Arsenal Best Interview

Steampunk: a world where a Gatling gun takes on the shape of a frog and treks in space take a step back in time. Always a surprise, Arsenal Best’s work covers a whimsical range of subjects and styles, but always comes back to the same thematic core. Craftsmanship and innovation set Arsenal’s work apart.

We were lucky enough to catch up with him for a few questions about his life as a maker.

The quality of your work is exemplary, and you work with a lot of mediums many crafters do not have the training to use, such as brass and steel. Did you have a background in such work, or did you learn new skills in order to make the things you imagined?

British East-India MG Corps Sergeant by Susanne JungArsenal Best: Thank you. Though I have a background of scale model building since my early teens, which certainly did provide some dexterity, this wasn’t too much help, considering the wide range of materials, since I only worked then with plastic kits.

Not surprisingly, when I started to make props and costumes, that was my favoured material. Which was okay for a time, since scifi costumes have no problem with that. But when starting to venture into Steampunk in 2010, it quickly became evident that this wouldn’t suffice to realize the ambitions I had in my head, even though I’m not a purist, who says everything must be made from authentic materials. I grew up with movie props and there it mostly “just” have to look like the real deal.

So I used the most powerful invention of humankind, the internet, to draw from this vast resource basically every bit of how-to knowledge I needed at the moment. Then, equipped with that guidance, I started to work my way through all the trials and errors of working with wood, with leather, with metal, with electrics and so on.

Since I usually end up developing very specific ideas and designs, I almost have to create everything myself every time, because I rarely find parts that look the way I want them to (I’m very glad that at least I don’t have to dig the ore and melt the basic metal sheets myself).

So, yes, I definitely had to learn many new skills in order to make the things I imagined and am still doing so and am also very grateful for that, since this really is half the fun.

Everyone will confirm, that the first time they successfully soldered a LED into a circuit or made a similar simple achievement for the first time on their very own, they cheered euphorically the moment it worked, like they were the first human who discovered how to make fire.

On your Etsy page, where you sell some of your most popular works, you say you create for your own enjoyment. There are a lot of cosplay pictures on your DeviantArt page. Did these two pursuits grow together, or did one necessitate the need for the other?

Arsenal Best: My answer is … umm … Yes.

Both are correct in a way.

I‘ve started with making props for my own cosplay. But after a few people asked for it, I thought about offering a few works like the Froggy wrist Gatlings. And it is indeed like I wrote on my Etsy page, I’m doing this only because I enjoy the interaction with others, brainstorming, developing something unique and fitting for their cosplay personality and, in case of the Froggies, discover more and more interesting variations of a theme.

Consider this: my mind works like a bubble bath. Throw in the soap (initial idea) and I can’t keep it from starting to produce soap bubbles (further ideas, details and designs) in abundance.

So if there are people out there, who can benefit from the bubbles and enjoy and cherish what comes out of it, what could be more satisfying?

Still, to be honest, selling a piece is also a nice bonus, since it helps to further my own builds. So although it may not exactly necessitate it, it certainly supports and makes it easier to realize my own cosplay projects without having to take too many shortcuts budget wise.

But the most important is still just being able to let the creativity loose. I never hesitate to discuss and provide ideas if someone asks me, may it be through DeviantArt, FB or on an event. On the contrary, I welcome and love it!

Steampunk draws from the Victorian balance between elegance and function. But you’ve drawn a bit of whimsy into that equation as well. Your “Little Froggy” wrist gun, for example, is fiendishly clever. Building a traditionally funny animal into a weapon is downright snarky.

Arsenal Best Armoury - Swarovski Lady Froggy wrist Gatling gunArsenal Best: Thanks! The Froggy came into existence by a mere coincidence that I myself don’t fully comprehend. I was simply turning two leftovers from a toy gun in my hands and suddenly there was the impression of a frog snout in combination with a Gatling-like setup. Call it a kiss by a muse. Though it happens quite often with my designs, I’m uncertain of the ideas’ sources that suddenly appear in my mind (probably some bored aldebaraanian aliens, toying with their thought-implant-machine…)

In general, I can’t fully take credit for the whimsical ingredient, since there are many example of similar eccentricity in the Victorian era. Just recently in a grand mansion, which was sealed for more than hundred years as a time capsule, one of the objects found was a pair of stuffed frogs with miniature costumes and florets set up as two duellists, fighting each other. Compared to that, I find myself pretty unimaginative.

But instead of cogs and gearwheels, I prefer to add such seemingly fantastic elements to define my Steampunk. Besides being in line with some of the naturalistic art nouveau influences and the imaginative worlds of Jules Verne, it opens so many possibilities to enrich a theme and adds a multitude of layers, that, if one succeeds, makes a piece interesting enough to lead the viewer onto a joyous voyage of discovering all the details at best.

You’ve incorporated a lot of multicultural elements in your work, specifically Indian and Aztec. While history has drawn a number of other artists to pursue the aesthetic side of Victorian Orientalism, I’ve never seen Aztec designs paired with Steampunk before. What gave you this idea?

Arsenal Best: Imagine a guy like Allan Quatermain or even better real life “Chinese” Gordon (or Gordon of Khartoum). Charles George Gordon was a British gentlemen and officer of the royal engineers who basically passed through all hotspots of the time, participating in the Crimean war and the Chinese Opium wars, and took positions in Egypt, Sudan, India, Palestine, Seychelles and South Africa. Besides being a capable military strategist, he even found the time to do archaeological research and discover possible locations for the real tomb of Christ. Basically a problem solver for all occasions.

Since I imagine my Steampunk Hunter in a similar way, it was only natural to add items with many different cultural elements. May it be souvenirs, presents, or trophies from a life’s journey and the people and places he encountered. A character like that would be flexible in adapting local stuff that proved useful or he simply just enjoyed for the look of it.

Though the official “rediscovery” of Machu Pichu took place in 1911, by Hiram Bingham III, there are many debates about others having found it decades earlier, which places it directly in the late Victorian era. Still, as you correctly put it, most Steampunks who venture beyond the European form dove into the oriental styles, ignoring the importance of the Chinese, African or native  American influences that the Victorian era doubtlessly had as well. But in doing so leaving aside a vast treasure of tribal styles that can be as intriguing and much fun to base Steampunk on as the classical approaches. Especially because even in history’s eyes, it is more than valid, since it is was born from a gigantic colonial empire spanning the globe.

You repeatedly mentioned themes for your designs and not defining your Steampunk through cogs and gearwheels. So how do you define your Steampunk?

Steampunk Dreamcatcher earrings by Arsenal BestArsenal Best: My Steampunk design philosophy is quite simple: Coherency. Trying to achieve a credible and plausible look of Victorian aesthetics combined with functionality.

There are some out there defining Steampunk by bashing brass tubing together or getting very mechanical, but often in a sledgehammer way. Certainly it was the age of industrialization, still you find up to the First World War, that even machines and tools were often designed or decorated in an artistic fashion. They often enough still looked like a unique and elegant piece of art.

Furthermore I do give thought about the background of a piece. What is it? What was it made for? By whom? Etc. This helps to develop a coherent theme technically and also aesthetically.

Besides the aesthetics, I aim for a functional design. Every piece on every gadget and contraption I conceive should still look like it is there for a reason and has a plausible function instead of “just been put there.” Also a bit of ergonometry never hurts. Though artsy contraptions don’t necessarily follow that rule, at least the pieces should be manageable without being an octopus.

To use a phrase of Walt Disney, they must have at least a feel of “the plausible implausible.”

According to this philosophy of trying to achieve such a look, on some occasions a slight mixing-in of antiques or historical details can give the whole composition the final edge as well. Take a look at my MG Corps Sergeant for example. Besides the uniform being based on the former British East-India Governors Guard (today being the Presidents Guard), the goggles are covered in white leather and brass, complete with typical British Lion heraldry with the right eye containing a genuine 19th century brass camera objective.

The helmet being a replica of an 1880’s pith helmet, uses a brass badge on it, which is from the then newly formed MG Corps dating from the first World War.

Also, the square loop antenna is modelled after the very first loop antennas that were used at the beginning of the 20th century. Which, by the way is motorized and spins (see Steampunk Pith Helmet Loop Antenna video).

And even the belt buckle isn’t just any British buckle, but a replica of the Victorian times version with the correct Victoria crown and so on.

Of course, most of these details are so miniscule, that usually during an event, few spot them. Still, I made the experience that the “feel” is there anyway and gets noticed, even if the people can’t put their finger on why exactly.

In my opinion, a sensible mix of some “real” bits and pieces, where it does make sense (and not the addition of a whole flea market just for the sake of it), accompanied by drawing inspiration from an overall research of the time and specific theme, enriches such a costume creation very much and adds that certain credibility to make this alternate (Steampunk) history believable.

Despite your strong roots in the historic and ethnic real-world environments, you chose a completely fictional base with your Steam Trek and venture far into a steampunk future.

Steam Trek - Steampunk Star Trek TNG Tricorder by Arsenal Best Armoury (screengraphic by Dean Beedell)Arsenal Best: True. But coming both from a cosplay and scifi background, something like a Victorian Star Trek wasn’t so far away. There were already some Steampunk Star Trek crossovers around, ranging from simply wearing a corset over a regular Star Trek uniform down to full-fledged Victorian dresses in Star Trek colors that my beloved Ms. Jules H. Aetherton and I were fascinated by. The whole project was finally triggered when I stumbled upon an intriguing artwork for a Star Trek Gothic Lolita outfit on Deviantart created by Renee diCherrie (http://reneedicherri.deviantart.com/art/Star-Trek-The-Next-Generation-Gothic-Lolita-OPs-352606946). Ms. Aetherton did a marvellous job on the uniforms, while we refined a suitable male design together and I went building the fitting props, like the TNG Tricorder, where I tried to follow the iconic design as closely as possible while translating it into steampunk.

Of course to give praise where it is due, some Steampunks like Flo Svensson (http://flosvensson.deviantart.com/) and George Higham  (http://www.poepuppet.com/) have lead the way to a Steam Trek future with their fantastic creations before and were a great inspiration. So my works should only be seen more like another step in the evolution.

My dream would be to further this evolution and establish a coherent Steam Trek universe including all the timelines we know from the original Star Trek. After our Victorian TNG, which is style-wise loosely set in the late 19th century, bordering between Victorian and Edwardian age, we are currently working on a classic Steam Trek to honour Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary, which will be set accordingly a generation earlier using influences and designs of the early Victorian/late Regency era. Ideas for an 18th century Enterprise or even a mid-19th century movie equivalent are already drawn in my head as well, so that you have a similar plausible development of a Steam Trek history within an alternate Steampunk timeline, which reflects the history of both the Star Trek universe and the 18th to early 20th centuries we know.

Maybe there will be even more. Jeremy Schwer, a skilful 3D artist, has created some amazingly beautiful Steam Trek Classic artworks (http://jeremyschwer.deviantart.com/) and is developing a whole universe, which might one day be turned into moving pictures.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a maker?

Arsenal Best: The most useful advice I have ever got, not only as a maker says roughly translated “you can be stupid as long as you know how to help yourself,” meaning, especially as a maker, you don’t have to find the perfect solution, but find a solution any way you can.

It’s not worth brooding over the perfect path and getting nothing accomplished, because you never start. It’s better to think of a way that you can accomplish and improve it later when your skills are getting better, which they won’t if you don’t start and get the practice in the first place.

Still I have to admit, it’s not that easy to always follow this advice. I tend to regularly fall into that perfection pit and nurture designs over years on paper, instead of getting on with them.

Imagine an unlimited budget and all the time in the world – what would you make?

Steampunk Aztek leather belt by Arsenal BestArsenal Best: Oh, where to begin? Of course anticipating the possibility that exactly this case might occur one day, I already have a list. However I’m afraid it certainly exceeds the boundaries of this interview.

So let’s keep it to the Top 5, shall we?

The first obvious (and probably among Steampunks quite common) answer that comes to mind would be an airship like the big cruisers during the height of the Zeppelin era in the thirties, since I can’t think of any more marvellous way to travel. Sailing through the skies with the comfort and luxury of a classic cruise ship, being able to reach almost any point around the world – that would be wonderful.

Also, with all the time and money, I would not only write the “Battleskies” story, a steampunk-esque cycle of six novels at the core, but turn them into the visual and emotional invigorating movies they always were in my mind.

Staying with the flickers, I also would use the resources to realize a Steam Trek TV series, with lavishly opulent steampunk sets built.

Other than that, I would like to obtain an old historic factory building and restore it into  a steampunk home in part (with enough room for everything, at last!) and in part a steampunk manufactory.

Once this accomplished, I can finally turn to building my steampunk electro car (one of the mentioned paper projects lingering in my scribble book for years) and all the other snarky contraptions that will come into my mind once my imagination freed from monetary and timely limitations is unleashed.

*All photos courtesy of the maker.

M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness typically preoccupied with writing, nerding, and filming The Spittoon List. For more articles and stories by M. Leigh Hood, look HERE.

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