Interview with Great Steampunk Debate Moderators – Part 1

The Great Steampunk Debate was an online event in May and June 2010 where everyone was invited to participate in discussing various topics related to steampunk – the formative history, the expressions of it today, and where it might be going.

This week, we talk with several of the moderators who built, coordinated and ran the event

Amanda Stock – co-founder of the Toronto Steampunk Society, an administrative member of Steampunk Canada, a moderator, community member and erstwhile contributor to the Gazette over at The Gatehouse

John Sondericker III – Steampunk Tales Magazine

Tome Wilson – the creator/admin behind Dieselpunks,

Other Moderators include:

Allegra Hawksmoor – one of the editors of SteamPunk Magazine

Chris Garcia – editor of Exhibition Hall

Russell Alexander – the founder of the Wings of Steam Anachronistic Society

Dylan Fox – administer the UK Steampunk Network, a contributing editor to Steampunk Magazine, member of Vagrants Among Ruins

Nick Ottens – creator and editor at The Gatehouse and the Gatehouse Gazette

Mike Perschon – author of the Steampunk Scholar blog, with a focus on literature

John Naylor – Chair of the Victorian Steampunk Society and creator of The Asylum festival, a professional TV art director and production designer

Airship Ambassador: Welcome to all of you, and thank you very much for taking time from your other responsibilities for this interview. As a project manager in my own day to day life, I could see how much work it must have taken to organize and execute the Great Steampunk Debate. As such, I am personally very curious about all of the behind-the-scenes work and activity. First, how did this event come about?

Amanda Stock: I’ll let the others handle this one, seeing as I was involved more as an additional moderator and not as one of the primary organizers.

John Sondericker III: As far as I know, Allegra contacted the moderators. The initial thrust was to decide if steampunk was inherently political. The topics grew from there.

Tome Wilson: The Great Steampunk Debate came about as an open, politically-neutral forum where people interested in the retrofuturism subculture could share ideas and help define what steampunk has recently become and give insight on where they think it is moving.

 

AA: How much planning and discussion went into creating the GSD before it launched

AS: Oh, months worth of planning things down to minutiae preceded the actual debate. All of the moderators and administrators had access to polls and discussion boards for deciding exactly how everything was to be structured and run. Most major decisions were made by majority vote and discussion of details. The planning went on right until the week before the debate started.

JS: Months and months. At times I wondered why we were taking so long, but in the end it seemed like it was well worth the time involved.

TW: A great deal of planning was needed to get The Great Steampunk Debate off of the ground.  Primarily, there was the need for a neutral area, unassociated with an established forum or group so the GSD contributors could feel at ease stating their opinion without the fear of backlash.  For example, you don’t try to hold an open political debate with anarchists and communists at Republican Party headquarters.

 

Once the groundwork was set, a call was sent to those whom the organizers felt were influential within the retrofuturist community.  This guaranteed a certain amount of publicity for the event, and helped bring a larger, more varied group of participants to the fore.

From there, it was a completely democratic matter of creating questions, and goals for the event.

 

AA: What were the important elements which kept all of you together and moving forward towards a common goal when each person’s perspective, personality and goals might be completely different and even in opposition to others?

AS: The desire to create a space in which all members of the online steampunk community could come together outside of their usual spheres was the overarching goal that kept us working together. There were some disagreements as to how certain elements of the debate should be run, but with the voting system in place, things went pretty smoothly. I personally really enjoyed working with the other moderators. Everyone was very friendly, civil, and willing to try and see things from each other’s point of view.

JS: For the most part we agreed on a lot of things, or didn’t feel strongly enough to pose much opposition. I recall there were a few votes on topics where we didn’t reach a consensus. We’d then typically just come together and agree, post poll.

TW: We used a very structured, democratic voting method for shaping all elements of the event.  This helped the process from being railroaded by one strong personality.  While it may have taken longer to come to a consensus, I believe it was the best way to create something we could all be proud of.

 

AA: The one agreed upon purpose of GSD was “to explore steampunk ideology’ – what other ideas were proposed, discussed, modified, and struck down?

AS: That was pretty much the point of the debate from the very beginning of the planning stages. The idea of coming to some manner of overall conclusion with regards to some of the questions was thrown around, but ultimately untenable because of the sheer diversity of opinions within the steampunk community. Instead, members were encouraged to post their own conclusions and what they had taken away from the two months the debate ran.

JS: We all were interested in what the demographic of the steampunk movement was, so in general we were posing the same questions and interested in the same topics.

TW: That was the core idea, and it influenced the entire structure of the event from the beginning.  Of course, it was reworded several times over for clarification, but the spirit of “exploring steampunk ideology” was what we truly set out to accomplish.

 

AA: It sounds like there was a great deal of discussion among the people involved as moderators, with widely varying viewpoints about what form and format the GSD should take. What were the challenges in finding common ground?

AS: Well, because of the way decisions were made it wasn’t too difficult to come to an agreement on what format suited the debate best once the basic idea had been established. Having been brought in as a moderator by Nick once this had happened, I can’t say I know how the initial round of decisions and discussions went.

JS: We were all more or less laid back and malleable. There were some points of contention, but I don’t recall too much that was heated.

TW: I was accepted as a second-round moderator after Allegra and Nick brought the idea past the concept stage.  My connection to both of these individuals was entirely professional prior to the event, so I can only guess what their criteria guidelines were for choosing the mods.

 

AA: I’ve read that there were heated debates and intense discussions among the group when putting GSD together. Did you find similar discussions happened among participants once the site opened?

AS: I didn’t personally end up in any heated debates. Most of the organizers seemed to mesh well and the whole process was fairly smooth. Of course, participants in the actual debate did have widely varying opinions about whether the way things were organized was ideal, and a small but vocal number certainly let it be known that they would have done things differently.

JS: Allegra really did a fine job in structuring things. As for the actual debate, I’m glad it was somewhat heated because a debate that isn’t is not much fun to follow.

TW: I wouldn’t say “heated.”  With any new project where there are several cooks are in the kitchen making the meal, you’re going to have disagreements and conflicts of personality.  Some people bowed out after they saw that the shape of the event didn’t fit their vision of what they thought it should have been, but it was more of a “I can’t support this,” rather than a “Screw you guys, I’m outta here.”  Once the ball got rolling, the voting method seemed to work very well for ironing out the little details.

 

AA: Some moderators were actively part of the discussions, some stepped in as needed to keep discussions on track, some weren’t apparent in any threads. Were there any general guidelines for participation in the debate being a moderator?

AS: It had been decided that moderators were allowed to freely participate in the discussions because their opinions on the questions being explored were important, too. After all, many of the moderators and administrators were prominent members of the steampunk community with well-developed positions on a lot of the topics covered.

The way we opted to separate personal opinion posts from moderation posts was decided part way through the debate, when it became clear that members weren’t certain when mods were acting as figures of authority and when they were simply acting as participants in discussion. We ended up placing “MODERATOR POST” in bold at the top of any post in which a moderator was exercising their duty in keeping things on track, and these posts had to be separate from any personal opinions being expressed.

JS: I posted some but spent much more time lurking. After already having time to think about the questions I found that I wasn’t really in the mood to try to bring folks in line with my own opinions. As far as the actual moderation is considered, that always seemed to be well taken care of by some of the more active moderators.

TW: There were no clear-cut rules for moderation at the start since most of us were veterans at the job, but it was understood by all that we were solely in charge of keeping the GSD running smoothly.  To give you an idea of our participation rights as moderators, it might be helpful knowing that we were initially going to call ourselves “ushers.”  We were there to show people the way and to keep the event from becoming unruly, but our active participation was to be kept to a minimum.

This meant that once the event was able to stand on its own, most mods took a step back and watched things unfold from behind the curtain, only appearing when it was necessary to keep things on topic.

 

End of Part 1

Please join us next week for the continuation of this interview with moderators from the Great Steampunk Debate.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

Part 3

 

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Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 7:26 am  Comments (1)  
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Interview With Diana Vick – Part 2

Welcome back for the conclusion of our interview with Diana Vick, co-chair of the Steamcon convention in Seattle.

Part 1 can be read here.

AA: As you mentioned, conventions run on volunteers and there were plenty to be seen during Steamcon. How many people were involved to hold the event?

DV: That’s really hard to say.  I think we have a core group of about 30 people and then there are hordes of volunteers and staff who work before, during and after the convention getting things done.  Volunteers are our life blood and we really appreciated all the help that turned up last year.  Hopefully even more will be there for us this year.

AA: How did all of those volunteers get involved?

DV: We had a small group of people who wanted to help from the beginning and then it was mostly word of mouth and online communities.  I run online Steamcon communities just about anywhere I can.  We’ve been lucky to attract folks from other conventions that have the experience we needed as well.

AA: The mainstay of conventions is panels, interviews, and demonstrations of various types. Where do you get ideas for the programs?

DV: We have a programming committee and we get together and brainstorm.

AA: Is there anything in particular that you look for in a program topic?

DV: Anything that people might find interesting or informative that deals with steampunk, Victoriana, writing or some related topic; some historical topics, some fantastical and anything in between.

AA: Where do you look for speakers/performers for those programs?

DV: We use local artists and writers. We put out calls for speakers and then people planning on attending contact us as well.  Having been a panelist at general science fiction conventions, I feel that one or two people speaking on a topic is more interesting than a large random group of strangers on a panel.  Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable speaking alone, so we end up with a mix of panels and talks.

AA: When choosing those speakers/performers, what do you look for to get a quality person?

DV: We try to find people with something unique to bring to the table.  I am adamant that we not run the same topics or speakers every year so that it doesn’t get stale.   I had met Tim Powers before, and we were thrilled to have him as a guest.  He is an intelligent and articulate speaker.  This year’s writer guest of honor, Jim Blaylock, was at a local science fiction convention, so I made an effort to go say hello.  He was also a very thoughtful and intelligent speaker and I am sure he will entertain and delight our audience.   Jake Von Slatt was at Steamcon for one panel last year, so I decided to make him work a little harder this year and made him a guest.  He is one of the most popular makers in the steampunk community and I think people will really want to hear what he has to say.  Captain Robert and Abney Park are returning for their second year at Steamcon.  I love their music, but Robert is also one of the most outspoken people in the community.  We recently got to sit down and compare ideas, and I was very impressed with his views.

AA: Another big aspect of conventions is the vendor’s room and all the great items they bring. What kinds of vendors were/are you looking for?

DV: We just approved the first round of vendors for the Grand Mercantile for this year.  Vendors had to have steampunk relevant wares.  We don’t want the room to look like an average science fiction convention dealer’s room.  It should be immersively steampunk.  We also looked for diversity, so it isn’t a room full of jewelry vendors.  Then we looked for quality.  Competition is stiff and we look for the best wares to make a diverse and interesting room.  I think that attendees will be really pleased with the diverse wares offered this year and the room is twice as big too.

AA: Along with all the planning of what the convention is going to be, marketing the event is important, too, to bring people in. How did you promote Steamcon beforehand?

DV: My husband, Martin and I dressed up in steampunk attire and went to other conventions around the country.  I even wound up running the infamous “guerilla steampunk panel” at Dragoncon.  We talked up steampunk and Steamcon everywhere we went, even on the street.  I created online communities for Steamcon everywhere and listed us anywhere online that I could.  I basically taught myself viral marketing and ran with it.

AA: With all of that work, you’ve had a chance to meet thousands of people. What kind of networking, associations, and new friendships have come out of your work on Steamcon, before, during, and after?

DV: I have made so many wonderful new friends.  The community as a whole is very welcoming so I now have new friends all over the world.

AA: Looking back on the actual three day convention, what were some of your favorite aspects of Steamcon?

DV: Well, for me it went by in a blur and I didn’t get to sit down and enjoy much. I did get to see the tea party and fashion show and that was amazing.  Other than that, getting to meet so many great folks and hearing that they enjoyed themselves was immensely satisfying.

AA: It was a fantastic event for me, personally, and everyone I talked with during the weekend was having a great time. As spectacular as it was, what are some things you would have done differently?

DV: Well, we should have had a bigger hotel.  Honestly, we thought we were going to have a small regional convention when we started.  We were warned that we would only get 500 attendees at the very most, since that’s what most first year science fiction conventions in our area draw.  When pre-registration hit 900, we knew we had some hard decisions to make.  Overfilling the venue is not only a fire hazard, but it’s simply not comfortable for our guests.  We ended up capping our attendance and having to turn people away.  I made announcements everywhere as early as I could and stopped promotion as much as I could.  It was a very hard thing to do.  We ultimately had 1,350 members.  If we had known, we would have thought bigger, but we didn’t want to lose our shirts if we failed.  This year, we are expecting a good sized turnout again so we got the hotel next door as well.  It should be a fabulous convention.

AA: Needing two hotels to accommodate everyone and all of the events is a good problem to have! What are current ideas for Steamcon II?

DV: We are adding the Riverboat Gambler Night, the Airship Awards Banquet, The Artful Bodger’s Guns & Gizmos Show, as well as a second tea party and expanding the hours of the cabaret.

AA: With Steamcon II coming up in November, 2010, what suggestions and encouragement would you give to people who want to attend?

DV: Get your hotel room booked now.  I believe that we have filled the Marriott, but the Hilton is equally great and is giving us the same rate.  Getting your membership early will allow you to skip the registration line and ensure you get in.  Even though we have two hotels this year, we may still end up selling out.  We started a forum for people who might want to share rooms or find transportation to the convention.  You can join here.

AA: Sometimes, it’s difficult to reign in the creativity and limit everyone and the event to just what can be realistically done, and done well. But, if you had unlimited access and an unlimited budget, what is one item you’d leap at to offer

DV: I’d invite Kevin Kline as a special guest.  He was Artemus Gordon in “Wild Wild West” the movie and one of my all time favorite actors.  I’m not sure that’s he’s a very steampunk appropriate choice, but I would enjoy meeting him.  There are a few other ideas that might fit into your question, but we just may make them happen so I’ll keep them to myself for now.

AA: What advice or suggestions do you have to people who want to be involved in or produce a convention?

DV: Only do it if you really love it.  It will be a lot of work.  And give yourself lots of time to plan.

AA: Aside from Steamcon, what other steampunk things are you involved with?

DV: I began an online Zazzle store called Steamporium that offers t-shirts, gift cards and more.  I write a blog.  I give talks at conventions and libraries.  I attend the Seattle Steam Rats meetup when I can.  I even have a few steampunk stories that I want to write when I have time.

AA: What are your interests outside of steampunk?

DV: I have always loved science fiction/fantasy books and movies.   “The Fifth Element”, “Brazil” and “Aliens” are my top favorite movies, but there are so many others.  I will watch almost anything science fiction.    I think my love of steampunk may have began when I saw “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a child.  I love to travel.   Going to science fiction conventions all over the country was often my only travel outlet, but it combined my two loves, so I was happy.

AA: Do you find any overlap or influence of those interests with steampunk?

DV: When we were in Tokyo for the World Science Fiction Convention, we went to Tokyo Disney Seas.  They have a section called Mysterious Island that is all Jules Verne inspired.  It’s amazing; probably the most steampunk place on the planet!  I do tend to find some steampunk elements almost everywhere we go.

AA: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

DV: I think the attraction of Steampunk is its optimism, its opulence, its manners, its curiosity and its romance.   If we can infuse our everyday lives with even a smidge of it, we can’t help but benefit.

Thank you, Diana, for spending time with us and sharing your thoughts and stories.

For more reading and information, there are Diana’s blog and online store, and the Steamcon website. If you are or will be in the Seattle area, try to stop by the weekly Seattle Steam Rats meet up.

Published in: on August 22, 2010 at 8:11 am  Comments (1)  
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Interview with Diana Vick

This week, we are talking with Diana Vick, co-chair of the Steamcon convention in Seattle, Washington, which is where I (and most of the other 1350 other attendees) first met her. Since then, I’ve gotten to know her through the local steampunk meet-ups in Seattle, and the Steamcon II organizational meetings.

Airship Ambassador: Hi Diana, thank you for making time for this interview and sharing your stories. Starting with our usual first question, how do you describe steampunk?

Diana Vick: Steampunk is Victorian science fiction at its core.  Essentially it began as a literary genre.  Science fiction based in the Victorian era.  H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.  Later writers wrote with perfect 20/20 hindsight about what the Victorians might have envisioned as the future, using things we have now with Victorian aesthetics and sensibilities.  This retro-futurism is a fascinating way to re-envision the past.  Taken into other eras, it is often mistaken for steampunk, but in actuality retro-futurism is the umbrella under which steampunk, dieselpunk and many other genres reside.  Due to some misapprehension or mislabeling, steampunk is the term often applied to anything not modern looking that is gritty and mechanical.  When I speak about steampunk I mean the genre, and the art, music, fashion and culture that have sprung from it.

AA: Having attended other conventions over the years and being a project manager, I have an idea of the work and details that go into producing a convention. Some people might consider it an insane, masochistic undertaking – what motivated you to produce a steampunk event?

DV: I love to dress up and I wanted to create events that encourage other people to do so.  I really had no idea that steampunk would be quite this successful in that regard, but I’m quite happy that it is.  Steamcon was the most impressively dressed up convention I have ever seen.  I felt very successful in that regard.  Steampunk is a very interesting genre to play in and I think people really enjoy the fact that making your own concepts and characters is encouraged.

AA: I would agree that steampunk conventions, more so than many other conventions, lend themselves to and encourage costuming and cosplay. Steamcon and other conventions this last year were a great place to see people’s creativity take form. What can you tell us about some of the great outfits you wore not only to Steamcon, but also to the Victoria Steam Expo and the World Steam Expo?

DV: I consider myself an A&E costumer.  I assemble and embellish.  I do not sew, other than the occasional hem and button replacement, so I rely on my shopping skills.  I hunt through thrift stores and track down pieces and then embellish them.  I love finding just the right pieces to make up an outfit.  My fabric teapot purse was a big hit.  Steampunk has inspired me to learn a lot about modification, modding as it’s called of props for outfits.  Weapons, jewelry and even goggles.  I’m pretty much self taught. And now I teach others.  To my great dismay, Fedex lost my favorite mod, the Suffragette along with the Bulbous Overthruster and parts of Big Baby, when I shipped them back from The World Steam Expo. It’s made me very hesitant to take as much with me to the next conventions, which is an unfortunate turn.

AA: In setting about to create Steamcon, how did previous experiences prepare you for this role?

DV: I’ve been attending science fiction/fantasy conventions for over 25 years, and that gave me some ideas of what would make a good convention.  I was an administrative assistant and an office temp for a long time.  Those roles helped me think on my feet, and improve my communication and organizational skills.  Also, being an artist helps me with the vision of the project.

AA: Steamcon was very successful by all standards for any convention, and even more as it was a first time convention. What are the qualities a person needs as an event producer?

DV: Patience. Persistence. Nothing happens overnight and nothing ever goes quite the way you plan, but if you can see it through, the results can be wonderful.

AA: During the planning and execution stages, what are some challenges of producing a convention?

DV: Since you are relying on volunteers, it’s hard to be sure people are going to do a good job, show up, etc.  You have to have a good crew but finding them is the hard part.  As far as I can tell, we’ve lucked into a lot of very talented people.  Also, my husband and I have a unique division of labor.  I am the visionary and he is the logistics.  I am the big picture and he is the details.  My job starts out huge and gets smaller as the con approaches and his is the other way around.  So by the time the con arrives, I am done and he is going full steam, as it were.  It works well for us, but I imagine it’s a bit unorthodox for most people.

AA: Looking back on all of that hard work, what are the rewards of producing this event, what do you look forward to for Steamcon II?

DV: I love seeing everyone dressed up of course.  Seeing people having a good time is the best reward.

AA: Do you talk with other convention organizers to trade ideas?

DV: Yes.  There are a couple people I talk with and I often get email questions from potential con runners often.

AA: In talking with them, what are some common questions that everyone has to resolve? What kinds of unique situations have come up among the various conventions?

DV:The first thing to discern is whether they are having a convention with the same sort of framework as ours.  I have talked to many people planning festivals or other types of events, and I am really not versed in those types of events.  So, if they are having an event like ours, then the first major obstacle is getting space.  If you want a particular weekend, you may need to reserve it two years in advance.  Also, you need to look at other events in your area and make sure it’s a good time to hold your event.  People only have so much money and time to devote to events.

AA: With 25 years of convention attendance and now producing your own, what are some key factors in producing a successful convention?

DV: I feel that you really need to be doing it for love of the genre.  I love steampunk and want to see it flourish.  Beyond that I think that focus and a clear vision of what you want are key. I work hard to keep Steamcon focused and on topic.

AA: Speaking of being focused, there was a CNN article about ComiCon and how it has changed, and some would say lost focus, from its beginnings as a comic book convention to be much more of a mainstream and pop culture media convention. What was your overall vision for Steamcon?

DV: I envisioned the steampunk convention that I wanted to attend and then worked to make it happen. I scouted a hotel that had some elements of steampunk in the décor since a truly Victorian hotel wouldn’t have the function space we needed.  I picked guests that would be entertaining.   I and my staff strive to keep our convention true to steampunk, the literary genre.  It could easily get diluted and I think that would be a shame.

AA: There’s a lot of work that goes into a convention – how long is the planning stage?

DV: 18 months for the first one, then pretty much 12 months after that.  We let most of the crew have a month off, but we are pretty much always working on the next one. The chair, the hotel liaison and I were still hard at work setting up a venue for year three, soon after the first one was over. It eats your life. You’ll be grocery shopping and think of a great idea or remember something that needs to be done.  It’s almost always on my mind in some way.

AA: There are always a million details to keep track of during the planning, from making sure tech equipment is in each room to having a garbage can at the registration table. What were some of the more interesting details that came to you in the middle of the night, kept you awake in the first place, or came up at the last minute because no one thought of them?

DV:The things you just mentioned are outside my purview. I  do big picture, before the convention things.  Things like creating ad materials.  Creating convention merchandise.  Creating an overall look for the con that is within the genre of steampunk and this year the theme of the weird west.   Ideas will come to me in the middle of the night and in the morning I have something new to work on.

End of Part 1

Join us next week for the conclusion of our interview with Diana Vick, co-chair of the Steamcon convention in Seattle.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

 

Published in: on August 13, 2010 at 8:08 pm  Comments (2)