Under the guiding hand of “Airship Ambassador” Kevin D Steil a group of steampunks from around the world have been talking about a global initiative to get steampunks to forge new links and friendships. This has long been a dream of mine too. I am very fortunate, I have managed to physically travel to many countries in the past and have always been delighted to visit new places and make new friends. More recently I have enjoyed attending steampunk events in several countries. I also have steampunk friends across the globe – some of whom I have yet to meet physically but due to the miracles of modern technology feel I can share ideas and dreams with.
The “Mission Statement” for hands around the world is posted here along with a link to Kevin’s introduction to the project.
“Mission Statement: Steampunk Hands Around the World is a month long event in February 2014 showing and sharing that steampunk, and the community, is global. As such, all steampunks everywhere are connected. There are new friendships to be found in every conversation and event. “Hands” is presented in multiple formats from blogs to videos to live events. Each person participating is responsible for organizing their own content and format, but the central theme is that of global connection and friendship.”
For me steampunk draws upon a wealth of imagery, ideas and creations, both real and imaginary. It is not a modern literary phenomenon but an ad hoc cultural movement which involves both the real and the fantastical. I have long been fascinated by the work of Jules Verne. Whilst he is certainly a product of his time and modern ideas on race and gender would no doubt be alien to him, he was an incredible visionary and a master storyteller.
One of Verne’s most popular stories is Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, or to anglophones, Around the World in Eighty Days. In Verne’s story, english gentleman, Phileas Fogg, with his french valet Passepartout, set out to travel around the globe in less than 80 days in order to win a £20,000 wager. Now of course the book predates steampunk as we know it. Published in 1872 it is inspired by three great technological innovations ; the building and opening of transcontinental railways in North America and India and the opening of the Suez canal. It was a time when technology had suddenly made the whole world more accessible just as the internet does today. Indeed it is Foggs faith in technology that leads him to accept the wager. Perhaps a little sadly for steampunks he does not actually travel by balloon or airship – this was an addition made for film rather than in the original story.
Fogg’s journey was indeed an epic one for the period and although fiction it inspired several people to emulate him for real.
As we were talking about Steampunk Hands Around the World I began to wonder if we could draw parallels with Verne’s intrepid travellers; Fogg and Passepartout?
Fogg began by travelling to the south coast of England in order to cross the Channel to France. The United Kingdom has a well established and growing steampunk community helped in part by the event I help organise “Weekend at the Asylum”. Now in its sixth year it attracts steampunks from around the world with around 2000 descending on the Roman city of Lincoln to enjoy talks, games, music, literature, drama, comedy, shopping and above all socialising. Steampunks are indeed fundamentally social creatures. Crossing the Channel to France Fogg entrains to head south to take a boat across the Mediterranean.
The obvious starting point for steampunk in France is the superb “Steampunk France” site which is under the guiding hand of Arthur Morgan. http://www.frenchsteampunk.com/
Fogg boarded a steamer to travel to Egypt in order to navigate the Suez Canal. What about steampunk and Egypt? Of course the political situation in Egypt has been very volatile over the last few years. As ever though steampunk harks back to the past and the 19th century saw an explosion in interest in Ancient Egypt promoted in part by the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone leading to the ability to translate the huge amount of heiroglyphic writings around the country and indeed in musea around the world. Evocative photographs of explorers and archaeologists have been an inspiration for many steampunk outfits. Often the people in the photographs are wearing pith helmets (sola topi) and these have become very popular indeed with steampunks.
The pith helmet was incredibly popular with Europeans travelling in hot climes during the 19th century. A practical and stylish piece of headwear that I had the pleasure to see being made (and worn widely) when I worked in Vietnam a few years ago. For many people though the pith helmet is a symbol of colonialism and racism. It is not uncommon for someone to see a steampunk wearing a pith helmet and to assume that the wearer holds racist values. We should not overlook the impact of our dress and how this may cause concern or upset.
However steampunk is not about trying to recreate the past slavishly. It is fantasy. We use it as a source material for inspiration and modification rather than a blueprint to be strictly adhered to. The vast majority of steampunks are no more interested in returning to a real colonial past than they are devoted to stripping women of the vote, restoring slavery and putting children into workhouses. It is in steampunk’s interest to ensure that we acknowledge how our inspiration can be (mis)interpreted and to ensure that our conduct does not reinforce the stereotypes that such colonial symbolism may engender. To us a pith helmet simply looks good and is practical. It is a great item to mod being easy to work with and a great base for gadgets etc to be mounted on. It is iconic in that it immediately says 19th century yet is affordable and readily available. We buy and wear them for this reason, not because we want to proclaim our imperialist tendencies.
The symbolic nature of it (and indeed other items) can however lead it to be seen in other ways. We must remain sensitive to this. By being friendly, open, honest and polite we can reclaim the pith helmet for the 21st century rather than it simply being a leftover of the 19th. Open projects such as “Hands” may help with this.
Our adventurers travelled on to India in order to cross the subcontinent by train only to learn that the rail network had not yet been completed. India is a huge and varied country, home to more than one billion souls. Not surprisingly it has been the inspiration for many steampunk projects. At the very first Weekend at the Asylum we were delighted to promote the UK based band “Sunday Driver”. The anglo-indian fusion sound has made them one of the leading steampunk bands in the UK. Check them out at http://www.sundaydriver.co.uk/ Indeed their unique take on steampunk was part of the inspiration behind our annual “Empire Ball”.
This strives not to promote “Empire” or imperialism but to celebrate some of the richness and diversity that is the legacy of the old British Empire and has since become integral in modern British society. To see a ballroom full of splendidly attired steampunks dancing to the “Concubine Waltz” is truly magical. India is also the foundation of my good friend Yomi Ayeni’s incredibly innovative multi media steampunk storytelling project Clockwork Watch. http://www.clockworkwatch.com/ It is common now to see Indian influences in the aesthetics of steampunks around the world. Long may this continue.
Of course Verne (through Fogg) was critical of some aspects of Indian culture particularly suttee and the caste system. Choosing to wear a dhoti, salwar kameez, or saree does not make a steampunk automatically an advocate for widows casting themselves onto the pyres of their husbands any more than the pith helmet advocates colonial wars. The cross cultural nature of steampunk and the magpie like mentality of steampunks means that most events see Indian inspired outfits and aesthetics. Of course we need to be sensitive to perceptions and sensibilities but we can always do what steampunks do with panache – take inspiration from the past and make it part of a bright contemporary scene.
Crossing India our adventurers made their way to Hong Kong and thence to Shanghai. China is often synonymous with mass produced, cheap consumer goods. To this is often tagged an inate racism of “it’s made in China so it must be garbage.” China (and India for that matter) have long been two of the greatest marketplaces in the World. Indeed the roots of colonialism were as much in the search for markets for European goods as they were for the hunger for foreign products. Where you have markets you have industry to serve those markets. The situation is no different today. Technology means we now have a global economy rather than simply regional or national economies. The internet, electronic banking and modern post and courier networks mean it is possible to order an item from China directly for delivery to Belgium, Canada or Argentina within a few days.
Of course steampunk is a community of makers and crafters. At its best steampunk art can be jaw droppingly beautiful. At its worst we have “stick a cog on it and call it steampunk”. Today many of these “cogs” are produced in factories in China and have become ubiquitous on the stalls of vendors across the globe. Sometimes the lack of skill, imagination and innovation of these vendors has played up to the stereotype of “imported garbage”. The commercial reality of people chasing the elusive “brass dollar, pound and euro” by tagging items as “steampunk” just to make a sale has not helped. Personally I would like to see more of China’s real nineteenth century history and aesthetics being used as inspiration for steampunk just as it enjoyed a vogue in the 19th century. Some are pioneering this drive. It could be a great fashion in steampunk. We also need to step away from the racist assumption that China equals cheap and nasty. What we really need to do is what steampunks have been doing for years – see potential components rather than finished goods. If there is a failing then, it is in our imagination and skills not in the initial components nor the factories that produced them.
From Hong Kong Verne’s tale moves on to Japan. When Verne wrote his book Japan was pushing to “modernise” and “westernise”. France had a military mission to China that was involved in this process and the Boshin War – a civil war in Japan which took place just two years before Verne’s story was published. Indeed the story of a French officer Jules Brunet in this war may have been part of the inspiration behind the box office smash “The Last Samurai”. Japan has it’s own strong steampunk scene although crossovers with the rest of the world are still mainly limited to cosplay and anime/manga. The cognoscenti have long used Japanese educational kits (gakken) for some of their builds etc. The theremin and plastic cup recorder being particularly popular. It would be great to see more Japanese influences upon steampunk – both historical and aesthetically. Steampunk “Hands” and similar initiatives may help with this.
Fogg and Passepartout along with Aouda from India then take ship for the United States. The US has a very well developed steampunk scene that even the most cursory of searches online will reveal. Indeed there are many US contributors to “Hands”. One point of note is that Verne’s story features an attack by Sioux fighters upon a train that the adventurers are travelling on. The late 1860s saw conflict in Wyoming that came to be known as “Red Clouds War”. This was just five years after more than 300 Santee Sioux were condemned to death by the American authorities for their part in the Dakota War of 1862. Even though the sentences of 284 were commuted the hanging of 38 as authorised by Abraham Lincoln make this the greatest mass execution in American History. This sort of news would no doubt have made titillating copy in the salons of Europe. Once again however it is important to comment that steampunk is not about the difficulties of the past. Respect and sensitivity are essential to temper inspiration and celebration. “First nations” inspiration in steampunk is growing and is yet another source for our creative scene.
The story ends with the adventurers travelling on to Ireland and back to England to win the wager. An epic journey around the world and an insight into a Frenchman’s view of the world of his day. I hope that using “Around the World in Eighty Days” is a fitting inspiration for an article for “Steampunk Hands Around the World”. I began with the mission statement of “Hands”. The sentiments behind it are far from new. Such sentiment led to the creation of a real historical organisation that could be seen as a forerunner to “Steampunk Hands Around the World”:
“I am so weary of the bitterness of this war. Why can’t we have a Society of Friendship?”
“These important words, spoken by a Mrs Mary Davis whilst travelling in South Africa during the Boer War, instigated a letter, which led to a group of like-minded women meeting at No. 10 Downing Street to discuss the proposal. The women were keen to form an independent, nonpolitical organisation that promoted a closer union between different parts of the then British Empire that fostered hospitality, understanding and good fellowship.”
This led to the formation of the “Victoria League”. From whose website the quote above was taken. You can learn more about their history there: http://www.victorialeague.co.uk/history. They are still going more than a century after their formation!
We can but hope that Steampunk can be a 21st century vehicle for friendship, hospitality and understanding around the globe since a shared interest can even transcend the need for a shared language.
A group of us share a vision for a Steampunk World Movement. The creation of an event which moves around the planet each year to bring steampunks together face to face to share ideas, imagination and creativity but above all friendship. Plans are well underway for an inaugural event for 2015 and we are looking for partners willing to take this dream on and make it a reality in years to come. Whether through Steampunk Hands Around the World or Steampunk World let us hope that the promotion of a “Society of Friendship” can be to the benefit of us all.