Picture yourself in Victorian times—petticoats and corsets for ladies; top hats and frock coats for gentlemen; lace and velvet, oiled leather, polished brass, cast iron and waxed hardwoods for everyone. Look at a new wealth of steam-powered inventions, some practical, some real but fantastical, some visionary, but so seriously pseudo-scientific that they could be real, should be real, and, in time, would be real.
Then strap yourself into H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and leap over the plastic-littered present day toward an alternative future where Victorian aesthetics and Industrial Age ingenuity meet, mix and match with modern technology. It’s a brave new world in art, design, literature, cinema, video games, music and fashion. In a word: Steampunk. The term goes back to science fiction writer K.W. Jeter’s 1987 play off Cyberpunk, but the tone reverses a dark post-Apocalyptic landscape to conjure optimistic possibilities.
Steampunk comes to the Springfield Museums in Steampunk Springfield: Re-Imagining an Industrial City, guest-curated by Bruce Rosenbaum. As a Steampunk artist and designer, Rosenbaum’s vision abounds with optimism, and he sees Steampunk as a way for Springfield to re-imagine its post-industrial past, “regain its mojo,” and project a revitalized path for its future.
“Steampunk empowers,” Rosenbaum declares. “The infusion of history, art and technology allows us to travel back and forward in time, creating a virtual time machine. It is the act of Steampunking and repurposing that … can help transform our own lives with meaningful connections to the past, present and future.”
Embodying this goal is an exhibit at the Victorian-era George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, “Humachines: Authors and Inventors who Changed the World, Transformed Into the Machines They Imagined to Change the World Again.” The title (almost) explains it all. Rosenbaum and other artists have recreated iconic authors, inventors and visionaries as anthropomorphic sculptures that reference real or imaginary inventions. So, as Rosenbaum explains, “Jules Verne becomes the fantastical Nautilus submarine; H.G. Wells becomes a human Time Machine; and Mary Shelley becomes the High Voltage Machine that brings Frankenstein to life.”
These Humachines are on a mission: to travel through time into our present (their future) and help solve today’s problems by suggesting a new way forward. A Humachine of George Eastman presents the entrepreneur who popularized roll film as a large format, portrait-studio camera. As Rosenbaum explains, Eastman becomes a human camera as the push of a button starts a light show. “We see in the camera screen what Springfield was, scenes from the present, and a series of concept drawings from today offering possibilities for the future,” he says.
As sculptures, Humachines do not evoke sleek minimalism or the disembodied presence of robots. Along with Victorian gears and gadgetry, these industrial re-incarnations fuse art and technology, form and function, past and future.
“I love the idea of colliding new and old,” says metal sculptor Sam Ostroff, who worked on his Humanchine from his studio in Florence. Along with new and old, he joins together human form and mechanical parts, transforming rigid metal into organic curves and incorporating hard woods into metal elements.
“Gears are the backbone of the Steampunk look,” Ostroff says. “But along with aesthetics, there is the Steampunk narrative, the how and the why of the piece.”
The how and why of Ostroff’s sculpture is the story of Jan Ernst Matzelinger, a little-known inventor whose problem solving nonetheless had great impact. In Steampunk fashion, Matzelinger merged opposites in his origins: born in Africa to a Dutch engineer father and a black Surinamese slave mother. He came to the United States as a sailor and learned shoemaking.
Working day and night, Matzelinger solved the problem of how to attach the sole to the shoe body, a labor-intensive process called shoe lasting that required highly skilled workers and resulted in shoes being very expensive. Matzelinger’s machine increased production rates from 50 shoes in a 10-hour day to up to 700. On the plus side, shoe prices dropped dramatically, and many more people could buy many more shoes. In the minus column, skilled workers lost their livelihoods—a story of human jobs lost to automation that is all too familiar. (This part of the narrative goes against Steampunk’s faith in the positive outcome of innovation. Maybe a Humachine can suggest solutions to the problem of post-industrial job loss?)
Matzelinger plied his trade in Lynn, Mass., but industrial-era Springfield was home to many other manufacturing innovations, which are showcased, along with current-day Steampunk re-interpretations, in Fifty Firsts: Springfield Inventions Reinvented at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History.
Springfield is the perfect city for Steampunk, notes Museum of Springfield History director Guy McLain, who outlines an impressive sequence of industrial innovation, all dating back to George Washington’s approval of Springfield as the site of the nation’s first armory. The Springfield Armory became a hub for manufacturing weaponry and a research center that developed many famous guns. (As part of Steampunk Springfield, the Springfield Armory also showcases Steampunk re-designs with original weaponry.)
Like a magnet, the gun industry attracted skilled workers, and in technology transfer, expertise spilled into other areas. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company developed the first successful gas-powered automobile, test-driven down Taylor Street in 1893. Indian Motorcycles was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world by 1910. And Gee Bee Aircraft designed the fastest airplane in America in 1932. (These dates stretch beyond the Victorian era—which ended with the Queen’s death in 1901—but perhaps a Time Machine creates some chronological flexibility.)
McLain hopes that Steampunk Springfield will help people look at historical artifacts in a new light. “Once you see a steampunked motorcycle,” he says, “you can see that history is not inevitable. History did not have to happen the way it did.” Opening up a whole series of “What ifs?” and “Why nots?”, Steampunk encourages people to think about history itself in a truly inventive way.
Steampunk is not only fun and fantastical, but—spoiler alert—also educational. Rosenbaum notes that Steampunk enthusiasts tend to be well versed in art, science, literature and history. “It’s eye candy,” he acknowledges, “but it becomes a history lesson, especially with the current emphasis on math and science education. We’re pushing STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] into STEAM by adding art into the mix, and then pushing into Steampunk.” Describing himself as a “passionate evangelist for Steampunk,” Rosenbaum is a true visionary, seeing Steampunk as a lever to transform and improve people’s lives by opening up alternatives.•
Steampunk Springfield: Re-Imagining an Industrial City, March 22 to September 28, 2014.
• Humachines: Authors and Inventors who Changed the World, Transformed into the Machines They Imagined to Change the World Again includes twelve sculptures by Bruce Rosenbaum and other artists, at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield
• Fifty Firsts: Springfield Inventions Reinvented, in which artists re-imagine, re-purpose and reinvent objects from Springfield’s industrial history, at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History.
• Brassy Bridal: Steampunk Wedding displays Steampunk bridal gowns, bridesmaid dresses, tuxedos and suits, jewelry and other accessories created as part of a fashion design competition, at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.
For information on related events and programming, see http://www.springfieldmuseums.org.