22 year old Steam Powered costume winner Holly Conrad as Orpheus Alchemy with a medieval twist on the theme. 'Steampunk is the embodiment of Victorian pulp fiction.'
STEAM POWERED: The California Steampunk Convention
There’s a deep irony that in the home of the silicon chip empire, inside a clean, ultramodern hotel, a bunch of rebel scum are revelling in a realm of cogwheels and clockworks. Sunnyvale, California is hosting the world’s first convention dedicated solely to Steampunk, encompassing all fictional factions and philosophies from a dystopian parallel universe where zeppelins roam the air, the Empire is stalwartly British and rayguns are the weapon of choice.
Steam Powered is two days and nights of guest panels, hands-on workshops, vendors and of course the obligatory convention partying, which is aptly fuelled by a bountiful supply of tea and sandwiches. With a live soundtrack of waltz standards it’s a sophisticated affair indeed. At the opening night’s Victorian ball, all asunder is attired in the finest of fashion, meticulously crafted clothing covering everything from formal period ballroom attire, military uniforms and mad hatters to rocket-packed scientists.
A splendid pair of Steampunk Ghostbusters blast dry ice from ectoplasmic weapons, directed at two widow apparitions, but the team of Professor Jåger and Crackitus Potts narrowly miss the prize for best costume of the evening. Winner is Holly Conrad as ‘Orpheus Alchemy’, with a simply stunning futuristic medieval twist on the theme, complete with expanding gothic wings adapted from a Batman toy.
‘There were lot’s of pulp stories about weird creatures in the early 1900’s and I am a vision out of their ideas of mystical things,’ she says. ‘Steampunk is so versatile. I admire the clean Victorian high-life look, but I can’t pull that off. I prefer to cover myself with dirt and feathers.’
A dapper Sydney Poitier from the Wild, Wild West is the couture of choice for software developer and festival organiser Richard Bottoms. ‘There are only so many Neos that can turn up at a fan convention,’ he quips. ‘Frankly, I look good in this stuff. This is the type of clothing we like to wear to socialise. Here’s an opportunity to do that and for people to learn how to do it better.’
‘It has a real human aspect to it,’ believes Devon Gregory, a scenic artist who is manning the panelled Gentleman’s Club erected in the neon hotel lobby. In the wee small hours, the vintage prefab turns into the perfect Steampunk retreat but it’s a shame pipe-smoking is not permitted indoors. ‘Even the aesthetic of clock gears is so much more personable than circuitry, the way the gears roll and fit; it’s much more magical. I also have a certain thing for corsets. I’m in hog-heaven!’
This is an intimate fan convention where the guests are as much Steampunk aficionados as the attendees; everyone intermingles in a hotel filled with creative designers, engineers, gear heads and information technologists. In the vendor’s hall, filled with a gallery of goggles, corsetry, art and antique cufflinks, I find Kevin O’Hare, who is offering instant photos from his ‘Chromadigigraphic’ camera, a retooled plate and bellows model from the 1880’s with an inkjet printer inside.
‘It’s a combination of a desire to put some class and some artistry into modern technology, which tends to be cold and hard,’ says the member of the team that built the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled three-story Victorian house. ‘Steampunk is not a rejection of technology. It’s more a rejection of the cold aesthetics of the IBM Dell industrial look. For the most part, we’re all tinkerers.’
The Steampunkers are propelled by a DIY aesthetic. They’re craftspeople and builders, with the how-to-workshops particularly well attended and filled with an energetic buzz. The electricity literally sparks from Jake Von Slatt demonstrating his Wimshurst Machine, while vintage 3D photography, resin casting and leatherwork are all covered, even knitting lessons, courtesy of Miss Kalendar.
‘In the new society after the apocalypse, I’m going to handle livestock and knit,’ she says trying not to drop a stitch. ‘Whatever people do with technology, I love that it brings out handcrafts. I think it’s so necessary that people still engage on that physical level. A lot of people say that knitting is ‘grannyish’, but Doileys are great – there are so many things you can do with them.’
‘It’s a sustainable rebellion,’ according to tinkerer Jake Von Slatt with a glint of Tesla in his eye. ‘We don our top hats and goggles to show the world we're different. Fashion is often the flag of a sub-culture and the most visual aspect of Steampunk is certainly its fashion. But years from now, I hope that I will look back and feel that the Steampunk somehow made a difference too.’
This is Steam-punk after all and amongst the costumed hive this weekend have been environmentalists, Culture Jammers and members of the Maker Movement. For a world’s first, the Steam Powered convention has highlighted the potency of an edgy and thriving subculture, one which as long as ice caps melt continue to melt, will surely attract more and more converts.
(Copyright - Mark Berry)