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Home > Magazine > Culture > Team OYB visits World Steam Expo 2012

Team OYB visits World Steam Expo 2012
May 26, 2012

I woke up this morning after a voyage to another planet and another time.

I attended my first Steampunk Con yesterday -- World Steam Expo 2012 in Dearborn, MI.

It's at the spiffy, modern Hyatt near Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum.

I arrived and walked into a scene to boggle the imagination. I suppose it was something like the bar scene in Star Wars. (Indeed, a guy who did a lot of work in those movies was there.) Only it was "dress up." ...Dress up gone wild.

Here's a link to a couple dozen of the better pics that I took: But I'll upload a few smaller pics below, too.

So, it's still happening as I type! I miss it. I feel like going back. On Monday a bunch of folks are field-tripping to Greenfield and will make it theirs. Whew -- it's also the biggest Civil War reenactment and most crowded day of the year for that place. I also hesitate... Still, it's a funny feeling to be pining for something that was so strange and which I hardly understood.

Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction. It's 1800's punk. Punk with manners. DIY fabrication and fashion. Set in a past that never was. Officially the idea is if computers had been invented in the Age of Steam. If Jules Verne's notions had come to life (a patron saint). Before electronics, I suppose. --Although Niko Tesla is another patron saint. So it would be *early* electronics. Electronics gone wild, too. There's a big emphasis on fabrication. And on going nuts with notions of fabrication. There's actually nothing really official about any of it. No bosses or rules. But a whole lot of fancy outfits and inventionizing. Weaponry and imagined militaria as well. Space cowboys, literally. Corsettes galore. A revelry of cleavage and leg...with pistol holsters strapped to the thigh. Tattoos and mohawks and tuxedos and top hats. Tentacles. Prostheses. Tubing and exposed copper wire and vacuum tube robotics. Hammers and anvils and wrenches.

It's a creative reaction to grey plastic gadgets with black-box operations under the hood. It's a creative reaction against jeans-tee-tennies-baseball-hat fashion.

There are several cultural backdrops -- literary, music and cinematic. Literary includes source documents by writers like Verne. The term Steampunk came out soon after an influential collabo-book by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling called "The Difference Engine" which speculated on what would've happened if the computer had been invented in the Steam Age. Music includes a bunch of bands (that I don't know), a main one being Abney Park, which played here -- I missed them. Movies include -- whew! -- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (book, too, of course), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The City of Lost Children, The Last Sky Pilot, etc.

To see all of this kind of thing within the stylized and modern Hyatt Hotel actually wasn't a disjunction. Steam, after all is about the interaction of old and new. The setting seemed perfect and didn't help me stay in our modern world one bit. Actually, I'm not used to hotels at all. I really could've been on another planet.

Then, too, it being Dearborn helped me appreciate the non-English speaking aspect of that town. I've heard that there are more Lebanese people there than in Lebanon -- or a country like that. There was a move to publicly broadcast the call-to-prayer awhile ago, which was rebuffed. But the patrons of the hotel helped give it an exotic feel as well as very few seemed to be English-speaking. They were as interested as anyone in the Steam around them. We had one neat encounter with a distinguished older man who said he was a poet and who did a good job of engaging and charming me and the glamorous ladies I was standing with at the time. No suburbanism there.

Oh, and it's not just Steampunk. Well, it might've started there but that scene has quickly developed spin-offs that are now their own scenes but which are included: Dieselpunk and Dystopia. I'm forgetting the others. ...So there are also smudgy faces and dirty overalls, toolbelts and aprons.

...And quite a bit of it works.

And much of it is homemade.

But there's still the main idea that much of it is fashion and costume and role-playing. So you have to be able to play in that sphere. That is, function and utility are down the list a very long way. However, the Steam desire probably does express itself in various practical ways that are lived in real life. ...And interest in wool and leather as apparel, say. Fountain pens. Laptops and monitors decorated in vintage style -- OK, maybe that again is fashion, but people do use their gizmos a lot and Steam is a way of modding said gizmo to look better to these people. They want to put their stamp on stuff and they like the 1800's look.

Steam is also a critique of Empire and Work. They notice women's role in the 1800's and subvert it with their playacting, thus the Girl Retro Action Hero. Corsettes...and Rayguns together. Girl airship pirates. There's a celebration of Work and a respect for the danger and harm inflicted without repercussion upon workers back then. These workers now do their own thing. There's also a big push against "black boxes under the hood" -- steam likes hands-on visual technology. ...A computer that works by gears rather than invisibly. At the same time Mystery is called out: Explore the Wonders of Tesla! The 1800's were a period of marvels. Today mystery is everywhere but it's boring. Nobody knows how things work and they don't care -- get in the car and drive, turn the TV on, ho-hum. Magic is one of the stars of Steam and has regained its status.

It's also multicultural -- voices suppressed in the Age of Empire do as they please in this scene.

There are complaints arising in Steam -- the usual about selling out -- people are buying their Steam instead of making it. It'll be in Target any day now. Also, reminders that Steam isn't just goggles, gears, top hats and corsettes.

It's 1800's re-enacting but without an emphasis on correctness and with a critique and with a connection to our time and with imagination and with DIY and with other media (specifically there's a close connection to literature). And it's more casual. There's action and role-playing but no specific events are replayed.

Some might say it's just another Con, just another fan-scene, just another way for posers to hang out -- because there IS a lot of posing -- that it's just another hobby for the bored who don't want to bowl or to volunteer to really help real people in real need. (There was a Charity Ball at this Con.) ...Just another occasion for driving, hotel rooms, rubber chicken meals and hanging out jawing.

Eh. I'd say there's a bit more to it than that, but who knows.

Re-enactors might say they get physically involved with historic role-playing so that they can better understand the past and so the present. The pastiche of Steampunk fashion seems like it can do something similar while requiring less organization. Maybe it has some extras to offer as well. Is it art for art's sake? I'm not sure.

This con had dozens of classes and panels in all things Victorian, including the martial art of Bartitsu -- the earliest incarnation of martial arts in period London, whose instructor had visited and studied jujitsu in Japan and included those skills in with cane-fighting and fisticuffs. There were dance classes, etiquette and flirting classes. The program was about 80 pages thick.

There was lots of music, too -- all forms of pop music now have Steam expressions.

I chickened out of wearing my Steamiest get-up. I was going to go for it at the Midnight Carnival, but that turned out to be just a series of bands playing in a dark ballroom, without much social interaction. I did resent that part of the con as it was one of the only passive events. Interaction was the key -- meeting people and working on projects, learning and being taught. If there was music it seemed like there should be dance, not standing around absorbing...consuming. Oh well, I missed my chance.

I saw a lot of purchased dress-up, but there was also a lot of pride in work-belts and plenty of craftsmanship on display and being done on the premises. Of course what was being made was for dress-up. I saw one booth operator with an actual 1800's stencil maker -- a huge iron thing that ran on silky smooth bearings.

Personally, I think an old Underwood Model 5 typewriter would make for a neat piece of decor: an homage to PRINT in a classic sense. It's quite a device! With a baroque look.

Still, it seemed like a lot of it was just sight-seeing and parading around and taking pictures. I guess that can be fun, too. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a whole other level going on behind the scenes. I mostly bounced around the halls, lost. I did catch a couple panels.

The Aegis Consulting people from Ann Arbor had a whole ballroom decorated in Safari theme where they taught dozens of combat and adventure skills and classes on modding Nerfguns into Rayguns. Their head instructor Sal's family have been sword teachers going back to the Crusades.

There was also a lot of action between the various airship crews, running around in clusters, capturing each other. If you understand role-playing you'd probably get it, but I don't really.

In November in Madison WI there's TeslaCon. It's the most famous "full immersion" Steam experience. They take over the whole hotel and redo all the decor. Last year when you entered the place you encountered a London airship port where you boarded and walked down a hall of airship experiences and sounds. At the other end you exited at a Berlin port. Attendees are notified well in advance of the theme and they work to build costumes and characters to fit. This year it's playing on Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" as well as the Civil War. Hmm, how would they ever combine the two? Maybe rockets and orbiting will play a role in the warfare? It's tempting! $40 a day...not bad!

As I was leaving I said Hi to a guy who turned out to be a key player -- the writer for the upcoming TeslaCon. He has to turn out the script that lets everyone know what the theme and story is. I told him that I came from a bikes-as-steam angle and he was into that, acknowledging their link to the Tweed Ride scene. He said last year there were several 1800's bikes on display here. He also said that my homemade antler helmet would've gone over just dandy. Antlers and a pagan vibe seem to be coming on, he noticed. It does seem like there's a point of contact between the real-world DIY adventure culture of OYB and the imaginary adventure culture of Steam. You take the same spirit and just let it run...

Morning after...


Midnight Carnvial -- cabaret band -- neat frog flag.

Hotel hijinks -- a lady in short skirt and garters who was leaning back against the balcony attracted the attention of Explorers.

Aegis Consulting transformed their ballroom.

Characters. Big boots -- crossing with Goth?

Bluebeard and Punk.

Neat sword.

She was with the Press. ...What a sword. Functioning freewheel with a new function!

Glamour and Diplomacy.

Let's get Asiatic...

Nice bazookas!

Exotic rappeling...

A monitor that works and can be curtained-up when not in use.

Some kind of mache'.

I like tentacles...

It was her first try at a robotic arm.

Cyber Pan.

Desert Pan.

Costume contest. The Arctic Explorer looks cool (or hot).


A nice tool belt.

Dude with nice tool belt.

A classic! Very steamy, too... (I think.)

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