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Rosalea Barker: Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

Nova Albion is the name that Francis (later Sir) Drake gave to the area where he spent five weeks in the early summer of 1579. He left a brass plaque claiming the region for Queen Elizabeth I, but a later claim by Spanish seafarers is the one that held. The name of “Drake’s Bay” north of San Francisco is all that remains of Nova Albion. Until this past weekend, that is, when the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition took place in Emeryville, on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay.

Click to enlarge

I began my exploration of steampunk earlier in the week, at a movie screening in the Variety Preview Room Theatre in the Hobart Building on San Francisco’s main drag, Market Street. The evening was put on by SF in SF, a Sci-Fi group, and proceeds from the sale of drinks at the small bar benefited the Children’s Variety charity—a kind of Sots for Tots. Steampunk influences roughly cover the period from 1820-1920, so absinthe was the main cocktail ingredient. I didn’t stay for the feature film—NZ’s own Perfect Creature—but I did enjoy the first short, The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello. This Australian film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Film, Animated, category in 2006, and has won numerous awards.

The iron dirigibles and steam-powered computers in Jasper Morello give a hint of what steampunk is all about, but for a fuller understanding of it, I recommend an article about Steampunk Tribes on the Steampunk Scholar blog. If my constant repetition of the word “steam” is getting you down, cast your mind 100 years in the future and imagine a subculture called “solarpunks”. Is there really any guarantee that solar power and the greentech revolution is going to have any fewer bad effects and lost opportunities than the era of steam and the industrial revolution it ushered in? At its best, steampunk imagines what might have been; at its worst, it is a fashion and accessory fad. Accessories like the rayguns produced by WETA; and fashions that include those created by Alexander McQueen, as NZ-based fashion writer Fabiana Bronte explains in Steampunk Magazine.

Ironically, it’s the fashion aspect of steampunk that gets the most attention, and perhaps is what draws most people into its orbit. The Nova Albion exhibition was held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville, accessible only by car or by taking the free shuttle bus that merchants in that small, rich, bayside city provide for shoppers who arrive at the nearest BART train station. Teenagers on the bus were agog at the clothes worn by some of the young women on their way to the event—“Awesome! Awesome!”—and, as I walked past a Denny’s restaurant to go under two motorways between where the bus stopped and the hotel was located, a casually dressed man was leaning over the fence speaking with two gents in punk Victorian attire, eager to learn what they were all about. (For putting the “punk” into steampunk, this image on flickr must take the caraway seed cake!)

Alas, there was no caraway seed cake, staple of the Victorian era, at Miss Kalendar’s Social Salon in a suite on the 12th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn--just ladies and gentlemen in Victorian outfits, lots of china cups and saucers, and a selection of teas. One young woman was instructing another on how to knit. “Making” is a very large part of the steampunk ethos for some—everything from replicas of actual steam-powered contrivances, to knitting and sewing. And then there are the fantastical contrivances made by the NeverWas Project, “an on-going Do It Yourself (DIY) group of tinkerers, gearheads, and steam bohemians who fabricate steam-powered art pieces out of repurposed industrial detritus.”

The term “steampunk” originally applied to a literary genre, and was first used in a magazine in April, 1987, I learned when I attended a panel discussion in the Royal Pundit Society’s conference room. James Blaylock’s short story The Ape-box Affair, published in 1977, is arguably the first American example of steampunk literature. Blaylock was one of the panelists and, in answer to some questions, he said of the Victorian setting of most steampunk, “I just wanted to time-travel to that era and be a writer…. I like the way science understood the world then better than I like the way science understands it now.” He also thinks that film and graphic novels are better media than books for steampunk. Another panelist, author Gail Carriger, thought that the best way to popularize steampunk in the Young Adult reader market was by using apps. Since her stories often involve the paranormal, I naturally wondered if that was short for “apparitions”. Panelist Liz Gorinsky, an editor at Tor Books, opined that “the decline of planned obsolescence” prompts people’s interest in steampunk. By which she meant that public awareness of the wastefulness of modern industry/consumer-driven society is more common now.

Is there any such thing as steampunk music? Earlier in the week, I’d discovered this delightful video on YouTube of a European band called Deltahead. (Warning: contains images of men in ladies’ underclothes. The person who posted it to YouTube titled it My Momma Was Too Lazy to Prey, but either that’s a misspelling or I’ve missed the vampire connection!) So I was thrilled to see that there would be a Steampunk Music Jam at the exhibition, and expected something just as thrilling as Deltahead. Sadly, the three musicians listed for the jam session found themselves subverted by two gentlemen already ensconced in the room, one of whom was playing a theremin. “Never do a music jam with a theremin,” said George Chlentzos, “nobody can play them properly.” He obviously hasn’t seen this video entitled Gnarls Barkley Crazy Theremin Jam, where the melody of Barkley’s vocals is produced by one of the theremin players.

Anyways, the lack of jam was cream on the pikelet for me because I got to sit at a table and discuss steampunk with Chlentzos—who had brought along a home-made tin flute (and an intriguing waterbottle)—Anders Hudson, who had his trusty PVC-and-beeswax didgeridoo; and Julie Porter, who plays a calliope. At one point, a gentleman with a stereoscope and raygun joined us, and a young woman in a kind of sheepskin Victorian Playboy Bunny outfit wandered by—I know it was Victorian because she had her legs demurely covered in sheepskin stockings, and I know it was Playboy because her suspenders were showing. Hudson has a company called Pocket Trash, which specializes in replicas of WWI and WWII ephemera for the movies. He also builds models, and participates in historical re-enactments from that era. It seems there is a good livelihood to be made from living in some time-frame other than the present.

So, what is steampunk? G.D. Falksen says it is “Victorian science fiction,” but in reality it is whatever you want it to be: from bustles to beeswax, art cars to aetheric messaging, goggles to girdles, zeppelins to zoetropes. And you might find its influence anywhere—even in the latest political attack ad released this weekend by the Carly Fiorina campaign. In it, current US Senator Barbara Boxer transmogrifies into a giant dirigible in the shape of her bloated head, bursting out of the US Capitol and floating westward across the continent striking fear into the heart of every tax-abhorring citizen. Where’s Ronald Rayguns when you need him, eh, Carly?

But I digress, gentle reader. Here’s some photos I took to give you a taste of steampunk style (sorry, no audio, and no men in ladies’ underthings, or Victorian Playboy Bunnies. And it’s a Slater, not an Armadillo):

If you’re interested, the first-ever Steampunk World’s Fair will be held in Piscataway, NJ, in May this year. Piscataway is where the I Triple E is headquartered—the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers—where even now, no doubt, the embryonic seeds of solarpunk are being planted.



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