversity which goes far beyond the politics and ideologies of the historical and imperialist (and real) 19th century. Even though racism existed at the time and still exists today.

It then all depends on each and everyone vision and imagination! Without any limit… To me, the world is not Occident alone, to confine steampunk to the only Victorian style is giving a very narrow vision of the movement. The world doesn’t only wear top-hats and fitted coats! Kimonos, sarouels and saris can easily illustrate and enrich the steampunk movement as well as developping it! Please do no get stuck with European fashion!

I have to admit that I feel disappointed when I see people drastically reducing the application field or steampunk! Steampunk aesthetics are not the victorian aesthetics alone! It’s bigger than that!

Let’s imagine all the other cultures having the technical prerequisite to launch their own industrial revolution! No more clichés and domination of the developed countries over the rest of the world. That’s why I work on multiculturalism.

The richness of steampunk is also due to its capacity to renew itself all the time! All the steamers won’t stuck to the Victorian code but will delve into their own cultural roots (Oriental, African…); And by giving to the steampunk culture their own vision,they will help steampunk grow.

We have to keep that cultural and ethnic richness to go beyond the simplistic image of the top hat Victorian. This is what I would love to see more often in steampunk fashion, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to promote steampunk and brake the clichés of the genre.

My approach is to go away from the historical aspect to explore the imaginary aspects. To me steampunk has nothing to do with history. It is Science-fiction, Alternate History, or Dystopian!

You also have international influences in your prop-making and costuming. What cultures interest you most?

Yes, there are a lot of international influences in my creations and props. I’m really interested in other cultures and ethnicities because I was born Eurasian myself thus bi-racial. Above all, I consider myself a citizen of the world so I like to take inspiration from every culture to create my costume whether Occidental or Oriental. So I give another vision of steampunk and bring it to an international even interplanetary level. For example, my Tuareg for Mars costume or my Atlantis people outfit.

I [also] take inspiration from my Vietnamese heritage for my Oriental creations. The impact of my family background is important in my creative work, because I give another image of steampunk via my origins. I tend to give a more multicultural vision.

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Image courtesy of Bernard Rousseau

That’s right, there is a strong nautical influence in my creations and props because I was born and I lived in New Caledonia. I wanted to create my own steampunk style, a tribute to the South Pacific islands, to the Maori and Tahitian cultures. But it’s also a tribute to Atlantis, to Captain Nemo and his Nautilus and the Bioshock video game. I’ve always been attracted to the sea and its mysteries.

Do you think there are cultures which are more difficult to steampunk than other?

Yes, I have to admit, there are cultures more difficult to steampunk than others. Industrial Revolution happened in Europe (England, France…) so there’s an obvious domination of Western style on clothing and fashion! It is more difficult to make a steam African Zulu outfit or an Arabian steam costume. But why not! These are interesting challenges to take!

What is your artistic background? Have you had any formal training in the arts?

I’m a self-taught person, I’ve learned a lot by observing. Observation is to me important. It helps me to improve myself everyday, year after year. I started with drawing, then sculpture, model-making and then I started to work on costumes and cyberpunk inventions at first then steampunk.

How did you first become involved in the steampunk community?

I started to create before but I was first acquainted with steampunk in 2009 when I found videos of American steampunk and its conventions on Youtube. I think I always liked that aesthetic and that it has always been part of me somehow. But when I watched these videos, I could put a name on that aesthetic.

As for the communities, I’m not a member of the French steampunk community anymore! I do not share its restricted vision of steampunk (neo-victorian and Belle Epoque). I’d rather work by myself with people who share a larger vision of steampunk with. We have created our own dissident group to lead French steampunk on a new path ( a more free and multicultural vision) …far from the top hats…

Why did you feel the need to leave the French steampunk community? Were there any experiences specifically where you had felt excluded?

Yes that’s true! The so-called “French exception” that some vaporistes like to follow does not help them appreciate my offbeat vision of steampunk. By my creations and god knows I create a lot, some felt out-shined! Thus, follow some kind of jealousy and ostracism from them and a will to separate me from the Paris steampunk community. My vision can somehow puzzle the purists! XD

Why do you think vaporistes feel that way? Do you think French steampunks romanticize its imperialist past ? If they do, how do you feel about the attitude of glorifying this historical period?

The problem is that there are so few non-Caucasian people in the French steampunk community. There is a white domination with a Victorian and Belle Epoque style put forward which is perfectly natural! But it not natural not to accept that there are other influences (and that’s where I come up with my multiculturalism). I wrote an article about that on the French forum that caused quite a stir and contempt from the purists.

To some, there is some kind of nostalgia for the French colonial past and they don’t bother to put it forward in the way they think or dress. To them, steampunk should European. They forget alternate realities and try to stick to the historical period that suits them. But to me, it is not an objective vision of steampunk.

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With Maurice Grunbaum, center, and members of DARKSTEAM. Photo courtesy of Quang Guang.

Now that you have broke off on your own, I would love to hear more about your dissident group! Is there any other information about your group that readers can check out online? What kind of styles does the individuals in your group like to do?

The DARKSTEAM was born as a concept in 2009. Its goal is to show the work of independent artists whether steampunk or not. At its beginnings, there were only 2 members in the DARKSTEAM, [but] little by little it grew, we welcomed more people to join in and proudly exhibit our personal creations during conventions.

Above all, we are a group of artists from every background and free from any associations. We want to maintain the punk side and our freedom to create! Force is good but the Dark Side is better.

So I create that group to distance ourselves from the classical Victorian style with its top-hats and frock coats, now a stereotype! I also wanted to gather people who were disappointed by forums where they were criticized and laughed at because they had a much too original approach that shocked the purists for they had a more exotic, sometime even offbeat, vision of steampunk! Since then we do not consider ourselves steamers (I hate the word «vaporiste») but retrofuturists! As tinkerers and creators, we are into everything as far as Sci-Fi is concerned and not limited to the top hat and steam image of steampunk. We are inspired by dieselpunk, cyberpunk and post apocalypse to destroy the boundaries of our creativity.

To confine ourselves to steampunk it to confine ourselves to only one aesthetic! We do not not agree with that. We promote Do It Yourself… not the Buy It Yourself!

We enforce the fundamentals of steampunk! In the DARKSTEAM, everybody has to do DIY and create things! We help and motivate each other. We do not look for socialization or friendship, but to build original projects together but above all have fun.

You can’t find us on the internet because we only have a private group on Facebook but you can find our creations on my Facebook profile. We are rather discreet. We work all year long on our costumes and we see each other from time to time in Paris. Some of us live outside Paris, others even outside of France but we stay in touch via Facebook and we gather for the annual conventions.

The Darksteamers are above all tinkerers that comes from various background: cosplay, larps, sf-fans, goths and artists like tribal dancers or fire-eaters. We like Asian, Middle-Eastern, tribal, and multicultural styles. We bet on original creations far from clichés.

Can you talk about your creative process for a piece, from start to finish? Are there any particular challenges that you like to work on when creating a piece?

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A sketch of one of his cosplays. Image courtesy of Maurice.

First of all, I visualize my ideas with sketches, roughs and basic drawings. Then I look for the raw and recycled materials I will be needing (flea and secondhand markets). After that, I start the mounting, the painting, the fixing and the trying on.

I’m a tinkerer, I like to create, experiment, and build props and objects myself.

When I work, I create around three axis:

  • The DIY
  • The Recycling
  • The Multiculturalism

If I’m stuck in a project, I put it away for a while and I work on something else until the former evolves a little bit in my mind. I work on several projects at a time, it prevents me from getting bored when I a project goes on too slowly for me.

Do you have any plans to build upon your career as an artist in steampunk?

A career as an artist? Not so much. I live up to steampunk in my everyday life. To me it’s a philosophy of life. It is also a hobby and a very time-consuming passion!

Do you think steampunk as an artform encourages people from different racial and cultural backgrounds to participate?

I do think so. When I look at my friends network [on Facebook], I see steamers from all over the world. I see steamers from Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines. So yes, steampunk as an artform encourages people from different racial background to participate.

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?

The most important piece of advice I could give is to observe, and then to start with sketches before the creation itself. Observing helps you to visualize and plan in a better way. Always start with small pieces to gain confidence little by little before going for bigger projects which generates more stress and expense. As for the very big ideas, keep them in mind until the day you can go for them.

Thanks again for your time and your energy, Maurice! I look forward to seeing your future creations! Readers can follow Maurice on Facebook. His work is also included in the recently-published International Steampunk Fashion.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Beyond French Steampunk: Multiculturalism with Maurice Grunbaum

  1. Shading Light

    This is the most disgusting interview I’ve ever read, Red Star, alias Maurice le Vaporiste.

    You say you are proud of your origins, but you completely forgot where you come from, and with who you began. You suppressed all your accounts, to make them think you are a self made man, but you are not, and we are many beyond the oceans to know where and how you began; hopefully no one knows that in America, I hope you will succeed amongst them with that part of shadow.

    Steampunk is not Oriental or Occidental, each part in its little dark corner, it is a meeting between them both, between their traditions, their culture and their knowledge; but to appreciate the Other and the Otherness, you have to know who you are, and where you are from. I am very disappointed myself, when I read that according to you, the French steampunk community is a bunch of racist bastards who never promoted multiculturalism. You spit on people who worked hard to organize events that promote multiculturalism, and who come from many horizons themselves.

    You promote the opening of frontiers, but by spreading such slanders you just break all boundaries. I’m sure they will be many to trust you overseas, people who will judge us through your eyes; then this little reply will be of few importance, but I cannot contain my indignation reading that.

    I wish you good luck to succeed there, and I pray that now you have changed of sky, maybe it will change your soul. But if you keep forgetting where you come from and people you knew, one day you won’t have anyone to rely on to move forward.

    • I’m curious by your vehement reaction to Maurice’s words. Beyond Victoriana is a blog that serves as a platform for the community and I think it would only be fair to feature a variety of experiences. While Maurice is entitled to his opinion, I do not consider him to be the sole representative of the French steampunk community, or to try and speak for others’ experiences.

      If you or others in the community wish to contribute an article — it doesn’t even have to be a direct rebuttal to Maurice’s words but a further expansion into the French steampunk community – your submissions are more than welcome for consideration. Feel free to look at our submission guidelines and contact page to get involved.

  2. more than one man

    Hello, I don’t even want to answer a word to this. As a ‘vaporiste’ (proud of it, thank you very much) I just want to share one picture with you. This was in Paris, France, last october. Please take a look at the diversity of the outfits these people wear, and tell once again the words ‘restricted vision of steampunk (neo-victorian and Belle Epoque)’.

    Hope this will help to soften a bit what can be read here.

  3. Q

    This guy’s work is amazing, gorgeous, and intriguing, and I love his creative philosophy. So much of this interview is awesome.

    However, I, too, was really put off by his tone. I don’t know him and I don’t know what happened; but someone with such a great vision and talent has the potential to do so much for his community and make it better, even if he indeed had negative experiences that have put him off participating in it directly. (I’ve definitely been there.) It’s disappointing to see him seem to go out of his way to tear the whole thing down. “I had some negative experiences within the larger community, there was a significant number of people who were very vocally opposed to multicultural viewpoints; it was enough of a bad experience that now I participate more globally than locally,” vs. “The entire community in my country is racist, in love with colonialism, and jealous of people who are more talented than they are; everything they do is cliche and I refuse to associate with any of them even in name.”

    The first one makes me think, “Wow, there’s a problem with some people in this community alienating others and we need to address it, because that’s not who we want to be” and the second one makes me think, “This guy sounds like an egomaniac and I’m not sure I’d want to work with him or invite him to my event no matter how awesome his work is.”

  4. b

    League of extrodianary gentlemen is a perfect example of multi-cultural and has been voted on many sites the best show of steampunk.

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