The Sunshine Steam: An Account of the Inaugural Florida Steampunk Society Exhibition East, Part 2–Guest blog by S.J. Chambers

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series about S.J.’s steampunk adventures in Florida. Read Part 1 here.

Abney Park at the Florida Steampunk Society Exhibition East, Daytona Beach Resort, Florida.

The main event was Saturday night.  Opening with Cog is Dead, an intermission performance by local artist Perego, the audience was thoroughly warmed up for headliners Abney Park. This was my first time seeing the “quintessential” Steampunk band live, and I was really impressed with how the band’s energy fed into the audience and vice versa.

Judging by the lack of dancing during the Masquerade and the concert, Florida Steampunks are either too restricted by their costuming or are more interested in watching performances than jiving around.  There were a few dancers, including myself, off in the corner, but overall the audience was akin to the Los Angeles crowds, or so I was told by frontman Captain Robert Brown the next day.  When I asked them what other crowds were like, he mentioned that he found “Florida has a really pretty Steampunk crowd.”

But the dancing aside, it was clear that everyone was having fun, and after an hour and a half set, the Florida Steamers lined up afterwards for another hour to meet and buy signed merch.  One of the things that makes Abney Park unique is their extensive line of merchandise from their world, including the recently published novel The Wrath of Fate that weaves together the Abney Park mythos, and which author Brown read from earlier that day. Having relics and artifacts from their world has inspired other concerts and bands to follow, and I was curious how the band came to develop their innovative brand:

“It was really all fan requests,” mused Captain Robert on the novel “We had all of these fans saying I’m seeing this ongoing story through these different songs, and it feels like its all part of one big saga. So I sat down a couple years ago to write a novel of the saga that feeds through all these songs.”

Bassist Dan Cederman chimed in about the branding birth: “Our concerts are a community event. So we will contact all the local fan groups, Steampunk groups—vendors come for free, artists who want to show their artworks—everyone brings their stuff and show it off.  And so we want everyone to come in and participate in a community event, and that’s our concert. And that kind of sense of inclusiveness to everyone who is coming has expanded beyond just the shows and that’s how it branched out to branding, the novel, fanfic, the artwork and everything else.”

Abney Park is releasing a new album, Ancient Worlds this summer, and its first track “Steampunk Revolution” was just released as a new video featuring content submitted by fans, including images from Florida Steampunk Society Press Representative and Tampa Steampunk founder Daylina Miller.

With Ancient Worlds, Captain Robert says they are pushing the envelope:  “We always try to look at where Steampunk hasn’t hit yet—and so one of the things we haven’t seen in Steampunk music is Ragtime. It’s like THE Victorian music and nobody is doing it. And we figured out why. Do you guys want to know why? It is really hard!”

He added:  “We try to look at a direction it hasn’t gone and go there, so that we’re not being clichéd, so we’re keeping it fresh, even if we’re just keeping it fresh for ourselves.  I would love Steampunk to just feel comfortable with itself so everybody can do that.  There are so many ways that this wonderful aesthetic can manifest itself why put it in a teeny little box and let it die there? Let it go out in these different directions….”

Abney Park is famous for reinventing the wheel when it comes to their music.  They are isolationists almost, it seems, from Steampunk at large, only judging and monitoring their own unique take on it. They are unconcerned with trends, avoid them as much as possible, and concern themselves with where the aesthetic could go next.  However, that take often defies definition and that seems to bother some other Steampunks. During the Sunday interview, several references were made to instances where the band was told it wasn’t doing Steampunk right, or they weren’t Steampunk enough.  I found it amazing that anyone would tell anybody how to “do” Steampunk, and the band agreed:

“I don’t understand how you can define Steampunk so rigidly,” Brown said.  “While she [[a convention planner who told denied Abney Park future gigs because they were Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk enough and below her standards] was talking about this and telling me about how Steampunk could only be defined as Victorian era science fiction through such a such year and such a such a year, I’m saying: Well, how do you account for time travel? How do you account for this? How do you account for that?…  I’m trying to explain to her that the books that define Steampunk in the early days when the term was coined were set in all these different places, and half of them were set after the fall of man kind–The Peshawar Lancers, The Diamond Age–all these different books were set in the far future where the far future for whatever reason is forced to mimic Victorian times….  And that was part of what defined the thing. And I kept asking her ‘Did you read this?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did you read this?’ ‘No.’ And then finally she said ‘Well, I just don’t have time to read.’ You are forcing your definition of a literary genre on a populace that are reading the books and you have not read them yourself!”

“And taking the fun out of it at the same time!” chimed in vocalist Jody Ellen.

“Yeah,” Cederman added. “One of the points of this subculture is to be inclusive. There’s plenty of exclusive subcultures in the world, why do we need to make another one?”

I couldn’t agree more and found a very positive self-awareness present at FSEE.  My overall impression, and answer to my original question of Florida Steampunk expectations, was that they seemed cut-off from the melting pot of the other faraway conventions, and bubbled like a newly tapped spring, eager to discuss issues and future of the movement. Everyone, even those steeped in it aesthetically, asked that familiar koan “What is Steampunk?”

The Exhibition made a great stab at quenching these Steamers thirst, but there can be much more imported to the Sunshine State, and based on the success and impressive efforts of Exhibition East, I think the next Exhibitions will continue to deliver and bring the best the movement has to offer, while further playing and expanding upon its own unique roots with Florida history and the sea. But then again, maybe not. As Brown concluded in our interview:

“As an aesthetic, it [Steampunk] can do anything you want too. …It’s people who want to pretend its make believe that have to control it….Like any good aesthetic it brings up all these different nostalgias, and I think ours does it more blatantly than most, but almost all art is a nostalgic experience–this takes you back to high school, this takes you back to–.  This all takes us back to the glory days of adventure, when every thing in the world was  adventurous. Just let that aesthetic be the ruling principle and not try and force it in all the other directions.“

Who knows in the end what “Florida Steampunk” may be.  It may have its own brand of Steam, or it may be unclassifiable, but I’m pretty certain one thing it will always be is an adventure.

***

Floridian S. J. Chambers is the co-author of the Steampunk ChronicleReader’s Choice Award for Best Non-Fiction and Hugo nominated The Steampunk Bible.

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