“Home is a Woodshop”
Among my books on my self stands a French vodka bottle, sliced clean across the middle; this bottle I had cut myself using a diamond-edged rotary water blade. The process was not perfect, and chipped edges serve a cautionary purpose when I pick up the glass. A candle sits inside it, unlit, on my shelf, yet it nevertheless reminds me of the place where it was made.
In the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, I stood by the iron-barred gateway situated between two gray-faced, indiscriminate pre-war apartment buildings, dialing a number off my smart phone. An icy blast of wind coming in from the water cuts through my layers and my fingers tremble over the key pad. A warm, older voice answered, “I’ll be right up,” and in a minute, Stephen Ebinger, a broad-shouldered man with a peppery beard and Santa-Claus eyes, opened the gate. The stairs descended to the subbasement level and I teetered downwards precariously, clinging to the rust-stained railing. I followed my friend through the building’s back door into the basement apartment that serves both as his home, as a fully-equipped woodshop, and as the Steampunk Co-op in northern Manhattan.
One Saturday of every month, Stephen opens his doors to anyone in the community to come in and work. In a city where every square foot of real estate is priced at hundreds of dollars, Stephen welcomes anyone to use his resources at no cost in order to work on whatever crafting project they see fit. The apartment has a reclusive, nest-like quality, where tools mix among piles of scrap wood and endless possibilities. Long beams of timber, furniture legs, heavy dowels, and plywood scraps line along one end of the room. In milk crates littering the floor, past visitors have created a “take it or leave it” pile from the junk of their own tiny apartments: old tools, discarded boots, broken umbrellas, clocks and appliances to be used for parts, an array of aerosoft rifles, squirt guns, rubber band shooters (from a workshop about modding guns for costumes). In the middle of the living room sits a table-length machine-powered wood saw. A power drill hunkers down in the corner. Workman’s tools and red-lined Craftsman storage shelving line the remaining walls. Off shooting the living room are a sparse kitchen and a bathroom, where the sink was splattered with the dried remains of paint and plaster, and a side table was littered with spray paint, sealants, and a bucket of rusted nails soaking in vinegar – or, the recipe for old-fashioned wood varnish, according to Stephen.
Over the months participating in the co-op, I valued the efforts of my hands: the heat of a sauntering iron, the blow of a hammer through leather, the scent of wood dust in my nostrils, and the bits of grit that accumulates beneath my fingernails. On this day, I noticed other visitors float in and out. Perched on stools and broken wicker-backed chairs, people sat in circles with half-finished sewing projects in their hands. A young girl drilled metal attachments onto her sci-fi inspired handgun. In Steve’s bedroom, I spotted a stage in miniature set up as two older men soldered LED lights into tiny rows. Tea and cookies were left out for nibbling on a butcher’s block in the kitchen. There, I used a Dremmel to wet-sand along the edges of my newly-cut glass bottle while standing over Stephen’s kitchen sink, dipping the edge of the ragged glass in an old soup cauldron filled with water as I smoothed out the jagged edges using the rotating head of the hand drill.
Not only do steampunks treasure things for their individual beauty, but they value the process, the act of making. Bachelard wrote about the individual’s relationship to the object as the key that unlocks a connection to the larger imaginative community: “Objects that are cherished this way are really born of an intimate light, and they attain a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by a geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order.” 1 Here, Stephen, myself, and the other visitors shape, mold, sew, blast and build their realities. These objects – tinkered toys, self-stitched outfits, models, and handmade repairs to household items – signify the communal value of creative construction. Moreover, the process of craftwork is an activity that affirms their place in the world where the handmade is seen as a quaint anachronism in our quickly digitizing, mass-produced dominant culture. As Corse comments, “Craft objects offer a sense of connection with the physical world that may indeed be underemphasized in contemporary art and is always entirely missing in much of contemporary culture.”2 As Ashley Rogers, one of my steampunk informants, mentioned, she realized the value of crafters from her experience in the community. Though she had a college degree, she returned to cosmetology school to get her certificate in salon work. Ashley explained how her involvement in steampunk had changed her attitude about vocational jobs: “For a long time I had not looked at crafters the way I should have and they are the backbone of the country. I never would have seen that or experienced that or changed career paths, if it weren’t for steampunk.”3
At the same time, this enjoyment of the material, however, is belied by the speculative desire to construct the impossible. While many objects built in Stephen’s workshop space are functional – sewing clothing, repairing broken appliances, restructuring raw or up-cycled materials into new lives – other steampunk objects are more artwork than craft, such as the modified prop guns or steampunk accessories. In these cases, its generic significance overrides its status as craftwork in how the steampunk object bolsters a steampunk lifestyle. In fact, the emphasis on beauty – whether functional or not – serves as an everyday tactic against a drab, modern world.
Handmade steampunk objects, then, are non-commodifiable objects that serve as vessels of subcultural capital. Additionally, Bakhtin would still describe non-functional steampunk objects as creative physical manifestation of his literary chronotope: “Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible….”4 Steampunk narratives, which already manipulate time with its use of anachronism, further transmutes a theoretical concept into actuality. The ray gun may not fire or the model dirigible may not fly, but what remains important is the fact that you had built it, not bought it; this object is born from the mind to exist into the world.
1 Bachelard, 68.
2 Corse, 12-13.
3 Ashley Rogers, Interview, February 23, 2012.
4 Bakhtin, 84.