A moment of history has come and gone: the first-ever Steampunk World’s Fair in Piscataway, New Jersey–the largest steampunk event on the East Coast and very likely the largest one in North America. According to staff estimates, approximately 3,700 people attended over the course of three days, coming from across the United States, Canada, England, France, and Italy. It was a pleasure to participate in this event, and it was only a shame that there wasn’t several clones of me running around so that I could attend every single event (though people may have gotten the impression with the various outfits I wore!)
You probably can hear a hundred and one different experiences from people attending. Like when Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band led 200 people in a parade through the hotel and into the parking lot for an impromptu party on Saturday night. Or the Queen of Steam contest featuring the youngest cross-dresser you’ll ever see. Or the crazy jumping spider contraption at the Mad Science Fair, or the Gear Guitar, or the Tesla Coil demonstration and Jake Von Slatt’s bus tours.
And for all three days, I’ve scoping out steampunk’s less British side and looking around with fen of color spectacles on. Below are some of the highlights from the side of steam for the more cross-culturally inclined.
The Panel Report
First of all, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to everyone who attended the Envisioning a Better Steam Society: Steampunk & Social Issues roundtable and the Steam Around the World panel. Everyone was attentive, insightful, and contributed greatly, and it made me squee inside to have a space where we can do some intellectual hobnobbing.
Our first panel Envisioning a Better Steam Society took place bright & early at 11 AM Saturday (early in con time), and was surprisingly attended by 75+ people. Since this was a roundtable meant to promote discussion, I had everyone sit around in a circle, with the guest speakers sitting among the attendees. Audience participation is key in promoting dialogue about difficult subjects, and I didn’t want to give the appearance of “us talking down” at others whose life experiences are different and just as legitimate as ours.
The three topics discussed were Gender, Class, and Race, with approximately 20 minutes each for discussion. The most difficult part in moderating this panel was the time constraints; we were slotted for only 1 hour’s time, ended up going over by ten minutes and moving into the bar to talk further. Next year, I’d like to ask for at least an hour and a half for this panel.
A couple of moments that I thought were notable (I only regret not being able to credit all the comments properly!):
- During the discussion on gender, one man pointed out that the common perception of the “public sphere” and “domestic sphere” that divided men and women during the Victorian Era was a long-standing idea with roots in medieval times. That being said, however, the ones in control of the home also had control over the household budget, overseeing staff, and other aspects that made the woman’s role more powerful than is commonly perceived.
- Jake’s comment about how steampunk can be considered an anti-capitalist reaction to today’s mass production.
- Jaymee’s opening comments about race and colonialism and the effect it had on her native country of Malaysia. That was also followed by an epic moment when people were talking about the effects of British imperialism upon countries, and Moniquill pointed out that from her perspective as a Native American, the effects of the British never left her country.
- Also, from the cultural standpoint, Miss Hisselpenny (Emilie Bush’s friend–I believe that was her name!) had noted in a “devil’s advocate” observation that along with the detrimental effects committed by Western nations against the non-West during this period, this was also the time of the development of anthropology and archeology. And, although many of their methods were rooted in perspectives that promoted white, Western supremacy and they made misguided observations about the cultures they observed, Victorians also collected numerous amounts of data and information that would have been lost to time otherwise. “It wasn’t perfect,” she ended, “but it was a start.”
A bonus thank you goes out to the guest speakers for the roundtable: Jake Von Slatt, Emilie Bush, Jaymee Goh, and Lucretia Dearfour.
The second panel Steam Around the World had about the same number of people. 40 sildes in 60 minutes! Can Jaymee and I do it? Well, we sure tried!
The presentation was split up into three segments: “Why Multicultural Steampunk Works,” “Who is Doing Non-Eurocentric Steam?” and “Multicultural Steampunk–The Tough Stuff.” I was quite pleased with the overall panel, but again, we went 1/2 hour over!
And extra thanks goes out to James Ng for providing prints for us to give away at this panel.
The feedback Jaymee and I have gotten has been immense. During the weekend, tons of people thanked us for doing this event. I also want to give a shoutout to author Leanna Renee Hieber, who wrote a wonderful review of our panels in her blog. Whisper assured me that next time, we’d get that hour & a half we needed, and we are looking into dividing our panel sessions for next year to dedicate more time to discuss each topic from the roundtable discussion.
And, for both panels, I still have the original handouts that I can email to anyone interested. Just send me an e-mail and ask. Those who already left me information, I am working on a follow-up post to this (still!) for further reading about the topics we discussed.
A Quiet Census: Steampunks of Color
Unsurprisingly, for many SoCs I talked to at the Fair, many of them — like me — were silently counting out how many minorities were present in the white-heavy crowd. It’s a common experience for people of color to try and spot “people like me” at fandom events, to see that we aren’t the only ones who liked something. In a similar but non-steampunk example, for instance, I have a Japanese-American friend with whom I see theater often in the city. Often when we’d go, she’d scan the crowd and comment something along the lines of, “looks like we’re the only non-white ones in the audience.” This highly-attuned sense of awareness of one’s minority status is something that many marginalized people (not just for people of color, but for members of the queer community and people with disabilities, for instance) feel on a daily basis.
At the World’s Fair, it was one of those in-jokes that PoCs in fandom spaces trade with each other, and it had been expressed more openly at my panels too. “I counted 27 black people at the entire convention!” one black woman commented pointedly during the Steam Around the World panel. On the other hand, another mentioned how this event, especially for one taking place in northern New Jersey, had the most minorities they’d ever seen at a local con event. Both comments reflect how a person of color’s sense of comfort in fandom spaces can correlate to how diverse its participants are. Now, although 3,700+ steampunks were there, how come someone only counted 27 fellow African-Americans? What does that say about how steampunk is viewed by the mainstream? Moreover, as people of color, how accepted do we feel participating in spaces that are perceived as white-dominated?
Not that we didn’t represent. An array of steampunks of color and their awesome friends & family.
Looking Outside of England
Anglophilia wasn’t the only option at the fair. There were some events I wish I could have attended but didn’t have a chance to: the Steampunk and Weird West panel, Outland Armour’s Lolita fashion presentation, Neitzsche: His Life & Music panel, C.J. Henderson’s Brooklyn Knight reading, Ben H. Winter’s sneak peek at Android Karenina. But here were some fashions and events that I did get a chance to see:
If you have any photos from the Steampunk World’s Fair that you think would fit with this blog, leave a comment with a link and let me know!