Calamity and Catastrophe

07/04/2007 12:00 AM |

Professor Calamity, author of the Steampunk Manifesto, founder of the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, and inventor of the catastrophone [pictured above], stands ramrod straight on the steps of Judson Memorial Church during the Anarchist Book Fair. He is thin and wiry, dressed head to toe in black, with a red and yellow pirate’s kerchief around his neck and a newsboy’s cap on his head. He glances around furtively before chasing down the steps into Washington Square Park, where he sits on a rail and lights the first of many Parliament cigarettes. “My baby’s the catastrophone, but we have other phones,” he says, referring to the cellphone on his hip, the only part of his uniform that doesn’t match his steampunk aesthetic. 

The catastrophone, a steam-powered musical switchboard and calliope, stands over eighteen feet tall, requires three operators and sounds like a church organ. Monstrous and beautiful when up and running, Calamity’s baby now resides in several crates in his garage in Queens. “It is an illegal instrument,” he tells me. It took him years to build, but there is literally no place for it in the New York scene. “We could operate it in an unspace,” says Calamity. “Like a tunnel or a roof. But never in a venue, or a club. It’s too dangerous. It could explode. We wear rubber gloves, aprons and goggles when we operate it.” And, because of the steam, the catastrophone drips, creating a pool of water around the operators and audience, if there is one. Finally, Calamity admits with chagrin, part of the instrument is powered by butane and the smell “is not the most pleasant.” Still, he says, he looks forward to performing at least once this summer, at a friend’s loft in Williamsburg. “If they knew anything about steam, they would never let me perform in their house,” he says with a smile. “People think of steam as relatively benign. Like a teakettle.” He shakes his head and lights another cigarette.

Professor Calamity is one of about, by his estimation, two hundred New York City “steampunks,” a burgeoning sub-culture that mixes the mechanized aesthetics of the late 19th-century Industrial Revolution with the DIY anti-authoritarian ethos of the late 1970s. The term was initially coined to describe a “gonzo-historical” genre of fiction in 1987, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cyberpunk. In the past few years, however, the subculture has grown from its genre-fiction roots to include music, fashion, cinema and other related pursuits, (like old-fashioned accessory restoration and refurbishing defunct machines.) Developments in the scene are recorded in the UK-based Brass Goggles (“the lighter side of steampunk”) and Portland, Oregon-based Steampunk Magazine (“putting the punk back in steampunk.”) We are approaching what steampunk blogs refer to as a “gearhead renaissance.” The attitude of a steampunk is more can-do than the navel-gazing goth, but more sophisticated than the sanity-be-damned cheerfulness of skapunk or rockabilly. Steampunks are also differentiated insofar as they don’t necessarily self-identify with specific music: Calamity reminds me that he is not, in fact, a musician — he is a mechanic first and foremost, a tinker. Though steampunks are not musicians first, they do have definite musical tastes. The list of steampunk musical heroes includes Carla Kihldstedt of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, Colin Meloy, and Voltaire, who describes his work as “music for a parallel universe in which electricity was never invented and Morrissey is the Queen of England.” Topping the list is Tom Waits, because of his use of calliopes, particularly on Blood Money. Calamity acknowledges Waits as the Godfather of steampunk, confirming the claim that Tom Waits is to steampunk what David Bowie was to glam.

Literary heroes include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and more recently William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, whose
novel The Difference Engine is credited with bringing steampunk closer to the public eye. Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey are read aloud to steampunk babies.

Fashion-wise, a steampunk’s closet is heavily Victorian, but more practical than a Goth’s; steampunks are
sympathetic and very supportive of the neo-burlesque movement, with both the women and men applauding Dita Von Teese. When pressed to choose a favorite modern designer, many steampunks choose Jean-Paul Gaultier,
but insist that it’s preferable to make one’s own clothes.

“Instead of looking at a machine and saying ‘what can I make this machine do,’ we like to think ‘what can I do around this machine,’” says Calamity. No surprise, then, that many steampunks, two of which are in Professor Calamity’s band, came to find the culture through trainhopping. They find the strong presence of trains in the city a comfort. Calamity reminds me that anyone can operate the catastrophone. “The dial will go to three, and you stick the third tube into the third socket,” he says. “If you know basic math and can operate a switchboard, you can operate the catastrophone.” Steampunks, ultimately, are happiest in the garage, tinkering away with their Rube Goldberg machines. 

Steampunk will probably never go mainstream, because it can’t really be mass-produced. “When everything is the same, nothing has value,” says Calamity. “The iPod, to us, is very impersonal and disposable. I’m interested in re-envisioning our relationship to technology. I’m interested in having mechanical comrades.” I ask him if he wants to build a time machine. “I don’t necessarily want to go back in time,” he says, a little abashed. “But I do think man had a more honest relationship with technology in the 19th century than he does now.”

But, he says, ”Even within the Catastrophone Orchestra there is debate about recording and distributing our music.” Steampunk music, he explains, in its purest form, should be heard live: almost impossible, given the cumbersome nature of the instruments. Calamity also notes that since they don’t use electricity, amplification is difficult. He pauses before looking sideways at me and admitting, “My dream was to use electric eels to amplify the pyrophone, which is very quiet and right now can only be used for solos. But of course electric eels aren’t always electric. You have to threaten or agitate them. I thought we could have two tanks, and toss the eels from one to the other constantly. Salt water is an excellent conduit for electricity.” Unfortunately for Calamity, the other members of the Catastrophone Orchestra are very involved in animal rights. “If you find any less scrupulous steampunks…” Calamity shrugs and smiles.

Calamity’s phone rings, jolting us back into the 21st century. He is excited, he says, to start building another machine. “How much coal?” he asks. “Sweet. Let’s go. The tools are in the car.” He slams his phone shut, reminds me to put him in touch with anyone who doesn’t mind teasing electricity out of eels, and takes off across the park.   •