Saturday, June 2, 2012

On Oamaru being the Steampunk Capital of NZ

This Queen's Birthday Weekend is the now annual Steampunk Festival in my hometown of Oamaru. It's a recent movement - by my reckoning a couple of years old now, but one which has really taken hold down south. Oamaru has been lucky to have a new identity stamped on it in this way, even for a movement potentially as short-lived as Steampunk may be (I have mixed feelings myself, but have to applaud the efforts and talents of those in Whitestone City for what they've achieved to date)

When I left town in the last scratchings of the 1980s Oamaru was in a slump. High unemployment during Rogernomics, with a dwindling agricultural economy following a downturn in lamb prices and a reliable (but poorly planned for) cycle of floods and droughts that shifted the town's reliance on the land. New ideas were needed, and besides the town hiring its southern Victorian end out for cheap period filming for TV and film, even that idea was not sustainable. Fortunately, the town's anonymity proved its advantage. Unlike Dunedin, the Eighties hadn't seen significant development in the town's commercial heart, and so its old buildings were largely left unscathed, especially in the Harbour St/Tyne Street areas. The grand old half-empty hotels and grain stories which had doubled for working types in such movies as Pictures and Starlight Hotel also began to feature in advertisements and TV shows (the recognizable old Bank of New South Wales was co opted by a series of National Bank ads at the time.)
As half-used as they were, for some in the local arts community, the available space was cheap, airy, and sizeable. The local musos club, the Penguin Club, started in 1991 in that area, and a few years later past Wearable Arts winner Donna Demente moved from Dunedin to Oamaru and the Grainstore Gallery was established, a co-op of its own with a circle of local and regional artists pitching in something a little more Bohemian and baroque. Taking their cues from the ruined grandeur of Oamaru's Friendly Bay Harbour the Grainstore artists incorporated elements of buildings and port with a deliberate Victorian aesthetic, hosting an annual Masquerade Ball and, along with a local printer and bookbinder, pushing a new identity that genuinely brought tour buses to town to see, alongside the blue penguin colony and viewing site (a battle also fought and won by 'outsiders' and which continues to bring money to a previously skeptical community) and the excellent local cheesemakers.  Victorian Week is now a staple of Oamaru's attractions, and is well-covered elsewhere, but the Steampunk aspect has successfully broken away from the Week to carve its own identity - and fair enough, too. 

Steampunk may have had its outsider blessing when Glenn Standring filmed his vampire film Perfect Creature in the historic precinct, but the style has doggedly stayed, and its peculiar Victorian-ness now exists symbiotically with the larger historical attraction of the south end of Thames Street. Council money and private ventures have poured money into loving restoration, and far from the crumbling austerity of the Eighties, I return home from time to time and feel a lot happier about how my old haunts look, and where they're going. We really dodged a bullet - it's a matter of historical record that for a while the penguin thing was seen to be such a drawcard someone petitioned the council to carve a giant flood-lit bird into Cape Wanbrow's basalt quarry face, like Mount Rushmore but (at best) a little more Mountains of Madness. Or maybe just madness.

So what of Oamaru's Steampunk aesthetic? As I say above, the town has been lucky; other neighbours could have claimed the crown with more resources - Dunedin, for one, might have scooped it into its basket of touchstones, an editorial in the Timaru Herald last January cheekily suggested there might be some piggy-backing opportunities to be had, and there was (allegedly) a degree of rumbling from Christchurch's steampunk community when the little town started publicising its newfound identity. The Garden City might well have had its way, but two years on from the earthquake a somewhat unscathed and, again, fortunate Oamaru soldiers on unchallenged. Good on them.  

What you have in Oamaru is a wonderful mishmash of styles. There's the 'brass goggles' set of course, and the Grainstore collective, but among them are other local sculptors, filmmakers and artists who have turned local ephemera into Steampunk art; rather than yearning for a fictional imaginative British past, there's an element of an Antipodean identity there - what Standring named 'Nouvelle Zelande' in his movie, suffused with some of North Otago's agricultural past of ploughshares, tractors and traction engines - call it 'Farmpunk.' 

In this way I feel as though Oamaru's past has genuinely sprung back to life, and that can only be a good thing, for however long or short a time it lasts. Steampunk is as much about preservation as it is about reinvention, and these are two things that Oamaru has needed, and will do well to continue to have around.

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