Sunday, January 9, 2011

From My Workshop: Karakuri Robots and the Tradition of Joy

A karakuri robot- read on to find out more!
You asked for it, so here is a little peek into what art I've been working on/what's been driving me crackers the last few weeks. Also please note that if you'd like to commission me for either costume design or fabrication, just drop me an email!

Of Geisha and Robots:
In my quest to not work a 'real job' this semester (and tick off my parents in the process), I'm taking on more design commissions than I have ever before. On one hand, this is wonderful: I can explore a bevy of looks, cultures, and colors- some of which would look utterly ridiculous on me (there's a reason Miss Kagashi doesn't wear blue...) and furthermore GET PAID! On the other hand typically I'm not the one who makes the costume, so I don't have a hand in breathing life into it or have final say on what precisely is used: but such is life. If I tried to make all of my design commissions with the full love and care I give my sewing/crafting ones, I wouldn't be able to eat- let alone take a full course load.

My current costume design commission is for Vespertine Nova Lark, a local crafter and jeweler whose work can be seen (and purchased) on her etsy. Vespertine approached me about conceptualizing a steampunk geisha and I have to say that it's been an interesting challenge considering Alisa's absolutely mythical interpretation. Instead, I decided to go for a more technological approach using an interesting piece of Japanese history: karakuri robots.

These automata were made in Japan as parlor toys for the rich from the 15th to 19th centuries and were made using advanced pegged and swivveled woodwork and clockwork. Using keys, coils within the bodies of these astonishing automata stored up energy to set them on their various tasks. The two most popular examples (which can be purchased in kit form) are the archer and the tea server.

The archer would draw arrows from his quiver, aim, and fire them from a bow and actually had to be programmed to miss to make it seem more lifelike and create suspense! The tea server was programmed using a weight system to deliver a full cup of tea so someone. When the person was finished, the empty cup would spring a mechanism that sent the karakuri back from whence it came.

Those of you who've read the landmark steampunk novel The Difference Engine, will automatically know what I'm talking about. One of the tropes of steampunk costuming is the clockwork doll (not the band, as awesome as they are) and personally they annoy the tar out of me, as typically they are unimaginative and serve as an excuse for girls to don a fluffy skirt and douse themselves in an awful paint job (and those are the good ones). I've decided to do a spin on the clockwork doll and make it into a karakuri tea serving girl- which is damned similar to a geisha, if I may say! I'll post the finished design here when I've got it painted and scanned.

How My Heritage Made Me Realize What Joy Was
As many of you know, I'm working on a nativepunk. As not a lot of you know: I'm a little nervous. After the reception my articles on Native American steampunk received in various places, I became a little uneasy about going forward on the project I'd designed. It's true that I had done my research, spoken to my family and adult members of various tribes who had seen the AIM movement of the 60s and 70s, to academics, to people who had never set foot on a res or knew what a Potawatomi was.

Want to know what I did to make this character steampunk/Alt Hist?  She can read and write English...

It's true, my outfit displays someone who is clearly a warrior: I will be wearing warpaint indicative of my tribe (red and black) and of the Great Lakes region of the United States, a roach (a headdress worn by many tribes East of the Mississippi), leggings, and my adaptation of a breechclout mixed with a bustle. With the exception of the bustle bit, these are all garments worn by men. To me, it's not a question that I'm wearing artistic and fictional adaptations of Native American clothes, it's that am I going to get in hotter water for wearing drag? I suppose I could always plead Two-Spirit... but I shouldn't have to.

A roach made with scrap metal and wire pieces and my choker recycled from some made long ago by Tawny that was strung on wire.
To avoid hard feelings I've been making my ensemble myself from scratch. I could have ordered a roach on ebay and bodged it to fit my plans, just like I can buy a pair of makizan from a Native vendor- but to me, that doesn't feel right. First of all, these goods were made by the craftsperson to be relatively unaltered and worn to powwows or reenactments. Second of all, if I prove to be made into a figure of controversy for my art, I don't want another native artist to be included.

But most of all, there is a great power you feel when you make something and display it for the world to see. There is no greater joy, no greater pride, and no greater determination. This Native American Steampunk project of mine is not regalia or ceremonial clothing by any means, but the process is truly similar as a prayer (not necessarily a religious one) goes into every stitch, bead, and dab of paint. When I put on my roach, which I made with my own hands, I feel powerful and proud. When I make the mask of red paint on my face, I feel brave, like I want the world to see me and look me in the eye. I looked into the mirror, and even though it was just a headdress, some paint, and a necklace adorning my otherwise ordinary attire- I felt power (and dare I say magic) coursing through me.

That is the power of someone who creates: no matter what form. And I hope someday that you all feel that, or you can feel it every day, like I do.

On the project docket:
- Finish the clockwork tea server design for Vespertine.
- The Nativepunk (set to be debuted at Oklahoma Steampunk Exposition in April). Currently I'm hand embroidering/appliqueing/beading a motif to trim the corset.
- A female pilot outfit (design/sewing) for Salathiel Palland, owner of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.
- A blue silk sherwani coat for G.D. Falksen (hopefully to be presented to him for World Steam Expo in May).


  1. It's a damned if you do damned if you don't question. The minute you get creative with the tropes of history/culture/religion of the oppressed, people get antsy.

    Heck even if you play outside of the box with what is an a Anglo fantasy game (I'm a Black Canadian of Guyanese descent so the term "white" is relative), you are asking for trouble, usually from people from every camp. I'm a SCAdian - btdt.

    I like the garb love - naysayers be damned. My cousin, who does American Tribal style bellydance would love it. His take is that so long as you know your history and culture and show respect you're good to go.

  2. you know there is nothing wrong, in my eyes, with expanding the realm of steampunk to encompass the first colonists (if you look from a land bridge perspective) of the North American Continent.

    Yes many will complain. They will say things like you cannot know how the Native Americans would embrace or not, or throw up the old discrimination rant.

    Who cares!!! If it brings you joy and is something new brought into existence, then go for it.

    I missed being able to claim American Indian heritage by one generation. I say embrace it and be as authentic as you are, and it will be lovely.

  3. Remind me sometime to talk with you about geisha and karakuri in an AIR context, sometime. I have Plans regarding each.

    Also, random homophone time: ningyō [人形] means puppet or doll, while ningyo [人魚] means mermaid (or at least man-fish). So when I saw "karakuri ningyo" my brain automatically jumped to thinking about robotic merfolk. Sometimes I'm not sure whether said brain is a bad or an awesome place to live.

  4. I can recommend specific books on Geisha (Geiko is you're in Kyoto) clothing and culture if you want, or scan and photocopy the relevant sections from my library - I have a small but deep section on them.

  5. You have your hands full m'Lady and I applaud you for many good times and the pissing off of the parents ;)!!! By undertaking commissions that force you to rack your brain, stretch you to the limit, challenge every ounce of yourself and force you to break though the stigma, you make your mark, and so you are... Keep going and don't stop, you are so good at what you do...

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I loved reading about the robots in The Difference Engine -- I'm a fan of tech that actually works, and this is esp. creative, doing it with wood.

    And good on you for exploring how to bring elements of your own culture and background into a Steampunk outfit. I've been sorting through that myself, off and on, for Chinese. I could go the easy route, and just be an Asian in western European clothing (which was one real-life choice of many Chinese in America), and that's probably where I'll start. But I like what the Japanese did with using their fabric for western clothing too. I'm starting out conservatively because I want most things I make to be stuff I can also wear for everyday -- the costume storage area is already full!

    Anyway, thanks again :)