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

The Musical Monsters of Steampunk

A few weeks ago I introduced you to ‘Lady Got Bustle’, a steampunk rendering of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’. This video was just a bit of fan-made fun, but steampunk is a musical genre in its own right. Happily for my research, it’s chock full of monsters and strange creatures.

a0848551422_10There’s actually not as much ‘punk’ in steampunk music as you might expect, though a few bands fit the bill. I’m currently writing about a band called The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Their name comes from the graffiti chalked near the scene of one of the Jack the Ripper murders, and they describe their own music as ‘Crusty punk meets cockney sing-songs meets grindcore in the 1880s’. The subjects they sing about are your typical anti-establishment fare (take ‘Doing it for the Whigs’ or ‘Not Your Typical Victorian’), but they’ve also got a number of songs about the supernatural and the fantastical.

One of my favourites is ‘Victoria’s Secret’, which describes how the widowed Queen Victoria tried to resurrect Prince Albert. Naturally, it all goes very badly:

Victoria’s secret, she couldn’t let go
When death came a-calling

For Albert, her beau
All manner of Voodoo
Or Witchcraft she tried
To bring back her Albert
To be by her side
Now Albert is back
But Albert has changed!
Albert is hungry for commoner’s brains!

Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!

You can listen to the full track on Bandcamp.

There are also plenty of steampunk bands making other kinds of music, even within the genre of historical monster mashup. Steam Powered Giraffe, an American band, performs a variety of different musical styles on the basis that they are 100-year-old automata. Initially pressed into service as war robots, they quickly gave up violence for a life on the stage. They do folk, pop, rock, and vaudeville, all in their own version of close harmony.

One of their best-known songs is ‘Honeybee’:

You can see that, as with much of the subculture, story and costuming play very important roles in steampunk music.

Last but not least, there’s also a specific subgenre of steampunk called ‘chap hop’, which is essentially hip hop done in an RP accent. Chap hop focuses on stereotypically British subjects like tea and cricket, and includes artists like Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, Poplock Holmes & DJ WattsOn, and Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire. My personal favourite is Professor Elemental. He, too, makes an appearance in my PhD thesis.

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In all his glory.
There are many monsters and fantastical creatures in Professor Elemental’s universe, from zombies to dinosaurs to Jeffrey the orang-utan butler. He has also invented an eclectic collection of augmented trousers with various functions, including (most notably) fighting and time travel. His songs (see ‘Fighting Trousers’) verge on parody – as, to be honest, does most of chap hop – but can also be unexpectedly sensible at times (‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’).

I’ll leave you with the video for ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’, in which Professor Elemental’s Inter-dimensional Trousers have malfunctioned, trapping him and the viewer in a monster-infested forest that looks suspiciously like the some back wood in Brighton: