Steamed up in Oamaru
Intent on seeing Little Blue Penguins on a recent holiday down south, my family and I visited Oamaru. Our timing was off and we didn’t see any, but we learned a lot about steampunk, bought armfulls of second hand books, and fell in love with the quirky seaside town.
I wasn’t aware of the town's connection to steampunk – a Victorian science fiction genre that came alive in the 70s and celebrates steam-powered inventions and imaginings – until while waiting for a takeaway coffee at local café Steam, I came across the coolest reusable coffee cup I have ever seen – featuring hand crafted copper mechanisms and valves and pipes and all sorts of complicated-looking engineering. Steamed up enough to meet the maker of this crazy contraption, I get to talking to Iain Clark, or better known in Oamaru and the steampunk community as ‘Agent Darling from The Ministry.’
“I created the coffee cup, because takeaway coffee is such a short-lived experience, so why wouldn’t you have a ridiculous contraption for this?”
A jeweler since he left school, and fascinated with complex mechanisms and machinery, Iain said steampunk is something he’s always been aware of. Recalling his earliest memory at three years old, watching a steam train waiting at the station in Dunedin, he says, “it was an enormous beast of a thing. The progression to steampunk for me was only natural.”
Creating rings inspired by the worlds and machinery within the genre, Iain won the prestigious Manufacturing Jeweler of the Year Award in 2007 with his Matariki ring. At that point Iain had also made a beer tankard and a USB device with a steampunk flavor, and began exploring ways to invite wider interest in the genre. An exhibition was an obvious choice he says, but with only three items to showcase, he needed outside help.
That’s where Weta Workshop comes in, contributing a whole container of steampunk pieces to the exhibition, drawing crowds from near and far. Enticing even local farmers, who then began tinkering with scrap metal in their sheds at home. Iain says that the exhibition was a raging success, and described the event as “the genesis of the steampunk movement in Oamaru.” The town is now home to an annual steam punk festival – the largest in the southern hemisphere.
In a climate where small towns often struggle to attract the tourist dollar, the steampunk movement has seen Oamaru grow into a vibrant and thriving tourist destination and creative hub. Which, in a world that favours Technology and Convenience, the notion of revisiting and celebrating days gone by is an interesting one. What’s going on here?
Talking about the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the Victorian era, and the detail and beauty of Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs, I ask Iain how he feels about the present day and the types of products we’re turning out. “More effort is required!”
Iain’s steampunk inspired USB drives (one-off designs sporting names like The Nautiliod, The Babbage Rocket and The Corvette) have been made “to look like a time when people knew how to make things, and that could be repaired.” Described on his website - Each USB encryption encoding device embodies the power of steam, that is, how would modern day devices appear as Victorian Technology? Perhaps packed with tiny cogs, pipes and valves all in machines driven by steam and electricity?
“We live in a very throwaway world now – phones, routers – what do you do with your old technology? It’s increasingly difficult to repair things – often cheaper to buy new ones. Are we creating a world for [Pixar’s] Wall-E to clean up?”
Commenting on today’s retail trade, where you can get virtually anything online – Iain questions, “Are they happy with it though?” I told him about my own disastrous (but quite hilarious) experience buying a wedding dress online, which resulted in a stupid number of hours, effort and dollars spent at a tailor in New Zealand trying to repair the damage. Iain shared that he is frequently called on to resize, repair and reshape jewelry pieces bought online.
"There will always be people that appreciate having something crafted for them; that appreciate a handmade product, made only for you, not one of several thousand.”
“Trends come and go with jewelry, and they all have their place (like the Pandoro bracelet) – but other pieces you want to signify a specific occasion or really special moment in your life – it’s those times that people want handmade. I’m a craftsman – I sit down with the customer, listen to their requirements, and find out how they want to achieve it. It’s about building a relationship and making it with them. It’s an old fashioned concept that still has legs."
While Iain anticipates the incorporation of 3D printing technology for making molds in the jewelry industry, he believes there will still be a largely handmade element – pointing out “the ridiculously fine circuit boards” of his star navigator rings, that need to line up and spin just so, “you can’t do that with a computer,” he said.
So after my visit to Oamaru and conversation with Iain Clark, I found myself feeling three things:
- A little more in the know about the steampunk movement in New Zealand
- Warmed to hear someone herald the value of handcrafted original products
- Happy to see a small New Zealand town encouraging creativity and in the process be reinvigorated as an increasingly popular tourist destination.