Raw Interview with Libby Bulloff

Self-Por­trait Red and Blue, Lib­by Bulloff

Lib­by Bulloff is a pro­fes­sion­al graph­ic design­er, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and video­g­ra­ph­er, whose work played a large role in The Steam­punk Bible, includ­ing two side­bars on Steam­punk fash­ion styles and acces­sories. She runs Exoskele­ton Cabaret, a small busi­ness devot­ed to wear­able art, and has had her work appear in Wired.com, Boing Boing, WarrenEllis.com, Diesel Sweet­ies, Craftzine, Makezine, the Webo­ma­tor Blog, Street Tech, and Etsy’s The Storque. She also writes, edits, and illus­trates for Steam­punk Mag­a­zine and is The Steam­punk Work­shop’s fash­ion con­trib­u­tor.

To quote Lib­by from her web­site:  “My work syn­the­sizes art and craft, ret­ro­spect and inno­va­tion. It is about cre­at­ing impos­si­bly won­drous worlds out of the dis­card­ed and for­got­ten in order to res­ur­rect a glo­ri­ous future.

In my pho­tog­ra­phy, I look to build a port­fo­lio of images that dis­play mod­els cre­ative­ly, build­ing on nat­ur­al, -real- beau­ty with extra­or­di­nary cos­tumes and makeup/hairstyles of epic pro­por­tions. I’m intrigued by the bizarre and com­i­cal. I love shoot­ing smart and strong peo­ple of all sizes with anom­alous fea­tures. Dur­ing a shoot with me, you will emote, you will have fun, and you will dis­cov­er aspects of your­self for­got­ten or unknown.”

Below is the inter­view con­duct­ed with Lib­by in the ear­ly stages of the book’s dis­cov­ery in 2010.

Steam­punk Bible: What is your per­son­al def­i­n­i­tion of Steam­punk?

Lib­by Bulloff: Steam­punk is a style, lit­er­ary genre, and sub­cul­ture con­tain­ing nos­tal­gic ele­ments lift­ed from the 19th cen­tu­ry (and oth­er time peri­ods, not lim­it­ed to the past) mar­ried to spec­u­la­tive nods toward the fan­tas­tic, cheeky, or roman­tic. In order for some­thing to be Steam­punk, and not sim­ply neo-Vic­to­ri­an homage, it has to con­tain both antique aspects and at least one non sequitur.

Also, Steam­punk is awe­some [this is my favorite def­i­n­i­tion, per­son­al­ly].

Steam­punk Bible: How long have you been involved/interested in Steam­punk?

Lib­by Bulloff: I became inter­est­ed in Steam­punk before it tru­ly emerged as a coun­ter­cul­ture. I would assume that it was around 2002 or ear­ly 2003 that I became involved.

Steam­punk Bible: What dif­fer­ences do you see between now and when you start­ed?

Lib­by Bulloff: Years ago, upon dis­cussing with a friend a Vic­to­ri­an fan­ta­sy world laden with heavy machin­ery, must, grit, and soot, I Googled to see if any such genre exist­ed in two- or three-dimen­sion­al form and found the Live­jour­nal com­mu­ni­ty “anachrotech”. I think much of what became the Steam­punk cul­ture came out of ban­ter in this com­mu­ni­ty and oth­ers. Par­tic­i­pants used to post an exam­ple or two a week of envi­able mod­ded tech or brass-coat­ed clocks. Now the inter­net com­mu­ni­ty of Steam­punk afi­ciona­dos is too large to ade­quate­ly describe, with mes­sage boards, blogs, stores, etc. in use all over the web.

Beyond the ‘net, Steam­punk has bled over into meat­space, and with the mass appeal it has gen­er­at­ed come the typ­i­cal issues of any sub­cul­ture. In the begin­ning, the cul­ture was obscure and spec­u­la­tive enough that there were no defined Steam­punk fash­ion trends, no hard and fast rules, and a wide­spread accep­tance of “any­thing goes”. As it’s main­streamed, steam­punk has become less accept­ing but more acces­si­ble. Aspects that drove me into its arms half a decade ago have been purged or repressed in favor of a struc­ture that can be mar­ket­ed and con­sumed more eas­i­ly.

All sub­cul­tures become more rigid­ly orga­nized as time pass­es. I doubt Steam­punk will remain muta­ble if it stays around for a long time. The DIY def­i­nite­ly con­tributes to the free-spirit­ed­ness of Steam­punk, but then again, both goth and punk used to be more DIY-ori­ent­ed before being com­mer­cial­ized by record labels and cloth­ing com­pa­nies try­ing to make a buck. I do not expect this sub­cul­ture will be any dif­fer­ent. The artists who basi­cal­ly inno­vat­ed the visu­al aes­thet­ic of Steam­punk are emu­lat­ed by the mass­es of fans, and trends grow and change based on both the ear­ly adopters and the needs of lat­er fol­low­ers, as do all sub­cul­tures. Steam­punk is still a small child as far as sub­cul­tures go — it hasn’t been fash­ion­able as long as say, goth or punk, and there­fore I can say that it is still more com­mu­ni­ty-based rather than scene-depen­dent, but it is well on its way.

The Street Urchin, by Lib­by Bulloff, was part of a ses­sion Bulloff did espe­cial­ly for the book, and illus­trates the side­bar “Steam­punk Fash­ion: Four Styles.”

Steam­punk Bible: What are the dif­fer­ent types of Steam­punk fash­ion you’ve seen in your expe­ri­ence?

Lib­by Bulloff: I’ve seen two basic fac­tions: seri­ous cos­play­ers, con-goers, reen­ac­tors; and Steam­punk casu­al – a more palat­able, dai­ly-wear look that pulls from a pletho­ra of vin­tage influ­ences. The for­mer group is obsessed with detail and often choos­es to por­tray var­i­ous Steam­punk icons (such as air­ship cap­tains, tin­ker­ers, pirates, etc.), but only at specif­i­cal­ly Steam­punk-friend­ly events. The lat­ter group seems more relaxed and less obsessed with peri­od-cor­rect­ness or char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

Steam­punk Bible: You work with Steam­punk Mag­a­zine. Could you tell me more about your role with the mag­a­zine and what you think the mag­a­zine means to the DIY/sustainability move­ment?

Lib­by Bulloff: The mag­a­zine began, for me, in ear­ly Jan­u­ary of 2006, when my esteemed col­league, Mar­garet Killjoy, put out a call for sub­mis­sions for a ‘zine with a retrotech and Steam­punk theme. Each suc­ces­sive issue has con­tained at least one piece of my writ­ing and some of my art­work, and I have helped with edit­ing the final drafts, too. I’ve brought the mag­a­zine to the Bay Area Mak­er Faire these past two years as well.

I think, with­out SPM, that the polit­i­cal and sus­tain­able notions in Steam­punk might nev­er have been dis­cussed out­side of pri­vate mes­sage boards. It exposed a lot of reg­u­lar folk, of all ages and eco­nom­ic back­grounds, to the pos­i­tive aspects of anar­chism, fem­i­nism, upcy­cling, mak­ing, etc.

The mag­a­zine is now oper­at­ed out of the UK and I am no longer as involved in it, but it’s still oper­at­ed by a col­lec­tive of peo­ple who respect the DIY aspects of the move­ment and care about sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

Steam­punk Bible: Steam­punk fash­ion has a huge DIY cul­ture. But it’s also becom­ing main­stream – in fact, this past sea­son many of the major hous­es had steam­punk influ­enced designs on the run­way. Do you think this com­mer­cial­iza­tion of Steam­punk will com­pro­mise its orig­i­nal spir­it of DIY?

I feel like the only way to save Steam­punk fash­ion from being con­sumed and pitched away is to, iron­i­cal­ly, casu­al­ize it. So many of the Steam­punks I see are not ready to com­mit to rock­ing the aes­thet­ic as their reg­u­lar attire, claim­ing that it’s too dif­fi­cult, expen­sive, or social­ly inhibit­ing. Thus, it’s not main­stream inter­est that makes steam fash­ion fad­like – it’s the folks with­in the sub­cul­ture who mis­guid­ed­ly view only heav­i­ly embell­ished out­fits con­tain­ing gog­gles, func­tion­less gears, and sepia and brown as the one true look of Steam­punk. We’re no bet­ter than our wealthy, trendy, hip­ster coun­ter­parts when we cease con­tin­u­ous meta­mor­pho­sis of our look, when we won’t fear­less­ly mod­el our style at our desk jobs, and when we eschew mak­ing old gar­ments into new, upcy­cled ones because it’s eas­i­er to buy from the mall. As deft­ly put by Walt Kel­ly: “We have met the ene­my and he is us”.

I believe that as long as Steam­punks encour­age each oth­er to make their own cloth­ing, or at the very least spend mon­ey on Etsy and buy gar­ments from small, inde­pen­dent­ly-owned design hous­es, that the main­stream won’t usurp the spir­it behind Steam­punk. If we give up on con­stant­ly hon­ing and re-envi­sion­ing our aes­thet­ic, then we lose. Fash­ion­istas and cool­hunters will give up on Vic­to­ri­an-influ­enced cou­ture when the next sea­son comes – will we?

Steam­punk Bible: What do you see as the tri­umphs and dis­ap­point­ments of Steam­punk?

Lib­by Bulloff: I think Steam­punk gave a lot of nerdy, geeky peo­ple across the world a voice, and it gave out­casts some hope that we could look inter­est­ing, change the way art and tech objects are designed and are used, and re-envi­sion the present with nods to both the glo­ries of the past and the poten­tial for the future. I love that I can attend Steam­punk events and see 6-year-olds shar­ing and sto­ry­telling with 66-year-olds. It has this uni­ver­sal appeal that is both a bless­ing and a bur­den.

It’s dis­ap­point­ing that like every social trend, it’s been dis­tilled down to some­thing that often feels over­done, soul­less, and exhaust­ed. I rarely see peo­ple active­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly try­ing to evolve it past where it cur­rent­ly lies, and this is high­ly depress­ing. The polit­i­cal nature of the genre has been con­stant­ly silenced by those who feel Steam­punk is best rep­re­sent­ed by bour­geois booth babes with Nerf ray­guns.

Also, it is a shame that some peo­ple believe that wear­ing mul­ti­ple pairs of gog­gles at the same time is fash­ion-for­ward.

Steam­punk Bible: Future of Steam­punk fash­ion? Where do you see it evolv­ing too?

Lib­by Bulloff: I fear that it won’t be the main­stream that will ruin Steam­punk fash­ion – I believe it will be those with­in the sub­cul­ture them­selves who will low­er it to a mere pass­ing trend. Steam­punk cloth­ing is often imprac­ti­cal, uncom­fort­able, and inap­pro­pri­ate for wear out­side of con­ven­tions, par­ties, and for­mal affairs. While it has pop­u­lar­ized to the point of being rep­re­sent­ed at clubs, and while it has appeared in cou­ture lines and on celebri­ties, Steam­punk has not become high­ly vis­i­ble as a com­mon street fash­ion trend. Or, if it has become a fash­ion trend, it hasn’t yet entire­ly meta­mor­phosed into a func­tion­al, sus­tain­able style. Fash­ion lasts a sea­son (if that); style is inter­nal, eter­nal, and tran­scends time.

Casu­al­iz­ing Steam­punk is as sim­ple as see­ing the aes­thet­ic as broad­er than just a cos­play affec­ta­tion. The props involved in much of Steam­punk con­ven­tion wear, whilst inter­est­ing, are cum­ber­some and alien­at­ing, or just down­right ridicu­lous for say, the office or the gro­cery store. Clothes can be cos­tumes, but not all cos­tumes are clothes. On the oth­er hand, the inher­ent time­less­ness of all Steam­punk cloth­ing is what makes it attrac­tive on a day-to-day basis. The finest Steam­punk out­fits are a flir­ta­tion of for­mal and casu­al, a blend of old and new. This can­not be achieved by snob­by fash­ion­istas who won’t make the time and care it takes to cre­ate a sus­tain­able, unique, nuanced wardrobe, and this is where we have the upper hand.

I hope that Steam­punk fash­ion con­tin­ues to evolve and diver­si­fy and that it doesn’t lose its DIY fla­vor. One does not have to be rich or thin to look great in hand­made Steam­punk garb, and the most fan­tas­tic items for padding one’s Steam­punk wardrobe usu­al­ly don’t have a lit­tle label dis­cern­ing them as Steam­punk, either.

“Raw Interview with Libby Bulloff” was published in Art, Fashion, Interviews, Photography and tagged , , .

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