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Steampunk, the wholesome counterculture

I went to the Hand Car Regatta recently. From the description on their website, it is:

“The Great West End & Railroad Square Handcar Regatta & Exposition of Mechanical & Artistic Wonders!

A Splendid Celebration of Art, Science and Ingenuity, for the Delight and Edification of all who attend.”

But you can’t do better than watching their Flickr stream if you want to get a taste of it (other than being there, that is):

The Regatta, at it’s essence, is a race of home-built, people powered railroad cars. But it is far more than that. It is also a street fair with food and drink and music. But most of all, it is a gathering of that most eclectic and indefatigable phenomenon called Steam Punk.

Steampunk, for those in still living in the actual Victorian age, is an artistic movement comprised of art and literature that embellishes a more ornate and less technologically advanced era when steam technology was ubiquitous, and style heavily imbued upon person and machine.

Writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells did well to imagine from their own steam driven era (well OK, Wells was on the edge) a more fantastic future for technology. Long after these dreams were replaced by a world of plastic encased microchips, literature once again turned back to less sophisticated, more beautiful imaginings. In the 1980s the term steampunk was coined to describe this new sub-genre of fiction. In the last few decades, steampunk has grown further to incorporate fashion and sculpture as living embodiments of the artistic ideal.

But why call it counterculture?

After attending this year’s regatta, I wouldn’t call it anything but. Steampunk is not just subculture. It is stylistically embedded within a completely different paradigm of art and history, and longs to make those dreams reality. From steam powered bicycles to multi-ton mobile Victorian houses, steampunk embodies an essence of DIY through apocalyptic times. It is roguish and survivalist, and beautiful.

Beyond this though, steampunk is wholesome. In a family oriented sort of way. Despite its red-hot boiler chambers and dusty appearance, it is not exclusive in any way. Going to the Regatta is like mooring one’s airship to a world port, and jumping down to find kids and shops and analog music ringing through the air. There are dignitaries is splendid attire, and there are poor unfortunates clad only in t-shirts and tennis-shoes. But unlike the punk scene (as best I recall it), there is no aggression. Unlike the goth scene, there is no social anxiety driven piety. There are only people and works of art, both of which on many occasion are artifacts of particular pulchritude, neither of which stand in opposition to the lack luster world, other than, perhaps, in being far more appealing to the senses.

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