1.- The interviewee
Austin Sirkin, a scholar and writer who has been studying the Steampunk movement for nearly a decade, and is one of the world’s leading experts on it. His work can be found in various blogs around the internet, as well as in the recent anthology Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution
2.- Steampunk beyond conventionalisms
Q.- Austin, we love your sense of humour (try reading ‘15 Types Of Annoying Steampunks’ without smiling) and your irreverent approach to Steampunk because we are convinced that a fresh look is essential in order to develop a deeper and wider vision. You have been involved in the US Steampunk scene since 2006 with a prolific activity as divulgator: blogger, columnist, panelist, podcaster… Why is Steampunk so attractive for you?
Austin Sirkin (AS).- Thank you! I think that when you get involved with something you love a lot, it’s easy to lose your sense of humor. Since no one is making tons of money on Steampunk, everyone is involved because they love it. That can lead to a lot of ruffled feathers! As a result, I always try to include my sense of humor in anything I write so as to bring some smiles back into what can be an awfully upsetting dialogue for many.
Steampunk is attractive to me for a variety of reasons. First of all, I grew up reading as much sci-fi and fantasy as I could get my hands on, among which were the classics by Verne and Wells. I also grew up watching reruns of The Wild, Wild West, so I’ve always had an interest in Steampunk since before I even knew that it was a “thing”. Second, my clothing preferences have always leaned toward the fancy and Victorian, so when I discovered Steampunk, it was sort of a natural fit. Third, for the longest time, I wanted to be more involved in costuming, but until Steampunk took hold, it was exceedingly rare to find someone cosplaying a unique character. Practically everyone was dressed up as a character from a movie, or a TV show, or a comic book, or whatever, and let me tell you how hard it is to find characters in popular media that are a little on the heavyset side who have a goatee and glasses; it’s extremely hard! So when the metaphorical Steampunk ship pulled up with the prospect of cosplaying unique characters, I jumped right on board!
Q.- We have read with great interest your article ‘Has Steampunk peaked in the US?’ (and we think, from the distance, that you may be completely right). But, how do you see Steampunk worldwide? Is it growing yet? How can it influence the US Steampunk (and viceversa)?
AS.- Living in the United States is like having a handicap when it comes to knowing anything about the rest of the world. Our television and news programs almost never report on events outside of the US unless someplace is pretty much going to hell (eg Syria has been in the news a lot, lately). Even our internet feeds are pretty insular, with many Americans not sharing news articles about the rest of the world. It’s something of a sad state of affairs, frankly. What this means is that it’s hard for me to have any real conception of how Steampunk is evolving and growing in the rest of the world. I have several foreigners on my Facebook friends list and I always read their posts with interest, but the language barrier can sometimes prove too much for me.
Due to all of these aspects, it will be hard for worldwide Steampunk to influence the US Steampunk aesthetic or movement, but not impossible. If you want to make an impact on US Steampunk, my advice is to take amazing pictures, and share them on popular US groups or sites. Pictures have no language, and are worth a thousand words!
Q.- With reference to our previous question, will a multiculturalist approach to Steampunk spread? Which dangers would the community face? It is a delicate topic that you address in ‘Adding a Multicultural Touch to Steampunk Without Being an Insensitive Clod’…
AS.- Multicultural Steampunk is an issue that we all have to face, whether we want to or not. In fact, this is an issue that is currently permeating the entirely of the cosplay community, sparked in no small part by the recent US television show “Heroes of Cosplay”. The questions being asked are, “Can people of any weight or body type cosplay any character? What about people of different sexes or races?” For example, can a black man dress up as Captain America, who is a famously white character? Generally, the response has been, that yes, black men (or black women, or Asian women, or whoever) are absolutely welcome to dress up as Captain America, or anything else that they would like. Similarly, in Steampunk, the general consensus seems to be that all races and genders are welcome in Steampunk, and that we prize the different views and perspectives on what Steampunk means to each person.
I’m not going to lie, though… There are those in Steampunk who are very bigoted and xenophobic, who see nothing wrong with a subculture exclusively full of white people. Unfortunately, people like that exist in the world. It seems like those people are either slowly changing their minds, or simply remaining quiet these days, as I haven’t seen any exceptionally nasty arguments on the internet lately. Personally, I really want to see more influence in the movement from places like Spain, where Enrique Gaspar y Rimbau wrote El anacronópete, which is the first documented use of a time machine in fiction, even earlier than H.G. Wells’s more famous piece, The Time Machine!
Q.- We have the feeling that you love to break clichés (we recommend articles like ‘What is Steampunk?’ and ‘Steampunk’s Dirty Little Secret’) and we agree with you, Steampunk needs to be defined (we would like to encourage the reading of ‘Why Defining Steampunk Is Worthwhile’). But, will this happen?
AS.- Short answer? No. Longer answer? No way.
Basically, there’s no Steampunk authority who is able to rule on a specific definition. As such, any definition would need to be agreed on by all Steampunks, and that’s just never going to happen. Not only that, but Steampunk is absolutely still changing and evolving. The Steampunk of today is markedly different from the Steampunk of ten years ago, for example. Hell, it’s even markedly different from the Steampunk of five years ago. If your movement is still evolving, how can you define it?
What you can do, however, is describe it. A description of Steampunk exists. Of course it does, right? Steampunk is vaguely inspired by the Victorian era, it usually, but not always, features browns and blacks, and it has things that look like they’re made of wood, brass, glass, etc. This is pretty general stuff, but I guarantee you that I can find people who will argue about it on the internet.
Such is life!
Q.- Which leads us to a question you have already answered… ‘Why Is Steampunk Community So Fractured and Fractious?’. What happened with the Victorian politeness?
AS.- As with most things about that time, “Victorian politeness” is really something of a modern conception. That is, everything about Steampunk is really about the modern era, and not about the Victorian era. Steampunk relies on the tropes set forth in film, books, and even in our own imaginations. For example, Victorian “politeness” could absolutely be used to be exceptionally rude to someone. Similarly, Victorians wore more colors than black and brown, they urinated in the streets, and I can assure you that they did not poop ice cream. One of the most commonly perceived tropes in Victorian science fiction — namely, steam power — is mostly absent. We just think it was there, because we’ve been conditioned to think that. During the Victorian era, no one really got excited about steam power because it was all around them! They had grown accustomed to the train and steam ship. Instead, they fantasized about electricity and chemicals and time travel.
The Victorians (some of them, at least), had a code of conduct that they were expected to conform to, but to call it “polite” is really giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can assure you that many Londoners were quite rude!
3.- Steampunk jewelry!
Q.- As you know, most of our jewelry has been inspired by Steampunk and this series of brief interviews is one of our initiatives to go further in this field. From your point of view, which influences should Steampunk jewelry have?
AS.- Personally, I love Steampunk jewelry that has moving parts. I think motion is really key to Steampunk technology, because it’s the one thing that really sets it apart from modern technology. Our cell phones, our computers, and all of our gadgets don’t have any moving parts on the outside! They’re all sealed inside hard cases! So the movement of the steam engine, with gears and flywheels, and mechanical action, is really the heart of Steampunk for me.
Beyond that, the real essence of the Victorian era aesthetic was intricacy. They loved patterns, designs, and all kinds of detailed things. It was the opposite of today’s minimalist iStyle, and while I don’t think Steampunk needs to be historically accurate, I think that capturing the essence of that intricacy is a great way to make compelling Steampunk jewelry.
Q.- We know this can be risky, but… Would you dare to describe Steampunk jewelry with a single word?
AS.- You’re asking a notoriously long-winded fellow to describe something in one word? Hrm. How about “anachronistic”?
Q.- It seems that people tend to think nothing else but copper, leather and watch movements when someone talks about Steampunk jewelry. We found your brilliant article ‘Plastic? Steampunks Don’t Use Plastic! But Wait… Victorians Most Certainly Did’ very illustrative. Which materials would suit Steampunk jewelry from your point of view?
AS.- Practically any materials are fine for Steampunk jewelry. We’re not trying to be historically accurate, so everything is up for grabs! If you want it to be recognizably Steampunk, you should probably stick to the brass/copper/leather/blahblahblah stuff, but I encourage everyone to try to push the envelope! That’s what we did with our Nerfpunk group, because we were tired of everyone thinking that Steampunk had to be black and brown. Most Steampunk is, but it doesn’t have to be! It can be whatever colors you want. Like I said earlier, Steampunk is still evolving. Push the boundaries! Make people uncomfortable! Above all else, have fun!
Q.- You have spoken about ‘How To Find Inspiration For Your Steampunk Projects’. What challenges do you think Steampunk jewelry designers face?
AS.- As I’m not a Steampunk jewelry designer, I’m not entirely sure! Personally, the problems that I face are making unique things. Finding ground that hasn’t already been trod is getting increasingly difficult! I like to make things that make an impact, you know? That people look at, and say, wow! Or that gets a laugh, or even just looks cool. I’m one of those people who isn’t content doing the same thing that everyone else is, so I’m constantly trying to come up with new ideas. It isn’t easy.
I suspect, however, that finding a market willing to buy their products is probably the biggest challenge for a Steampunk jewelry designer. I don’t know anyone who works in Steampunk that’s tripping over their piles of money, but I know plenty of people who wish they were. I wish you luck!
Q.- Do you miss anything when you try to find Steampunk jewelry?
AS.- Yeah, I find that I’m not usually in the market for Steampunk jewelry, because, as I said, I try to always find something cool and new to be doing. By the time a piece of jewelry gets to the commercial stage where I could buy it, it’s already old! As a result, I make pretty much all of my props and accessories by hand, or commission someone to make them just for me. I’m lucky that I have the time and resources to be able to do that, but not everyone can. I think it’s great when people buy Steampunk jewelry, because it keeps the makers afloat! I try to buy things every now and then, even when I could make it myself, in order to support the artists that I like. Remember, people: if you don’t support them, they will go away!
Q.- Is there too much glue and resin in the market? Is there a place for Steampunk fine jewelry?
AS.- Only when the glue and resin is done badly! As a maker, I use glue all the time. It’s great. I try to avoid it when I can because it isn’t the sturdiest connection, but when I have to use it, I have no qualms about it whatsoever. So, I have no hate for glue or resin. That said, resin will never be metal, or glass, or wood, and the real materials have a certain feeling about them that makes them more attractive to me.
I absolutely think there’s a place for Steampunk fine jewelry! I love fine jewelry, and so does my wife!
Q.- Do you think men’s jewelry should receive more attention?
AS.- As a man, my answer is yes. I caution you, though, that I may be biased.
Q.- Many thanks for your time Austin, is there anything else you would like to add?
AS.- Just that if anyone wants to follow what I’m up to, you can either friend me on Facebook (I don’t have a fan page, because I think that would be kind of pretentious of me), or join the Facebook group I moderate, Steampunk Revolution. Thanks for having me! Oh, and I love your planchettes!
* All images belong to their original authors.
Disclaimer.- The opinions or statements expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Decimononic.
4.- Next interviewee!
On the 15th of December we are publishing the interview for Gretchen Jacobsen, aka Wilhelmina Frame. She is a freelance producer, award-winning costumer, prolific crafter and frequent convention panelist; her alter-ego, Ms. Frame, Editrix de Mode for Steampunk Chronicle and Part Time Lion Tamer, travels the globe in pursuit of adventure and style. When not in the circus ring with Rajah, her tiger and the rest of her “Kitten Kabal” (seven lions, three cheetahs and a rather droll panther), Ms. Frame can be seen at the most fabulous parties, in the latest fashions, sparkling with wit in conversation. In addition, she is the founder and Tiffin Master of The American Tea Duelling Society. [Photo credit: RBC Image]
Remember that all the published interviews are available for your delight: ‘Steampunk jewelry tonight with…’ the brief interviews series by Decimononic.