Category Archives: Essays

#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 5)

The Airship Ashanti in the 2015 Internationa Steampunk Symposium. They were that year's winners of the Airship Games.

The Airship Ashanti in the 2015 International Steampunk Symposium. They were that year’s winners of the Airship Games.

A Genre for our Times: Living Steampunk in Pursuit of “the Good Life”, A Conclusion

During my extensive involvement in the steampunk community, I have contemplated the meaning of what constitutes a lifestyle and whether that coincides with the personal beliefs one holds. While I began this paper with the intention of exploring the separation of ideology with lifestyle, I also believe that people who are heavily involved in the steampunk community hold a specific worldview. In my interviews with members of the community, I came upon a dozen different responses to the question, “Do you think steampunks have a specific ‘mindset’?” Many vehemently rejected the idea that there was one common mindset (thus, hinting at the collective notion of respect for individual opinions and a general distaste toward imposing one’s opinion upon others.) Many other responses, however, incorporated the idea that steampunks are artists who prefer looking at the world more creatively than the average person. Artist Tamara Lavery mentions that, “I believe it is a very fertile mindset. Many of those involved are makers. Artists, crafts people, musicians,….while going to an event and purchasing something amazing made by another is mad fun, most of us are also happiest making or at least “modding” for ourselves.”1 Another steampunk, author Leanne Renee Hieber mentions the commodification of subculture in her response, but with an anti-commercial, pro-community spin: “I think there are common themes. Craft and maker culture as valued commodity (I consider myself a “maker” too, I make books). History is alive and re-imagined in us. Play, fancy, fantasy, adventure and whimsy are also a valued commodity.”2

In fact, what I found in common in many of these responses is how many steampunks link a “steampunk worldview” (if it does exist) to a set of materialist ethics with the world that emphasizes the imagination as a method to break away from normalized constraints of society. The nineteenth century, more than a common focal point of interest, is considered the nexus point of the standards of our modern world. Steampunks view the Victorian era as the beginning of the end with the tide of industrial, social, political and economic changes that directly changed our lives for the worst. By returning to the Victorian, the steampunk aesthetic movement both celebrates a historical era of change while also integrating anachronistic elements into history in the romantic hope of undoing the past to re-create a better present. The idea is speculative in design, but realist in execution. The steampunk aesthetic movement is one method in which people project their utopian ideals onto the everyday.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 4)

ICON 2010

Photo from ICON 2010. Image Credit: J.M. Coen.

A Wandering Utopia: The Steampunk Convention

Note: A part of this essay section was previously published in my 2011 TempleCon convention report here.

Convention spaces provoke migration. They act as a Mecca for people of common means but uncommon interests, who engage in pilgrimages across the country to one destination in order to commune with each other. Convention spaces are also known in shorthand as the “con space,” a term that can allude to the Latin word contra (“to oppose, to argue against,” “pro or con”), to trick (“to con someone,” “the con game”), to illusion and mystification (“to confuse”). The term “con” when speaking of “convention” on the other hand, comes from the Middle English word connen, meaning “to study, know, or pursue.” Both divergent entomologies become relevant when describing a steampunk con.

Cons are understood as being a transitory form of escapism, where people enter from the mainstream world and are transferred into a heightened hyper-reality of Othered existence, before departing after a few hours or a few days to re-enter normalcy. At the same time, the convention space is nomadic, moving across city limits and state lines (and some, even, becoming virtual on the Internet)1. Sprouted by whims and fan passions, fan cons become hatched in backwater small towns and major metropolitan areas, each catering to the localized whims of the community’s populace. Cons, then, can be considered festive realms of liminality, a carnival space that Susan Stewart would identify as, “a reply to everyday life which is at the same time an inversion, an intensification, and a manipulation of that life, for it exposes and transforms both pattern and contradiction, presenting the argument and the antithesis of everyday life in an explosion that bears the capacity to destroy that life.”2

Of course, the concept of the fan conventions isn’t new and doesn’t pertain to steampunk subculture alone. My choice to include the con space as part of steampunk lifestyle, however, is connected to the increased attention by steampunk participants to the importance of holding a convention in their local community and the integration of convention-going with sociability for subculture participants. Moreover, unlike the assumption that these conventions are seen as breaks from the everyday, I argue that convention and event life in the steampunk community is seen not as an escape, but as a heightened utopian space that is reflective of community members’ everyday practices, interests and relationships.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 3)

Lebanon County Historical Society's Stoy Museum replication of a Victorian Barber Shop. Click for source.

Lebanon County Historical Society’s Stoy Museum replication of a Victorian Barber Shop. Click for source.

Retro-Fitting the Technologies of the Self

I first heard of the Steampunk Salon through Meet-up.com, a social website. The NY Steampunk – Artists & Enthusiasts network was started in late 2008 and has over 600 members throughout the state, though a sizable number of them reside in New York City. Many of their events are based in the metropolitan area, from museum trips to picnics to community art projects, like arrangements for float in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade. One of the consistent events is the literary salon that takes place in Midtown East, hosted at the business of Romain Pallardy, hair stylist. The pun on the dual meaning of “salon” sounds a bit cutesy to be coincidental, and steampunk in general has been known to create spaces with a cheeky wink and a nod.

***

Finding Romain’s Salon is a bit tricky; one cool fall evening, I arrived at a bustling city street in Midtown East and didn’t see a storefront, for the Salon lacked a street sign, in contrast to the flashy hotel logos and restaurants surrounding it. The plain-faced building squeezed in this ritzy area could have been another forgettable residential building; alongside the row of pearly doorbell buttons, though, it wasn’t difficult to spot the one marking Romain’s business. In neat ink penmanship beneath a strip of plastic was the word “Salon,” as intriguing in its simplicity as Alice’s bottles and cakes marked “Drink Me” or “Eat Me.” The doorbell’s built-in camera blinked upon pressing the buzzer; my face flashed back in miniature before I was buzzed in. I climbed a nondescript, narrow stairwell to the second floor and arrived at a simple office door labeled in black-lined gold lettering: “Romain Parllady: Salon.”

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 2)

Victorian Carpenter's Kit

Victorian Carpenter’s Kit

“Home is a Woodshop”

Among my books on my self stands a French vodka bottle, sliced clean across the middle; this bottle I had cut myself using a diamond-edged rotary water blade. The process was not perfect, and chipped edges serve a cautionary purpose when I pick up the glass. A candle sits inside it, unlit, on my shelf, yet it nevertheless reminds me of the place where it was made.

***

In the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, I stood by the iron-barred gateway situated between two gray-faced, indiscriminate pre-war apartment buildings, dialing a number off my smart phone. An icy blast of wind coming in from the water cuts through my layers and my fingers tremble over the key pad. A warm, older voice answered, “I’ll be right up,” and in a minute, Stephen Ebinger, a broad-shouldered man with a peppery beard and Santa-Claus eyes, opened the gate. The stairs descended to the subbasement level and I teetered downwards precariously, clinging to the rust-stained railing. I followed my friend through the building’s back door into the basement apartment that serves both as his home, as a fully-equipped woodshop, and as the Steampunk Co-op in northern Manhattan.

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#SteampunkHands – On Crafting a Subcultural Lifestyle: Objects and the Search for Home in Steampunk (Part 1)

A picture of my steampunk self way back in 2009 during one of the first events I attended in NYC for International Steampunk Day

A picture of my steampunk self in 2009 during one of the first events I attended in NYC for International Steampunk Day

Thinking about my contributions for “Steampunk Hands Around the World” this year made me reflect upon my time spent in the community. There have been highs and lows, and admittedly enough, I had no idea how much my life would change in the past eight years because of this aesthetic and the creative community inspired by it. One of the reasons why I have stuck around has been the belonging I have found through the people, places, and things we have created.

A few years ago in graduate school, I took a class called “Performance of Everyday Life”, which interrogated how we understand ourselves and the way we move through the world as acts of performance. From religious ritual to amateur hobbies, from gender roles to cosplay, from sports to clubbing to fashion — what all of these activities have in common is the idea of how different levels of theatricality, presentation, and action is incorporated into our daily identities.

My final paper was an ethnographic study contemplating making and community spaces in New York City and the convention scene.  Reading this over, I see how this can be interpreted as a counterargument of a recent critique of the maker movement written in The Atlantic. Unlike The Atlantic‘s critique of the capital-driven, competition-oriented DIY movement, I think steampunk community’s values provide an alternate view to making which is tied into group identity and fostering spaces of non-competitive creativity that values both traditional masculine and feminine arts.  Artistic camaraderie endows the steampunk object with affect value that grows into something greater than the object itself.  Though it was written in 2012, and some of the steampunks featured in this article I have lost touch with or left the community for one reason or another, this essay overall embodies many thoughts I have about the inherent beauty of creation and sense of home I get with fellow steampunks. This is, more than anything, a love letter to an art movement.

I’ll be posting a new part of this essay every Sunday this month.

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On Dragon*Con: Talking about Current Events and Steampunk

Ferguson_DCon_room

Dragoncon attendees stand with Ferguson at the Race and Gender Issues in Alternate History panel.

Dragon*Con has always been a highlight of my convention circuit. This year consisted of five panels, lots of interesting discussion, new faces and old, plus raising money for a good cause. I’m especially grateful for the sincere responsiveness and discussion at the Race and Gender Issues in Alternate History panel that happened on Saturday, where the audience showed their solidarity for the events in Ferguson. I also want to thank the many, many attendees who bought black ribbons and donated to the Mike Brown Legal Defense Fund while I was on-panel.

 

Ferguson_DCon_panel

With panelists (from right to left): Diana Pho, Emmett Davenport, Michael Martinez, Stephanie Osborn, Milton Davis, and Tony Ballard-Smoot.

I’ve received some pushback from readers who asked, “Why bring personal politics to an alternate history panel/ a steampunk blog?” First of all, I am mystified by the idea that people thought that my work in steampunk isn’t political, especially since the blog’s mission statement since its founding in 2009 states:

Steampunk, because it’s an aesthetic & a subgenre inspired by a time period fraught with a complex social and political history, is never apolitical. The nineteenth century was a time of intellectual achievement, innovation, and geopolitical expansion. At the same time, that greatness came at the expense of slavery, oppression, social inequality, and racism. These problems did not go away once the Victorian era ended, and in fact, the social scars are still visible upon our society today. So when speaking about steampunk from non-Eurocentric settings, difficult issues about race, class, marginalized histories, and cultural appropriation will be addressed.

Also, some thoughts about the role of alternate history in our lives. Speculative fiction is based on fantasies and people usually interpret that as irrelevant to daily life. But the power of a fantasy is related to everyday experiences and histories. Stories that intrigue are stories that people connect with, compare to, or contrast against their own personal stories — even when based on an alternate history or in deep space or in another world entirely. In fact, the significance of steampunk’s “what if?” premise is lost if the reader can’t compare that “what if” to the actual events that the story is playing against. The function of alternate history itself is based on exploring new stories based on the stories we already know (or presume to know).

Reading steampunk is not only entertaining, but it is engaging because it actively posits that the reader understands historical realities. For example, in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, when she talks about the dangers that Captain Croggon Buearegard, a former slave and airship captain, faces, or the resistence of occupied New Orleans, or the importance of Mexican government officials investigating these yellow-sap zombies, or just the awesomeness of Princess (and she is awesome)–all of that conflict and adventure is forgrounded by the complexisies of the Civil War and the roles various minority groups had.

Another example is Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “The Governess and We”  from Steampunk World: a story of spycraft in Siam during the reign of King Mongkut. This is also a story about three women, two fictional and one historical: Aunrampha the palace spymaster to the Thai throne, the tinker Ging, and Anna, popularly-known as the English governess to the King (and also not as known, a mixed race Anglo-Indian woman and a suffragette). The King and I is what the West knows about Anna Leonowens’ time in Siam, but Sriduangkaew changes our perceptions of the truths we take for granted from one fictional story by presenting us with another based on other histories.

So when we look at events like Ferguson and people say, “How could this happen?” they are saying this because they have only heard one particular set of stories about life in the US. If they blame the people of Ferguson for overreacting or putting their police force in a bad light, they are believing one story over reality.  Everyday we are bombarded by biased media and perceptions we take for granted as “normal”.  Speculative fiction — especially steampunk — overtly create gonzo, funhouse mirror reflections of our own society, but in that process show how our “normalities” are equally based on fictions.

In this particular case, taking a stance on Ferguson on this blog is taking a side with what I think steampunk does.  Storytelling itself is never neutral, apolitical, ahistorical, or a pointless fantasy, but communicates with the world around us. Stories can bridge the chasms of misunderstanding that form between people through empathy. For a genre based on lies about reality, steampunk requires you to understand our reality deeply in order to appreciate the lie. And by seeing through the lies, you can also find a reason to fight for a greater truth.

DragonCon_Ferguson

Over $200 dollars was raised on-panel from attendee donations.

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Steampunk Hands Around the World: Good Gears and Good Works

This article is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World international event, running between Feb 2nd and Feb 28th. For a full listing of events, check out the Airship Ambassador blog.

steampunk hands around the world logo

Over the years in the steampunk community, I’ve seen its potential to work together for more than shared fandom reasons to impact the larger world around us. The community’s Maker influence could be a cause why: if people like to fiddle around with machines out of junk, their tinkering becomes a physical demonstration of how people can re-think an object to make it work better, breathe new mechanical life into it, as well as making it aesthetically pleasing in its functionality. I’ve seen that attitude transfer to other works that steampunks have done. On top of that, the types of people who are involved in the community — tinkerers, artists, educators of all stripes — create a space where ideas bounce off of one another, and perhaps, that creativity which stirs up a person’s inner initiative to try and change a bit of their own lives then spreads into other aspects of life too.

It’s not surprising then, that several initiatives have started up in the community with the aim of social and public betterment. I won’t deny that I have a certain perspective about this, given the people that I associate with tend to value ways that explore social causes, whether it be through increased artistic literacy, media critique and representation, environmental or political causes, or education. Many of these people are friends of the blog and you can check out their work here. Various steampunk conventions also have had a charity fundraiser at their event, as what usually happens at events such as TeslaCon, Dragon*Con’s Alternate History Track, and Steampunk World’s Fair. For Steampunk Hands Around the World this month, I wanted to highlight some various ways that the steampunk community is giving back, to show that we’re more than a group with a retrofuturistic side hobby.

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What Happens When We Speak: On Con Harassment and Fandom on Tor.com

Image Courtesy of the Back-up Ribbon Project

“So I heard that you won Tumblr,” a coworker joked with me the other day.

He was referring to the maelstrom of activity that was triggered when I posted about my con harassment experience at New York Comic Con by the film crew of the YouTube web series Man Banter, hosted by Mike Babchik. I won’t reiterate everything that happened, but kept pretty good documentation. Other industry professionals and geek news sources had done the sametooThere is a petition out, created by the activist group 18 Million Rising in order to hold Babchik’s employer, Sirius XM Radio, accountable for his actions since Babchik had gotten into the convention using his job credentials. Since the incident happened, New York Comic Con had assured that they will tighten their safety policies, and I even had a nice wrap-up interview about making convention spaces safer with NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman.

Okay, that ugly event got all wrapped up with a nice li’l bow of resolution; we can leave this in the fandom corner until the next big misogynistic thing that happens to women at conventions hits the fan (but oh wait, it just did as I typed this). At this moment, I feel like I can voice something that I’ve been holding in this whole time: I am lucky. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.

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Steampunk, Technological Time & Beyond Victoriana: Advocacy and the Archive

In the hubbub of the past week, I completely forgot to mention my participation in Journal of Victorian Culture Online‘s . Check out an excerpt below, and follow the jump to read this academic article online.

Thanks to Prof. Lisa Hager and the editorial board of the JVCO for giving me this opportunity.

***

Steampunk studies is an outlier in Victorian scholarship. In fact, steampunk subculture can arguably be called “neo-Victorian” or even “non-Victorian” in the way that it defies strict adherence to a certain periodization or topic relevance. Steampunk is an aesthetic movement inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy. Over the years, however, that umbrella phrase has expanded to include speculation outside of an established time-frame (such as post-apocalyptic or futuristic), outside of the established geography of the Western world, and even outside of history (as with alternate history and secondary fantasy worlds). How can we, then, describe the relationship between steampunk academic work and Victorian studies?

[Read “Steampunk, Technological Time & Beyond Victoriana: Advocacy and the Archive” on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online]

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“The Legend of Old Smoke” A photo-story by Pavan Krushik

Pavan Krushik, a digital and photographic artist from Bangalore, India, contacted me recently about his latest photo-story “The Legend of Old Smoke.”  As Krushik explains, the story “revolves around the adventures of a Legendary steampunk warrior Cecilia who caught up in the events of a world changing war sparked by the sciences discovered decades earlier.”

The artist also excitedly talks about the inspiration that drew him to the steampunk aesthetic: “The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the movie which actually made me fall in love with Steampunk genre. I felt an alternate universe and a fictional era like steampunk should really exist in our generation to escape from reality. I was so fascinated and impressed by this movie and started watching every other steampunk-themed number ever since. I have always been intrigued by Steampunk because of its emphasis on Science and Invention. I love this genre for its dynamic feel, industrialization, fashion and technical evolution. I’m a big Sci-fi fan in general. Other movies like Hugo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes, The Golden Compass and many other Victorian-period style numbers also have influenced me so much and not to forget the novels of my favorite writer HG Wells, especially ‘The Time Machine’. I have always enjoyed creating new worlds of my own and Steampunk is one prominent way, and I dare say a very versatile one at that, to express myself. Very suiting for me since I have always been a sucker for the Victorian era. :)”

Enjoy the story below!

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1
It is an age of steam and sorcery. Her name is Cecilia, daughter of a famous scientist in Old Smoke who was killed in a spate of assassinations for his invention of latest steam powered machinery to curb the environmental problems. Now she’s on the brink of fury. She’s not evil, but likes the thrill of revenge.

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