Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

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At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

Postcolonial Steampunk

1888 American cartoon of the Imperial Octopus, its greedy squid arms reaching out to grasp the world’s various regions.

Steampunk is a popular aesthetic these days, though it’s still too early to comment on its long-term staying power as a movement. Either way, the subculture still caters to many different groups of fans in many different countries. This past weekend the Emporium Vernesque opened its doors for a Dutch gathering of steampunks. A few months ago, the UK’s largest and longest-running steampunk festival, The Asylum, saw hundreds of steampunk enthusiasts flood the city of Lincoln. San Diego’s annual Gaslight Gathering draws similar crowds.

Most of these people are white.

1280px-Steampunk_convention_world_record_attempt,_Lincoln_Asylum
A group of very lovely, very white steampunks gathered in Lincoln for the 2011 Asylum Festival.

I say this not to comment on the skin color of steampunk lovers per se, but rather to highlight a different problem in the subculture: the visual heritage of colonialism. Namely, in how far can we appropriate the Victorian aesthetic without paying unwanted homage to the period’s legacy? I’m far from the only person to address this difficult question. People both inside and outside the steampunk community have shared their thoughts on the (in)separability of steampunk aesthetics and ethics, and have come down on both sides. Some dismiss steampunk outright as culturally elitist and politically impotent. This couple is a good example of how neo-Victorian sentiment can get out of hand. Other commenters on the aesthetics of steampunk see no problem donning a pith helmet, smoking jacket, and monocle, arguing that dressing like a coloniser is not the same as supporting colonialism. Still others see the aesthetic as a direct critique of colonialism, appropriating it to subvert and reshape its meanings. This issue of cultural appropriation is also something we’ll hopefully be discussing at next year’s British Association of Victorian Studies conference.

For me, the most interesting response to this issue is in the increasing amount of postcolonial cosplay taking place in and around the steampunk community. In a variety of different ways, these interpretations of the steampunk aesthetic imagine the Victorian period from a perspective other than the white, Western norm. I’m hoping to write more on this topic in the near future, but here are a few great articles and websites dedicated to the subject of multicultural or postcolonial steampunk, which should tide you over in the meantime.

Below are just a few examples to get us started.

Steamfunk

One of the first images I came across when I Googled ‘multicultural steampunk’ was this:

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The image was in an article by Balogun, who writes in a genre he calls ‘steamfunk’, defined as follows:

Steamfunk is narrowly defined as “a person, style of dress or subgenre of fiction that seeks to bring together elements of blaxploitation films and merge it with that of Steampunk fiction”. A broader definition is A philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or  steampunk fiction.

Visually it works as a combo of genteel nineteenth-century styles and the powerful fashions of the 70s funk movement. I have yet to find many concrete examples of this type of cosplay in the steampunk world, restricted as I am to Google Image searches, but am fascinated by the potential of the aesthetic. If you know anyone who has worked in this area, I would love to hear about it!

Alternate Empires

More common in the steampunk cosplay world is the visualisation of alternate empires. Britain wasn’t the only nation with a large international presence in the nineteenth century. Austin Sirkin has a great post to this effect called ‘adding a multicultural touch to steampunk without being an insentsitive clod’. He also includes some of the better-known examples of this kind of cosplay:

[W]e have the well-known Steampunk blogger/scholar, Ay-leen the Peacemaker:

[…]Next we have another familiar face in multicultural costuming, Jeni Hellum:

This Turkish Steampunk outfit doesn’t incorporate many “Western” elements, though whether you consider Turkey Eastern or Western likely depends largely on what era you live in. Still, this is an excellent example of portraying a culture that you don’t belong to.

Do check out his article for more examples.

Native Tech

In addition to referencing some of the other international powers of the nineteenth century, Sirkin’s post also looks at those nations and peoples who were on the losing side of history. He provides the following three images of Native American cyberpunk, though as he points out, despite their attractiveness as examples of postcolonial cosplay, these images have problematic, commercial origins:

While in this case the images are rendered problematic by their status as ads for the company ColourChiefs, they do provide an interesting launchpad talking talk about Native Tech. Monique Poirier wrote the following about her own foray into Native American steampunk back in 2010, describing what she enjoys about the subculture’s opportunities for neo-historical revision:

Monique Poirier
Monique Poirier

Part of the fun of Steampunk is the aspect of alternate history; of deliberate anachronism and the application of alternate timelines and technological developments and the ration of ‘Steam’ to ‘Punk’. It means having the chance to create alternate histories in which Native Americans maintain sociological primacy and control over the North and South American landmass, if we so choose–my own Steampunk persona is an Air Marshall in a timeline in which Tecumseh’s Rebellion was successful and resulted in the creation of a Native American confederacy of nations that holds most of North America, as well as parts of Mexico and several island nations in the Pacific (most notably the Kingdom of Hawaii). She carries a ray gun–and as far as I’m concerned, this is still entirely Native Tech.

Though I really like this idea of intentionally anachronistic history and revisionist mythmaking, I can imagine that the line between respectful and disrespectful uses of this aesthetic is a fine one. This is a problem Monique Poirier does mention frequently in her writing, and is something blogger Miss Kageshi also discovered following negative responses to her own post on Native American steampunk.

And the rest

What do you think? Can steampunk escape its colonial heritage? What should postcolonial steampunk look like?

I’ve included a slideshow of more postcolonial steampunk cosplay below. Please note that, like the images above, these images each have their own context and nuances, which should be researched before re-posting them elsewhere. Where possible, all images link to their source, but if you spot someone you know who isn’t credited, please contact me: