1.- The interviewee
As announced in the previous interview with Hilde Heyvaert, Diana M. Pho (better known as Ay-leen the Peacemaker) is our February interviewee. She is the founding editor of the award-winning multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, a blogger for Tor.com, and a current graduate student in Performance Studies at New York University. Her academic work can be found in the books The Steampunk Bible, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, Steampunk Magazine Anthology #1-7, and the upcoming academic anthology Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style from SUNY Press.
2.- The Interview
First of all, Diana, we want to thank you for accepting our interview proposal. We have been readers of your blog Beyond Victoriana’s for a long time and this is the reason why we have thought about you. When talking about Steampunk jewelry most members of the SP community, such as fashion designers or photographers, would probably bring aesthetics into focus. However, you can offer to the Steampunk community a wider view.
Q.- This said, what’s Steampunk jewelry for you?
A.- Thanks for having me here, Jose! It’s a pleasure to hear from readers of the blog, especially those who are looking to explore the more complicated issues that arise with steampunk style.
“What is steampunk jewelry?” is a big question, but I think I should expand it to address that that bigger question first: “How do you define steampunk?” To me, steampunk is defined on two levels: as a style and as a method (yes, I think steampunk can be – and should be – considered a verb, and I’ll get into that a bit more later). As a style, steampunk is “19th-century inspired science fiction and fantasy.”
And so, I’m pretty open about what “steampunk jewelry” would be. It could be historically-based or imaginatively constructed, and I don’t believe that you necessarily need to “stick a gear on it” in order for it to be considered steampunk jewelry. What makes jewelry steampunk, in my opinion, is to somehow connect that object to the relationship between that society and technology – with a dash of the fantastic, of course. Clockwork mechanisms can be used as cultural signifiers, but pieces that have interlocking or moveable parts, materials that evoke a tactile mechanized age (it could be actual metal, or metal-toned, in my opinion, but can also be wooden, or woven or otherwise). Also, I’m in the camp that steampunk art doesn’t equal functional art (I know there’s many who disagree), and the same goes with jewelry. The most important aspect, though, is that the piece has to be evocative of the 19th century.
Q.- You have been invited to participate as panelist in the next TempleCon and one of your pannels asks a big question: ‘Culture Shocks: Is Steampunk Really A Subculture?’ This a key question for us, indeed we have recently published a blog post entitled ‘Steampunk raison d’être: it’s all about values’. Insisting in the importance of values and cultural factors, which relevance can they have when choosing jewels? What can you tell us about the roles mass media, consumerism and style play in defining the concept of Steampunk and its aesthetics?
A.- I just had TempleCon this weekend, and it was a big success! A shoutout to the organizers for pulling off a fantastic convention, and to my fellow co-panelists who helped me out.
I won’t go into too much detail about how all of these aspects play a role in the formation of the steampunk aesthetic (that’s what my current research is on, and it’s way too large to explain in an interview!) but I will point out some observations I’ve made about steampunk “values”.
You point out in your article the Birmingham school’s definition of subculture, which states that subculture is a reactionary “unnatural break” (to use Dick Hebdige’s famous phrase), and that researchers like him and others were intrigued by the punk ideology’s relationship to deviancy. Hebdige ultimately argues, however, how deviant subcultures become eventually subsumed back to society, as mass media and commercialization assimilate and reabsorb the subculture in its attempts to understand it through mass media, and capitalize on it through consumerism.
According to his theory, media impact is also an inevitable aspect toward reabsorbing a subculture into the mainstream, but it is also shows how the media is in a constant reciprocal communication with the subculture: mass media influences how a subculture is seen by outsiders, including those who eventually enter the subculture itself. This you see already in the steampunk community. For example, the catchphrase that “steampunk is when Goths discovered brown.” The quote is attributed to Jess Nevins, a sci-fi scholar, but the steampunk author Cherie Priest would quote him in her interviews, and suddenly all of the news sources spout this as if the phrase is made of gold (or, in this case, brass) and newcomers and outsiders alike see it as a common joke in their understanding of steampunk. But that stereotype about steampunk would’ve never happened it if wasn’t for the soundbite that the media couldn’t resist.
Moreso than that, you can’t assume that subculture exists in a complete vacuum to larger society – it is reactionary, after all. What Hebdige argues that I do not agree with, however, is the eventual docility of the subculture as it is “tamed” by the dominant culture.
The Birmingham school is very fascinated by the radicalization (and de-radicalization) of subcultures, but I’d also throw in the Chicago School for Sociology’s understanding of subculture, which states that subculture is a reaction to address a prevailing problem. If you look at steampunk from this perspective, especially with its Maker influences, the common understanding among steampunks is that mass consumerism and a sense of an aesthetic and creative void in everyday life are the “problems” they are reacting too. Both perspectives are interesting, but they are also lacking with that where I see subculture progressing today, especially in steampunk. Both of them focus on the deviancy of subculture, which I think plays a role in the participant appeal of steampunk in North America. As a community as a whole though, North American steampunks are NOT as deviant as they would like to think they are.
Additionally, I would argue that steampunk not is seen as inherently subversive or radically political (and remember, folks, this is coming from someone who does use steampunk politically, so I’m not condemning people who are also political activists and radicals in steam). The issue I have is that people tend to conflate subculture with counterculture, and attribute this myth of inherent deviancy in steampunk to their understanding of the subculture. Steampunk (at least how it exists in North America) is not a counter-culture movement whatsoever. The style is unconventional from the modern day, but the motivations for the aesthetic fit into the same cultural pattern of Anglophilia and the North American fascination with the frontier story.
On the other hand, however, steampunk, as an “empty” aesthetic vehicle (so argues Mike Perschon in his definition of steampunk) has the potential for politicalization. I’d push his argument further, however, in saying that steampunk is not just an empty aesthetic waiting to be filled, but steampunk aesthetic has to be performed in order for it to acquire meaning and that meaning always has sociopolitical ramifications. Steampunk subculture is a remix culture in its conception, taking bits and pieces from history, art, speculative fiction, and twists it together for an intertextual, ironic result. But these gestures are not meant to be “empty” in the sense that it has no political or cultural meaning (as postmodern theorist Fredric Jameson would argue in his understanding of pastiche), but that meaning is open to reinterpretation in ironical ways that is ultimately political (as what theorist Linda Hutchinson argues in her understanding of the postmodern as parody).
By saying “performed aesthetic,” I’m not saying that we are all theater actors, but all of us perform: that is, construct ourselves in ways that always signify some sort of message to the greater world. We do it in everyday life as it is: each of us has “masks” or “roles” that we take on depending on where we are and who we are with. And for steampunk, performance happens in large and small ways: whether you are a musician, and artist, a writer, a cosplayer, or a simple fan who likes to read the books or wear the clothes. Every person is applying the aesthetic onto something (whether to a book, an artform, their bodies, or their worldview) and that application is the performance. Thus, by defining the steampunk style as a performed aesthetic, it classifies the style as an enabler, a tool for participants to use in engagement with others, and that a person’s use of the aesthetic has direct political and social consequences that must be taken into consideration as well.
Geez, long answer is long.
Q.- What challenges do you think Steampunk jewelry designers face? Is there a place for Steampunk fine jewelry?
A.- Challenges in the steampunk world? As creative artists? Or as producers in a consumer market? Well, I don’t think the first is very much an issue, if an artist is looking to present their work in the community. Artistically, I can’t comment on since I’m not a jewelry-maker myself, aside from a concern about where steampunk jewelers would take their inspiration from (more on that below).
So while the greatest challenge isn’t in the community or as an artist as much as the monetary expectations. We’re a niche community and a DIY community, and in general, people are very supportive of the arts in steampunk. An unfortunate result of people’s perception of “what makes an artist?”, however, is the assumption that art = capital, or that good art “should” earn money. And thus, what you get is a ton of artists trying to sell their goods and over-saturating a limited market. Sure, one of the “perks” of steampunk “going mainstream” is the opportunity for artists and crafters to earn income through their work, but I actually think this mindset goes against the original DIY ethics of the community and threatens to reduce the community ethics to shallow materialism and “looking shiny.”
Part of steampunk’s nascent ideology involves reclaiming the title of artist for the common person. In today’s society, the word “artist” has become so specialized as an occupation that people don’t consider their creative works as art or themselves as creative producers. But steampunk is one of the many areas in culture where that mindset is changing.
So I think the greatest challenge for steampunk jewelry designers is to realize that 1) you have a niche market and 2) while many steampunks like to buy things, many are also thinking that they can make those pieces themselves. And that mindset should be okay too.
That being said, there can be a space for steampunk fine jewelry, but jewelry designers shouldn’t go into the aesthetic hoping to get rich quick by selling steampunk things. That just reduces the types of creative relationships that artists can have in the community.
Q.- We are sure that crosscultural influences should become determining for the future of Steampunk. How do you think this is going to be reflected in the jewelry field? Perhaps should ethnic jewelry play a more important role?
A.- First of all, I’m hesitant to proclaim that the role of crosscultural jewelry will be a 100% positive thing, because that brings up the issue of cultural appropriation. Sure, we can have Native steampunk and African steampunk and Asian steampunk jewelry pieces (in fact, you get hundreds of choices just by looking up those keywords on etsy), but how many of those pieces help the cultural communities they are inspired by? Or would it be the case of outsiders profiting off of marginalized cultures?
I wear culturally-specific Buddhist jewelry myself, but it has personal and religious meaning to me that I wear in everyday life as well. I’d actually be hurt to see someone wear the same items but treat them as mere decoration.
Not to say that crosscultural jewelry isn’t possible, but designers should be VERY aware about what materials they are using, why they are using it, and if it is respectful use for those items to be worn by people outside of that culture.
Q.- I am particularly interested in the British Raj, there is no doubt that England and India influenced each other considerably. Have you found traces of this in the Steampunk scene? Do you think that the important role of jewelry in Indian society was reflected in any of the the victorian design trends?
A.- It’s true that Indian designs have influenced British fashion. Paisley print is just one example (though Paisley itself has a long history as an international textile). I don’t know, admittedly, much about the Indian history of jewelry, but I can recommend a really interesting book which talks about the cultural dynamics between Indians and the British and how it was reflected upon the body in terms of fashion and lifestyle: Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj.
Q.- We have some Queen Victoria Indian silver rupees, stuck under the authority of the crown. Although its numismatic value will fade away, we would like to pay tribute to these small pieces of History and some of them are becoming pendants. From your point of view, which role do antiquities play in this field?
Generally, before using any antiques in art, the questions I’d ask are always:
- Where did it come from & who used it? Always, always do some research and get any antique items assessed before incorporating them into your art. Something might be especially culturally rare or important, and in those cases they may be better to keep as a whole or not incorporate it into any jewelry piece.
- Would it be more ethical to return the item to the original people who owned it? In the past, there have been many cases where religious or culturally significant items have been lost, stolen or looted from their original communities (usually in the process of colonization or occupation by outside powers) and those items end up being “owned” by other people. And by returning, I don’t mean just handing it over to the first person of that culture you see, but donating it to a larger organization that promotes cultural awareness for that community, for example.
If those Indian rupees are ethically OK to use in light of those two questions, then I would have no problem with seeing them in fine jewelry.
Q.- You are a Russophile, that’s not a secret. Do you think that Slavic cultures are represented enough in the Steampunk scene?
A.- I’m surprised you know, actually, since I don’t mention it very often in online spaces: I studied English/Russian in school, speak (admittedly, bad) Russian, and lived abroad in Moscow for a time, so yes. I am a bit of a Russophile. But I would not state that I am a representative to speak about Russian culture at all. There is a HUGE Russian steampunk community, actually, and I think they represent themselves rather well. I also know several American steampunks with Russian or Slavic ancestry, who had done creative things with their work and designers who use the cultural markers rather well.
Q.- As you know, the jewelry heritage of the Imperial Family was spectacular. Could court jewelers such as Fabergé or Bolin that evoke the grandeur and sublime taste of the Romanov Dinasty, inspire Steampunk jewelers?
A.- They could, of course, and then consider the French influences that also is linked to Russian imperial art and jewelry. The Russian nobles took a lot of artistic influences from Europe in general, but French and Italian (as with the construction of St. Petersburg) in particular. I’d also suggest looking into Russian amber, which is very common in Russian jewelry (and, in connection, the history of the Amber Room), and in Russian lacquer art.
Q.- Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was a well-known jewelry collector. Do you think that jewelry for men may recover the importance that it had in other periods of History?
A.- Men’s fashions in steampunk are more elaborate in comparison with what they had been in the past; starting in the 1700s there has been a turn in Western fashion towards more “modest” styles of dress for men (with the exception of subcultures, of course, like dandyism) that have continued until today. With the amount of baubles, trinkets and tools that steampunks carry around in general, I think it’s possible to look into men’s steampunk fashion as being more open to accessories than in mainstream fashions.
Q.- Historical events like the ‘Opium Wars’ are amazing inspiration sources to lay the ground for Steampunk. Irene and I visited China in 2011 and I have been fond of Asia for years. The Chinese saying goes “Gold has a value; jade is invaluable”; jade stands for beauty, grace and purity and is believed to protect the person who wears it. We have in mind some ideas using carved jade, but we do not aspire to imitate Eastern cultures… what can you tell us about Orientalism and cultural appropriation? Can this become relevant with reference to the Steampunk concept and style? What about jewelry?
A.- First of all, please don’t, don’t, DON’T refer to wars that promoted the cultural destruction and social upheaval of an entire nation by a foreign power WHO SMUGGLED DRUGS INTO A COUNTRY IN ORDER TO INCITE ITS POLITICAL RUIN as an “inspiration” for jewelry.
That is one of the symptoms of cultural appropriation, which very real painful histories of other people are blatantly ignored or disrespected, and it’s assumptions like that which GIVE the fashion industry a bad rap for being culturally insensitive and racist (though there is plenty of evidence that this happens often enough).
That being said, Asian materials can be used as inspirational sources, but also be aware that Western accessibility to Asian products has a fraught history, which was one of the main justifications for the colonization and strong-arming of Asian nations in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Orientalism, in a nutshell, is also connected to art and politics. Though people recognize it as a school of art, it was a school of art whose opportunities to create said art were established as a result of the conquering or subservience of other nations to the West. Some Orientalist artists were fantastic proto-ethnographers in their methods; others indulged in blatant stereotypes and fetishizing of the Other; even more artists never even traveled to the country they painted or wrote about, but fueled their imaginations of the “idea” (which was oftentimes biased and uninformed) about these “faraway lands where time stood still.” All of these aspects are prevalent in the school of Orientalist art, so I’m not condemning the school of art, but acknowledging the multiple paths that art took, which all were not necessarily good for non-Westerners. In fact, it was Edward Said who first proposed in his book Orientalism the cultural theory that art and media that reflect the stereotypes of a violent, hypersexualized, “barbaric” Other has direct political results where the West had justified the subjugation of other non-Western peoples using those stereotyped idea of the “inferior Other.”
Cultural appropriation is an entirely gray subject in general: how to define it, how it affects people, what we can do to prevent it. Heck, that’s why I have panels where we can discuss this very issue with folks! There are resources and discussions people can turn to in talking about the issue, and I’d particularly recommend Nisi Shawl’s work on cultural appropriation and her book on Writing the Other (which can also be applied in thinking about clothing & other arts, I think).
Q.- Diana, let me clarify something regarding my reference to the ‘Opium Wars’ in the previous question: we didn’t want to offend sensitivities or rise controversy. However, inspiration can arise even from the most abominable deeds, including war; I couldn’t help but remembering Pablo Picasso and his Guernica, even considering that this Spanish artist was not a ‘war artist‘. This said, I would like to add that Decimononic is not intended to be inspired by destruction; however, ‘Opium wars’ are just one example of Historical events of the Victorian era that can be of help to shape Steampunk accurately, a resource to minimize ‘eurocentrism’ or avoid obscurity… ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ as Mr. Santayana said. Anyway, as a cultural product Steampunk cannot remain on the margin of conflicts, don’t you think?
A.- There is a difference between paying tribute to history and ignoring the consequences of history when making art. Picasso was particularly touched by the horrors that had happened during the Spanish Civil War and “Guernica” is a tribute piece to the people who have suffered during those bombings.
Of course, I just wanted to make it *very* clear to readers the importance about being respectful to your subject in art. Gaining inspiration from something does not equal respect if that inspiration comes from a place of ignorance.
When looking at how steampunk can address various 19th century histories, then, I’d state here that this period was one of “fear and wonder.” It was the Age of Invention and the Age of Anxiety. It was the last moment before our current time when people trembled with excitement and trepidation about the future. Steampunk’d objects, in combining the speculative and the technical, are filled with the potential of creating wonderful things of beauty that comment upon how we see ourselves in the world. Especially in terms of fashion, the steampunk aesthetic priorities how people – using our hybrid bodies made up of the real and the imaginary, of science and art, of past and present – envision a better world, despite its flaws. This is part of the appeal of steampunk, I think: that engagement with beauty on a visceral and social level in all of its forms.
Q.- Is there anything else you would like to add?
A.- To sum up, I’d like to end with this reminder: as we explore the possibilities of steampunk jewelry – and using the steampunk style in general — we should also be conscious of the historical roots of our art, and even moreso, what messages we express when we incorporate it into our fashions.
Disclaimer.- The opinions or statements expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Decimononic.
3.- Next interviewee!
On the 15th of March, we are publishing the interview for Viveka Goyanes (aka Amoelbarroco, the meeting point of art and fashion design). As per her Tumblr profile… ‘Barrocker, crápula, delirium tremens, aesthete, dandybilly, a pirate´s song. Obsessed with Venice, past times, refinement and silent cinema (for example)’.
Remember that all the published interviews are available for your delight: ‘Steampunk jewelry tonight with…’ the brief interviews series by Decimononic.