Tag Archives: On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle

#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 5)

The Airship Ashanti in the 2015 Internationa Steampunk Symposium. They were that year's winners of the Airship Games.

The Airship Ashanti in the 2015 International Steampunk Symposium. They were that year’s winners of the Airship Games.

A Genre for our Times: Living Steampunk in Pursuit of “the Good Life”, A Conclusion

During my extensive involvement in the steampunk community, I have contemplated the meaning of what constitutes a lifestyle and whether that coincides with the personal beliefs one holds. While I began this paper with the intention of exploring the separation of ideology with lifestyle, I also believe that people who are heavily involved in the steampunk community hold a specific worldview. In my interviews with members of the community, I came upon a dozen different responses to the question, “Do you think steampunks have a specific ‘mindset’?” Many vehemently rejected the idea that there was one common mindset (thus, hinting at the collective notion of respect for individual opinions and a general distaste toward imposing one’s opinion upon others.) Many other responses, however, incorporated the idea that steampunks are artists who prefer looking at the world more creatively than the average person. Artist Tamara Lavery mentions that, “I believe it is a very fertile mindset. Many of those involved are makers. Artists, crafts people, musicians,….while going to an event and purchasing something amazing made by another is mad fun, most of us are also happiest making or at least “modding” for ourselves.”1 Another steampunk, author Leanne Renee Hieber mentions the commodification of subculture in her response, but with an anti-commercial, pro-community spin: “I think there are common themes. Craft and maker culture as valued commodity (I consider myself a “maker” too, I make books). History is alive and re-imagined in us. Play, fancy, fantasy, adventure and whimsy are also a valued commodity.”2

In fact, what I found in common in many of these responses is how many steampunks link a “steampunk worldview” (if it does exist) to a set of materialist ethics with the world that emphasizes the imagination as a method to break away from normalized constraints of society. The nineteenth century, more than a common focal point of interest, is considered the nexus point of the standards of our modern world. Steampunks view the Victorian era as the beginning of the end with the tide of industrial, social, political and economic changes that directly changed our lives for the worst. By returning to the Victorian, the steampunk aesthetic movement both celebrates a historical era of change while also integrating anachronistic elements into history in the romantic hope of undoing the past to re-create a better present. The idea is speculative in design, but realist in execution. The steampunk aesthetic movement is one method in which people project their utopian ideals onto the everyday.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 4)

ICON 2010

Photo from ICON 2010. Image Credit: J.M. Coen.

A Wandering Utopia: The Steampunk Convention

Note: A part of this essay section was previously published in my 2011 TempleCon convention report here.

Convention spaces provoke migration. They act as a Mecca for people of common means but uncommon interests, who engage in pilgrimages across the country to one destination in order to commune with each other. Convention spaces are also known in shorthand as the “con space,” a term that can allude to the Latin word contra (“to oppose, to argue against,” “pro or con”), to trick (“to con someone,” “the con game”), to illusion and mystification (“to confuse”). The term “con” when speaking of “convention” on the other hand, comes from the Middle English word connen, meaning “to study, know, or pursue.” Both divergent entomologies become relevant when describing a steampunk con.

Cons are understood as being a transitory form of escapism, where people enter from the mainstream world and are transferred into a heightened hyper-reality of Othered existence, before departing after a few hours or a few days to re-enter normalcy. At the same time, the convention space is nomadic, moving across city limits and state lines (and some, even, becoming virtual on the Internet)1. Sprouted by whims and fan passions, fan cons become hatched in backwater small towns and major metropolitan areas, each catering to the localized whims of the community’s populace. Cons, then, can be considered festive realms of liminality, a carnival space that Susan Stewart would identify as, “a reply to everyday life which is at the same time an inversion, an intensification, and a manipulation of that life, for it exposes and transforms both pattern and contradiction, presenting the argument and the antithesis of everyday life in an explosion that bears the capacity to destroy that life.”2

Of course, the concept of the fan conventions isn’t new and doesn’t pertain to steampunk subculture alone. My choice to include the con space as part of steampunk lifestyle, however, is connected to the increased attention by steampunk participants to the importance of holding a convention in their local community and the integration of convention-going with sociability for subculture participants. Moreover, unlike the assumption that these conventions are seen as breaks from the everyday, I argue that convention and event life in the steampunk community is seen not as an escape, but as a heightened utopian space that is reflective of community members’ everyday practices, interests and relationships.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 3)

Lebanon County Historical Society's Stoy Museum replication of a Victorian Barber Shop. Click for source.

Lebanon County Historical Society’s Stoy Museum replication of a Victorian Barber Shop. Click for source.

Retro-Fitting the Technologies of the Self

I first heard of the Steampunk Salon through Meet-up.com, a social website. The NY Steampunk – Artists & Enthusiasts network was started in late 2008 and has over 600 members throughout the state, though a sizable number of them reside in New York City. Many of their events are based in the metropolitan area, from museum trips to picnics to community art projects, like arrangements for float in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. One of the consistent events is the literary salon that takes place in Midtown East, hosted at the business of Romain Pallardy, hair stylist. The pun on the dual meaning of “salon” sounds a bit cutesy to be coincidental, and steampunk in general has been known to create spaces with a cheeky wink and a nod.

***

Finding Romain’s Salon is a bit tricky; one cool fall evening, I arrived at a bustling city street in Midtown East and didn’t see a storefront, for the Salon lacked a street sign, in contrast to the flashy hotel logos and restaurants surrounding it. The plain-faced building squeezed in this ritzy area could have been another forgettable residential building; alongside the row of pearly doorbell buttons, though, it wasn’t difficult to spot the one marking Romain’s business. In neat ink penmanship beneath a strip of plastic was the word “Salon,” as intriguing in its simplicity as Alice’s bottles and cakes marked “Drink Me” or “Eat Me.” The doorbell’s built-in camera blinked upon pressing the buzzer; my face flashed back in miniature before I was buzzed in. I climbed a nondescript, narrow stairwell to the second floor and arrived at a simple office door labeled in black-lined gold lettering: “Romain Parllady: Salon.”

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 2)

Victorian Carpenter's Kit

Victorian Carpenter’s Kit

“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.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 1)

A picture of my steampunk self way back in 2009 during one of the first events I attended in NYC for International Steampunk Day

A picture of my steampunk self in 2009 during one of the first events I attended in NYC for International Steampunk Day

Thinking about my contributions for “Steampunk Hands Around the World” this year made me reflect upon my time spent in the community. There have been highs and lows, and admittedly enough, I had no idea how much my life would change in the past eight years because of this aesthetic and the creative community inspired by it. One of the reasons why I have stuck around has been the belonging I have found through the people, places, and things we have created.

A few years ago in graduate school, I took a class called “Performance of Everyday Life”, which interrogated how we understand ourselves and the way we move through the world as acts of performance. From religious ritual to amateur hobbies, from gender roles to cosplay, from sports to clubbing to fashion — what all of these activities have in common is the idea of how different levels of theatricality, presentation, and action is incorporated into our daily identities.

My final paper was an ethnographic study contemplating making and community spaces in New York City and the convention scene.  Reading this over, I see how this can be interpreted as a counterargument of a recent critique of the maker movement written in The Atlantic. Unlike The Atlantic‘s critique of the capital-driven, competition-oriented DIY movement, I think steampunk community’s values provide an alternate view to making which is tied into group identity and fostering spaces of non-competitive creativity that values both traditional masculine and feminine arts.  Artistic camaraderie endows the steampunk object with affect value that grows into something greater than the object itself.  Though it was written in 2012, and some of the steampunks featured in this article I have lost touch with or left the community for one reason or another, this essay overall embodies many thoughts I have about the inherent beauty of creation and sense of home I get with fellow steampunks. This is, more than anything, a love letter to an art movement.

I’ll be posting a new part of this essay every Sunday this month.

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