Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series about S.J.’s steampunk adventures in Florida. Stay tuned Wednesday this week for the rest!
When I first heard there was going to be a Florida Steampunk convention, I had two reactions. The first was “Yay! Home state representing.” Second was, “What on Earth would Florida Steampunk be, exactly?” Would it be corset jumpers and flip-flops? Solar blocking monocles and Mecha-Gator surf boards? There was only one way to get an answer, and it was to check it out myself.
Florida has a bit of an identity issue, and this was something I thought about the day I arrived at the Daytona Beach Resort where the inaugural Florida Steampunk Society Exhibition East was held. This exhibition is the first in a proposed series of events all over the state. According to their mission statement: “The Florida Steampunk Society is a collection of Steampunk and Neovictorian enthusiasts from all over the state ofFlorida. Our goal is to provide a meeting place for discourse and the sharing of ideas and accomplishments.”
After driving for four hours at a Neal Cassidy beat, I crumbled onto the sublime beach to commune with the sea and take in the area and the people. Florida was and is mostly bolstered by tourism. Known as the North South, most of the state is filled with “snow birds,” tourists or seasonal residents mostly from up North. It is a state run by construction, hospitality, farming, Margaritaville, and Mickey Mouse. The demand for service and building brings in a huge immigrant faction, and depending on what part of Florida you are in, the city you are in can be widely diverse, monochromatically pale, affluent or rural, youthful or decrepit, or a bit of all the above.
The fruit of all those tourist efforts walked before me: bronze children building sandcastles and singing controversial songs like “This is how I pee,” while their parents watched them from the pool bar in bland khaki shorts and muscle shirts. Co-eds in designer bikinis promenaded by bros playing volleyball. I wondered whether these folks knew that within 24 hours their world would be infiltrated by Time Machines, well-dressed persons with cybernetic appendages, and sword fighting Landsknechts (for the Old Ones, of course)? I was looking forward to seeing how these two worlds melded in the lobby of the Resort.
The con officially began Friday (the 13th) night, and it took no more than an hour, as the Steampunk revelers began to gather, for the Tourists to stare agog. However, they were not afraid of the unusual scene they walked into. Many people asked questions, tried to get a definition of Steampunk, and walked away impressed and even into the vendors room to explore more. I’d say about fifty people walked out of the Resort that weekend filled with the word of Steampunk. I thought that was a nice sign when two worlds can collide amiably and exchange ideas.
In fact, I felt like that was the Florida Steampunk Society’s overall achievement with their exhibition, which is a more apt word than “convention.” Not only does it recall the show and tell of old, but it captures perfectly what the FSSE planners set out to bring to the Sunshine state: inspiration, education, and a showcase of the myriad ideas, groups, genres, and people within the wide-ranging community. With a line-up including O.M. Grey and Abney Park, this first of firsts was absolutely impressive and I think is only the beginning of a unique Steampunk con experience.
Friday night saw two main events: the Admiral’s Feast and a Masquerade. The Admiral’s Feast was a fun sojourn into foodiepunk, featuring a five course menu inspired by the last first-class dinner on the Titanic. Each course, beginning with an Iceberg Wedge salad (not actually on the original menu) was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, explained Doug, one of the Exhibition’s founders and menu-planning mastermind. He wanted to do this commemorative meal because he saw the Titanic’s sinking as the “last gasps of Victorian elegance.” Each course was delicious, but I enjoyed Doug’s commentary the most, which was filled with nice anecdotes like how gelatin used to be a huge decadence because it took two days to prepare, and how ports between New York and Ireland lead to an introduction of sweet potatoes to the first-class menu. Eleven courses were the de rigueur in 1912, and after having sampled each course, I felt absolutely gorged. I couldn’t help but wonder in this aggrandizement of the last dinner of the last gasps what the steerage and crew ate, and why was it only the first class that deserved commemoration? Doug did mention that the White Star line in fact took care of all their classes, serving the third-class three meals a day. They were not granted the luxury and networking potential of a eleven-course meal, but compared to other steam cruise lines who made steerage bring their own food, it was progressive (but of course not complimentary, it was offered as an “upgraded accommodation”).
Speaking of ice-breaking, the Feast was also a nice way to meet the other attendees. I sat at a table with a lovely couple from Toronto who flew down to catch Abney Park, several members of the Cowford Steampunk Society, and two lovely young ladies, one of whom was C.J. Bourke of Black Feather Graphic Design and the Exhibitions Graphic Designer. I asked my feast-mates whether they attended other conventions up North? They said most of those conventions were too far away, Dragon*Con being the closest. It sounds like while there are several Steampunk groups in Florida (Tampa, Cowford, Central Florida, Indian River, and North Central Florida) most participate in meet-ups or intimate picnics, but never have the groups really come together, or been able, for various reasons, to go to conventions beyond the Panhandle. This fragmentation was what inspired Florida Steampunk Society founder Mickey “Flint” Haugh to found the Exhibition, to bring all the groups together and expose them to national idea-exchange.
Following the Feast was a Masquerade DJ-ed and led by members of the Texascrew Airship Isabella. It was here that I began to get my first real sense of what Florida Steampunk might be. There were several homages to the sea, beginning with the Titanic feast and resonating throughout the weekend with odes to pirates, be it Steampunk Jack Sparrow or the presence of a top-hatted plush Octopus riding its owner’s shoulders.
The next day was when things really got started. With a diverse variety of panels, readings, performances and the promise of a musical evening with local band Cog is Dead and Seattle’s Abney Park, the body count surged and the pageantry and performance you would expect to find at any Steampunk convention was on display all over the resort.
Weather affected costuming greatly. Because of the humidity and heat, clothing was a lot lighter and comfortable. Like you would in general in the Sunshine state, you saw a lot more flesh and a lot less updos. However, there was also a lot of leather, something that was perhaps a result of overlap with the Exhibition founders’ participation in Pirate societies. In fact, they are revered leathermakers with their own shop, Two Gentlemen of Fortune.
Of course, there were a lot of whimsical devices and wonderful contraptions, including an authentic replica of the Time Machine from the 1960s eponymous film, and a traveling medicine man, Dr. Imro, Provider of Epic Potions, Tablets and Lotions. There were also a lot of beautiful weapons that did not necessarily cross the threshold of sci-fi ray guns, but played upon the original form of nineteenth century weaponry with extra extravagant flourish as in the weapons of Chris Ahrendt, from the Cowford Steampunk group (Jacksonville).
During the panels and vendors area called the Grand Bazaar, the imported goods and doings of Atlanta based Penny Dreadful Productions and Airship Isabella fueled fires for DIY making and creating. Penny Dreadful was actually promoting their new film series Remnant via an exclusive screening of their third episode. It is an impressive concept about a dystopic uchronie world with stellar costumes. The cast and crew discussed their intense production schedule and modeled several of the costumes featured in the film. As can be expected from Penny Dreadful, everything was top-quality, Remnant especially, as it is produced by the Brothers Young. Together, the Brothers and Dreadfuls have taken Steampunk DIY filmmaking to another plane.
The Grand Bazaar seemed to be the de facto watering hole, and while I spent a brief time selling and signing books there, I met and chatted with several interesting people. There was Vaughn Reynolds, a Floridaartist who just completed a highly successful Steampunk art exhibition in Ft. Lauderdale and spoke to me about plans for future shows. I was also thrilled to learn that there is an upcoming Mini Maker Faire Orlando this May 26th.
By the end of the weekend, I left the convention immensely pleased to find that there was a lot more brewing in my home state than I realized. From my panhandle hometown, it is pretty easy to assume nothing but heart monitors are running in the Sunshine state. It was refreshing and reassuring to find so many young people creating and running major cultural initiatives like Maker Faire Orlando and the Steampunk Legion Exhibition.
In addition to her readings and panel, literary chair O.M. Grey (Olivia) hosted two high teas, which were savory and fun and featured a rousing round of Charades. For those who haven’t come across Olivia yet, she is the author of the Steampunk Paranormal Romance novels, Avalon Revisited (which just recently won Best Fiction in the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice Award) and The Zombies of Mesmer, as well as Caught in the Cogs: An Eclectic Collection of short stories, love poetry, and her widely popular relationship essays which advocate the often much misunderstood polyamorous dynamics. Her short story “Dust on the Davenport,” won her another Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice Award for Best Short Story. I had a chance to catch up with Olivia, and was interested in why she chose to write for a Steampunk audience when her relationship articles could have such a wide appeal to more mainstream publications:
“I think the nature of Steampunk allows for more sexual exploration than perhaps other genres because Steampunk is more about being on the fringes of society, anyway. And with so many people in the geek culture, of course, polyamory is already prevalent … and so I think Steampunk is ripe for that because what Steampunk is about … is the past the way it should have been rather than the way it was.
“A lot of times in Steampunk literature, it really speaks to gender issues and racial issues that were ignored, and there was serious prejudice going on in the Victorian era, and serious prudishness as well. With the table legs covered, the chair legs covered, everything had to be skirted so no one was reminded of sex. That’s what I like to play with in my novels a lot, is this prudishness, this behavior in public, but then people being completely open if not debaucherous behind closed doors. That idea that when you are suppressing something so natural as sexuality that it is going to come out (and maybe in not so healthy ways sometimes) behind closed doors–but even so, … it comes out very passionately with the women who are strapped into corsets and bustles and keep their hands folded in their laps….but at the same time what they are doing is really getting in touch with their sexuality behind closed doors and I really do love that part of it.
“And so polyamory, along with my relationship essays, really speak to that a little bit with Steampunk because it is pushing those boundaries of sexuality. It’s saying ‘What we have learned as society is that there may be a better way, or at least a different way—better for some people not others–that love is not finite, that by loving another person the love for the first person does not minimize, it actually deepens and broadens, and I think that’s beautiful. And the same thing with sexuality. Desire breeds desire; love breeds love, having, I think, Steampunk is a great outlook to promote a sex positive culture…. It can be a place to explore not only societal boundaries, but exploring gender roles and different sexual preferences.”
Another check in the Steam Sex Positivity box was the Orlandotroupe Cupcake Burlesque, who were on site doing several performances, and were probably the best and most experimentally dressed of the whole convention. I wanted to catch one of their shows, but schedules would only allow for so much and I missed it.
S.J.’s coverage of the Florida Steampunk Society Exhibition East will continue on Wednesday, with an exclusive interview with Abney Park!