Time Machines and Steampunk in Contemporary Art

Caroline Cason Barratt
Caroline Cason Barratt

Literary and cinematic connections to the steampunk genre continue to be well documented in both scholarly and popular literature.

Similarly, objects made by self-identified steampunk practitioners are widely represented on the Web and in print. Contemporary art outside of these instances, on the other hand, appears to constitute a blind spot within critical reviews from both the camps of steampunk literature and art criticism.

In my view, there are several artists who — though not specifically aligned with steampunk practice — create artwork that participates in the aesthetics and ideas surrounding steampunk, especially in terms of the mechanised body and our relationship with time.

Tim Hawkinson and Arthur Ganson are two artists whose artwork can be viewed through the brass-goggled lens of steampunk theory. In this article, I make a new connection between these contemporary artists and steampunk via their investigations of shared pre-millennial anxieties, connecting Hawkinson, Ganson, and the steampunk genre philosophically as well as aesthetically.

I argue that these artists’ sculptures may be interpreted as expressing a warning by offering examples of what may become of humankind if we lose our humanity to the encroachment of machines.

Tim Hawkinson (b. 1960) and Arthur Ganson (b. 1955) both make machines that perform human functions. The two artists share a preference for similar materials (i.e. metal, wood, bone, leather, etc.) and mirror each other in the way they combine art and engineering in their practice. Hawkinson is a California-based artist with an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles (1989), who became a self-taught engineer through the evolution of his kinetic sculpture (Public Broadcasting Company 2007).

Ganson, who has a BFA from the University of New Hampshire (1978), is currently artist-in-residence at the engineering and technology-focused university MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MIT 2009).

The mechanised contraptions both artist engineers made near the turn of the twenty-first century — and continue to make today — do not look like the shiny, steely cyborgs we have come to expect from watching films like Robocop (1987, 1990) and The Terminator series (1984, 1993, 2001, 2009).

Nor do they mimic the quietly humming cubes with intricate and unseen techno-cognitive interiors like the ubiquitous PC. Hawkinson’s and Ganson’s machines have more in common with the engines of the nineteenth-century, when cogs and pistons visibly (and audibly) brought locomotives roaring to life or appeared as delicate clockworks that endlessly repeated a snippet of song within a music box.

Hawkinson’s automated works whistle, write, and rant and, in doing so, seem to profess (or protest) something about the world they inhabit. Likewise, Ganson’s sculptures also walk, chatter, and scribble, performing human functions through mechanical means.

Hawkinson’s and Ganson’s steampunk aesthetic reveals pre-millennial (and ongoing) anxieties concerning the loss of the human — and even the apocalyptic loss of humankind in general — fulfilling warnings embedded in a key philosophical text of the early 1990s: Jean-Francois Lyotard’s notions on post-somatic thought in his collection of essays ‘The Inhuman: Reflections on Time’ (1991).

Often viewed as bridging modernist and post-modernist philosophy, Lyotard presented his idea of the “inhuman” in his later work. This was the process of humankind’s dehumanisation by way of the Humanist (and Enlightenment) impulse towards “progress”, specifically, the advancement of capitalism and technological and medical discovery, what he combined to term “techno-science”. This process would bring about a new state of being, the “inhuman”, where the human and the technological merge to replace humanity as we know it.

The impetus for Lyotard’s work was the inevitable and complete destruction of humankind through the death of our sun (Lyotard 1991: 64). Though this event will not take place for billions of years, it is an unavoidable occurrence in our collective future that creeps ever closer with each passing moment.

His essay ‘Can Thought Go on without a Body?’ (1991) explored the possibility of humanity living on, in some way, even after our physical shells are burned away.

The idea of celestial or geographical catastrophe has been in the mind of the public for some time, however. Gillian Beer notes that Charles Darwin and other Victorian-era scientists made this grim forecast more than a century earlier, noting that the sun will eventually cool to the point that human life on Earth will become impossible to sustain (Beer 1996: 219- 220).

The Victorian mathematician and creator of the first computer, Charles Babbage, used his ‘Difference Engine’ (1821) to rebut catastrophism, a quasi-scientific argument about the role geological catastrophes played in shaping our planet (Bullock 2008: 19-40).

Catastrophists pointed to divine intervention as the explanation for major differences in geologic epochs. To illustrate the flaws within this paradigm, Babbage proposed a simple computational program that could be written to produce first one kind of output and then, secondly, a different output.

In such a program, the input (the program) would remain uniform even as the output shifted. This connection between computers, catastrophes, and the ‘hand of God’ within the Victorian scientific and philosophical mind resurfaced in the mid-1980s and early 1990s within the burgeoning steampunk genre of literature and film.

These fin de siècle writers and filmmakers imagined a return to Babbage’s Victorian London in order to explore the relationship between humans, machines, and the end of (or manipulation of) time — perhaps in order to envision a way out of the apocalypse looming on the horizon.

In addition to this apocalyptic celestial event, the 1990s saw two additional countdowns to the end of the world that hinged on the approach of the millennium.

Some thought that the year 2000 would herald the Biblical end times by bringing about the Christian apocalypse, while others believed that civilisation as we know it would grind to a halt at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, when all digitised systems would reset their internal binary clocks to zero and erase everything that depends on these systems.

The Y2K bug, as it was called, was a serious concern, and companies and governments around the world spent millions of dollars to ensure that their computerised systems would keep on running past this expiration date.

These anxieties about the end times as the end of time itself were tied to concerns about computers and our dependence on them.

Lyotard’s, Hawkinson’s and Ganson’s work during this period may all be interpreted to contain warnings of the dangers that lay ahead due to the encroachment of the “inhuman” world of artificial intelligence.

Like the ubiquitous clockwork mechanisms in steampunk literature and film, for Hawkinson, clocks are everywhere. They are on ordinary manila envelopes in the form of a time-keeping metal clasp, in our hairbrushes as barely-visible clock hands made of hair, and tied to our trash in the clockwork twist-tie at the top of a sack of packing peanuts.

These clocks may appear whimsical, but carry with them something foreboding — are they simply keeping time or are they counting down to some event, some inevitable end?

Their ubiquity seems to indicate a state of paranoia where one finds evidence of the “end times” everywhere.

For Victorians, too, clocks had a regulatory function that yoked human time to machine time. Personal timepieces became a necessity, once travel by steam engine replaced the horse and carriage as the modern means of conveyance.

Individuals had to synchronise their lives to match the machine’s timetable, a process Nicholas Daly calls “temporal training” (Daly 2004: 46). This training meant that people were no longer living their lives according to a human timetable — one subject to fluctuations given an individual’s health, need to eat and sleep, and observance of social and religious customs.

After all, these concerns are irrelevant to a machine, which can work “‘round the clock” and did — often forcing human workers to try to keep pace in the incessantly operating factories that sprang into action during the Industrial Age.

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