Culture Undiscovered: Steampunk Art: Reimagining the Past

Last month, I visited an exhibit featuring Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s steampunk inspired book, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel. This week, I got to see steampunk’s sci-fi update of Victorian aesthetics at Alwun House’s Intertemporalist Steampunk Exposition. Alwun House is a fitting home for the exposition, as it’s no stranger to Downtown Phoenix’s whimsical side — the 102-year-old house was Phoenix’s first art gallery, and has housed everything from multimedia theatre production “Games I’ve Played While Waiting for the Messiah” to Baba Don Gong meditations.

Their steampunk exposition will be on display until May 4; admission is free, and it features clocks, guitars, computers, televisions and more, all reimagined from a perspective that’s part Victorian and part alien space technology. While this may seem like an unlikely combination, the magic of steampunk lies in its ability to blend the two in a way that’s just believable enough to convince readers to rewrite history — albeit in a more fantastical fashion.

Edward Schenk’s Steampunk Airship. Photo courtesy of phoenixnewtimes.com.

Take, for example, Steve Gompf’s televisors, which are the earliest precursors to television. Each televisor features a tiny, round screen surrounded by elaborately restored antique furniture. Their screens usually play loops from old Eadweard Muybridge footage (nightmarish images of animals running in slow motion figure heavily in his work), and many of them also use music and sound. Overall, the effect is startling — just off enough to place it firmly in the realm of steampunk artwork, but also weirdly convincing. It’s not so much the inherent believability of the piece’s back-story as it is the Victorian Era’s hopeful, newly minted obsession with technological innovation that makes the televisor a fake antique that you can almost get real-life nostalgic for.

Edward Schenk’s creations are also currently on display at Alwun House, among them a “Steampunk Airship,” complete with a blimp and cloth sails to catch the wind. Schenk’s work has a sense of humor — among the Victorian “artifacts” that he’s created are the Teslatta, a steampunk-inspired lava lamp, and the S.S. Harley Davidson, a spacecraft sponsored by what Schenk predicts to be “one of the few corporations left in fifty years.” His wares are pricey: the Airship is currently priced at $3500, the Teslatta $1200, but admission to Alwun House’s exposition is free!

You may have missed opening night’s saloon girls and rattlesnake whiskey punch, but yet to come is the Planet Poe Steampunk Show on May 4, “An unparalleled excursion through space and time.” The show will feature dramatic readings of some of Poe’s weirder stories (and for Poe that’s saying a lot), paying special attention to ones with science fiction leanings. The show is one time only, and closes the exposition. What better way to conclude your romp through the yesteryear that never was than by hearing the story of history’s first celebrity turned cyborg?

Email me at jlpruett@asu.edu.