In 2010 a family of four sold their charming little condo in the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of University Heights. With the money they bought a stripped out house in East San Diego previously owned by human smugglers. Their goal was a radical change in lifestyle that would allow DIY Makerism, self reliance, alternative technology, permaculture, and urban homesteading into their lives in ways their HOA would have never allowed. The ideas that lead them to take this plunge came from the steampunk movement as it was during a brief shining period when art and philosophy seemed at least as important as brass, and great essays, speeches, and letters were written. These days they don't worry so much about what people call "steampunk." They call what they're doing the Greyshade Estate.

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Divided Heart of an Agrarian Steampunk DJ

I wrote this piece for a webzine called Aether Magazine last summer. The premiere issue was themed "Steampunk's Divided Heart." Unfortunately the project seems not to have panned out.

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Abney Park at the Edison 8 May 2008
From the right: Chromatic Theory, S. Sprocket, The Anachronist, and the author

 I first became aware of steampunk’s transition from an obscure subgenre of science fiction into an intellectual and artistic explosion in early 2007. A friend told me about a new Internet forum he was on called Brass Goggles. He was known by the screen name “Anachronist” on the forum. Anachronist, his girlfriend, my wife and I became the first group of steampunks in San Diego. There were a few other people in town but they repeatedly stood us up when we tried to hang out.

Anachronist and I grew magnificent facial hair, took to wearing braces and bowler hats and waistcoasts. The four of us spent a lot of time talking about the ideas we read about, and the things that were going on hundreds of miles away. This was before steampunk conventions. Steampunk was a presence at the Burning Man festival. Steampunk Magazine was brand new. Abney Park had done a steampunk photo shoot but their albums were still straight-forward goth. Raspuntina seemed to fit the bill better with their album “Oh Perilous World,” as did the Dresden Dolls, and of course there was Dr Steel. Steampunk was a presence at Maker Faire also and Makers and steampunks shared a philosophical base in DIY and a pragmatic user serviceable technology. A few brave souls put together steampunk costumes for sci-fi conventions and confused their fellow nerds, but most of the world’s scattered steampunks just worked the style into their daily wear. There were so few events going on that if you didn’t dress steampunk to just out and about you never would dress steampunk at all.

 Despite how physically isolated many of us were it was an exciting time. We were very aware that this was the start of something. What the nature of that something was, was the topic of countless debates on Brass Goggles, and in those days everyone was on Brass Goggles. It was the steampunk community. The Makers were the high status rock stars of the forum with musicians running a close second. It was out those debates that a steampunk philosophy, or a least a few generally agreed on values emerged. Making things was always better than buying them. Making things that did something and looked awesome at the same time was the ultimate in cool. There was some kind of dissatisfaction going on with how technological history had played out in the real world. Some people just thought it was ugly and plain. Others hated the way it couldn’t be modified. Others were very uncomfortable with how dependent we were on a vulnerable high tech infrastructure that we could not control. This later point was sometimes tied to the depletion of oil.

By 2008 some of these ideas made it into print. One of the most thought provoking was Johnny Payphone’s Open Letter to Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer, from Steampunk Magazine number 4. It was a full of intellectual gems but the passage that stuck in my mind the most was this one: “To me, living a steampunk self-reliant life of minimal technology is about preparation for those possibilities. I don’t want to survive an earthquake only to die because I don’t know how to grow corn, or fix a generator, or suture. And thus I only involve user-serviceable technologies in my life.” I thought about this passage and all the other philosophical bits by the steampunk thinkers deeply. I came to the conclusion that as a steampunk I should always be learning new skills, and finding new ways stretch myself as a Maker. Also while making things look cool and brassy was great, the practical steampunk goal was to be in control of the technology I used. Within that goal, the technologies I most depended on were the ones I needed to know the most about, for example, food production.

By the spring of 2008 we had more to do than read and discuss philosophy. Abney Park released Lost Horizons at a Bar Sinister show in LA. The Edison bar opened up. The four of us took the name Machina Fatalis Steampunk Social Club. The idea was simply that if we said Machina Fatalis was putting together an event it would seem like a bigger deal and people might not stand us up. It worked. In the aftermath of Comic-Con international’s first steampunk met up Machina Fatalis put on a host of events, culminating in the launch of Chrononaut a steampunk club night. Chrononaut hosted two dozen steampunk parties from 2009-2011, making it one of the most successful steampunk clubs in the Western US. Prior to Chrononaut, I had no real experince as a DJ or an MC or planning musical event, but as a steampunk I was always up for learning new skills.

 By the time Chrononaut was underway Anachronist was dropping out of steampunk. The beginning of the end for him was when someone spray-painted a Nerf Maverick and posted it to Brass Goggles the first time. For us steampunk was a subcultural style and value system. We weren’t cosplayers. We were aware that steampunk cosplay was becoming more popular but until that poorly painted Nerf gun, the cosplayers seemed to want to match the craftsmanship of the other Makers. Anachronist took it as proof that the movement would soon descend into total superficiality. I figured that steampunk could survive a few cheap and easy props, especially in a city with asuccessful steampunk club night. Music could unite the costume and lifestyle people. Surely there was room for both.

Chrononaut changed over time. The crowd got older and more indifferent to the music. We started with a few vendors but they became an uncontrollable flood. In many ways the club died one night in 2010 although I was too busy spinning tunes to notice. A friend of mine decided to check the night out. He’s a starving music student but he put together a decent outfit, a three piece “suit” of coordinating but not matching tweed. I thought he looked quite dapper. During the night someone looked him over and asked. “What do you call that? Steamprole?” He never came back.

All this time my wife, two boys and I were packed into a 750 square foot condo. We were making the small things we could, sewing when we could find space and trying to grow herbs on a north-facing balcony. This was not even close to the lifestyle that steampunk inspired us to. We’d been reading about low-tech self reliance movements and were increasingly seeing a confluence of ideas that steampunk was only one aspect of. We came across ideas like homesteading, permaculture, and finally urban homesteading. During a day of idyll web surfing I found something startling. The housing market had shifted so much that it was possible for us sell our condo and buy a house. It turned out to be a far more difficult process than we thought, but we bought an extreme fixer on a large but barren urban lot. We named it, not without satire, the Greyshade Estate. Before it was even fit for human habitation I started a blog and wrote a mission statement on what we were trying to do.

Powerful people started to notice steampunk. People in the inner circle of sci-fi fandom decided to put on a steampunk convention despite the fact that some of them disliked steampunk as a genre. A wealthy promoter decided that steampunk was the next big thing in music. By the end of 2011 Chrononaut, as a monthly event, had died an extremely ugly death, at the hands of greedy venue owners. People who insist that steampunk fit the mold that of other “fandoms” that have gone before it, run our local convention, and reject more philosophic panel topics. If I were a wise man I would walk away from steampunk. I don’t enjoy science fiction conventions much anymore, steampunk or otherwise. I show up in the clothes I wear everyday and get accosted by vendors trying to accessorize the "newbie." I’ve had well-intentioned people shove props in my hand for photo shoots out of pity. I try to explain that I don’t need these things because I’m not in costume but I might as well be speaking another language. From the local scene I get two messages over and over. “Please start Chrononaut up again,” and urban homesteading isn’t steampunk.”

Yes if I were wise I would just walk away, but its not quite that simple. Steampunk is like song that’s stuck in my head. In fact, it’s like a playlist of thousands of songs. It has literally changed my life. It colors every technological and aesthetic choice I make. Part of me wants to say: “We threw some good parties, we became urban homesteaders and it is a healthier saner life choice. Move on now.” I’m not sure its really possible to move on when something has gotten that far under your skin. Then there is this other thing going on with me and steampunk. That mission statement/manifesto thing I wrote has gotten over five thousand hits. In fact the monthly hits on my blog have been going up so fast they’re starting to make me dizzy. I’m finding references to my blog all over Internet. Maybe I’ve come full circle. Maybe I’m that steampunk philosopher on the web that inspires others, maybe not.

All I know is that I love steampunk, no matter how much it hurts.

2 comments:

  1. I like the look of how some of these people dress "steampunk" but could not understand the purpose of doing so. NOW with your article at least I know, even tho many are doing as cosplayers only. For years my husband and I have talked about living off the grid and being more self-reliant, so this really hit home. Thanks.

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  2. I wrote this maybe eight months ago. Now I find it a little self pitying. I don't want to be this bitter and angry anymore and I making a sincere effort not to be. Its still an accurate account of what happened from my point of view. "Steampunk" is a word. A rather silly one honestly. Like all words its meaning shifts over time. The speed at which the meaning shifts and the fact that it never had, and probably never should have, a clear cut definition creates a lot of confusion and resentment. It doesn't stop me from doing what I'm doing though.

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