BENNINGTON, VT. -- The Victorian world has made a big comeback in the 21st century in the form of steampunk, and many kinds of visual artists are embracing that era as inspiration for works that look both forward and backward with a sense of invigoration.
The upcoming show at the Bennington Museum, "Victorian Extreme: American Fancywork and Steampunk, 1850-Now," will include work by steampunk artists Bruce Rosenbaum, Steve Conant and Steve Brook. The show opens Thursday, March 14.
For the Bennington exhibition, Rosenbaum decided to pursue a sculptural object he had been itching to do for awhile, built from repurposed Singer sewing machines from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
"A lot of these are still around because they were built to last forever," Rosenbaum said. "A lot of them are still working, even in their pedal form. People are using them. I wanted to come with some creative ideas on how to repurpose them."
Rosenbaum enjoys incorporating visual puns in his work and began to consider the phrase "a stitch in time saves nine" as he devised the sculpture he wanted to create. The phrase possibly began being used before the Victorian era, but its first appearance in print is in 1852, well within the section of time that steampunk obsesses about.
"I came up with the idea of building a steampunk clock out of Singer sewing machines," said Rosenbaum. "Working sewing machines. It's like part of the clock mechanism, but the sewing machines are functioning."
Rosenbaum collaborates with two other steampunk artists, who will also show works from that theme at the museum.
He uses the sewing machine legs as a base for the clock, though made more substantial for his work.
"The legs, they're a little dainty, and were made to be that way for females," Rosenbaum said. "I gave it a little bit more of a muscular look, and then created a face where the two Singer sewing machines are put up vertically, almost like a body builder is holding his arms out, showing his muscles, the way that the sewing machine is positioned."
Rosenbaum put pulleys from his sewing machines on the bottom and top of the base, and then centered a clockface between them. The belts will allow the clockface to turn, rather than having the hands on the clock move around the face.
"I'm going to be highlighting 9 o'clock," he said. "It's always going to be 9 o'clock."
The question for many people who encounter works like Rosenbaum's is what exactly steampunk is.
"If I had to put my own spin on it, it's about re-imagining if the Victorian period or the industrial age happened at the same time as our modern age," said Rosenbaum. "What would it have then produced in inventions, innovations, gadgetry, fashion, anything."
The term steampunk was coined in the 1980s when science fiction author K.W. Jeter turned his attention from more futuristic cyberpunk stories to ones that portrayed leaps in technology 100 years earlier. Though there are many components to steampunk that have taken the limelight over the years, its the inventive spin on technology -- melding new ideas with old design -- that Rosenbaum believes is essential to making anything steampunk.
"If you don't have the technology, in my own estimation, then you don't have steampunk, because that is part of what sets it apart as an art movement, "Rosenbaum said. "I like to tell people it's the acronym HAT, it's the combination of History, Art, and Technology."
As such, steampunk is used as the basis for all sorts of stories in books, comics, movies, television, and its ripples can be seen in more mainstream works like the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr., and even the hit British TV series, ‘Doctor Who." It wasn't until about six years ago, though, that Rosenbaum became exposed to it as a subculture.
"Steampunk found me," he said.
In 2000, Rosenbaum and his wife bought a house in Sharon and refurbished it inside and out. Their idea was to bring in period objects and repurpose them in a functional way, so that they were more than museum pieces just setting around the house looking pretty.
In 2007, Rosenbaum started the company ModVic, with the idea of restoring other houses in the same way and put them on the market. The company's first job was in North Attleboro.
"The bigger picture was that I learned a lot about repurposing," Rosenbaum said, "and had people starting to come through our homes and say we were steampunking, and I'd say steam-what? That sounds weird and wonderful."
The comments tipped Rosenbaum off to a whole community that he and his wife were able to get involved in, and they began to receive plenty of media attention as well, appearing with their homes on "MTV Cribs" and HGTV.
"We were just doing something that we loved," said Rosenbaum. "I've always loved architecture and antiques and salvage and gadgets. Growing up in the ‘60s, I loved the show ‘Wild Wild West.' It was like James Bond in the Victorian period. That's how I got connected to it."
That allure has appealed to many people, especially as a reaction against drab modern aesthetics, which favor minimalism and hidden functionality that doesn't always ignite the imagination. Design used to mean creating objects that were appealing to the eye, as well as revelatory and educational.
"In the 1800s, early 1900s, the inventors, and there were a lot of patents going on, they designed with beauty and elegance in mind, a type of creativity that you don't see in design as much," said Rosenbaum. "It's around, but it's not on the same level, and technology has become black box and bland, and you don't see how it works, like with computer chips, you don't see how things work."
"During the Victorian period, a lot was mechanical, and visual and tactile. You could see gears moving, meshing, levers, and you could look at something and say, I might not understand how all this works, but I've got an understanding on how there's an action and reaction, I can understand how the world works. Now, they don't know how an iPhone works; they just accept it."
Rosenbaum can be found online at modvic.com.