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American Steampunk, Bicycles and Activism

[An interview with American Steam Punk activist Johnny Payphone]

by Adrian Ioniţă

[Johnny Payphone and the Pennyfakething] ©2008 Johnny Payphone

click pentru versiunea română

Two guys are sneaking in the back alley of my building. Lola Chicago and Johnny Payphone. They found out
that I have the largest steam boiler in Chicago, and are planning to dig a hole in the wall. I watch and hear them
through my miniature version of Paul St George's Telectroscope and wonder how in the world can they hire in
La Villita a Bagger 288 without being noticed Lola, who works as a carpenter by day, is a cross-dresser and
punk cabaret singer by night. She has a 6000 square ft. studio around the corner of my place, filled with the most
incredible stuff on earth. Johnny is the quintesence of a steam punk activist, member of the Chicago Rat Patrol,
cultural ambasador to Ghana through Sister Cities International, and Minister of Public Works for New
Zealand’s regional of the Burning Man. Or something like that. Before they’ll knock down the wall, I’ll better let
them inside, sacrifice some of my illegal Cuban cigars, open a bottle of 16 year old smoky Lagavulin Scotch
whisky, chew some fresh lovage, and talk about Steam Punk. Lola, who will be featured in our next number at
Egophobia took the photos, while Johnny introduced himself naturally, without any suggestions:

JP: My name is Johnny Payphone, that’s my assumed name, or professional name. I think that is important to
understand that I am a product of a very humble family, farmers on both sides, a family with a deep appreciation
for the past and simplicity in life. As a child, I was not given as many toys or material possessions as other children,
instead my parents invested in experiences for me, making sure I went to camp and the great outdoors and that
sort of things, for example, they will give me a pair of stilts before they will give me some little toy car which will
break over the time, because they felt that the physical and the symbol are more important in your life than

AI: A philosophy of life so challenging today when it seems that we live in a different world. How do you feel
affected by change?
JP: In the 30 years that I have grown up, the world has become a horribly consumerist place, or at least, America
has, so everything I do is a sort of backlash against that. I try to remind people that the important things in our life
are our friends, good food, the time we spend with people we love, activities that we enjoy creating things with our
hands, and not at all, what the American people tend to desire, which is a flashy car, the latest large screen
television, various electronic devices, that I feel, only served to separate us from our life., on a cell phone or texting
on a thing, or watching a television show about some guys who were making motorcycles, when they themselves
could be on there, making and riding them. People were lured from the immediacy of their real life.

AI: How do you reconcile these conflicting feelings of living in a highly consumerist society and the escapist desire
to find a refuge in the past?
JP: It appears on the surface that I am a technophobe, that I don’t like the technology at all, but that’s not it, in fact
many steam punks are obsessed with technology, is just that we wish to return to a time when everything was user
serviceable and immediately available to understanding by the common person. The reason steam punk has settled
on this sort of 1890 timeframe, is because it was the last period in human history when a high school graduate
could be expected to grasp the fundamental principles behind all of human knowledge, and so, if you got a radio or
a tractor or a phonograph, you would be able to understand it inside and out, look at the pieces and know how they
work, and also be able to repair it, if necessary.

AI: I always wondered, why this fixation with the Victorian era?
JP: You can kind of look at it in terms of the class structure of the Victorian age, where you had a peasant class and
a craftsman class and you had an upper class, and the upper class consumed the product of the craftsmen. In the
Steam Punk world were a lot of people obsessed with making very shinny, very pretty covers for their computers or
flat screen televisions, but, within that scene, were also a lot of people interested in reviving technology, not letting
it die, getting steam power machines running, and running new art, also using old photographic techniques that
are in danger of dying out. There is also another element to it - just returning to a time, when people had manners -
when people dressed up to go out, when they took some care to their appearance.
[Johnny Payphone] ©2008 Adrian Ioniţă

AI: You chose today an industrial blue working uniform ...

JP: I came prepared for the boiler room... No, it is not to say that you shouldn’t have the freedom to look or appear
however you want, I myself have many tattoos and piercing that cause me to be some of a reject for modern society,
but I will still say “how do you do” to someone who is passing me on the street, and they may look at me as a
toughie and not even acknowledge me or say hello, and so, that’s the sort of thing. There used to be a human
connection between people. Part of it was that, if you lived in a neighborhood or a town small enough, you had to
know someone else, and this sort of worked as a social reinforcement and control on crimes that we have today
with psychopaths, child molesters and people who rub old ladies; that happened in the old days as well, but now is
much easier to get away with not knowing your neighbors and not knowing what are they up to, and than, not
knowing what are you up to, and that sort of things. Unfortunately, I think, what happens, as a result of this
disconnection from our lives that technology brings us, is, allows people to become more and more lonely, and the
way you generate a killer or a psychopath, is to deny them human compassion. When someone shows signs of
mental trouble, they should have compassion extended to them and we should help that person. What happens in
our society now, they continue to receive benefits from the government and never leave their apartment, none in
their own world, that’s when the mental illness gets worse.

AI: Please tell me something about your objects.

JP: I tell you, I am a guy who has a hard time creating art that is not functional. I looked into nomadic societies
like “American Indians Move’ who never had a permanent home base. They could not afford to carry around
useless objects, so they worked art in everything they did. That’s another thing that the craftsman of the Victorian
era did, whereas, the objects that come to us today from overseas, are anonymous, and we have no connection what
so ever to the person who made them. In the old days you may had only one chair but it was a very nice chair, and
you knew who made that chair and that person’s grandfather also made chairs, and that sort of things. We had a
connection to our lives. My grandfather was a farmer but he fixed all his machineries and had a welding shop. It is
were I learned to weld. Lately I have worked with Butler Street Foundry from Bridgeport.

AI: How do you blend your personality in the fabric of the object?
JP: Everything I make is functional in some way, even if the result is a parody and is quite nonfunctional by what it
is. In a sense, I can take functional objects and make them less functional but I have a very hard time expressing
myself in a purely artistic way. I always want to make on a blacksmith’s forge, a very nice fork or spoon or
something that I can give someone that may be able to use it. Regarding the sort of art that is just a shapeless hunk
of metal in a gallery, I believe that a lot of the value of that kind of art is based on the perception of the art
community. At the end of the day, something I make may not have much of an artistic value, but it still has its use,
so, I make bicycles, contraptions, trinkets and things for everyday life.

AI: How important is the use of materials in Steampunk?

JP: Steam Punk is not limited by material or dimension at all. I know many people who make clothing, which is
very creative. Small is easy to do in your basement hobby shop. Large takes money, but than, we have examples as
the Neverwas Haul, which is a moving Victorian mansion on wheels, or the world’s largest scrap steel sculpture, the
FOREVERTRON a tremendous contraption designed by Dr Evermore to propel a copper egg into the ether. Kinetic
Steam Works is a group of artists that runs actual steam traction engines to power kinetic art such as a Merry- Go–
Round, or an impressive Steam Punk Tree House, presented the last year at the Burning Man event in Black Rock
City, California...

AI: Are you working with any galleries or museums?

JP: I put some of my machines in the galleries before, but we have this term of Outsider Art, or Folk Art, which is
sort of an insult because it implies that if you are not educated in an artistic institution or, you are not shown in
galleries, than you are not really an artist, you are just a sort of whimsical, foxy, exocentric, who happens to create
art. The media these days, the New York Times for example, is very eager to focus on a product that steam punks
may produce, such as a modification for your computer that allows it to look more old fashion, but the true
expression is in your lifestyle, you make choices in your life to, I will say, enrich it, by taking the best parts of a
period of time and also consumptively editing out the worst parts.

AI: I’d like to hear more from you, about Steam Punk and lifestyle.
JP: I would say that I was a steam punk before I even heard about that term.
For me Steam Punk is very much an expression of my lifestyle. There are examples of people from now, like Dr.
ASI, (Dr. Adrian Silvan Ionescu from Romania) extending back into the eighteen hundreds, who just sort of said,
this is the time I was meant to be born, and this is how I will behave. And then is Dr. Evermore in Wisconsin, who
is a scrap artist, who always made things and sign them with false states from eighteen hundreds, and the objects,
as you looked at them, looked like it could be that old, but then also, they looked too futuristic, producing steam
punk expressions you don’t quiet know if are hundred years in the future or in the past, or a combination of both.

AI: Again, Johnny, about your lifestyle...

JP: I don’t watch television, I don’t own a television. I don’t think that it is a particularly rewarding or acceptable
way to pass your time. You are given how many years on this Earth as a human being, and you’re going to spend it
watching trash television? This leaves us with challenges to overcome. I am living the life of a nomad working out
festivals around the world. I just came back from Australia, everything I have, has to be functional and my
possessions are pared down to a very small number of trunks. I travel by train rather then flying. I feel that it is
such more a dignifying way to travel. There are compromises we have to make, I use a bicycle to get around, and I
don’t use an automobile. I never owned an automobile in my life, but I will consider a big old truck that I could live
in, or something like a utility truck or motorcycle with good mileage or something that may ran on grease. A friend
of mine in San Francisco, Chicken John, has converted his truck to run on coffee grounds using a gasifier. He
noticed that the coffee shop throw out a barrel of used coffee grounds everyday and he looked up stories of world
time farmers converting their trucks over the gasifiers, basically burning corn shocks, stocks of weed or whatever.
This is very simple to do, all you need to do, you have a device that gets it to a high enough temperature and this
produces a flammable gas that you can stick directly into your carburetor; it does not require to modify your
engine. For me it is a statement about what’s going on in this world and how we got this global conspiracy to keep
us addicted to oil, and we continuously kill people to maintain that. Its horrible, energy falls free from the sky.

AI: Global conspiracy?

JP: I trace this all back to the period of eighteen nineties and the beginnings of the global colonial superstructures,
were companies like Standard Oil or Proctor &Gamble conspired to develop what we call Banana Republics in the
Third World, subject those people in order to extract their natural resources and set up a consumer society in
United States. As a result, we used to have trees and parks and we will go to square dances, have bonfires and now
we have endless miles of shopping centers, we cut down our trees, we replaced them with parking lots and gun
stores, liquor store, gun store, liquor store. Is our life that much better? Is the human suffering any less or more? I
would say that I see everyday, poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition in our own cities and we are supposed to be the
greatest country on Earth, the leader of the Free World and have the best quality of life in the world. Is not true at
all. Shame on America for not taking care of itself, for spending so much money to get involved in other people’s
conflicts, when we haven’t even taking care of our own. This is why, when that bridge fell down in Minneapolis last
year, we were all so shocked, because we have bridges falling down, while we are spending unprecedented amounts
of money in wars for oil on the other side of the world.
It is terrifying, you can’t even trust the street anymore.

AI: Is anybody in particular who influenced your steam punk vision?

JP: My grandparents had a tremendous influence on me, other craftsman and metalworkers who were creating the
things that they had in their dream world, like Dr. Evermore or Jean Tingley, who makes kinetic sculptures or
contraptions that destroy themselves at the end. I like that kind of irreverence in art, were you have something
that is art, but renders itself useless and invaluable at the end of the show.

AI: What about Hollywood?

JP: Well, Hollywood picked up on some trends and popularized it among younger kids. Steam Punk movies in
Hollywood who are expressing retro-futurism are notoriously bad, like “Wild, Wild West’ (1999) for example.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang “(1968) is pretty good. The Jules Verne Victorian era science fiction influenced a lot of us
and Disney, certainly put that into pictures, but I think that people tend to reject popular media whenthey have this
kind of lifestyle.

[Johnny Payphone] ©2008 Lola Chicago

AI: You are an active member of the Rat Patrol Organization from Chicago.
JP: I do kids programs in the ghetto with poor black kids, and we go bicycles. These are children without positive
male role models in their life. We teach them to fix bicycles, but what we really are teaching them is to resolve
conflicts as a man, which is to say - face to face - with words, rather than fighting or shooting. We teach them that,
the path of drugs and crack is not one that will make you successful in the world and we try to give them inspiration
were they can get out of the ghetto and hopefully come back and bring something in return to it.

AI: Please tell our readers something about your trip to Ghana.
JP: It turns out that Accra, the capital of Ghana is a sister city to Chicago, so I met a man who was set by the
Ghanaian government to figure out a way to make cargo bicycles for the Ghanaian farmers. They have jungle trails
that lead to very wealthy natural resources but have a very hard time transporting those crops to market because of
the petrol prices. We shipped over a container of bicycles and started a school for cargo bike modifications and
design. It was done through the cultural exchange of Sisters City Program. That’s why Ghana. Now, this could be
done in any number of developing world countries and it is done. I still try to send volunteers and bicycles to
Ghana. I have a container that should be shipped in August and I try to raise funds to send another volunteer to
run the school and teach people how to make cargo bikes.

AI: How was received the program in Ghana?

JP: A bicycle can change your range from walking distance to 20 miles so that you can get a job much further.
Now, when you got a bunch of crops that you have to take through the jungle, that’s done on people heads and so,
you can increase someone’s capacity tremendously. The program was very well received and I was treated very well
by the government who also payed the Center to do cargo bikes. They are forward thinking, they don’t want to be as
oil dependent as we are.

AI: Any thoughts about China?

JP: The fact that Asia loves the bicycle so much also means that they have already a bicycle based ingenuity going
on. We had the same issue in South America. Nothing that I can come up with, as a pedal power device, like a
pump or corn mill, had not been already invented in Guatemala as a part of a program called “bicimaquinas” of
Maya Pedal. China right now is looking to get more cars. They have a technology-based solution to their problems
and try to modernize basically, whereas the Dutch have preserved their windmills, because this is something that
they cherish as part of their culture. They could easily knock them all down and replace them with modern electric
power corn grills, but they haven’t chosen to do that because it is something special about them. The government of
Ghana is saying, we are not going to pave over our jungle, what we are trying to do is to get jungle based bicycle
pedal power transportation.

AI: Where do you see yourself ten years from know?

JP: In general I don’t think that simplicity is the direction our culture is going. I think that the Steam Punk
movement will lead to a lifestyle of a section of people just like you have punks today, or hippies, afro-enthusiasts,
red necks, metal heads or punk rock, it will lead also to a section of the society which pays a lot more money to have
everything in their life. I think that Steam Punk probably only has a good ten, fifteen years in it and after that, the
true aficionados will remain behind, while the trend is gone. My career is having me heading right now as a world
traveler, as I work out all this festivals around the world, were I see other inventors and what are they up to.

AI: Johnny, it was such a pleasure having you for this exclusive interview. On behalf of our readers from
Egophobia I wish to thank you.
JP: No sweat, it was my pleasure too.

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