The Antipodean Steampunk Show


Exhibition review
The Antipodean Steampunk Show
Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 9th November – 5th January, 2014

reviewed by Christopher Orchard

In a 2006 paper Technology as Cultural Force for the Canadian Journal of Sociology Albert Borgmann writes on two standard views of technological influence and acceptance, the determinist and the instrumentalist view. Borgmann argues that in the determinist view technology itself is an irresistible force either optimistically, or pessimistically measured. Jon Ippolito in At the Edge of Art describes this determinist standpoint with  particular reference to the pessimistic by saying that ‘…a cultural phenomenon that acts like a virus might be technology. In the eyes of many observers, our tools seem to have wills of their own’ [1]. It is these forces of technological will that Steampunk artisans experiment with as a form of socio-political narrative that questions the role of the artisan and the role of the machine in contemporary art and craft practice, and indeed, the role of the machine in our everyday lives.

The instrumentalist view as a counter point argues that technology in and of itself cannot be positive or negative, but the way in which it is utilised and indeed the users of particular technological services shape the reflective positivity or negativity. If we are to follow the most commonly believed sociological standpoint and take an instrumentalist view that technology is a service that is both machinery and commodity, then the intrinsic worth of that commodity must take shape in its association with cultural value. If technology use is fluid based upon its user then the uneasiness and uncertainty it brings must directly reflect the users own feelings of mental and physical wellbeing. Ipplito centres an argument on contemporary expectations on the use of technology as a virus, and that art is antibody. This concept is drawn together by Freud in Civilisation and it’s Discontents when explaining man’s connectedness with the technological:

… Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs, he is truly magnificent; but these organs have not grown onto him, and they still give him trouble at times… [2]

Steampunk machinations and their associated cultural devices service as a reminder of fraught histories and the fragile tension design fictions can bring about. The device paradigm is formed as a space in which Victorian-era ingenuity becomes artisan product, not the product of mass labour, but of individual experimentation, a kind of ideological or imagined self played out in a parallel world. The do it yourself nature of the craft process reflects the punk ethos of anti-consumerism and rebelliousness that engages the end user as creator process. Steampunk then as a cultural phenomenon is a clear reaction to the modern. It shines a light on the consumerist and commodious aspects of individualism and hyper reality to generate a space where design is based in the creation of artefacts and not in the commonplace task of individualising within a given pre-designed system. It then says that the value of cultural artefacts are in the hand-made, the boutique and increasingly in those which rebel against the lasting legacy of capitalist big-business interest, but also fights against the monotony and banality of unfulfilled technological desire.

We have become so attached to our technological self-extensions that at times we forget that they are there, and often seem to neglect acknowledgement of the technological marvel that is our mobile phone, tablet or computer. These techno-evolutionary layers only focus our sight when they fail, or, only become visible when they disappoint our expectations. We spend an ever-increasing idle time engaged in the ritual satisfaction of unchecked commodiousness. In Video Games and the Technological Sublime, Eugénie Shinkle describes this process as being ‘bound up with the material process of commodity production, the banal goes hand in hand with superabundance, consumption and waste’[3]. This waste is a core component of the Steampunk reaction, and a basis of the culture’s premise; the re-use of digital and analogue detritus as building blocks for the new. When commodity ceases to amaze, when commodity becomes banal, its image must be reborn in the mask of the artisan. The more unsustainable this commodious pleasure is the more it must be reacted against. Steampunk is for all its worth, a postmodern attempt to find the sublime in the mundane or to find the beautiful amongst the banal. A creative way to give technological marvels their rightful appreciation as a work of human making. It is however a reality of living via technological prosthesis that as Albert Borgmann advises ‘underneath the cycles of ups and downs is an inarticulate sense of disappointment and failure’ [4].

What Borgmann refers to specifically with the technological is that the culture of commodity is locked within a cycle of obsolescence and the prospect of purchase. Borgmann argues that the moment when you take possession of an object or service is the beginning in the decline of enjoyment. This is soon followed by a ‘sense of emptiness, the contemplation of another purchase, rising expectation, and so on. Everything in our economy is geared towards keeping the cycle strong’ [5]. What this shows is that this self-extension by technological means, whilst offering short-term pleasure, is also exemplar in the generation of a sense of cultural loss (not having the latest and greatest gadgetry), a pronounced disappointment and an increasing rate of diagnosed depression in the Western world. We can therefore assume with a great degree of clarity that any self-extension through a means that is designed to become obsolete will in-turn generate its own continued sense of loss and mourning, and do little more than remind us of our own transitory existence. In this way up-cycling materials, creating working items out of detritus, and reacting against obsolescence Steampunk shows its capacity, albeit rather meekly, to take up the fight against the distractions of modernity. Eugénie
Shinkle writes of such objects that;

Contemporary technologies are throwaway objects destined for obsolescence, their production driven less by a wish to celebrate human ingenuity than by the late capitalist imperative of novelty and innovation. They are designed not to signify, but to disappear in to functionality… [6]

In ‘The Antipodean Steampunk Show’ this fight is taken up through the generation of new social-political artefacts by a plethora of individual makers. The difficulty in this is that inevitably some makers are more aware of their reasons for making than others. In essence some works appear that of true ingenuity whilst others become nothing more than recycled relics without any added intrinsic worth (other than being given value by their placement in a gallery context). What is on show is a DIY attitude, some interesting making by clever artisans, but all shrouded with a wistful sense of misplaced nostalgia. It is as if the work asks us for an appreciation of slow making, or to return to a time when such a thing was prevalent. It feels to me that what it is really searching for is a way in which to gain a sense of reverence for the most important technological advances of recent times, and to showcase it as a modern equivalent of the engineering pedigree of industrialist England. I cannot help but view the work and think of it as a counter point to commodious hyper-reality and over consumption that sadly of Steampunk, this too shall pass.

After all is said and done, I find myself wishing that much more of the touring exhibition were actually useable by the gallery audience. The static display of these items does naught to show their usefulness or inventiveness and limits their capacity to argue for the skilled hand of the artisan and in this it becomes the banality Steampunk is designed to react against. The craftsmanship, sustainability, imagination, creativity, romance, beauty and hope that the accompanying educational kit exclaims of its virtues are hidden under layers of perspex and do-not-touch warnings. The objects value on show is not that of a Steampunk ethos, but that of the  contemporary gallery as we are white-walled to assume the items value through clever display cases, item specific lighting and the usual reverential gallery hush. Steampunk art that fights against commodity has in this realm become the commodity it tried to react against and in this, loses hope. I found myself on all occasions wondering why if such care in making, and such craftsmanship is on show; why not see these items perform their duties? They have become the obsolete products themselves, stripped of their usefulness except to gaze upon in wonderment of their design, yet the wonder of their design to me is in their cultural value as a reaction against modernity, and not in their physical forms, as static objects. Here they do little to convince us of the terrors of the modern, and this is a terrible disservice to the real value of the items on show, and the value of the Steampunk movement. The exhibition is well worth the visit, but one must use their own imagination to consider the works usefulness, otherwise you will leave, as I did, disheartened.

 

About the reviewer

Christopher Orchard is a Lecturer in Photography and interdisciplinary researcher in the School of Communications and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University. Christopher’s research draws from a wide field of discourse on landscape heath, natural resource management, trauma studies, terror management theory and broad art theory and culture to generate transdisciplinary dialogue on landscape issues utilising practice-led research methodologies.


[1] Blais, J. & Ippolito, J. (2006). At the Edge of Art. London: Thames and Hudson

[2] Freud, S. (1974). The Standard Edition of the complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 21, Civilisation and its Discontents. Trans; James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

[3] Shinke, Eugénie (2012). Video Games and the Technological Sublime. Tate Art Research. Accessed: 22/07/2013

[4] Albert Borgmann (2006). Technology as Cultural Force: For Alena and Griffin. University of Toronto Press.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shinke, Eugénie (2012). Video Games and the Technological Sublime. Tate Art Research. Accessed: 22/07/2013

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