Ariane Wolf and Mark Anderson are the co-chairs of Nova Albion, the steampunk convention which takes place in the San Francisco, CA area. I first met Ariane in March 2010 when I attended the convention, and consequently, had a chance to meet many new people and make some new friends.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Ariane, that you for joining us for this interview. Let’s start with the basics – how do you describe steampunk
Ariane Wolfe: More than anything else, I think, I see Steampunk as an aesthetic, based on (or in) the premise of scientific and mechanical advances and the look-and-feel of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Steampunk “is” so many different things, and I like seeing the varied interpretations that people bring to it, rather than trying to pigeon-hole it. In other words, to me it’s not always steam-driven vehicles, bustle dresses, brass appointments and goggles (though I love all those things!)… and it doesn’t have to be set in London or even specifically during the latter half of the 19th century. It’s more like a lens that I look through or a filter that I can apply to stories, clothing, characters, a living environment, etc.
The other huge component to me is the “DIY” slant – the shift towards creating things you need or want around you, or buying hand-crafted goods from real people who put time, effort and love into what they’re doing, rather than impersonal corporate conglomerates that create cookie-cutter items. I’m not really a Maker myself – I admire greatly folks who can make something amazing from very little! My little piece of that is being able to sometimes take existing items… such as clothing or knick-knacks I find at thrift shops – and make them into something new and wonderful. It’s a very satisfying feeling.
AA: Before we talk about Nova Albion specifically, what keeps you busy when you aren’t organizing steampunk events?
AW: By day – well, by weekday, anyway – I’m a mild-mannered Business Manager in San Francisco. I also co-run the Clockwork Salon Society, the little non-profit that produces Nova Albion, with my sweetie (and Co-Chair and VP), Mark Anderson. The nonprofit work runs into the evenings and weekends, and at the moment most of that time is spent doing character research and costuming, and getting ready for the Dickens Christmas Fair.
AA: So, you are already pretty busy! Putting on any event takes so much time and energy – what motivated you to organize and run a steampunk event?
AW: We have this group of friends who try to get together nearly every Friday night to wind down the week, share food and enjoy each other’s company. On one of these Friday nights around April or May 2008, a few of them starting talking about steampunk and how they didn’t think there had ever been a dedicated steampunk convention. The more they talked, the more they decided there really should be one – and that if someone would put it together, they would go. I was working with a business partner who was looking for some sort of event to back – so I came to him with my friends’ idea of creating a steampunk con. He had been a fan of the original Wild, Wild West series and immediately thought it was a great idea. We started poking around on the web, and they had been right – we couldn’t find evidence of one dedicated steampunk event anywhere at that point – inside the U.S. or out. So… we said why not! I went back to the group and told them we were actually going to do it… and a bunch of them volunteered on the spot! Five months later, after much tearing out of hair and bemoaning of our fate… after talking to bunches of steampunk enthusiasts, gathering more volunteers, booking speakers, hotel, performers and vendors… we made it happen. The Exhibition has gone through some refining and re-shaping in the ensuing couple of years… we learn more with each event we do, and I feel it’s really, well… gained steam.
Mark Anderson: A few things; there was the initial push, which was more social than anything else, and then the deeper idea of creating an educational tool based in the Steampunk aesthetic.
AA: As the social get-togethers led to an idea which led to a convention, what previous experiences helped prepare you to put on a convention?
MA: We both have experience in going to conventions from rather young ages on, and at Renaissance Faires. A lot of what we’re trying to do with the Exhibition is taking the best of both worlds and combining them in ways that’ll surprise the most experienced attendee.
AA: What qualities did you find served you well to put on that first convention?
AW: Some of the same skills that one needs as a cat wrangler; patience, passion, creativity, and the ability to look at the big picture. In the professional world, I have worked as an Executive Assistant, a Project Manager and Business Manager… all useful places to have a background in. My partner in crime has experience in Sales and Marketing, mostly in the publishing industry and has directed groups at the Renaissance Faires. You have to be willing to wear a lot of different hats and to work off-the-cuff a lot of the time.
AA: Trying to be all things to all people is pretty challenging! What was your biggest obstacle in trying to get things done?
AW: Heh.. time! There are definitely not enough hours in a day, days in a week or weeks in a month, for me. The rest is pretty much logistics – getting it all together, being able to decide what you’re going to do way in advance, and making it happen. We have an awesome group of volunteers, though – like I said, most of them have been doing this with me since the beginning, and they’re just a hugely talented and dedicated team of folks. There’s no way one or two people can make something like this happen – it takes a real concerted effort, and having people who love it enough to volunteer what spare time they have (and then a lot that they don’t) to bring it to life.
We’re also in the midst of getting our 501(c)(3) designation, so at the moment there’s a good deal of paperwork, and being sure we’ll be able to bring in enough money to do everything we want to.
AA: With all those challenges, and stress, what keeps you going? What are the rewards?
MA: Oh, like most people organizing Steampunk events, we’re in it for the money. (Yeah – That sound you hear is all the other event organizers laughing their brasses off).
We’re part of the community here in California and at the end of the day, we want to put something up there that makes the people we love happy; we want to surprise people, have them walk away with a great experience they didn’t expect, something they’ll talk about for years to come. But, again, mostly it’s the money.
AW: Looking around and realizing that we’d made it happen… we’d gone from, “Hey, why don’t we do this?” to seeing over a thousand people of varying ages, walks of life, genders, ethnicities… milling around a hotel dressed in neo-Victorian clothing replete with goggles and ray guns, talking excitedly about the fascinating demonstration or the great speaker they just heard… that was just amazing to me. Then seeing how many steampunk events have sprung up since then, and knowing I did my part in bringing it about… that’s pretty cool. It makes me feel good, and want to do more of it.
AA: Being part of that growing community, do you talk with other convention organizers to trade ideas
MA: Somewhat and, happily, increasingly. There is an increasing amount of coordination between the various events, starting with a lovely passport stamp project that seems to be getting off the ground with the Steampunk Worlds Fair folks . Who knows where that’ll go in the future – it sounds like a great idea, and we were happy to join in.
AW: One of the things I’ve done in the past, and that we’ll continue to do, is offer comp passes to other Steampunk event organizers. The best case is when we can do an exchange – they come to our event free to see how we do it, and when we can, we go to theirs. We have also invited other steampunk promoters to advertise their upcoming events through links on our website, ads in the printed programs or by bringing literature to hand out a Nova Albion. Not everyone likes to play nice with others or to offer a professional courtesy… but most of the event organizers we’ve spoken with have been very open to the idea and several have taken us up on it. I think there are a LOT of steampunks out there, and they like to be part of a larger community – online sites like the Steampunk Empire are proof of that. Folks want to be able to go to various events, in different areas; as long as we as promoters are conscious and respectful of our neighbors and are careful not to schedule a new event on top of one that’s already happening nearby, I feel like it’s all good.
AA: That’s really great to work with other conventions and work towards a community of event organizers. What are some of the factors which contribute to a successful convention?
AW: I think the first thing, for us, is to get beyond treating it like a traditional convention. We realized after 2008 that what we wanted to create for people was much more interesting than that… it was more a reflection (if a small one), of the old World Expositions and Exhibitions in the 19th and early 20th centuries; something more participatory and exciting. I think even the presentations and panels have to be lively, have to engage the attendees; It can’t just be a passive experience. You also need to pay attention to what your target audience wants, and provide that – you can’t get stuck on trying to forward your own agenda, especially with a group as literate and savvy as the steampunk community.
MA: Ultimately, a convention or an exhibition is a reflection of the community that holds and attends it. In our case, being in the SF Bay Area, we have a delightful surplus of passionate people with decades of experience in both traditional Science Fiction/Fantasy Conventions, Living History Faires (including both the original Renaissance Faires and Dickens Christmas Fairs), and mostly recently, the Burning Man/Maker Fair movement, which gives us the maker tracks we introduced in 2010.
One of the challenges of organizing such a beast is letting the creativity and passion of each volunteer impact and change the finished product. Along the way, it’s a little scary, to be honest, but you get this sublime grace with the finished product, more of a chorus than a solo, if you will.
AA: As a reflection, then, of the people in the community and the varied interests among literature, fashion and art, what was your overall vision for the Nova Albion Exhibition?
AW: The Big Picture is having a place where the steampunk and Sci-fi/fantasy communities can come gather, meet up, hear wonderful speakers, trade ideas… maybe collaborate on writing or projects, get feed back… and over all of it, learn new things. Our non-profit charter is educational, and from the start we’ve had the plan to address that aspect of it more and more with each successive year. For 2011 we’re really excited to be working on a Teachers’ Guide to using Steampunk elements for high school, college and middle school English, History and Science curriculum. We’re planning to have at least a first draft done in time for teachers to bring their students to the Exhibition, where they’ll have a short docent-led tour and a set of activity choices their students can participate in, to earn school credit. We’ll be offering a student discount as well… whatever we can do to make it easier for teachers to utilize what we have for various courses they’re teaching. We really gather in a wealth of talent in our Speakers, Makers and luminaries from the steampunk world… and we want to share that with as many people as we can.
AA: That sounds like a great opportunity to bring in new people and increase exposure for steampunk on several levels. How long does it take to plan something like that, and a whole convention?
MA: Oh, you start thinking about the next event before the current one goes on. For instance, before we opened the doors of the 2010 Exhibition, we realized that there were many places we could go with the theme. Ariane started in 2008 with a western Steampunk event and 2010 was very much just bringing together everything we learned and making it work; as we got to the start date, there were all these ideas for how a Steampunk world would translate to other cultures, starting with Asia.
For 2012, we’re going to try something a little different, looking at a broader period than what people traditionally think of as Steampunk. We want to expand the focus of the Exhibition both earlier in time (Isaac Newton, for instance, spent half his life working on alchemy – who knows where that could have gone if things were a little different), and later, through the middle of the 20th Century, to what people are calling Dieselpunk. We’re still working through everything, but we can tell you, it’s going to be a great deal of fun.
This is a good place to take a break. Join us next time for the conclusion of our interview with Ariane Wolfe and Mark Anderson, co-chairs of the Nova Albion convention.
Click here to read the rest of the interview