The Embassy of Steampunk

By Syfer Locke

I consider myself lucky to know a man who refers to himself as the Airship Ambassador, one Kevin Steil. He runs a couple of websites called the Museum of Steampunk and the Airship Ambassador. He uses these sites to help people learn about Steampunk, who is doing what, what is out there, and how to get involved. Through his sites, and the information on them, one can learn everything they need to know to get involved in our little corner of creativity. Another man I consider myself lucky to know is Justinian Stanislaus, better known as the Emperor of the Red Fork, who has hosted events he names the Embassy of Steampunk. These events, like Kevin’s websites, are an introduction to all of the things Steampunk can be. There is art, music, food, friends, and fun. These men are inspirational to me. They, among others, embody, to me, what a leader of our culture should be. They support, defend, uphold, and exemplify those principles and ideals, of teaching, learning, creating, that we all seem to more or less agree our culture needs more of. Cedric Whittaker often describes this as spreading the disease, and that might be accurate, too. If so, I pray we never find a cure, and it just becomes more contagious with each person we infect.

 

Notice I say culture, not community, not movement. What we have has a potential for so much more then just a creative movement or a local or even regional group of enthusiasts. With the internet to supplement our conventions, parties, gatherings, and meet ups, we have all of the tools and materials to build a real society and not just a subcultural movement. All we have to do is use them. Ambassadors to carry them out into the world to introduce and convert like minded souls. So what are these tools? These materials that will build something bigger and stronger then just a Hot Topic trend that will fade in a year or two?

 

First we need a passion, a fire burning in our hearts, a love for what we do and why we do it. The kind of fire that lights our eyes up, that won’t allow us to sit still, that demands we give it voice when we talk about Steampunk. It doesn’t matter if you sing songs, play instruments, perform sideshow tricks, write things, build things, paint things, sew things, or if you just like to wear funny clothes and talk in fake accents with your friends who get it, don’t deny your passion for doing it. Let it out. Screw those people who call it being a fanboy, because they don’t understand, but I do. You are committed. You have found a love for something bigger then yourself, something that connects you to others who share that passion.

 

Now we need to join our fire with others. We, for our sins, are tasked to light a beacon on a foggy, dark and rocky shore. One that will pierce through the nights of struggle and doubt and the storms of confusion and animosity. We need to build a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. A safe haven for all to find shelter, even if they do things a little bit different then we do. A few years ago, a maker got a call from one of the pop music icons’ people looking for Steampunk props and costumes. In fact, this became a trend for a while, with several bands jumping on the wagon. The backlash among Steampunks was profound. How dare they? This is the end of Steampunk as we know it. If they goes Steampunk, all of the fans will follow. My question then, and my question now is: Why is this a bad thing? They are passionate. If you think they are frighteningly so, you should talk to me about Steampunk or fencing or acting and compare. What if their fandom of that mainstream pop star dabbling in Steampunk got them interested in what we do, and so they start searching the internet. And that’s when they find a prominent Steampunk media source ran a contest where they have a category that is the worst example of Steampunk this year. And again the following year. And the year after that. They find posts and articles belittling and bemoaning the videos, many written by average Steampunks, but some written by Steampunks whose hard work has garnered them an audience, and some influence over that audience. If I was that fan, that would turn me off real fast to the whole idea. So much so that I probably would speak against it to my friends. Instead of joining their fire to ours, to make our beacon brighter, we put their fire out. Instead of welcoming them into our city, our safe haven, they found the doors shut and barred, and the denizens hurling insults down at them from atop the walls like a bad parody of a Monty Python scene.

 

Who are these ambassadors that will cry out in the wilderness of greater geekdom, and beyond into the lands of pop culture? The guys with all the articles and interviews, the guest spots and panels at conventions, the television networks sniffing around them for a show for primetime? No, not really. They lead the way, but it doesn’t, it can’t stop there. Every time we put on a pair of goggles, we put on our fancy clothes, and we step out of the sanctuary of a single fandom steampunk event, we are. Each and every one of us. Whether its a Final Friday Art Crawl in costume, a gathering of friends at the Dead Dog Lunch after an event, or an anime or SciFi con has let us use the backrooms for a Steampunk/Alt. History track for old times sake, whenever we are among the people who aren’t already doing this insanity with us, we are each an embassy, a point of contact, an ambassador of our culture. It is imperative that we overcome an old stereotype of Steampunks being stuck up. We can’t do that while we sit silently while the backbiting and name calling and trash talking continues unabated on social media. We can’t do that with statements of “if you don’t agree with me, just get off my friends’ list now.” We can’t do that when we look down our noses at other fandoms in blog posts. We can’t do that when we take over another convention’s programming, and then get upset next year when we find it was supposed to be a one year theme, and they have drastically reduced Steampunk programming. Like all societies, we will have the people that will just never understand how to properly behave, that’s true. On top of that, we are all human, with human weaknesses and failings. For example, a young man sees Steampunk on the internet, and wants to try it out at his next event, lets say a SciFi con. Its Saturday afternoon, and his not very Victorian jacket is too hot, so he has it open and showing his T-shirt underneath. His goggles from Party City fell off his hat and accidentally got stepped on, crushing one side. He has a cardboard, fabric, and foil prosthetic arm held together with hot glue and a wish that is starting to fall apart, and most of the modifications on his Nerf Maverick are craft paint and Micheal’s gear doodads. And you can tell by the smudges on his jeans and the broken laces in his tennis shoes, that this day is not going as planned. What do you do? I know what I would do. I’d invite him to the very next Steampunk panel on the program. If it’s not my panel, I’d sit with him, in case he needed anything explained. I’d ask him about the things he made and bought, as an invitation to talk about my stuff, and where I got it, and how I learned how to make those things I made. Ask the crew of the Six Gun Widow, a terraship with a concept that is bloody brilliant. After that first invitation, they sat in every panel we were offering at Animefest, and picked our brains for hours afterward, and when I met up with them again at Steampunk Invasion, I almost didn’t recognize them. I cheer when I see Homestuck cosplay at steampunk events, because for years we were the strange kids begging for space in the back of Star Trek conventions and Anime festivals.

 

Now, the big box stores, and the Chinese factories, and the movie studios and the TV networks know who we are. They flood costume shops and novelty stores with cheap plastic crap designed to be worn once and break, on purpose. They try script after script, time after time, to test the waters with movies, adding Steampunk elements like Loveless’s spider walker in Wild Wild West and the Musketeers hot air balloon airship. They are trying to find the way to make a reality show about Steampunk in the style of Jersey Shore or Heroes of Cosplay. And that, what the TV studios want, terrifies me. There is nothing real about reality television, and we have enough “drama” without Fox or Disney manufacturing more. The only way that could work is if it was like American Chopper, or This Old House. I will put money on that.

 

Now we have our own events, and we should not only pay it forward, but return the favor. When a Star Trek away team walks in the door, walk up to them and ask them if you can be of any help, because these guys are clearly a very long way from home. When the Homestuck fans or the Bronies want a room to talk about how they can fuse their fandom to ours, this is something to celebrate, not make fun of. We talk about inclusive versus exclusive, but this has to extend beyond just fellow Steampunks, or we have failed. And that failure has a very simple reason.

 

Unless you are a very young fan of Steampunk, each and every one of us started as something else. We were Ren Faire pirates and Star Trek officers, anime and comic book cosplayers, SCAdians and Civil War reinactors, 501st and NeoVictorians. And maybe we didn’t quite fit in with them, because there was something more to us then just that one fandom. We all came from different places, backgrounds, skill sets, and interests, but we all found common ground here. We take things that are different from each other, whether we are working with musical styles and instruments, art and sculpture, fashions and props, and we combine them together in a different way to create Steampunk. And so many of those things were something someone else thought was trash, worthless, broken, garbage. The first tip in making Steampunk costumes and props on a budget has always been thrift stores and dumpster diving. And we take what everyone else threw away, their ugly clothes and busted lamps, and we build something amazing and beautiful out of it. Its the same for the people. So many of us Steampunks were the weirdos and the freaks that not even the geeks would hang out with. So many of us had something off, something wrong with them, and everyone else cast us aside and threw us out, too. We were the kids that no one sat with at lunch and picked last in gym. We were the ones who liked the wrong bands, read the wrong books, watched the wrong movies. We drink alone at the bar with our sketchbooks and our intentions are always misunderstood when we ask someone out on a date. And somehow, we all came together and built something amazing and beautiful out of all the parts that nobody else wanted. We made the words of Jeter and Gibson and Blaylock and Powers, the words of Verne and Doyle and Shelley and Wells, come alive like Dr Frankenstein inverted. And I know, we want to protect that, keep it safe, because it cost us blood and sweat and tears to make it. I get that. I almost died, literally, a couple of times, to be part of it. We fought and we bled to build this, and now that we have won, others want to join us, now that it is easy. Do we keep them out? Its tempting to get a little vindication, a little vengeance, isn’t it? We can’t do that, though, we need to keep being the place where everything can have a place, where we know what isn’t Steampunk, but what is Steampunk will evolve with every new person we recruit into our cause, our society. As much as we would like to turn away the “cool kids” and the “beautiful people” we will have built this for nothing if we do. I believe, in my heart of hearts, the only people we should exclude are those dangerous to our society, that would prey upon us financially, psychologically, or sometimes even violently, and those who want exclusion more then anything else. You want exclusive? Wish granted, we will now exclude you. But Steampunk isn’t something to be kept hidden in the background. We have a duty to share it with all the others following us that will benefit from what we poured our pain and suffering into creating.

 

We can never forget where we came from. We can’t forget the other fandoms that gave us space, because they didn’t understand us, but they understood not having something of their own, a place where they were the important ones. We can never forget that first Maverick almost all of us built, or that first pair of goggles that weren’t very good, with the clothes we found in our closets, the oldest of a wardrobe that the trendiest thing we had was last popular in 1972. If you want what we wanted: A place where we belong, where we fit in, where we see the beauty in negative spaces, the treasures among the trash, the diamonds in the rough, then I have a huge personal favor to ask of you.

 

Be an ambassador of Steampunk. Make your table at the restaurant where you break bread with your friends after a con your embassy. Be an emissary. Make your fan table at the comic con a consulate for our society. Be a missionary. Make your exhibit or your procession at the art crawl a shrine to those things we all love about Steampunk.

 

Be excellent to each other. Don’t be a dick. And fight the Dull.

Published in: on February 23, 2015 at 10:48 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags:

Kurios as Classroom

HANDS2015-white

Over the years, I have learned many new things across a wide spectrum of topics simply by being involved in the steampunk community. So many of the creative things we see and do in steampunk practically beg us to learn more so we can do more and enjoy more.

When I went to see the latest Cirque du Soleil show, the steampunk themed Kurios, I was not disappointed at all in that learning aspect. Previously, I mentioned how the show is entertaining and just plain fun, but it is also quite educational as well.

Maybe it is the program manager – engineer – student in me, but before, during and after the show, I was looking at all the details which went into making the whole experience. These details and the attention to quality, is something that speaks to all of us as steampunks, in whatever our expression thereof is. Our authors don’t just write a book, the research the historical details of things that matter in the story, and continue to hone their craft of writing. Our musicians don’t just play an instrument, they learn techniques to deliver a great performance. Our designers don’t just create fashions and items, they bring visions to life with imagination, creativity and skill.

cirque10

Likewise, Kurios isn’t just a show, it’s a place and a performance to whet out educational appetites. From the whole experience we can learn all kinds of interesting things for our own lives and interests.

Starting at the beginning, there were two years of planning and design work before any of the artists were brought in. It all starts with an idea, then a concept, brainstorming to let it grow into something feasible. There’s costumes to create, and associated personas, and a set for them to act on.

Even just those few steps requires a design vision, then the skills and technologies to make the ideas a reality. Where can items be found to make some of the props? What has to be made from scratch if it can’t be found. What is the underlying, and even hidden, technology that’s going to make it work?

kurios-stephane-roy

Along the way, everyone was learning what steampunk is, and what Cirque’s expression of it was going to be. It’s industrial, it’s mechanical, it’s whimsical, it’s fancy, it’s old but new. With Stéphane Roy‘s set design, some heavy duty engineering is needed to make it happen.

Everything for the show fits into 63 trailers, and takes a week to transport and set up. That alone is some feat! How long has it taken any of us to move from one house to another, or an apartment? Making this function smoothly takes a great deal of planning and creativity to make sure everything has a place.

How does the Chapiteau get set up? Here’s a video showing the crew and effort that’s needed. Lots and lots of manual effort goes into transforming an empty space into the performance space. And plenty of physics and engineering to hold it all up.

Cirque_du_Soleil's_Kurios,_Grand_Chapiteau-toronto

Also behind the scenes is technology and engineering to make things move during the show. I spent some time talking with David Greatrex, the head of automation for Kurios, about what is needed for the various acts.

David joined the show 6 months before it premiered, working to design what the show needed and wanted to do, and then not only what equipment was needed to make that happen, but also to make sure the hardware and technology would survive the rigors of two years of touring, as well.

David says with his collaborations with the artists, initially there might be manual actions via a joystick to raise, lower, and otherwise move things around, and then once the act is determined, then repeatable cues and programs are written to ensure quality and safety in every performance. This ensures consistency even when a new performer joins the team.

cirque-courroieAerienne

There’s also a great deal of communication before, during, and after the show, keeping track of people and props, not only ensuring safety but also creating an impressive view from the front of the house. David says he’s also learned the nuances and performance personalities of the artists – with the Acro Net, for example, while the net needs to be under a certain tension, there are also variations and adjustments to be made for new or replacement props as well as how one artist performs their twists, somersaults, and flights.

He told me a bit about the construction of the Russian Cradle used by two of the acrobat artists. It’s silently, and manually, rolled out onto the stage while the audience’s attention is diverted elsewhere, but when ready, the spotlights swivel to the large box onstage, which then begins to unfold. The front drops down gently but in a mechanical and hydraulic flourish, followed by the back. Once open and the support lines taught by the weight for the front and back panels, the stage is set for an incredible acrobatic performance of strength and agility.

kurios-promo2

One thing that David has learned from working with Cirque shows, and about steampunk with Kurios, is that nothing is really set in stone and that performances, and expressions of steampunk, while using a common theme or idea, are really up to the individual and their own vision to bring to life.

Appealing to the program manager in me, is the vast attention to details and tasks that are needed , big things like making sure the costumes are washed and dried each night, and repaired constantly, and little things like making sure the battery packs are recharged after every performance. There’s also the onstage set choreography that happens, redirecting the audience’s attention while the props are moved on and off set. That alone was fascinating to watch – how the pieces seem to just appear and disappear seamlessly in the action onstage.

cirque-contorsion

Ryan Shinji Murray says being part of a larger show like Kurios and Cirque du Soleil is the opportunity to work on a grander scale and learn new skills, work with new technologies, and get to work with a larger team of co-performers and supporting staff. Working on the brand new Acro Net required new engineering, and also took some time and effort to get used to what the net could afford in a performance. This is a trampoline on steroids and can send the artists 40 feet into the air – that definitely takes some getting used to!

Further, Ryan says that being part of the show enables him to meet other people involved in the show from around the world. Communication, cultures, getting to know people.

kurios-promo

Another part of Kurios, and any show, is learning how to do things, not just what is needed for an act, but for all the things that go into putting together the whole experience. Part of that is setting up the artistic tent – a place to practice, work out, train, and collaborate.

What we see in Kurios as members of the audience, like attending a steampunk convention or creating something ourselves, is just the tip of the iceberg. With Kurios, there is the performance, and the months of training and practice that goes into an act; the design and technical engineering for everything we see; the stage choreography to direct the audience’s attention and move the set pieces in and out; and further, there’s the artwork, the marketing, business processes, security, logistics, and so much more.

kurios-finale

What can we as steampunks take away from the experience of Kurios? Learn about yourself and what you are interested in. Learn how do something that you enjoy and do it to the best of your abilities. Learn about other things not only for the joy of learning something new but also for the appreciation of understanding how things, and people, work.

 

If you have the opportunity, put on your steampunk finest and catch a performance of Kurios. Failing that, at least buy the CD and enjoy the energy of the music.

kurios-cd-cover

Head over to the website for show and ticket information, and to see which character you are in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

 

Kurios is in Seattle through the end of March, then

Calgary, Alberta opening April 9, 2015

Denver, Colorado opening June 11, 2015

then, Chicago, Illinois,

Costa Mesa, California,

Los Angeles, California.

 

For more information and interviews, check out these links

DailyXtra on Youtube

Amelie Robitaille Cirque de Soliel Interview

Nick Pitera Behind the Scenes Tour

Press release

 

Published in: on February 23, 2015 at 10:36 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: