Steampunk: Art, Science And A Little Bit Of Nemo

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WALTHAM, Mass. — A quirky art exhibition called Steampunk, Form & Function recently opened at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation here. But, you might be wondering, what the heck is Steampunk?

“Steampunk is actually pretty hard to define,” said Bruce Rosenbaum, a major Steampunk fan and owner of Steampuffin, a design company. He's sponsoring the new show and met me at the museum.

“It means a lot of different things to different people," he explained. "It’s come out in movies, in fashion, in literature, in gaming and in design. I like to think about Steampunk as a re-imagination — if the Victorian period or the industrial period happened at the same time as the computer or information age.”

Steampunk’s been percolating as an aesthetic movement since the 1980s — with goths and the sci-fi community, for instance — but it’s still pretty fringe. If you don’t know what it is, you’re definitely not alone.

To get your gears turning, though, you could think of Jules Verne and the Nautilus in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Or H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine.” Even Willy Wonka could inspire Steampunk.

It’s brass, corsets, cogs, aviator goggles, monocles, bubbling liquids, pocket watches, pipe organs, gauges and valves — fused with iPods, thumb-drives and today’s high-tech gadgetry. An iconic Steampunk image is a modern computer keyboard that has old-school typewriter keys — and it works!

This gallery is filled with artist-made contraptions that could’ve been invented in an imaginary retro-future. They're elegant, but clunky-looking at the same time — not streamlined the way our gadgets are today. But still, these anachronistic pieces are highly-crafted, intricate, engineered and utilitarian. They ooze D-I-Y.

Museum director and curator Elln Hagney cranked away on the Steampunk cotton spinning wheel generator. It's an exercycle (probably from the '70s or '80s) connected with an antique spinning wheel. Pedaling powers up a small generator that lights up a lantern. Then she showed me the Steampunk telegraph guitar.

“Literally as you’re playing you can also do a little Morse Code if you want to,” she said, “so I think it would be dot-dot-dot-slash-slash-slash-dot-dot-dot for SOS, which is what I need when I play guitar.”

Then she drops a few coins into the Steampunk pinball machine. Play it and you can create life itself!

“You hear the buzz of electricity, the drip of amino acids,” she said with a wink as she whacked the metal ball up and into the bumpers. This, and most of the other objects, are tongue-in-cheek, fantastical, weird and a lot of fun.

More seriously, though, Hegney is psyched about the Steampunk exhibition because it’s attracting a different, more alternative crowd to a museum that’s dedicated to Industrial-era history and machinery.

Todd Douglas Cahill feels the same way. One of his steam-powered kinetic sculptures is in the show, but he doesn’t see himself as a "Steampunk.” Cahill’s an actual steam artist who's been reviving antique steam machine models for 20 years, and his workshop is in the same old former watch factory as the museum.

It’s filled with old tools and machinery he uses to make his art. One piece puffs away while we chat. He tweaks the flow of steam so the model doesn’t sputter and spurt.

Bruce Rosenbaum, owner of Steampuffin and ModVic, sits on top of a steampunked scooter.
Bruce Rosenbaum, owner of Steampuffin and ModVic, sits on top of a steampunked scooter.(Nicholas Dynan for WBUR)

Cahill hangs out with serious steam machine fanatics — most of them much older than he is. He says it’s been interesting for him to watch the rise of Steampunk from the sidelines. It’s good, he says, because the cultural movement is keeping our industrial past alive — and making it hip.

“A lot of that generation that lived with this stuff is now very much gone,” Cahill said.

Cahill has his own ideas about why we modern people connect with the older technologies on a visceral, even emotional level.

“It’s the noise of it, it’s the feeling, it’s the touch. It’s certainly the sight of it. It’s all these things that blend together. It’s not a mystery. A lot of the technology today, unless you know about it, it’s hidden, it’s behind the screen, it’s in a box, it’s under the hood.”

Show sponsor Bruce Rosenbaum agrees. “A lot of us kind of feel stupid with technology in terms of how it all works," he said. "With Steampunk I think people are harking back to that time where we could understand the world better and really understand ourselves better.”

At the same time, though, maybe it doesn’t matter what the Steampunk telegraph guitar actually tells us about ourselves because — frankly — it’s just really cool. I bet Captain Nemo would agree.

There’s a Steampunk Meet-Up at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation on Sunday, Dec. 19.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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