By Titilayo Ngewnya
Brockton, MA – On September 10, “New Sole of the Old Machine: Steampunk Brockton, Reimagining the City of Shoes” opens at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass. Curated by Steampunk ReImagineer Bruce Rosenbaum, founder of ModVic, LLC, the exhibition features work by John Belli, Jim Bremer & Ruth Buffington, David Lang, Susan Montgomery, Janel Norris, Sam Ostroff, Bruce Rosenbaum and Michael Ulman. The show’s opening reception is this Sunday, September 11 from 2-5 p.m. Last month, Titilayo Ngwenya, the museum’s director of communications, interviewed Rosenbaum prior to the show’s opening.
TITILAYO NGWENYA: HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE STEAMPUNK?
BRUCE ROSENBAUM: For those who are new to Steampunk let me offer this simple math formula: History + Art + Technology = Steampunk. Steampunk started off as a subgenre of science fiction. It’s really a big “What if?” What if, people during the Victorian period or the industrial age had our modern technology? Steampunk is about combining and synthesizing opposites of past and present, of form and function, of art and science, even human and machine.
HOW DID YOU FIRST COME TO LOVE STEAMPUNK?
I was always interested in antiques which my mother thought was a bit odd—a 12-year-old into antiques and architectural salvage. My sisters still think that it’s odd, but I always had it in me—a connection to the past and an appreciation for how things are made.
HOW HAS ADVANCING TECHNOLOGY FUELED STEAMPUNK?
I think it’s become much more of a movement because of how people are looking at technology. These great leaps are happening, and we feel like there is a loss of control. When your clock broke, you could see how to fix it. You may not have known how exactly to fix it, but you could see that gear was not meshing right with that lever or whatever. We could view how the world worked. Now with our iPhones and our computers, if they break, we throw them away. There’s this loss of control. Steampunk is giving back that control. It’s giving you the visual and the tactile, because in this aesthetic, we are bringing the inside out. You’re seeing the guts. You’re seeing the mechanical, but then it’s also paired with our modern conveniences, so you can have the best of two worlds.
I DIDN’T REALIZE THERE WAS A WHOLE PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECT.
I think especially with millennials, there’s this whole reset of expectations now in terms of what is success. They’re looking at their parents who have a house, children, a dog, a picket fence. Because of the uncertainty in the economy and in their own lives, they’re not sure if they’re going to have that. So now it’s more about trying to find meaning in life and experiences, not in the material things. It’s going back and feeling connected to something real. And so again Steampunk is there for them, a tool to connect with the past.
FOR SOMETHING THAT SEEMS LIKE AN ODYSSEY FOR THE IMAGINATION, IT SOUNDS REALLY PRAGMATIC, USEFUL.
Most of us, as a limit of our imagination, just see what we’re looking at. We see a chair. We see a phone. But others, especially artists, are looking at it differently. They’re looking at the shape, and understanding the history and what that was. They’re looking at that object and trying to figure out a new use for it, a new purpose. It’s very liberating to look at an object that way and an incredible metaphor for our own lives. A lot of us feel obsolete, we feel like we’ve lost connection or meaning. How can we improve our own lives? Steampunk is an incredible means of self-improvement in terms of being able to adapt and change. There’s a thinking process and then the physical repurposing, actually taking something and figuring out how to reassemble it. It’s very powerful.
SO NOT JUST A PRACTICE OR A CREATIVE PROCESS?
It is a lifestyle, and it’s not like a cult or a religious type of thinking. It’s about creative problem solving. It’s called Janusian thinking. So Janusian comes from the roman god Janus pictured with two faces or heads going in opposite directions. The idea is that while you’re in the present, you’re simultaneously looking towards the future but also towards the past. I was taught about Janusian thinking and in terms of creative problem solving in marketing, but then it hit me as I started to go down the Steampunk art/design route–oh my god, this is the epitome of Janusian thinking. I’m combining past and present, form and function, art and science, human and machine. It’s all about the opposites. So Steampunk is creative problem solving, so if you get into this thinking it affects all parts of your life.
There’s actually a researcher, Albert Rothenberg. In the 1970s, he came up with Janusian thinking. He looked at inventors and problem solvers, in terms of the way that they thought to get to their solutions. He found that they weren’t linear thinkers. They weren’t looking at a problem and saying, “Here’s point A ‘problem’; here’s point B ‘solution.’ Draw a straight line you’re done.” That’s not the way its works. They were divergent thinkers, so they’re looking at two opposite solutions and figuring out a creative way to combine them, to synthesize them and come up with something new. So it’s not how we normally think. We are more linear thinkers. This is a very innovative way to problem solve.
SOUNDS LIKE A FASCINATING WORLD TO EXPLORE. HOW DO PEOPLE GET INTO STEAMPUNK?
“Well I know about a good Introduction to Steampunk Art and Design workshop (laughter). Seriously, I get that question a lot. The aesthetic has really been infecting more of our pop culture. You’re seeing it in literature, in movies, in TV. I think that’s how people start. They can’t explain why they like it. They just like it. Then people start collecting it. People start dressing. I love it when people get started in terms of having little things like gluing gears together and things like that, gears a sort of emblematic of the movement of the industrial period the gear was this incredible invention to make things work. But it goes much further than gluing gears on things. That’s just a start. You can be 6 years old and get started or you can be in your 80s. That’s the great thing about it, the diversity. From what we’ve seen from the conventions and the festivals, there’s a wide range of ages and ethnicities, and also of gender preferences. People are very tolerant.
SEEMS LIKE PEOPLE GRAVITATE TO THIS ALTERNATIVE GENRE. DO YOU THINK THAT AS IT BECOMES MORE MAINSTREAM THAT WILL POPULATION WILL CHANGE?
I think there are a lot of people who are bemoaning that fact. This is “our” movement. You get people like Justin Bieber who gets dressed up in a Steampunk outfit, and people get upset with that.
WHERE DO SEE THE FUTURE OF STEAMPUNK GOING?
Should you say retrofuture? (laughter)
YES, WHAT DO WE POSSIBLY HAVE TO LOOK BACK TO?
A lot of times people ask me “Is Steampunk a passing fad?” Once our love affair with the Victorian period goes away and Downtown Abbey goes away– I really think its going to endure on a couple of levels. Again that’s the core message of what I’m talking about the ability to adapt and be resilient. There is a piece we did for the Hotel Marlowe, a perfect example of taking a period object and imbuing it with beauty and meaning. We took one of the oldest scientific instruments on earth, an armillary, which is basically a planetary model system and brought it to a grand scale using.
ARE MAKERS, ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS THE DRIVERS OF THIS MOVEMENT? IS THERE A CREATIVE HIERARCHY?
So there are artists who are craftspeople. They’ll work in jewelry or small objects, and their joy is the repurposing aspect. It doesn’t have much functionality; it just has to be beautiful. So I think some people especially people who are right brain creative, artististic but are also left brain analytical logical, have more of an engineering mind and love to see how things work. There are these artists who look at their object, and say I really want this to do something–and then figure out a way to do it.
Their art is evolving. That is what happened to me, for I don’t have the skill sets of a traditional artist. I see myself more kid of as a visionary of tying history, art, and technology together, and coming up with a big idea, the connections, and then finding the pieces, going on a treasure hunt, and then it’s about collaborating. One of my skill sets is to be able to put together a team of people who have the skill sets an “extraordinary league of gentleman” and then find the right people to do it and then play nice. A lot of my projects, they involve metalworking people, woodworking people, electronics people, and lighting people. So that’s the way I’ve been evolving, building the teams, and collaborating to create something bigger.
SO THIS IS A VERY SPECIAL EXHIBITION AT FULLER CRAFT MUSEUM. TELL ME ABOUT IT.
I’m really connected to the shoe industry and building something now that is a level above what I had done before. What I’m hoping is that again Steampunk can be used to help to improve or repurpose a room, a house, a building, an entire city. Let’s reimagine what a post-industrial city can be. That’s what I did in Springfield, MA. Now I’m bringing that to Brockton, using Steampunk as a way to look back and celebrate the history of Brockton, but then using that to reimagine the future of Brockton. It’s not just about my vision. It’s about Brockton’s vision.
YOUR “LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” THAT YOU HAVE ASSEMBLED FOR THIS PROJECT. DO YOU KNOW ALL THE PEOPLE WHO ARE PARTICIPATING? ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT WORKING WITH ANYONE IN PARTICULAR?
Oh yeah, well I’m exited about all of them. They all have specific skills that I think they’re going to add different types of elements to the exhibition. One guy who is amazing to me, John Belli, lives in Sharon. He’s in his 70s. He does incredible work. I’m really excited about his piece. Then there’s a father son team, Michael and Marty Ulman. They do incredible work, and Michael the son actually was the artist that worked on an object in the new Mad Max movie. If you watch the movie, the most iconic object in the movie is this flaming guitar, there’s a guy who plays the guitar, and it shoots out fire. He made that guitar.
WHAT WILL YOUR PIECE BE ABOUT?
So for my “Humachines,” I find period meaningful pieces that are relevant to what were doing, so I wanted to have everything shoe related. I started off with this amazing shoe shining platform, which actually came from the Grand Hotel probably 1870s to 1880s. This becomes the beginning of the shoe time machine. So you’re going to sit on this piece. It’s going to be powered by this old dental compressor. People will come and sit in the Humachine, and they can take pictures of themselves in the time machine, and we make that available to them to post on social media, like a postcard. It’ll say welcome to Brockton’s past, present, future.
(“New Sole of the Old Machine: Steampunk Brockton, Reimagining the City of Shoes” runs from September 10 through January 1, 2017, at the Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, Mass. For more information, call (508) 588-6000.)