Friday, June 19, 2009

Oppositional Design Theory

Photography by Nadya Lev
Modeling by Kit Stolen
I realize that I am one of those bearers of trivial and specific information. It is a fault of mine that I assume people know what I'm talking about, although I make my assumption so as not to be condescending or pedantic.

I had thought steampunk was a well known genre and aesthetic (silly geek, genres are for fans!) but apparently I'm wrong. My friends who have a firmer grasp on mainstream reality have no clue and ask me to repeat the word "steampunk" several times with a puzzled look.

After my explanation, they still have that puzzled look. It's kind of cute, like a squirrel holding a nut and daintily gnawing at it while sitting on its haunches.

Anyway, steampunk (a term coined in 1987 by author K.W. Jeter [the Wikipedia page is better for info on Jeter than his web site]) is a subgenre of science fiction that imagines a world where steam technology reigns--whether in a parallel 19th century Victorian-era England--or in a futuristic utopia or dystopia that never was. It's like an extended, romantic, sometimes dark love affair with the Industrial Age.

An example that cropped up in the mainstream (but not necessarily labeled, hence the "Steam-what? Say that again. What?") can be seen in the movie, The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's popular novels. The movie (blech), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is also within this genre, and as a flick is far inferior compared to its source material by the inimitable Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill.

Yeah, I have a point!

I've been a fan of steampunk for a long time, but as I researched material on the Internet, I realized a few things:
An interior designer unfamiliar with steampunk described it as an example of "opposition" within design theory--design elements that work together because of their differences rather than similarities, and usually in an unexpected way.

Steampunk is usually set in the 19th century.

Refined + rugged = hot.
What do these realizations point out?

That I'm in love with the 19th century (as much as I'm in love with the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from the 6th-10th century by Western dates)--a period of fusion and opposition, synthesis of east and west, exploration and adventure, elegance and rusticity, apocalypse and renaissance.

There's a dark side, too, of course--imperialism, colonialism, and other unpleasant social ills that end in -ism. Don't even get me started on what the European countries were doing to China during this period.

So, this all makes everything make more sense to me. This is why I love the Millenium Falcon and Firefly. This is why Star Wars is strangely beautiful when, amidst high technology and rayguns, you have Western people dueling with swords made of light while wearing kimonos.

I love the contrast of old and new, the romance of a near-derelict ship held together by love--flying through space or propelled by steam. People surviving and inventing and rebelling against tyranny (the suffix "punk" to genres like cyberpunk and steampunk imply this).

The combining and assertion of cultures and identities is what I've been doing since being born in the United States.

It's what I express through my art.

And what, I am finding out, is my passion.


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