The Social Life of Steam Punk

Last week, I proposed that the Okanagan city of Vernon was the steampunk capital of the world. I suggested that it is a giant art installation, in fact. When walked through as openly as it displays itself, I suggested, it can provide a series of tools for creating productive urban and earth-based spaces. This week, I’d like to show you a little bit about how this works. First, a couple examples, to demonstrate just how innovative the steam punks in Vernon are. For instance, in the pre-steampunk world, the following image would have represented a gas fitting under some air conditioning ductwork in the back of a parking garage…

post In the social world of Vernon, however, it is art — and not just art but an image of the human mind and body, decorated and tattooed and re-imagined in response to the space in which it finds itself. To clear up the tattoo thing, here’s a nice tattoo installation waiting for final setting in the jewel of a human body (in old language: garden) …


Swan Lake Garden Centre Beauty

Photo: Anassa Rhenisch

So, tattoo in one language; garden ornament in another. The reason for the big discrepancy between reality (tattoo) and the official version of reality (garden schmuck) is that contemporary mythology states that humans are individuals acting in self interest and coming together as units of economic production to produce large units of economic production, which are called cities, which have “social spinoffs”, such as economically-generated recreation sites, schools, “safe communities”, hospitals, and …

missing man

Happy Two-Dimensional Tattoo Ghosts

Vernon Post Office

In this model of individual-based social organization, “government” is a form of economic administration, that sees individual-based economic transactions as the primary relationship between all humans, and social life being a kind of automatically-generated result, much like this …


Portrait of Vernon Social Life: Living Sculpture

Materials: asphalt, automobiles, buildings, and some truly beautiful work with electrical transformers and their hanging abacusses. The National Gallery of Canada could do worse than buy all this up and install it for posterity.

The civic administration of Vernon has even stated this principle clearly for its citizens, as the principle that economic competition is the greatest good, all interhuman relationships should be monetized, and those that cannot be run for a profit by “business” are the only things with which civic administration should concern itself, and only because they are cost-inefficient, and so worthy only of taxation, rather than the other form of taxation called profit. The result is this:


Door Museum Piece Sculpture, Vernon

A portrait of time and poverty and the ingenuity humans bring to it with the help of an old shoe. Steam punk all the way!

The error in this method of privileging private taxation over public taxation is basic. The error is the belief that each human is an individual. It is a beautiful dream, but, as ever-practical humans show in their daily interactions …



One Way Sign Glowing Like the Holy Grail

… the resulting aesthetic of competing physical artworks engineered from economic opportunities creates a world which humans react to by recreating as images of themselves. In short: the world you stick humans into is the one they recreate as images of themselves. Rather than being individuals, humans are social mirrors. It is a beautiful thing, which leads to the cities humans live in. Individualism doesn’t do that. It’s just a particular way of interpreting what humans do, which is starting to lag behind human innovation, and this…


Sculpture of Human Memory

Barred Door, recycling materials, gas valve, poor dead soldier boy with his gun trained on … Vernon? Sure ain’t anywhere that Vernon soldier boys fought in the Second World War. Someone has a sense of humour!

Back in his essay Walking in 1862, Henry David Thoreau suggested that “wilderness” was where civilized “man” (sorry, his term) went to re-create himself [sorry!] through contact with the wild forces of physicality. Some time has passed and now the term is understood as recreation, an art form which includes soccer fields, beaches, parks, and hockey rinks, like this beauty, which is the public face of a tire company …


Kal Tire Centre, Vernon

Back porch or escape hatch.

See that? The wildness is now contained in a building, and is represented not by the earth but by ritualized violence within a game played by physically robust humans attempting to shoot a small black rubber puck into a small net. This is a form of art, and another part of the steampunk mystique. Where do individual humans live in all of this beautiful and rather blinding artwork? Why, out with the other creatures…

rutsTracks Left by a Mechanized Human (truck)  in Last Summer’s Burn

And while humans like me gush at the beautiful colour of all that, there’s another beauty moving into the space we all don’t really have our eye on, the one where we live as bodies, one on one, with the other star creatures …

P1620828Hawk Skeleton Weed

Moving in, to obliterate everything else.

And that’s the thought for today: when humans mistake the role of individual life for social life and spend all their time making beautiful steampunk art works within the galleries of their streets, they allow the social space they actually share with other creatures of the planet to be over run by destructive aliens, and wind up squeezed out of them. To put that another way, if we treat the living earth as a steampunk artifact, it will be, but we will not be making that art; it will be making us, and, I promise you, we won’t like it. The beautiful thing is, we have a choice. It’s not about giving up the wonders of steampunk life, but it is about accepting it, celebrating it, and learning our boundaries. Here’s a hint about that: whenever the world seems random to a human, that dear creature might do well to accept that it is looking at it with the wrong art glasses. Do you really think it’s random that a city that puts its farmer’s market in the parking lot of a hockey rink sponsored by a tire company winds up with a farmer’s market that looks like this?

tiredtiresRandom? No way. It’s art.


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