Feb 21, 2009

Steam Powered - The California Steam Punk Convention 2008

This was originally published at my other blog shortly after I returned from Steam Powered last November, but I thought it would make a good addition here at Steampunk Scholar. Plus, it explains the origins of my very own brass goggles, which have traveled with me to all my scholarly steampunk destinations.

I am tired, sore, and disoriented as I step into the lobby of the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale, CA in the early afternoon of Halloween. On the ride from the airport in a shuttle vainly trying to find my destination despite phone calls to 411 and the assistance of a GPS, I saw a school playground (three times in our circuitous wanderings) where children were dressed as the requisite ghosts and goblins. Aside from giving me a pang of guilt and regret for not being with my children this Halloween, I assumed such conventional Halloween sights would prepare me for the costumed pageantry of the California Steampunk Convention. I could blame it on a Gravol hangover, but I know that wasn't the case. It was sheer culture shock, to cross over the threshold of this typically modern hotel and be greeted by a man in a pith helmet and full expedition gear. I stammered a greeting in return before passing by the registration table (not yet open) where three ladies sat, dressed in variously elaborate Steampunk garb. There's a part of my brain reminding me this is what I came here to see, but I cannot help but feel like a man in a tuxedo at a nude beach.
I've come to the California Steampunk Convention for research, a reality which will be construed as a joke or "in-Steampunk-character" statement over the weekend. My interest in Steampunk began in a paper I wrote on Alternate History during my M.A. coursework, titled "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk" by Steffan Hantke in Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Prior to this formal introduction, I was aware of Steampunk through the graphic novels by Joe Kelly, as well as through a childhood love of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." My decision to write on Steampunk for my PhD dissertation was based on a number of reasons, most of them mercenary: if you're going to write 300+ pages on something, it should be of personal interest; it's nigh to impossible to find something in literary studies that hasn't already been done or done to death; the faculty member I wanted to work with was enthusiastic about the topic; and, because no one else has written extensively on it within the academic community, it gives me a way to distinguish myself and vie for publication of the finished work.
Hence my sudden interest in field research in the San Francisco Bay Area. While working on my program of study for a scholarship application, I googled Steampunk and San Francisco, since I was aware of the blossoming art movement there and got Wired magazine's article on the upcoming convention. Given the big names who were going to be in attendance, I determined to find a way to get there. Knowing it would be a tough sell to the University's various travel granting committees to just attend, I inquired as to whether or not the event needed any academic "experts," in the hope I could procure a presentation. A paper presented at a conference or convention lends credibility to a travel research application. I hoped for one: they granted me three--my own panel, and two round tables. I was elated to say the least. With both travel plans and a decent grant application secured, I looked forward to the weekend with anticipation.
My arrival challenged my sanguine traits to their maximum. Contrary to popular belief, I am not extroverted by nature. I was a professional people person and learned my skills for that work. They do not come naturally to me. I hid behind my mother's leg as a child, and was frightened to go ask for ketchup in fast food restaurants. I had secured interviews with several of the big names in attendance for the weekend, and planned to have informal conversations with convention attendees, but upon arrival, doubted if I could go through with it all.
Thankfully I had a very helpful "inside" contact. About a week before the convention, I was introduced via email to Natalie Rantanen, aka Lady Monroe of La Legion Fantastique, San Francisco's Jules Verne improv group. Again I googled, wondering what the hell a Jules Verne improv theatre group would do, and found that they assume characters from Verne's novels as personas for events such as Dickensfair, a "theatrical re-creation of 19th-century London, with all the color, charm, and merriment of Christmas" during the setting of the Christmas Carol. Natalie wondered if the Legion could "crash" my presentation, which was on Verne's famous anti-hero, Captain Nemo. With my own penchant for theatrics and performance (the very thing which leads people to think I'm naturally outgoing), I agreed without hesitation, provided they would permit an interview. As it would turn out, my interaction with the Legion went beyond interview.
Natalie sat down with me shortly after my arrival and assuaged my anxieities about attending as an outsider. She gave me the rundown on the local Steampunk community, on their political leanings as a group (largely leftist), their connection to the Goth movement, BDSM community, and how the convention was a meeting of many different worlds. She introduced me to other members of the Legion, who took me under their wing into the vendor's area. By the time I returned to my room to get dressed for the evening's festivities, my anxiety had been replaced once again with anticipation.
Friday night had a magical, almost surreal quality to it, given that it was done in a grand ball style, complete with an opening march which paraded a plethora of wonderful costumes, followed by a dance to the music of a brass band. The strains of the music wafted throughout the common areas, and when placed alongside the Steampunk and Neo-Victorian costumes, created an immersive environment which I surrendered myself to in the hopes of blending in and participating, as opposed to lingering on the fringes and observing. Aside from the costumes, one might assume it was a party like any other, given the laughter and lineups for liquor, but there was a level of performativity that lent an aspect of spectacle to the evening. Everywhere one looked there were costumes that drew the eye and demanded to be photographed, or commented upon. The level of detail on these costumes ranged from vests slapped over regular dress clothes (plus requisite brass goggles) to elaborate Victorian dresses blending lace with laser light accoutrements or Steampunk recreations of pop culture such as Wonder Woman or the Ghostbusters, or in the case of Legion thespian Ryan Galiotto, a Steampunk Hugh Hefner. Dressed in my own modest Neo-Victorian costume, I was able to drift through this carnevalesque celebration as participant, not the pedantic poseur I had assumed I might. While I was definitely still neophyte, my association with the Legion allowed me to step into conversations and gatherings I would have been remiss to have joined.
The next morning I dressed in regular clothes for my first round table panel, and was a little surprised to find that the majority of attendees had more than one costume for the weekend. Corsets, top hats, black powder pistols and brass goggles (and monocles) still abounded, but I was content to be in jeans and t-shirt. My roundabout was on Technology in the Victorian Era, and although I was apprehensive of coming across as knowledgeable in this area, it turned out that between myself and the other panel members, we actually had something very cohesive to say. Following this roundtable, my day was a blur of interviews with Phil Foglio, the co-creator of web-comic/graphic novel "Girl Genius"; Weta Workshop designer Greg Broadmore, creator of Weta originals Rayguns as well as the Dr. Grordborts' accompanying mythology; and Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, editors of the Steampunk Anthology; as well as impromptu conversations with convention attendees launched from my conversations with the so-called experts. The information I gleaned in both interviews and conversations proved to be greater than I'd hoped for. In a slight ironic twist, I also found myself being interviewed for a Steampunk podcast called Steampunk Spectacular. By the end of the day, I was, to quote Greg Broadmore, "shattered."
I dragged myself to my feet and staggered outside to wait for a bus shuttle to take me to the Abney Park concert. As I exited the hotel, I recognized a mother and her college age daughters I'd seen the night before. I'd requested a photo at the time, impressed as I was with their costumes, but they were indisposed, and promised to track me down for a photo opportunity later. I made a joke about never getting the photo, took the lost opportunity to procure one, and ended up spending the evening adopted in Samaritan-like fashion to attend the concert, which was a delight, since these events are never as much fun when one is without one's wingman.
While I'm still uncertain as to how the opening band encompassed a Steampunk aesthetic, Abney Park deserves their self-imposed appelation of Steampunk band, and I would argue, Steampunk music. It's one thing entirely to dress in a pseudo-Victorian fashion and claim you're a Steampunk band, but Abney park's pastiche of modern industrial ala Rammstein, 80s goth, world music and symphonic elements are melifluous expressions of the Steampunk aesthetic: archaic meets modern and makes something new. Beyond their Steampunk attributes, it must be noted that Abney Park achieve something very rare; they are consummate performers as well as musicians, engaging their audience in a familiar banter between songs, owning the stage environment, and ultimately causing the audience to forget how spartan and lackluster the light show was. Abney Park would be interesting to watch illuminated by nothing but white lamplight, and are a delight to listen to, even when the mix (as it was) is muddy and uneven.
I thought Sunday would be the day that my experience would somehow wind down, but I could not have been in greater error. My own presentation, the one which La Legion Fantastique would be in attendance at, had been gnawing at the back of my mind all weekend. The idea of involving the Legion interested and intrigued me, but we had reached no consensus on how to play this involvement out save that they would be there for the entire session, as opposed to barging in near the end. When I woke Sunday morning and went down to shop for a gift for Jenica, I discussed with Ryan Galiotto the possibility of doing the presentation in costume, and more importantly in character. He endorsed and encouraged the idea, and having bounced it off a few other Legion members shortly before the presentation, committed to the character of Dr. Gottfried Gotthammer, here at the Steampunk Convention to present his research on Captain Nemo.It turned out to be one of those moments where you make all the right choices. While I didn't hold character the entire time, the opening moments where I did seemed to create the right pedagogical space for the convention. I was able to speak with the members of the Legion in attendance in character, in this secondary world where Verne exists as historian and biographer, not fiction writer. Even after I dropped my accent and character to make discussion accessible, the Legion remained firmly locked into that Steampunk reality, with Nemo himself as living footnote to discourse. The conversation that ensued was instructive for me as much as anyone else in the room--I had speculated certain things which the community corroborated, adding to the potential academic journal article I hope to have written before the year has ended. And while this was all icing on the cake of my expectations, the presentation of honorary membership into La Legion Fantastique and the requisite brass goggles had the effect of transcending expectation to the point of placing me on a high which has yet to wear off. In short, the trip could not have been more successful short of a seance to channel Verne himself.
Another round table, a flurry of conversations, a final photo with the Legion, and by six o'clock, the Domain hotel was once again merely another place to rest the night on El Camino Real. The secondary world evaporated like the steam of the movement's namesake, and I found myself with the same sort of post-event-malaise I'd experienced as a teen going to weekend retreats or conventions. It has been a very long time since I've experienced that sense of loss, especially given my desire to return home and see my family. As my plane ascended the next morning before dawn, my mind was already working out the particulars of how I could return for next year's convention, what I would want to present on, and most importantly, how I can get some kick ass boots to go with my costume.

A video from Steam Powered

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