Ten years ago, Oamaru got its first taste of steampunk and became the unlikely world capital of the sub-genre. Steampunk enthusiasts from around the world now come to the town each year, stepping into their alternative realities echoing a future as imagined in the steam-age industrial 19th century. Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan talks to Iain Clark (aka Agent Darling) and Helen Jansen (aka La Falconesse) about how a combination of location and inspiration has ensured nowhere in the world has made steampunk a central part of its community like Oamaru has.
It all started with a “steampunked” beer mug.
Iain Clark (aka Agent Darling), a captain in Oamaru’s Alf’s Imperial Army, was celebrating at a victory over rivals the McGillicuddy Army.
For the after match party, he brought along a steampunk mug he had created, embellished with gadgets.
It attracted a lot of attention and inspired a lot of creativity – and the manufacturing jeweller wanted to do more.
And so, the Victorian League of Imagineers was born – a small group of enthusiasts who have led the charge over the past 10 years in stamping Oamaru’s name as the steampunk capital of New Zealand, and the world.
After brainstorming all things steampunk, the group approached Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations committee chairwoman Sally Hope about holding an art exhibition.
“It was only meant to be a small exhibition in the Forrester Gallery,” Helen Jansen, one of the original Victorian League of Imagineers members, said.
To help give Oamaru’s first steampunk exhibition a boost, Mr Clark called on Weta Workshop’s Richard Taylor for help, hoping he might contribute a raygun or two.
Mr Clark had already established a connection with Weta Workshop through his award-winning work as a jeweller.
Mr Taylor added his might to the exhibition launch, contributing a shipping container full of steampunk gadgets and art.
Brian de Geest and Don Paterson also got on board, creating an impressive Steampunk tractor that graced the main street, alongside Chris Meder’s giant steampunk motorbike.
It was the first Oamaru had seen of steampunk – and it liked it. It turned into the best-attended exhibition in the Forrester Gallery’s history.
The term steampunk originated as a tongue-in-cheek variant of cyberpunk.
It was coined by science fiction author K.W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for his work, but its origins can be traced right back to the Victorian era, with authors H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.
It now has a place in mainstream modern culture.
To keep momentum building in Oamaru, the Victorian League of Imagineers began planning a steampunk fashion show and gala ball, to run alongside the next exhibition in 2010.
“We saw the potential for the growth, especially with the encouragement from Weta about potential for steampunk in New Zealand and in Oamaru,” Mr Clark said.
“So we took that to heart and developed a festival.”
At the time, many locals were sceptical, but, despite early resistance, the movement grew.
Other locals, like Sally-Ann Donnelly, had supported the League of Victorian Imagineers’ vision from the get-go.
“Without that sort of help, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ms Jansen said.
As the festival progressed, the League of Victorian Imagineers evolved, as did the organisation of the festival.
It now has a co-ordinator and is run by the Steampunk NZ Trust.
It is the largest steampunk festival in the Southern Hemisphere and it has created recognition for Oamaru on the world stage – and not just in steampunk circles.
“It’s good for the town in many ways,” Ms Jansen said.
“Most Oamaru people don’t get it . . . but we have had an international influence in a very niche sort of way.”
Ms Jansen said the North Otago town was perfect for steampunk, given its Victorian heritage.
“Oamaru has a backdrop which is second-to-none for the genre,” she said.
“It’s just this energy that Oamaru’s got.”
Steampunk HQ’s version of the sub-genre, while different to the Victorian League of Imagineers’, provided a year-round presence for it in Oamaru.
Over the past 10 years the festival has grown to include tape art, workshops, a parade, markets, teapot and monster pot racing, tea duelling and an indoor street party.
Teapot racing, created by Simone Montgomery in memory of Donna-Rose McKay, was a world first in Oamaru.
“Now it’s all over the world,” she said.
In 2016, Oamaru made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest gathering of steampunks in the world.
Over the years, a small but dedicated group of people in Oamaru had committed a lot of time and energy into organising the festival.
“We’ve got a great committee, over the last three or four years that’s evolved so I’ve been able to step back a little bit,” Ms Jansen said.
“That’s lifted the burden enormously.”
While there had been some resistance from locals, Ms Jansen said it had still given them a sense of identity – even if they did not get it.
People discovered their creative selves through steampunk – that was one of the many reasons why it appealed.
“It draws the potential out of people, the creativity, the possibility thinking that people can tap into,” she said.
“The atmosphere here is one of warmth and inclusiveness.
“We are really strong about the fact that anybody is welcome – and you don’t have to dress up.”