“Steampunk World’s Fair 2011 Musings” – Con Report by Daniel Holzman-Tweed

The 2010 Steampunk World’s Fair marked Steampunk’s transition in my life from something I looked at in the ’80s and thought was cool, but hadn’t made it a significant focus in my life. That makes this year’s event something of an anniversary for me. Between that and very exciting memories from last year’s event, I went out to Somerset this year with very high hopes. If the event didn’t hit all cylinders this year, there was certainly enough to keep me engaged and ecstatic.

Even Viceroy Chang himself found the pace exhilarating to the point of exhaustion. (One cannot help but stand awed at the Viceroy’s retention of poise and dignity even in the throes of a full-on faceplant.)

The Viceroy in repose

People

If you need me to tell you what an excellent group of people Steampunks are, I doubt you’re reading this! While I would ‘t go so far as Professor Elemental and call “every single member excellent specimens,” I will say the excellence quotient is highly above the norm. Out in full force, this was the place to be, and we were in full force all doing what we do. Doing so much of it, in fact, that it was impossible to see it all! That’s both a good thing and a bad: while it was impossible to see everything one wished to, there was never a time when one looked at the schedule and lamented the lack of anything worth doing.

Some of the fine folks at the Faire.  (Not a sepia or sepia effect, hotel lighting does this!)

So, what do we do? I go into more detail below, but we dress well. Sometimes we dress well because we’re expert costumers, sometimes we dress well because we know where to do our retail shopping, sometimes we dress well because we know who to scavenge at the local charity story and upcycle. Frequently, a combination of all three. None of us are as good at it as we’ll be next year, none of us are where we were last year. It’s a refrain of mine that Steampunk is a bunch of people looking at each other and saying, “That’s cool. Now how are you going to step it up?” I bring this up here because I keep hearing in some quarters about people who are daunted by the prospect of showing beginner-level skills in the presence of experts. My message to all of them is: Fear is the mind killer. In fact, I dread the day I go to a Steampunk event and don’t see someone wearing a pair of goggles with their t-shirt and blue jeans, because the day that happens is the day we’re not inspiring someone to take a first step. That day is the first day of Steampunk’s end, and I hope it never comes.

All that said about how well we dress, never let is be said that we’re a “stand and model” crowd. Whether we’ve made our outfits from scratch or used our bodies to curate a collection of clothing, we create — and we create beauty. Nor do we limit our creativity to our outfits.

Programming

We create ideas and turn them into dialog, as well. As noted, there were far too many of us presenting our ideas for people to engage and mash with their own for anyone to have heard it all first pass. I was able, though, to attend a number of panels. Austin Sirkin led a lively discussion about Steampunk as a Genre & Subculture, presenting his ideas about which developments in popular culture might be large factors in the sudden jump in Steampunk’s popularity after moving along at a much quieter pace for the last few decades. Ay-Leen the Peacemaker and Jha’Meia Goh presented Steam Around The World: Steampunk Beyond Victoriana, this year with a particularly engaging illustration of how Western and Eastern movie makers inspire and counter-inspire one another — with a focus on some results that should look quite at home at any Steampunk event. As always, these two present so well that the dialog continued afterwards at the nearest bar.

Only some of the people willing to get up on a Sunday morning to talk about Steampunk and Social Justice issues

On Sunday, they were joined in their examination of past and present social issues in Steampunk byLucretia Dearfour and Abigail Mycroft of The Wandering Legion of the Thomas TewSteampunk Emma Goldman (aka Miriam Rocek), Steampunk Magazine founder and editor Magpie Killjoy,Monique “Moniquill” Poirier and author Ekaterina Sedia for a roundtable discussion on Building a Better Steampunk: Sex, Race, and Class.

Monique 'Moniquill' Poirier

I think my favorite part of that conversation centered on one woman’s question about whether our focus on an age of Empires means Steampunk inherently likes imperialism. (It is always important to recall that while the UK’s empire had the best PR, France, Belgium, China, the United States, and Japan were only a partial list of nations actively attempting to build empires at the time) The consensus seemed to me that we don’t like Imperialism, but we can’t responsibly ignore that it happened and continues to happen, and by playing with it we can deconstruct it in order to apply that deconstruction to our modern imperialism. As excellent as the panel was, an hour and twenty minutes (and kudos to Academic panel organizer Catherine Siemann for graciously allotting some of her time to let us finish) simply isn’t enough time to give any one of these topics the treatment they deserve. I dearly look forward to the day Steampunk conventions regularly have programming tracks devoted to these topics rather than simply a panel or two — and I look forward even more eagerly to the day we put together Steampunk convententions and symposia dedicated to these topics.

Last, but certainly not least was the Pro-Labor Flash Mob & Rally, organized by Steampunk Emma Goldman. I was touched by the positive reception we got from the crowd as we marched through the hotel chanting, but not half as touched as when people started shouting out the names of their unions. The Flash Mob was but a taste of what would come at the Rally itself. Steampunk Emma Goldman, Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez, Monique Poirier, and Leanna Renee Hieber all gave powerful speeches rooted in their experiences as workers and/or union members. Painless Parkerand Eli August performed old and new pro-labor songs and we even had a mock counter-protest from what I will now term Steampunk Billionaires For Bush. The true emotional payoff for me was a young Lesbian couple that told me that they were all set to leave Steampunk because they were so frustrated looking for something other than uncritical celebration of aristocracy and here it was.

I’m only scratching the surface here, there was a whole lot of programming I had to gnash my teeth and miss for one reason or another. For example, the Queen of Steam competition is a beauty pagaent open to people with any expression to make in rejection of compulsory cisgender presentation. I saw it’s debut at Steampunk Industrial Revolution and was impressed I’m sure, though, this one was improved both by the larger pool of contestants and the presence of transgender male contestants. Austin had a panel on Steampunk Community I regret not being able to attend, and indeed there was far too much for me to recount here.

Music

I must give all respect to the many talented musicians who performed this year, particularly for how they rolled with the many challenges the Hotel presented. When Psyche Corporation had their outdoor stage cancelled, and all the indoor stage space had been taken or was otherwise unavailable, singer-songwriter Gen Yang set up right there in the Hotel Lobby and put on a show every bit as energetic as I’ve ever seen her do. Did I mention that she did this in a hotel lobby on Friday at a Con? Wow. What a trooper!

Steamunks are singing in the halls at SPWF!

With all respect to the many excellent bands who played the Faire this year, several of whom I enjoy greatly, I spent the whole year looking forward to seeing Professor Elemental rock the mic again. He did not disappoint, to say the very least, nor did the crowd. He’s got a new CD out, More Tea, consisting mostly of favorites from his first two albums nicely remixed with some new material keeping him honest. He continues to bring great energy and strong skills as a rapper to the stage, and it doesn’t hurt that this was a crowd that wanted him to work it. I want to specifically call out my appreciation for his updating the line “every single member excellent gentlemen” to “excellent specimens” in Steampowered. Both by himself and with The Extraordinary Contraptions, I think I may make through another year before seeing him again.

He has super producers and so many fans it takes him 2 hours to cross the hotel lobby.  And he quite rightly proclaims in battle 'The Steampunks have my back!'

My squee over the Professor takes nothing away from all the other fine musicians who came and performed! I’m thrilled to have encountered Copal for the first time, and conversely always pleased to come back to Frenchy & The PunkEmperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, and Katie Kat.

Copal

I wasn’t able to catch Murder by Death because I had a room party to run, but I wish I could have. Fortunately, Miriam Rocek of Shiola was on hand and tells me that “[in] their first performance at a steampunk event, Murder By Death performed a fantastic set, blending rock and Americana with a dark, gothic undertone, all with a distinctly steampunk aesthetic. The band got well into the spirit of the World’s Fair, adding a theremin to their usual lineup of electric cello, electric guitar and base, drumset and synthesizer, and were obviously having as much fun as we were. A lot of the crowd were already fans of their music, and were able to sing along to the music. Murder By Death has been steampunk for a long time; they just didn’t know it. Now that they’ve been told, they seem delighted to accept the label, and the culture.”

The best thing about events like this is the opportunity for collaboration, such as between Katie Kat, Frency, and The Punk!

My weekend wrapped up with a concert given by the The Extraordinary Contraptions, which included some collaboration with Professor Elemental, who really had his mark all over the music program this year. I think Electric guitar is my favorite backing track for Fighting Trousers, and the Professor makes a dazzling addition to I’m on a Blimp. Collaboration for the win!

Parties

There were quite a few parties running, but I spent the bulk of my Saturday night hosting the Gin and Houdini party with Miriam. The event itself was fantastic, but simply recounting that many people enjoyed quality alcohol and a Houdini silent movie involving robots somehow fails to carry the full impact of the thing. If you weren’t able to attend this year, fear not — we’ll likely do it again!

In fact, the only party I did have a chance to get to was The A.S.S. Titilus party, Steerage: Down Among The Drunk Men. Occasionally playing, as I do, “Gunner” Tog Dunner of that fine vessel, I could scarcely miss out on a late-night Eli August performance! Nor did Mr. August dissapoint, which I must say is quite impressive at 2a.m. on a Saturday night at an event with a pace like this one.

Vendors

Vendors did not have an easy time this year in terms of having space available to them optimized for commerce. By now, the odds are you’ve heard that they planned for dealing out of their rooms only to discover that the fire marshall said they couldn’t. At least one merchant left after that. I’m far more impressed by the merchants who rolled with it and managed to present their wares to us. There were certainly alot of them, a very few of whom I want to shout out to here:

Opportunities for Improvement

It’s taken quite some time to get all this written down, and that much fun should take that long to recount. It wasn’t all squee and steam, though. There were issues, most stemmed from the hotel. By now, you’ve read about them elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into them here. Suffice it to say that the hotel was not up to the task of hosting an event of our size.

I want to be clear that I didn’t have a problem with any Hotel Employee, from the maids to the desk workers, to the Evening Manager who asked if I was satisfied with the accommodations. The issue is that the Hotel was institutionally unresponsive and unprepared for the event, and several highly billed events suffered as a result. Thankfully, none of these challenges are insurmountable over the long term, and those who make the Faire happen are well aware of these issues. Jeff Mach, who will be returning to his role as Event Organizer, has told me that “there is zero chance” of our returning to that hotel.

All in all, I’m looking forward to SPWF 2012!

One response to ““Steampunk World’s Fair 2011 Musings” – Con Report by Daniel Holzman-Tweed

  1. Pingback: Convention Extravaganza: Steampunk World’s Fair II | Beyond Victoriana

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