The steampunk sensation

Last updated 09:00 23/05/2011

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Oamaru is best known for its blue penguins, Victorian heritage and spectacular architecture. But a new phenomenon is taking the town by storm and putting it on the map. Rosa Studholme reports.

Imagine yourself 100 years ago – before plastic, electricity and automobiles – and try to picture how you would have imagined the world in the future.

Think steam power, cogs, Victorian garb, copper and brass.

Now think who your science-fiction character might be. Are you able to fly? Can you save the universe from annihilation using your Saboteur 66 Ultra-Wave Equaliser ray gun?

Consider what they would be wearing. Moon boots that can cause a person to take off into space and beyond?

Wherever your mind has gone now, it has entered the world of steampunk.

Steampunk, described as Victorian science fiction in the present day, has found a niche in the eccentric streak that Oamaru is becoming fondly known for.

It started with an adapted beer mug that lead to a craze that's been putting the town on the map.

Jeweller Iain Clark – also a captain in Oamaru's brightly-festooned military, Alf's Imperial Army – was celebrating at a victory dinner one night. Not to be outdone by his comrades, he brought with him a mug embellished with all manner of gadgets.

Unbeknown to him, he had started the steampunk fad.

Out of the discovery, the League of Victorian Imagineers was born – a small group of enthusiasts that is leading the charge in stamping Oamaru's name as the steampunk capital of New Zealand.

Member Helen Jansen said after brainstorming ideas, the group approached Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations Committee chair Sally Hope about holding an exhibition.

"It was only meant to be a small exhibition in the community gallery ... [but] Sally sat there and listened. Her brain was going off into all sorts of opportunities.

"She saw how relevant and engaging it could be for the community."

Clark's mug had started a revolution.

"The response that beer mug got from people that saw it ... you saw all their creativity spilling out.

"There were other people saying `I've got all this stuff in my shed'."

The sub-genre, or alternate history, came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Although many works now considered steampunk were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term originated in the late 1980s as a tongue-in-cheek variant of cyberpunk, coined by science fiction author KW Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for his works, and those by Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

The authors' stories took place in a 19th century setting and imitated the speculative fiction of HG Wells' The Time Machine.

Jansen believes its origins go even further back, right to the Victorian era itself with authors Wells and Jules Verne.

It now has a place in mainstream modern culture.

Most recently, the BBC series Doctor Who incorporated steampunk elements in the design of the doctor's time machine, the Tardis. Its interior was re-designed to resemble a Victorian-esque library, with a control console made up of eclectic and anachronistic objects.

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From October 2009 through February 2010, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, England hosted the first major exhibition of steampunk art objects, curated by Art Donovan. It attracted more than 80,000 visitors.

To help boost the Oamaru Steampunk project, Clark called on a friend who could give it some drive – Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor, for whom he had made a ring.

Clark and an associate presented Taylor with a tiny USB stick that held within it a cry for help.

"The Victorian dimension is being attacked by aliens. We need your help," it pleaded.

Taylor answered the call and added his might to the exhibition launch, contributing, among other things, some popular Dr Grordbort ray guns.

"We ended up filling the front of the gallery," Jansen said.

That was the first Oamaru had seen of steampunk – and it liked it.

Farmers took to their sheds to rustle up some gadgets, pulling apart old machinery and collecting bits, she said.

Steampunk appealed to the "Kiwi No8 wire" mentality.

Local construction entrepreneur Brian de Geest and some associates got on board, creating an impressive Steampunk tractor and train that graced the main street.

"What people really liked was the size and the ridiculousness of them," Jansen said.

"We've always made steampunk quirky and fun. It's all about the fun and creativity and humour."

To keep momentum behind the movement, the Imagineers began planning the Steampunk Fashion Show and Gala Ball. It had its inaugural event last year, attracting people from a wide spectrum of the community.

This year Grey Power has joined the fad, booking a table for next month's event.

"So we've got seven-year-olds to 70-year-olds and everything in between," Jansen said.

There are five categories: Eveningwear, adventurer/explorer, scientist/inventor, workingwear and children.

This year's judges are Heather Paterson, who was behind the Hokonui Fashion Show, and Warren and Kim Beaton from Weta Workshops.

"We've got these high-powered judges who really know about creativity and art."

Paterson brought in the fashion side of it, while the Beatons contributed creative expertise, Jansen said.

But fashion was not the important feature of the garment, it was how effective the "gadget-ation" was on the outfit.

"If you've got cogs and a feather, they might look good, but what are they for? They've got to be functional and support the character."

Enthusiasm seeps from Damien McNamara when he speaks about his Steampunk Libratory gallery.

It is located on the first floor of the Woolstore heritage building in Oamaru's historic precinct, providing a place for Oamaru's creative Steampunkers to have somewhere to display their inventions year-round.

"You may as well make use of the time and effort you are putting into it," McNamara said.

He opened the gallery in November last year and has plans to expand it.

He loves the wide scope of imagination in Steampunk.

"What you see in there is what you imagined.

"The idea I like about it is that it has to be useful."

Steampunk has brought record numbers flocking to Oamaru's Forrester Gallery, increasing its usual visitor number from 18,000 a year to up to 26,000 last year.

In 2010, the exhibition alone attracted 11,500 visitors.

Gallery director Warwick Smith said it was almost more than the gallery's resources could handle.

"It really, for us, grew out of what was going to be a small community gallery exhibition, which just snowballed.

"It brought people who would never dream of coming to an art gallery.

"Long may it continue."

Contributions from Weta Workshops had been a drawcard, he said.

"In some ways it was so appropriate given Oamaru's Victorian heritage.

"We were there at the right place at the right time."

Waitaki mayor Alex Familton says Steampunk has "touched a chord of creativity with a wide group of people" in the community.

"There's quite a large group involved and they've put together some quite striking exhibits but many other bits and pieces as well.

"It's involved a whole cross-section of the community ... and it really pulled in a huge crowd when [the Forrester Gallery] put on a display.

"I see it as having a great future and a very valuable association for the town."

Familton said Steampunk had gelled with Oamaru's character.

"There's a range of creative characters in our town and they are prepared to have a bit of fun and have a go at things."

There was no doubt it had attracted tourists.

"That [tractor] engine attracted more photographs than any other item I've seen in the district."

He said his personal dabbling in the movement had so far gone as far as "being interested in participating".

The Imagineers realise steampunk is taking on a life of its own and they hope local people will participate to help it grow.

Jansen said it had given locals a sense of identity.

"[It] showed people that outside people are interested. We had people coming to town because of it. It's the largeness of it. It's the beyond-bigger-than-life factor about it."

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