Sunday, May 8, 2011

Con Report: Canadian National Steampunk Exbihition, April 29 - May 1, 2011

Folks, I was really nervous about CNSE. Liana Kerzner gave me the two program items I pitched to her, and then I didn’t hear from her for the longest time until maybe a week before, just to be neurotic about whether I’ll have a projector for the Steam Around the World presentation. I also knew just about two people attending, the awesome Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon, and Countess Lenora, or Lee Ann Farruga.

The hotel was in a decent location, out in Markham in a fairly commercial area. The convention was sharing the same space as a couple of kids’ hockey teams, it seems, so all weekend, the three elevators were extremely slow as the kids monopolized them, which was extremely frustrating because aside from a stairwell that was either hard to find or just plain locked, most of us who just wanted to go between the lower level, the first, and second floors had to wait an inordinate amount of time.


I managed to get a room to stay in-house rather than travelling the two hours it takes to get from Hamilton to Markham, and good thing too, because the trip was long and ridiculous. I roomed with Gailene, of the Veiled Eye, and her assistant, Julie. Good people, and Gailene is ridiculously multitalented besides.

The first panel I attended was Mike Perschon’s “What Is Steampunk?” I know I’ve been in this subculture for two years now, so I guess I didn’t really need this panel, but ya’ll, it’s Mike Perschon, and he owed me coffee, and I’d never met the man! Isn’t it weird that we were in the same country for so long and never met, whereas he’s already met people over the border like the excellent Airship Ambassador and Gail Carriger? That wouldn’t stand.

Mike’s presentation covered what he’s already covered at his blog a million times, although it still seems to me that his definitions play loose and fast with the various aspects of steampunk. Because it’s so hard to define, he talks about steampunk as an aesthetic, rather than a style or a genre or a subculture or any nasty things which lead to fights in terms of definitions. Still a smart strategy, really. J.M. Frey was there providing Mike with commentary he’d never heard, for example, that the corsetry and gears on fashion are a metaphor for the inner workings of the human machine.

I didn’t stick around for Mike’s next panel on Steam Wars, because I’m not a Warsie, but I got back on time for the Canuck Steampunk panel, with him, Lee Ann Faruga and Rob St. Martin, and they spent the next hour mulling over what makes a novel specifically Canadian with a steampunk aesthetic. Mike (or Rob?) recommended Inventing Canada, by Suzanne Zeller, a history of science, land and nation in Canada during the Victorian era. (It’s around the issue of national identity that I tend to see the most metaphysical anxiety from Canadians, in my time here. Not that I don’t understand, but it’s interesting.) Rob St. Martin made me laugh with the comment, “All empires are evil and all kingdoms are good.” Very succinctly put!

I had dinner with Mike at a lovely Japanese cuisine restaurant about a ten minute walk away and we talked about a bunch of things. I missed Professor Elemental’s first performance, but that’s all good.

Also, I gave Lee Ann Tim Tams. She’d never had them before so I made sure to get some to her family! She also had a goodie bag for me with writing pads and pens from Carina Press (because one can never had enough stationery!), a Riece button featuring Marlise (I'm not crazy about Riese, but Marlise is my favourite character from there), Tim Aker's Horns of Ruin (MOAR BOOKS!) and a stainless steel hip flask (I feel like I'm being told something...).

She also introduced me to Thaddeus Tinker and Lady Elsie of Brass Goggles. This picture of them is actually from the last day but it fits here:

An adorable couple come all the way from Englishland


Liana Kerzner, who’s in charge of programming, was totally awesome and gave me the two hours I requested for the Social Issues in Steampunk Roundtable. There was pretty much no other programming too, and I was given the Ellesmere Ballroom, where the good servers were already prepping for Professor Elemental’s Mad Tea Party, and there were nice round tables, and I though, hm, maybe there won’t be a lot of people and we can just use these nice round tables!

Then we had to add another table. And then more people kept coming, until a few minutes after 10am I had a circle of thirty or so and I thought, frak it, I’mma start. I ended up with a crowd that was forty-strong. J.M. Frey and Mike were assigned to be panellists, but I purposely asked Mike to be in attendance as my token straight white dude (“I’ve always wanted to be a token!” he said) We also had Tinker in attendance as our token Brit (I didn’t know he’d be there). There was also another lovely British lady, Amanda, and her two kids. I ended up with two other visible POC besides myself, two lesbian couples, and a bridal party! (“I’m here because my daughter wants a steampunk-themed wedding.” “I’m one of the bridesmaids.” “I’m the bride.” “I’m a bridesmaid.” “I’m a bridesmaid.” “I’m the groom.”) Adrienne Kress, author, actress and playwright, was also in attendance, although she said she had to leave halfway through.

So I got started with an introduction of myself and went around the circle, complete with requisite warnings about this conversation being potentially really uncomfortable-making and having a faint smell of personal condemnation and so on so forth. And since I didn’t really know how to organize anything (Ay-Leen was moderator the last time I was in one of these), I basically started off with the basics: a quick poll on who were makers, who bought their own stuff, who did heavy costuming, who could afford shiny stuff versus who couldn’t, and who identified as middle-class and how the age of industrialization brought about a rising middle-class and things just sailed from there. I don’t even know how to sum up the roundtable, because so many people brought up so many good points!

This is going to be such an arbitrary judgement call, of course, but I’ll give you some highlights: Jessica brought up the stratification of the steampunk scene, and from her experiences with cosplay, and Jon explained that part of the colonialism project was a huge element of competition. We also had a little round of talking about disposable things and cheap shit made in China and the privileging of handmade crafts, and Jessica pointed out how being able to buy mechanized goods, something we take for granted today, was a privilege. Jon made a very good point that just because something is industrialized or mechanized, doesn’t automatically lead to disposability. (I think the consumerism within steampunk is something worthwhile talking about at some point. I keep saying commodification, but that’s because it doesn’t get people’s hackles up as much as consumerism does.)

Carolyn and Amanda had a great conversation on the commercialism and consumption of old stuff, the depth of collecting and maintaining old stuff which would be an age-related thing, and moreover, some people cannot build their own stuff, because they’re old, or disabled, or something. There was another good conversation on age. Carolyn also had a point about individual creativity creating tensions, because, you know, difference tends to do that, and Edith and Jessica affirmed creativity as a good thing, encouraged by friendly competition, although Lynna expressed concerns over competitiveness.

Adrienne started the conversation down the path of writerly pursuits, and Mike had to head off any false dichotomies as old steampunk = political, new steampunk = fluff, or any ideas of schisms between literary steampunk being so much more politically engaged than performative steampunk. Adrienne also brought up how folks pilfer from other cultures in order to create a history, especially folks with no strong ethnic background. Lynna brought up NK Jemisin’s Effluent Engine as a balance of fun and historicity. And then we finished with a discussion on national identity (again! I think we could get a full hour’s discussion on this alone).

The steampunk scholar and the steampunk postcolonialist

Good times, people. Thanks, again, for coming out, and for your contributions! It was pretty overwhelming but I had a nap and was cool for Professor Elemental’s Mad Tea Party. I ended up at the same table as some Hamilton steampunks, which was nifty! The Mad Tea Party is basically a sort of theatre-cafe where the performer gives you a list and you pick what you want them to perform. Lots of fun. Our group picked “Steam-Powered” for our appetizer, “Penny Dreadful” for the main course, and originally picked “a fete worse than def” but dearest Professor Elemental forgot the words and gave us “Ice Cream” instead. He was very sweet about it. Unfortunately for our table, we opted to get food last, which meant that we got not a whole lot of food, and definitely no desserts. Sadface! Word to you, Mr. Smith, Chairperson sir! It’s terribly disappointing to not have cake at a tea party!

I spent the next couple of hours moseying around, meeting interesting people, such as Eva Kong, who was selling these exquisite rings in the lower level, and we had a terrific conversation on how hard it is to find colours that match our skin tone:

I finished the day by watching Psyche Corp, who is a very good performer and singer. I’d seen her before, at Steampunk World’s Fair, and met her again at Fan Expo, but I’d never really sat down to really listen to her before.

Then it was up to the green room again, for drinks and such-like, and hilarious pictures by Lex Machina. Here’re Mike, Tinker & Elsie, Professor Elemental and myself! And in the green room, Pat, Lee Ann’s husband, said to me, “Jaymee, I hate you.” Oh, why? “Because of the Tim Tams.”



I won’t lie: I was nervous about presenting Steam Around the World by myself for the first time. Usually Ay-Leen presents it with me and we split up the slides, but this time I had to read up on some of the slides I don’t normally present. It felt a bit like I was cramming for an exam, to be honest.

It wasn’t as well-attended as the Roundtable, possibly because most people were too hungover or were oversleeping (coughMikecough). There were a few familiar faces from the roundtable too! Thanks, Sirsha, Carolyn, Joe, David and Death! (The latter of whom didn’t even make it home the night before.)

And a good thing I had two hours too. I was initially hoping to kick people out by 11.30am (what? I was up at 7am cramming, and I was hungry) but still, it was good to have so much time to just carry on with my presentation and not worry. Wish I’d timed myself though. The last section also went over well, although I saw a few people leaving at that point, and the conversation afterwards was invigorating. We had a rousing conversation on non-racist pedagogy and how to teach folks to, well, stop being so racist, especially when the larger culture is so permeated with racism.

We also discussed briefly assimilation and inter-community prejudice for folks who were half-non-white, as well as the implications of passing as white and not having one’s own identify recognized as a result. (And then Sirsha and Erin had very good points on how perceptions of whiteness gets transferred transnationally but that was rather beyond the scope of the conversation which was dealing with white-dominant spaces.) (Admittedly, at some point I’m gonna have to have a conversation about the implications of non-white peoples claiming their heritages in a respectful way. Got that question at Nova Albion, still didn’t have an answer this time.)

I attended the first bit of the Bookbinding presentation, which was very interesting! I had no idea there was a way to measure grain in paper, or even how to find it. Alas, I had to skedaddle to make plans for the evening.

While wandering around saying my goodbyes, I was sure to get in a couple of pictures:

The lovely folks at the registration table

Death being her badass Azn self
A lovely couple I managed to find before I left: Indian steampunk! 

Despite the anxiety and the cramming and the hustle and bustle and my general misanthropy, this was a pretty good con experience. I’ve told Liana that I’d email her ideas (she said, “would the roundtable work as a cocktail party?” and I said, “talking about social issues while getting alcohol in? Uhm, can it wait until after the roundtable?”) for next year.

From what I hear, Adam was so underslept and underfed and run ragged he was out of action. I managed to catch Lee Ann and Pat before I went. "Goodbye, she-devil of the Tim Tams," Pat said to me. 

The world shall be mine through the power of Tim Tams, at least.

Thanks again, everybody, for a fab con!

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