This article is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World international event, running between Feb 2nd and Feb 28th. For a full listing of events, check out the Airship Ambassador blog.
Over the years in the steampunk community, I’ve seen its potential to work together for more than shared fandom reasons to impact the larger world around us. The community’s Maker influence could be a cause why: if people like to fiddle around with machines out of junk, their tinkering becomes a physical demonstration of how people can re-think an object to make it work better, breathe new mechanical life into it, as well as making it aesthetically pleasing in its functionality. I’ve seen that attitude transfer to other works that steampunks have done. On top of that, the types of people who are involved in the community — tinkerers, artists, educators of all stripes — create a space where ideas bounce off of one another, and perhaps, that creativity which stirs up a person’s inner initiative to try and change a bit of their own lives then spreads into other aspects of life too.
It’s not surprising then, that several initiatives have started up in the community with the aim of social and public betterment. I won’t deny that I have a certain perspective about this, given the people that I associate with tend to value ways that explore social causes, whether it be through increased artistic literacy, media critique and representation, environmental or political causes, or education. Many of these people are friends of the blog and you can check out their work here. Various steampunk conventions also have had a charity fundraiser at their event, as what usually happens at events such as TeslaCon, Dragon*Con’s Alternate History Track, and Steampunk World’s Fair. For Steampunk Hands Around the World this month, I wanted to highlight some various ways that the steampunk community is giving back, to show that we’re more than a group with a retrofuturistic side hobby.
Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum of ModVic has been involved in several projects to help people with different abilities. Last year, they worked with UMass Lowell psychology professor to create a class called “Steampunkinetics”, a course designed for students from across the autism spectrum to learn how to build steampunk projects in ways that worked with their particular cognitive strengths and weaknesses. ModVic’s newest project has been a further investment into working with people who use living assistant devices on a daily basis.
Bruce mentioned in my interview with him about the impact steampunk can have on building better machines. “When I saw how Steampunk art and design could help to improve the lives of kids with Autism – I thought that Steampunk has the power to be a game changer in how people can view themselves, others and the world around them. Steampunk empowers,” he says. “The infusion of History, Art and Technology allow us to travel back and forward in time, creating a virtual time machine. It is the act of Steampunking and re-purposing that lets us experience a profound feeling and can help transform our own lives with meaningful connections to the past, present and future at the same moment in the same object. “
Last year, the Make-a-Wish foundation contacted ModVic with a special request: they wanted them to design a steampunk-themed bedroom for 14-year old Kyron, who has Muscular Dystrophy. After that project, ModVic wanted to do more for Kyron, and came up with the idea of designing a steampunk wheelchair for him as well. “Most assisted-living devices that are manufactured to help people with disabilities try to downplay the technology and make the machines or devices nearly invisible,” Bruce says, “Steampunk design celebrates the past, present and future – at the same time – creating functional art and a pathway to re-imagination and new purpose. Steampunk does not hide from the technology – but brings it forward for everyone to see. “
The Boston-area-based design company held a contest, in which they asked designers to contribute their ideas envisioning a steampunk wheelchair. Our of 18 possible designs, they finally selected Greg Hurley, a designer from Michigan, as the winner. Now, ModVic is trying to raise $30,000 to help get Kyron’s wheelchair built and any support would be appreciated.
Greg Hurley had never worked with wheelchairs before entering his design into the contest, though he has over twenty years of experience in product design, mostly in the automotive industry. Hurley saw this as an opportunity to stretch his imagination with concrete results that could change a young person’s life. “I was very honored to have my design selected to move forward to be built. When I read the challenge and heard Kyron and his vision to have this extension of himself, this steamable fantastical ride, I at the very least wanted to inspire others and I hoped an element of it would be in the final design.”
He doesn’t identify as a steampunk persay, but loves to find beauty in life. “I’ve been very fond of steampunk and the unique way that it repurposes items, borrows and combines elements / materials,” Hurley explains. “It’s brilliant and I was attracted right away. It is inspiring to see the wonderful craftsmanship out there by so many that contribute to it.”
After the success of SteamABLE, he is continuing his design-work on a “secret” project. “I’ve learned tons in many areas just by taking on this design challenge and getting to work with Bruce has been great experience as well, he’s a visionary,” Hurley added.
Other people have been looking for theatrical ways to help those in need. The Airship Lexington Sky Marshals, for example, have held charity “Jail & Bail services” at conventions across the American Midwest. The Sky Marshal’s organizer Brain Swearingin said that he was inspired by steampunk’s DIY attitude to start his own airship. “I’m disabled,” he said, “[and] I’ve been into steampunk for 2 years. I was a fan of the Isabella,” referring to the maker group the Airship Isabella, “and knew some of the crew. One day I asked my girlfriend if she thought I could do it. She said yes and I tried.”
I had first encountered Airship Lexington at OctopodiCon 2012, where they were running a unique interactive event: attendees can hire the Sky Marshals to round-up a requested “felon” and hold them in their lobby jail cell for a dollar per minute of jail-time. All funds raised were them donated to a designated charity. The Sky Marshals have hosted their “Jail & Bail” service for the past couple of years now, as well as serving as convention security and staff. The Sky Marshals have raised money for several causes, including the Wichita Children’s Home, the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, the Tesla Museum, and Octopodicon’s children educational program the Junior Sprockets.
Despite the challenges – the Sky Marshals usually eat the cost for food and travel to the conventions they perform at – Swearingin is very happy with the success they have gained. “The project is growing. And getting bigger: 55 members, 5 airships across 4 states….The response to our work has been amazing. Once a con actually sees what we do they enjoy it. Offering not just charity but a show. Performance is as important as the charity.”
Steampunk vendors also find ways to help support certain causes. Many makers and artists use secondhand goods and found objects as the basis for their work, and there was benefits to that: especially when it comes to finding unique stock to create a distinctive look. Sally Ann Livingston of the United Kingdom runs the online store the Navigatrix, which began as a small project while her daughter was in pre-school. Finding her stock at charity shops had more than one benefit than supporting her favorite causes. “I realised that sourcing most of my materials from charity shops (due to having a small budget) actually enriched my work,” Livingston says. “It allows me to find interesting materials and support my local charity shops, usually within a ten mile radius. A couple of local craft shops supply most of the new components that I use.”
The international steampunk community in general has been highly supportive of her work, and she is thankful that she has been able to find additional support from fellow artists and steampunk around the world. “There are a few others in our increasing, global, circle of friends, gained through the medium of the Steampunk genre, who inspire, encourage, motivate and celebrate with us! A penpal from Japan has become a repeat customer; other team leaders have become Skype and Facebook friends.”
As these stories, along with others in the community show the “punk” in steampunk doesn’t necessary imply that subversion equals destruction, or that the break-down is the only proper form of rebellion. When you look at the world as a system already broken, the most productive way to fight that system is to look for ways of fixing it.
For more information about the projects mentioned above, please see these links. All of them would appreciate your support to continue their work.
Interested in sharing your idea, project, organization, airship, etc that works toward social causes? Comment below and share the wealth!
Correction: (2/4/2014) In the initial publication of the article, it was mentioned inaccurately that the Make-A-Wish foundation asked ModVic to design the wheelchair. They had first approached ModVic to design Kyron’s bedroom, and afterward ModVic wished to pursue the wheelchair project independently.