Gear up for steampunk

Anthony Soave
Steampunk goggles made by Tim Harrison

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Professor Marius Mandragore fancies himself a modern-day Viking. A professor of occult studies who has a degree in philosophy and history from Oxford, the soft-spoken actor has a penchant for embroidery, wood-chopping, axe-throwing and shotgun art. He dresses in Renaissance garb complete with a monocle, silk vest and ascot tie. 

Professor Marius Mandragore is the steampunk alter ego of Keith Green, Columbia lecturer in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department and actor in the local theater troupe Terra Mysterium, which performs experiential pieces rooted in steampunk culture. 

“My life is very magical,” Green said. “There is magic in the teaching. There is magic in my home and my day-to-day life. There’s a certain point where Marius is a very real part of my life.”

The steampunk movement, from which which Mandragore was born, grew in the 1890s out of speculative fiction—a subgenre of science fiction that mirror historical tales, focusing on the future and romanticizing certain aspects of the early 19th century. In the steampunk universe, Victorian inventors made technological leaps, using steam engines for power.

Today, the term “steampunk” extends beyond the page, defining a subculture encompassing mystical literature, fashion, music, theater and visual art as described by the slogan, “What would the past look like if the future had happened sooner?” Typical steampunk artists, who often live similarly to Green through alter egos, are also gadgeteers—self-taught tinkerers who find creative ways to modify or to even create handmade objects out of metal and wood to exotic. 

Since the first “SalonCon,” a neo-Victorian/steampunk convention in 2006, a number of popular steampunk conventions have sprung up, such a Steamcon in Seattle, the Steampunk World’s Fair in Piscataway, N.J. and Up in the Aether: The Steampunk Convention in Dearborn, Mich., where steampunks can meet and share their creations.

As the steampunk genre has evolved, several different sub-subcultures have emerged, including literature lovers, Renaissance Fair attendees and club-goers. The groups often disagree about the meaning of steampunk.

Green said despite these divisions, most steampunks bond through a passion for crafting.

“It’s a very broad movement, but there is a sort of unifying aesthetic and a love of the do-it-yourself—a love of the creative,” Green said. “Almost everyone I know in the steampunk community, in their own way, is a creative.”

The steampunk ideals focus on handcrafting items rather than purchasing them from long corporate stores. In 2014, this is especially highlighted by the rapid rate at which the modern world is becoming commercialized, said Tim Harrison, owner of Fusion Tech Services, an IT company, by day and a steampunk “maker” by night.

Harrison said he embraces modern technology but also looks to the past for inspiration when creating objects such as imitation time machines, teleporters, guns and other gadgets and props that have been used in Terra Mysterium’s plays. For Harrison, making steampunk gadgets is a refreshing escape from the modernity of his daily life.

Joe Mason, writer for SteamPunkChicago.com and band member of the steampunk-themed band White City Rippers, said he thinks the steampunk ideal of wanting to borrow from the past is relevant to addressing the currently over-commercialized modern world, where it seems almost nothing is personal anymore. 

“I don’t think any of the folks in the scene would necessarily want to be without their smartphones, but would vastly prefer it if they were more hackable or were made out of wood and brass and, of course, if they had gears,” Mason said.

Mason said there is some tension between the groups because literary steampunks want all groups to understand and appreciate the literary aspect of steampunk, while Renaissance Fair steampunks typically focus on exact details from historical periods. Club-going steampunks just want to go out and have a good time without sweating about the specific details, Mason said.

“There’s sort of the ‘party steampunks,'” Green said. “Then there is a growing kind of esoteric occult [literary] steampunks. We cross over, but we also have our own spaces where we tend to stay more than others.”

Mason said he is active in various aspects of the culture because he helps plan steampunk events. However, he said he sees lifestylist steampunks, who are more involved in the nightlife and are very focused on fashion, as lacking true understanding of steampunk origins.

Green considers himself a literary steampunk because he writes scripts for steampunk plays but crosses into being a lifestylist because of his extreme interest in the fashion and parties associated with the movement.

Joe Vourteque, a local steampunk event planner, said the Chicago steampunk community places more emphasis on nightlife than most cities. During the monthly “electroswing” parties Vourteque hosts at the club Fizz, 3220 N. Lincoln Ave., a nightclub in Lakeview, Chicago’s lifestylist steampunks meet in a small, packed upstairs room, where they listen to futuristic/techno-meets-swing music either performed live or played by DJ Vourteque. Members of the steampunk community and curious outsiders come out to swing dance or freestyle wearing extravagant formal gowns, such as burlesque performer Lady Lenux’s silver sparkling backless gown, a simple black dress with heels and pincurls or a tailored suit with modified Nerf guns in holsters.

“[Chicago’s nightlife has] a very strong sense of lifestyle and it goes beyond the concept of just a bunch of cosplay geeks at a [convention],” Vourteque said. “The steampunk scene in much of the Midwest goes beyond that.”

Former goth kid Liz Mason, Joe Mason’s wife and Spears and Gears bandmate, is deeply immersed in Chicago’s steampunk scene. Spears and Gears, which includes Liz Mason on vocals, Joe Mason on washtub bass and third member Kyle Greer on piano, mixes Spears lyrics with chiming piano and thumbing washtub bass.

Liz Mason said gender is another division within the steampunk community. Many female steampunks are burlesque dancers, but some have multiple outlets for their steampunk interests.

She said the subculture is inclusive as a whole, but she does recognize differences between the roles men and women fulfill.

“In a way, it’s like a microcosm of the rest of the world,” Liz Mason said. “I do feel sometimes like I wish some of the women were a little bit more vocal. It does seem like there’s more—as with any stereotypically geeky culture—guys than there are women.”

Despite the division within steampunk, Green said members of the community can all come together and get along in their own magical universe. 

“People can make trouble, but by-and-large with steampunk, most people are willing to maintain a sort of cordial, genteel attitude, even with people they don’t like,” Green said. “That is such a nice change from everything else in our society.”