"There's this side of the town that kind of.... resents that there's people having fun, the very conservative side of town, "Ignore this, this is not even happening". Sort of like, "those people don't exist"... because if you go down there, you might see somebody dressed colourfully, having fun, it might be awkward.... It's almost like the [Victorian] precinct, within Oamaru, is a bit like Erewhon over the hill, being ignored, or like them ignoring everyone else... So you could say actually, we might be in the real world, and the actual people in the town are more Erewhonian than we are"
In his novel, Butler's protagonist upon reaching Erewhon, strolls into the Art School of the University: "Here I found that the course of study was divided into two branches - the practical and the commercial - no student being permitted to continue his studies in the actual practice of the art he had taken up unless he made equal progress in its commercial history". It is a satirical and pointed attack on the educational institutions of Butler's time during the advent of the Industrial age, where rather than functioning as the "critic and conscience" of society they began demanding students train to create art/research for the marketplace. Even Butler may not have been able to conceive just how horrifically prescient this prophesy would become in our universities of today where students are unadulterated "customers" and which operate as businesses with former deputy governors of the Reserve Bank at their helm.
The brutal conformity that follows a society which diverts the creative desire to be curious and to dream of new possibilities into the interests of the banking system, is one that artists and communities know well. A Professor at the Colleges of Unreason tells Butler's protagonist "If a man gets to know more than his neighbours he should keep his knowledge to himself till he has sounded them, and seen whether they agree, or are likely to agree with him".
Oamaru's Victorian and Steampunk communities offer a glimpse of difference within the New Zealand provincial tapestry of conformity and consumerism. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris' idea of beauty and function, members spend their time making beautiful and functional things that last rather than buying cheap ugly plastic things that don't. Rather than a rejection of modern technology it is more a rejection of the easy consumerism of late-capitalism.
Within the Steampunk community there is a fetishism for old machinery and skilled craftsmanship (hence the name), where humanity and beauty aren't lost in the process of an object's creation. Within the Victorian community Donna Demente has made and exhibited her paintings and creations at the Grainstore Gallery for 20 years and now also runs it as a music venue with her partner Oliver who supplements this work at the local freezing works. She also organises street festivals and events for the community. We had the pleasure of watching old friend Karin Reid perform in the Gallery with Alex Wolken. Local Bookbinder and owner of Craftwork Brewery Michael and his partner Lee-Ann have made a business making Belgian beer.
All the people we interviewed emphasised the importance of finding a community of "my people" that encouraged participation and the desire to be nonjudgmental and accepting of difference. While the term "punk" appears to divide the community, Simone Montgomery explains that "there are as many philosophies of Steampunk as there are people who participate in Steampunk". For Ms Purple, Steampunk is a "pre-electrikery and plastic" world where people "participate in a creative exchange with each other". For Roscoe Dangerfield, La Falconess and Agent Darling (who also works in the freezing works), Steampunk is an opportunity to redefine the people they are in their everyday lives and has been quite clearly a genuinely liberating and life-altering experience.
Many members dress in Victorian or Steampunk attire in their everyday lives. For them they are not "costumes" but "clothing". This kind of insistence on the legitimacy of their "difference" and their playing it out in their everyday lives creates a reversal - the clothing or "costumes" and behaviours of the "average" or "normal" kiwi start to look strangely contrived and a deliberate aesthetic choice. This reversal is what Butler aimed for in Erewhon.
Living in this way is a precarious life and one that will be confronted by the needs of the marketplace. While money doesn't determine social relations within the community most of them have conventional day jobs outside of it. Perhaps what keeps these communities in Oamaru more visible than they might be elsewhere is their reflection in the grand beauty of the buildings that they inhabit within the historic precinct - having a home is important, a place to create an identity, and this is something we have encountered in our other project interviews.
Aside from the community aspect, the attraction for one gentleman we interviewed was the "Englishness" of Oamaru with its old buildings, isolation and history of sheep export. This desire has inflections of nationalism and what back in England might have been the fire behind Brexit - a rejection of modernity for the nostalgic ideals of a simpler "more English" Victorian era, and this was how it was successfully sold to the British public. But what we also know is that this is clothing for a political movement that would put capitalism on steroids and destroy the very notion of community in favour of private enterprise. Not to mention the problem this fantasy has with regard to the implied superiority of white people, and the denial of current global concerns, including climate change, starvation and the millions of people made refugees from countries where the wars that make it impossible for them to live there are in large part the end result of their colonisation by white people.
But the community seems aware of these contradictions. Oliver acknowledged that there are aspects of the Victorian era that must be rejected (extreme poverty for example) but that it is possible to take some elements from it to refashion our own present way of life. As in Butler's novel, by offering a criticism of the present by rejecting some of it for values of the past, what these communities seem to insist on is the possibility of a more joyful present and future. The people we interviewed were characterised by their unabashed desire to live a meaningful and creative life and to nurture a community around these shared values. By chance we met and interviewed renowned broadcaster and local councillor Jim Hopkins during the community's post-Covid lockdown festival. He spoke of Butler's Erewhon as looking forward to something rather than back, as something visionary, forecasting and thinking ahead rather than fleeing in terror. Butler came to New Zealand to escape a proscribed way of life, but doing so was also an act of dreaming of and creating the possibility for a different future. The desire for this was present in all the people we met in these communities. By embracing such worlds of innovation and creativity perhaps we might find some of the solutions we need to address the looming crises in our future.