Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

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At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

Twilight and Narratives of Immigration (Ten Years Later)

48141990.cachedWarning: this week’s post may have been produced under sleep-deprived conditions. It may or may not also have provoked me to revisit the series, and buy Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped anniversary edition of Twilight, entitled Life and Death

Part of my thesis deals with the overtly political aspect of monstrousness. When we make monsters, we often rely on aspects of politicised otherness (blackness, as with the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings, or femininity, like in Species) to cue us in to the fact that these creatures are ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’. More recently, in film, television, and other popular culture, we’ve used monsters for a completely different reason: to try and make immigrants cool again.

In the wake of the not-so-recent announcement that Twilight is getting a new instalment of sorts (in the form of six short films), I’ve been doing some thinking about the ups and downs of the franchise. Where does Twilight fit into the contemporary monster scene, particularly given its depictions of monstrosity and otherness?

You could safely say that I am not a Twilight fan, though I’ve read most of the novels and seen all the films. My bachelor’s thesis, entitled ‘The Horror of Dracula: Twilight and the 21st-Century Vampire’, looked at how Twilight and related tween vampire productions metaphorically de-fang traditional vampire narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a huge vampire fan growing up (the more evil the vampire the better), I found it difficult to connect with the new sparkly, vegetarian variety I was seeing everywhere. Like others, I worried that the days of the ‘real’ vampires were behind us.

So, so white. I feel like they're about to burst into song at any moment.
So, so white. I feel like they’re about to burst into coordinated song and dance at any moment.

A few years down the line, however, my attitude towards the Twilight franchise has mellowed. It may not represent my favourite kind of literature or film, but if nothing else the antics of its fans (and the slow death of Robert Pattison’s soul) have given me lots to think, talk, and write about. Twilight also spawned the hugely successful 50 Shades of Grey, which in turn led to a film adaptation that saw a massively successful opening weekend at the box office (if not with critics). Without this former fanfic, where would I turn for my go-to example of the commodification of amateur art?

Likewise, my attitude about the representation of race and foreignness in Twilight has shifted slightly in the face of my recent research into the role fan and audience response plays in the reception of a text. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely many issues with the way gender, race (specifically people of colour), class, and sexuality are portrayed in the Twilight franchise. I see how Twilight, like many other contemporary cultural products, either ignores or openly mocks the many people who do not belong to the cultural majority.

These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.
These Amazonian vampires are just begging for some post-colonial deconstruction.

Despite the whiteness of its main characters, however, the Twilight series also has a surprisingly tolerant stance on immigration and integration compared to most of the attitudes out there these days. In horror fiction, the vampire is also generally not very welcome in the country he or she decides to set up residence. At worst, the vampire is a bloodthirsty entrepreneur who wants to suck that country (and its inhabitants) dry. At best, the vampire does little more than leech off the people he meets and the economy that supports him. Neither is really the model citizen.

The Twilight series even has more than one model of the resident alien, and the multicultural government. There are the Native werewolves who quietly if doggedly (pun intended) stand by their traditions, protecting their land against antagonistic outsiders. You’ve got the Volturi, who are essentially a vampire mafia, and who, from their base in Rome, impose their own strict laws upon all vampires for the ‘greater good’. The final instalments of Twilight even feature the equivalent of a vampire United Nations, in which the free exchange of cultures and resources is portrayed in an unabashedly utopian light. Twilight (both book and film) certainly promotes many unhealthy stereotypes about the people of colour it depicts, but unfortunately the racial diversity of its characters and casting still puts much of contemporary entertainment to shame.

Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.
Vampires of the world, all gathered around the campfire like one big happy family.

To me, however, the white, Western vampires in Twilight are also immigrants of a very specific sort. Though sometimes they segregates themselves from the culture of Forks, Edward and his family largely integrate. Edward and his vampire ‘siblings’ attend the local high school, his ‘father’ holds a respectable position as a doctor at the nearby hospital, and the Cullens regularly enjoy a game of baseball, the American pastime. If anything, Edward and his vampire family are frighteningly normal, not Other. Twilight’s vampire characters are all white, yes, but read from a certain perspective their whiteness is taken to an extreme that is arguably no longer identifiable with (or is even a caricature of) mainstream ‘whiteness’. Playing baseball, driving Volvos – are these things eighteenth-century Americans would have appreciated? Is it not terribly, temporally colonialist of the twenty-first century to assume that American hobbies and consumer values would remain inherently unchanged for hundreds of years?

This scene feels almost like it's as much torture for them as it is for us.
This scene feels like it’s as much torture for them as it is for us.

Do I think that this engagement with themes of immigration and integration makes up for the other flaws in the series? No.

Does this mean that the Twilight franchise represents a positive response to the typically racist and classist portrayals of vampires in fiction? I’m unconvinced. I do find it to be an interesting line of thought, however.

Do you agree? Are you also disturbed by the fact that the Twilight series is looking increasingly progressive in the light of current Western politics? Let me know in the comments.

Postcolonial Steampunk

1888 American cartoon of the Imperial Octopus, its greedy squid arms reaching out to grasp the world’s various regions.

Steampunk is a popular aesthetic these days, though it’s still too early to comment on its long-term staying power as a movement. Either way, the subculture still caters to many different groups of fans in many different countries. This past weekend the Emporium Vernesque opened its doors for a Dutch gathering of steampunks. A few months ago, the UK’s largest and longest-running steampunk festival, The Asylum, saw hundreds of steampunk enthusiasts flood the city of Lincoln. San Diego’s annual Gaslight Gathering draws similar crowds.

Most of these people are white.

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A group of very lovely, very white steampunks gathered in Lincoln for the 2011 Asylum Festival.

I say this not to comment on the skin color of steampunk lovers per se, but rather to highlight a different problem in the subculture: the visual heritage of colonialism. Namely, in how far can we appropriate the Victorian aesthetic without paying unwanted homage to the period’s legacy? I’m far from the only person to address this difficult question. People both inside and outside the steampunk community have shared their thoughts on the (in)separability of steampunk aesthetics and ethics, and have come down on both sides. Some dismiss steampunk outright as culturally elitist and politically impotent. This couple is a good example of how neo-Victorian sentiment can get out of hand. Other commenters on the aesthetics of steampunk see no problem donning a pith helmet, smoking jacket, and monocle, arguing that dressing like a coloniser is not the same as supporting colonialism. Still others see the aesthetic as a direct critique of colonialism, appropriating it to subvert and reshape its meanings. This issue of cultural appropriation is also something we’ll hopefully be discussing at next year’s British Association of Victorian Studies conference.

For me, the most interesting response to this issue is in the increasing amount of postcolonial cosplay taking place in and around the steampunk community. In a variety of different ways, these interpretations of the steampunk aesthetic imagine the Victorian period from a perspective other than the white, Western norm. I’m hoping to write more on this topic in the near future, but here are a few great articles and websites dedicated to the subject of multicultural or postcolonial steampunk, which should tide you over in the meantime.

Below are just a few examples to get us started.

Steamfunk

One of the first images I came across when I Googled ‘multicultural steampunk’ was this:

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The image was in an article by Balogun, who writes in a genre he calls ‘steamfunk’, defined as follows:

Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is A philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or  steampunk fiction.

Visually it works as a combo of genteel nineteenth-century styles and the powerful fashions of the 70s funk movement. I have yet to find many concrete examples of this type of cosplay in the steampunk world, restricted as I am to Google Image searches, but am fascinated by the potential of the aesthetic. If you know anyone who has worked in this area, I would love to hear about it!

Alternate Empires

More common in the steampunk cosplay world is the visualisation of alternate empires. Britain wasn’t the only nation with a large international presence in the nineteenth century. Austin Sirkin has a great post to this effect called ‘adding a multicultural touch to steampunk without being an insentsitive clod’. He also includes some of the better-known examples of this kind of cosplay:

[W]e have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:

[…]Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:

This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn’t incorporate many “Western” elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don’t belong to.

Do check out his article for more examples.

Native Tech

In addition to referencing some of the other international powers of the nineteenth century, Sirkin’s post also looks at those nations and peoples who were on the losing side of history. He provides the following three images of Native American cyberpunk, though as he points out, despite their attractiveness as examples of postcolonial cosplay, these images have problematic, commercial origins:

While in this case the images are rendered problematic by their status as ads for the company ColourChiefs, they do provide an interesting launchpad talking talk about Native Tech. Monique Poirier wrote the following about her own foray into Native American steampunk back in 2010, describing what she enjoys about the subculture’s opportunities for neo-historical revision:

Monique Poirier
Monique Poirier

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Though I really like this idea of intentionally anachronistic history and revisionist mythmaking, I can imagine that the line between respectful and disrespectful uses of this aesthetic is a fine one. This is a problem Monique Poirier does mention frequently in her writing, and is something blogger Miss Kageshi also discovered following negative responses to her own post on Native American steampunk.

And the rest

What do you think? Can steampunk escape its colonial heritage? What should postcolonial steampunk look like?

I’ve included a slideshow of more postcolonial steampunk cosplay below. Please note that, like the images above, these images each have their own context and nuances, which should be researched before re-posting them elsewhere. Where possible, all images link to their source, but if you spot someone you know who isn’t credited, please contact me:

 

There and Back Again: Or, What I Learned About Pop Culture at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio

aq_g9sTVAnd we’re back! After a long and much-needed holiday in the USA, I’m in Cardiff and working on my thesis again.

My post this week is going to be a long one, and it’s going to contain a strange mix of topics (religion, politics, and popular culture), so consider yourself forewarned. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or know me in real life) may have been wondering what on earth was going on at the beginning of July. You probably saw a lot of posts like this one, relating to points of order:

You may also have seen lots of photos of me either raising a voting card, or standing at microphones holding massive wads of paper, like so:

From 1-12 July I was in San Antonio, at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and on days when everyone was in the Alamodome venue, things got pretty impressive:

Every five years members and official delegates from the Adventist church all over the world get together to discuss and vote on necessary, if often very boring, topics. This year, those topics ranged from minor changes to policy documents all the way up to whether divisions (large, and largely administrative leadership bodies within the church) had the right to independently decide whether to recognise its female pastors as being ‘ordained’. This last topic was arguably the most controversial of the entire GC, and the final vote was split almost evenly between Africa and South America (who represented most of the 59% against), and North America, Europe, and Asia (who represented most of the 41% for).

For most of you reading this post, the whole idea of a church policy conference probably sounds crazy, and a million miles distant from your own day-to-day life. I’m with you there. Working in academia — or just in Northern Europe, where we’re all embedded in our own little social bubbles — it’s easy to forget that other people have fundamentally different ways of looking at things. Not just in the realm of structuralism versus post-structuralism, or ‘pro-Marmite’ versus ‘anti-Marmite’, but right down to the way they essentially define things like equal representation, civil rights, and freedom of speech.

Not only is it difficult to make decisions together on an abstract level with so many cultures and ways of reading, but you first have to worry about how you’re going to make those decisions on a practical level. During the GC session, for example, one division fundamentally objected to an anonymous vote, arguing that it leads to manipulation and double-dealing, while another refused to vote unless they could do so anonymously, for the exact same reason. Things got tricky very quickly. How can you begin to work together (or even alongside each other) under such circumstances? When you disagree on such basic things, can you ever hope to agree on civil rights issues? And can you achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue that still remains respectful? I certainly don’t think we were successful at either of those things in San Antonio.

Despite having grown up all over the world, I found it a difficult atmosphere to adjust to. The collision of religion and multicultural politics made my head spin — so what on earth was I doing there? Although for most of my life I’ve happily worked and studied in environments that are decidedly post-Christian, I was raised in the Adventist church. Like many people my age I’m not very active in a specific church any more — primarily for reasons of introversion, but also for its general lack of a focus on civil rights. I still identify with the culture, though, and I feel that church can fulfill an important role in society, and in people’s lives.

There are more than 18 million Adventists worldwide, and while some of them are definitely a little crazier than others, ultimately that craziness is what endears me. I like being around slightly crazy things and people; generally I feel it makes my life more interesting, and more enjoyable. So when the Dutch church asked me (a Dutch/American) to represent them at the GC my interest was piqued, and I eventually accepted. I came prepared, attended every single business session, and did my best to help balance the severe under-representation of women and young people among the delegates.

In the end it was a losing battle, and I came away from the GC feeling exhausted and alienated, with a lot of frustrations. Despite failing to personally identify with a large portion of what went on in San Antonio, however, I did meet many lovely (and keenly intelligent) people from all over the world. Through social media, I was also able to connect with others in a way I had never quite experienced before. As we all tried to cope together, and to reconcile other peoples’ images of Adventism with our own, something happened: where religion couldn’t unite us, popular culture did. We found each other slowly on Twitter, through the official hashtag #GCSA15, the millennial rallying cry #MyChurchToo, and the tongue-in-cheek self identification as a #badventist:

What started as simple conversations about #AdventistGaming and what video games we were playing (or just an excited ‘You like comics too?!’) quickly became something more than that. Popular culture became a way to engage with the dis-empowering and overwhelming metanarrative that dominated the San Antonio GC, underwriting it with reminders that there were other, equally big stories out there that we could relate to, and that we could apply to the situation. At the start of one day we knew was going to be a particularly emotional one, we turned to Star Wars:

 

Commenting on a particular agenda point, point of order, or on the conference in general became an opportunity to redefine the spectacle of it all in more familiar terms:

We even used teen dystopias to show our support for each other against overwhelming odds:

It just goes to show you (or at least, it showed me), that for something like a religion to really work, you need to connect with other people on more than just one level. For us that was popular culture – for others it may be something completely different. I’m still picking through the many things we referenced during those two long weeks, but I’ll always remember how it felt to find meaning and a voice through that common ground. The hashtag #GCSA15 may be retired now, but we won’t forget about the experiences it enabled in a hurry (and neither will our fingers):

For the moment I’m still glad it’s over, but who knows — maybe you’ll see me at #GCINDY20 in Indianapolis. At the very least, you’ll have my support (and my sad pop culture jokes) on Twitter.