The first talk I would like to cite comes from Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight.
His talk is about what actually motivates us in our work, so I feel this is a good starting point for establishing ‘why’ we are working on the Assemblage Union. Essentially, the highest goal is to establish an economic system where everyone’s basic needs are provided for, and social values that validate the human spirit and provide gratifying human interaction where everyone feels included and appreciated. While it is easy to become frustrated, ‘why in this day and age, in this country, do we have hunger , poverty, and racism?!’, the power is in our own hands to prevent these things. We already have more than enough resources and technology to overcome this adversity, what we lack is the value system. With a little tweaking and accumulation of small, gradual changes, we can transition into a mode that is more receptive toward equal distribution of the world’s resources and establish a healthy standard of living for all. This must be our primary collective goal, if we table some of the other moral issues for the time being, I think we will find elegant solutions in design and simple reallocation of values.
In the talk, Dan describes the psychological impact of ‘sisyphic’ work conditions, those which are repetitive and meaningless. These are tasks that in all cases, bored, frustrated, and invalidated the humans asked to do them, and in all cases his study showed that even money was not motivation enough to participate. There is a common assumption that people work because they need money, but a little appreciation goes a long way toward changing work from drudgery, to gratifying! Taking this much further, he started to test the connection between makers, and the value they placed on handmade goods. He tested it by asking participants to complete origami pieces, and comparing the value and aesthetic appreciation assigned by people who actually had experienced making them, vs. people who hadn’t done any folding and were just judging the finished pieces, never meeting their maker. Of course, there is a huge divide between what goods are valued at, depending on the level of connection with the work! And this increases as the difficulty of the execution and ingenuity involved increases.
I have observed this psychology at play at my shows, and strive to cultivate it as much as possible. Vendors, and patrons that have actively made parts of their costumes, tend to spend the most money on handmade goods. They know the value, because they have experienced how much work goes in, but contrary to the popular con paradigm of ‘oh I’m crafty I could just make this myself!’, the opposite is actually happening. Makers become adept at one or a few things, but if there is something that they have tried, and don’t like or haven’t done well at, the value they place on that aptitude goes way up, and their likeliness to buy it from another maker is high. As long as everyone in the system, has tried their hand at making something, the values in the system are extremely stable. Where we see the biggest sort of ‘worm hole’ in the system, where money is pouring out to other mass produced sources, is in people who don’t make anything. It is commonly assumed that having a lot of different makers vying for the same customers will drive up competition, but we actually have been experiencing the contrary, where when vendors show together frequently, they learn from one another and start to fill in the holes in the market share, of different products or price points. They sort of organically work around each other, when one focuses more on online business, the other finds a niche to fill, and having BOTH at a show offering a diverse range drives up the demand for both product lines.
“But won’t having an excess of one type of product saturate the market and make it harder to get the asking price?” Sometimes yes, as we can see in the previously cited study, objects on the lower end of the difficulty scale, or that are easier to combine from already produced components, are at high risk for this. Jewelry, tending to be on the lower price point side of the scale, is difficult because of this, and also the lengths which mass production has gone to capture steampunk market share. What might be a significant artistic movement, and part of our culture to us, to the mainstream is just another fad to capitalize on. I was just in Hobby Lobby scoping out the state of things, and the steampunk lines they have in jewelry are worry some to me, as they are mass produced at low price and aesthetically are very comparable to what a lot of my vendors stock. But I know the work that actually goes into them, and one particularly annoying hypocrisy is where mass produced items emulate found objects. A lot of my artisans go to a lot of trouble to find innovative uses for things that would otherwise end up in the trash, and the fact that entire jewelry lines are mass produced to capture that spirit… While actually contributing more to the problem, is just asinine. There is nothing we can really do about this, and most patrons do know the difference and are not shopping at places like that, in some ways I guess we should be grateful that the public values our aesthetic enough to mimic it, and maybe has more of a chance to value what we do, but it will take a lot of exposure and education to get them to see why buying from there is harmful.
So how do we prevent this? And more importantly, why do we want to? What’s really at stake here? The Assemblage Union serves both humans, and the environment they live in, and strives to empower people to have a stake in keeping it clean and safe for the future. So this type of mass production is dangerous, both economically for us, and environmentally. By rallying together as makers, against this common enemy of outsourcing and all the problems that come with it, we are protecting our mutual interests. It is important to keep in mind, as much competition as we might experience with one another, it pales in comparison to the black hole that is the open market taking money out of the local micro systems. And then hiding the profits in off shore accounts. Unity is going to be required of us to overcome this, and put more money back into the system! Thus, the Union.
We must celebrate the makers, and engage with the public so that each and every person has tried to make something, start lifting up the people who find something they enjoy and not squelch their interest by making them feel like they don’t deserve a part of the market share. I see a lot of this competitive behavior, primarily at conventions, something about the format is just really conducive to sharkiness and it needs to be addressed. Not everyone is going to be able to do this full time and make a living at it, but in my experience the only difference between those that do and don’t, is simply doing it. A lot, for a long time. Putting the time in is the only difference between the artist, and someone who doesn’t consider themselves to be one. An atmosphere of encouragement and value, which is based on the effort and not just the aesthetic is crucial for building resilience into our economy, these are the values upon which America was founded upon and we need to stop depending on legislation alone to uphold them. Not everyone is going to be a Picasso starting out, and that’s ok! It doesn’t cost you anything to give a thumbs up. And for the cost of what their first run of products might be, it is certainly worth buying it out and pushing them to get to the next step. A lot of the higher level cosplayers and artisans, many times the exceptional examples from other countries, take up a lot of the spotlight and by and large have been allowed to define steampunk, what it is, who it’s for. Especially in cosplay, this is hyper sexualized, and sets an expectation for the public that the glamour factor is what is valued, and we as a community need to come together to combat this.
We need to celebrate every maker. Steampunk above all other things has so much potential for advancing equality, in race, gender, age, and other factors that have been highly segregated in art and hobby communities. This is our chance to level the playing field, and say yes, your time is valuable to me, I appreciate what you do and it inspires me to do more myself! I am motivated, and it is more important that this work expresses my experience as a human being than it become a mass produced trinket. A lot of people hearken to the good ol days, and rare ol times, and many mistakenly assume that is what is so appealing about steampunk. But the thematic elements are nothing without the attitude, the handmade quality is what is so quintessential about steampunk and is actually the driving force behind the aesthetic appreciation. Art has gone through cycles of this throughout history, oscillating between the human and machine, imperfection and imperfection, handmade and emulated. We are in a period of outcry back to the human touch, and steampunk is actually the first structured, unified, global artistic movement. We are in the middle of something very special, many movements in the past were driven by politics, rebellion, wanting to stand out, to make a statement… Steampunk is the very first movement who’s sole purpose is to bring people together and put them in touch with the objects they use and create their environment with. It’s a celebration of humanity’s use of tools, the thing which supposedly separates us from other animals, and is fundamentally human. It relishes our need to replicate ourselves, to make dolls and robots that look like us, and challenge what defines us as people. Scifi is reaching new heights of multimedia, and expressing very abstract philosophical notions, and though we often get caught up in all the crises and challenges facing our global civilization, it’s important to look back at how far we have come, what we have achieved and how much we have learned about ourselves.
To err is human, through industrialization we have had many missteps, but one not altogether unexpected but nonetheless crucial result of this is robots. We now have the ability to mechanize sysiphic tasks, and free up human intelligence to work on bigger things, but our economy has not kept up with the massive increase in productivity. Worse, our social system has not adjusted it’s values to distinguish human from robot. In most of the dystopian scifi literature, my favorite being the Dune prequels, robots breaking their programming and becoming thinking machines is the greatest fear for humans. We end up having to wage war against them, and try to save ourselves from our creations, but in the end it always turns out that the robots reveal the true monstrosity in ourselves. Instead of rallying together against them, we use them as leverage to turn people against one another, and reveal dark things that not even the supposed enemies are capable of. This is exactly what is happening right now, though they might not look like mobile suits, terminators, or agents from the Matrix, these machines are highlighting the evil qualities in humans. They allow us to commit atrocities against one another, and say ‘your time is not as valuable as mine!’ We have in our global economy, forms of slavery more horrific than our predecessors ever dreamed of. And it stems from our separateness.
We need to come together and delegate those tasks, which are sysiphic, draining, and degrading to health to the robots. If it does not absolutely need to be done by human hands, it shouldn’t be. But this technological utopia would be nothing without a realignment of values that then takes the freed up time of people and gives it to them without duress. Free time in our society is stigmatized as laziness, a ‘welfare state’, unrealized potential, etc. Without adequate free time, we cannot be truly free. We can’t make decisions for ourselves, and a lot of our rights lapse under the pressure we are put to work like robots. Most dangerously, we cannot innovate. Robots were conceived during a time when everything was done manually, it motivated people to dream up fanciful solutions, and then greatly rewarded those who achieved the early patents. We don’t have such a reward system in place now, the patent process is expensive, lengthy, politically skewed, and unrewarding. So what is the reward that will motivate our bright young innovators, if according to Ariely’s studies, money ceases to be a motivator after a certain point?
We need to ask ourselves some critical questions about the use of money. If it neither motivates innovation, nor facilitates it in many cases, why do we have it? There are many problems in this world that throwing money at will not solve. Cancer research is one such money hole, by pumping money into finding a cure, we are still driving a lot of the economic activity that inadvertently releases carcinogens into the environment. Only to have the studies then say, ‘prevention is crucial!’ A lot of human activities are like that, in our quest for knowledge we are so driven, that it is only once we have made the mistakes that we realize it was actually our process causing the problem. It’s the way in which we do it, it is difficult to be mindful at every stage of a production about what it’s implications will be. But, one sure way to do that is to apply good design principles from the get go, to take notes from mother nature about elegant, simple solutions. Biomimicry continues to be a very exciting development approach, and steampunk really beautifully illustrates it, things like the Wright brothers watching birds to develop a flying machine, or looking at the streamlined shape of fish to develop submarines. The romantic notion that humans can level the physical playing field with the use of machines is a very endearing quality of steampunk art. But there is also a lot of good science in it, and I think that celebrating it in art is really important to excite people about design.
In our education system we have a big push toward STEM disciplines, but there is growing concern that this is just more of the same test score pumping strategy. And it also neglects a crucial segment of design that rightfully belongs with the others! I propose that as a community, we strive to promote STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, architecture, and math), and try to entice the curiosity and creativity of young people rather than just get them to memorize enough to get the scores. STEAM is crucial for leveling the playing field early on, helping kids to find their passions and not get lost in the system, to empower them to think for themselves and become independent enough to challenge our archaic notions. There are so many clever and deserving young people in these fields, that are so stifled by the need to ‘make it’ or be successful in it by societies standards, that they have no room to innovate and certainly no reward in doing so unless they are one of the rare few picked up by an article or internet meme that happens to make the rounds. We need a global ‘fridge’ to put their work up on, we need to showcase every maker instead of just praising the most exceptional cases. Because that exception, had many other attempts that didn’t make it to the fridge, something in them pushed them to the point that made the spotlight, but any one of those others could be there in the right value system. So I encourage every one of you, if you have a project that didn’t turn out as hoped, please still post about it, talk about your process, try to learn as much as you can from it, because it’s really important to me and everyone else that you keep going. Encourage others, because we just don’t know where the secrets to our sustainability and survival are locked, one kind word can be all it takes to cure. To heal. To grow. To overcome adversity. To soar.
Blessed be everyone, I say this because I haven’t yet found the steampunk equivalent and for now it is appropriate, I am curious if anyone has a suggestion for a little something that carries the same heartfelt connotation of goodwill, I really want to capture that. ‘Godspeed’ or ‘Create with Abandon’ come to mind, maybe ‘Stay Gold’. Thoughts?