[Update: for more and better photos, see Joy’s post on A Roving I will Go.]
We’ve just come back from the SteamFest 2013 Steampunk weekend festival at Ipswich near Brisbane, in Queensland Australia. Great Fun! Masses of quirkily clad folks with oodles of skill and imagination. Lots of stalls selling all sorts of steamy fashion items and accessories. Great music from the likes of Abney Park and Rapskallion. Lots of people taking photos of each other’s wonderful costumes.
What is Steampunk and what is not?
I’m not touching that one. As with any passionate subculture, steampunk splinters into lots of wonderful idiosyncratic sub-interests. Some people get grumpy when other people ‘misuse’ a label they passionately identify with. Feel free to ask your favorite engine of searching for a selection of definitions to choose from. Or just do an image search on ‘steampunk’. I like the romance, the creativity, and the strange optimism of Steampunk. Technology with texture and textiles!
Magical SteamPunky Costume Goodness
Nearly everyone at the festival had made some effort at costuming themselves – even if just an image of a dirigible on a teeshirt – and many outfits were jawdroppingly wonderful indeed. People were constantly being asked to stop and pose for photographs.
There was a mixture of the sort of DIY creativity that makes Steampunk folks so cool to me, along with many that looked so perfect they may well have been professionally manufactured. Which is also fine by me – choosing your costume components with imagination, taste and daring is no less a skill than tailoring hand-made leather accessories or turning old vacuum tubes into tiny dirigible jewellery (those were so cool – I wish I’d snagged a business card so I could promote them here). While having the skills to do everything is a pleasant fantasy, I think we all need to focus at least a little on which neat things we want to learn to do first.
Things to do, people to
Starboy from New Zealand provided a “photobooth” area full of theatrical-level costumes where you could pay to dress up, be made up, and be photographed in front of Steampunk backgrounds. It was a great idea, and their costume collection was huge. Hopefully some of the non-costumed folks at the festival had a go at that and will be inspired to create a costume for their next event.
It would be nice to have an area with cool backdrops that everyone could use for photos of their friends, without having to change costumes or pay for the priviledge. Keeping the mundane world out of photo backgrounds while still getting decent light was an effort I seem to have failed at.
There was a lady doing lovely portraits on the spot, in markers and coloured pencils, of anyone willing to pay her very reasonable prices. Her name is Anthea Wright. She also had a portfolio of her previous work that she had available for purchase. I’ve heard of artists doing this at comic conventions, so it was lovely to see someone working in genres I enjoy more.
I fell in love with – and bought – one of her A3 digitally coloured photo-quality prints, of a female angel-like being with dark feathery wings. I liked it even though I’m not a fan of angels generally (they’re from the wrong mythology for my tastes, being God’s heaviest enforcers). She kept it aside for me and I even remembered to pick it up before we left, so it must have made an impression. It’s the image in the middle of my ‘loot’ photograph, further down this blog post.
I’m so in awe of people who have the persistence to keep drawing long enough to develop that sort of ability. Doing it in real time as people walk past and interrupt her to buy stuff must make it some sort of superpower. So maybe the comic conventions have got that right.
Another lady was taking photos of visitors and steampunking the results up on her laptop, to give them photos of themselves without the hard-to-avoid modern backgrounds. I didn’t get to see any of the results of her work, so I don’t know any more than that, and I don’t seem to have picked up a business card, so I can’t find out any more.
Music for Pirates and Rogues
The outdoor sound system was excellent – no unintended distortion, good balance between the highs and lows, everything clear and sharp and as it should be. I only mention this as I’ve had so many experiences with deaf ex-hippy sound mixing guys up in my home area that good sound is a pleasant surprise. Of course there is no problem with excessive room reverb and boominess in an outdoor venue, but there are so many other ways to screw up amplified music. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade in the company of musician friends who play and sing acoustically, un-amplified and within arm’s reach, so I’ve got used to that level of sound quality and intimacy (and not needing earplugs).
I’ve seen Rapskallion before, when they played at the mid-winter Lantern Parade in Lismore. I enjoyed them even more at Steamfest. I can’t really understand Sara Yael’s “french” accent all the time (blame it on my ageing ears), but the music was fantastic, and the dance choreography was very sharp. These folks really know their stuff, even at a time of day that doesn’t normally exist for musicians. And without coffee! The coffee vendor didn’t show up, so no coffee for anyone! And no pass-outs. I don’t drink coffee, but I imagine there were some frayed nerves by the end of the day.
There was an area for autograph signings from the bands, and sales of their CDs and merch. I haven’t emotionally adapted to the idea that artists should be signing autographs for money. I realise that it is a ‘thing’ now, and I won’t complain. As copyrights and licensing are more ignored than observed by the internet generation, I realise artists need to find new ways to keep themselves fed and clothed.
Since I arrived knowing nothing about Steampunk music, I had no real connection to the bands. Well, other than having seen images on the web of their modified guitars. Because I am an instrument addict. I bought one CD by Abney Park called Aether Shanties because I like the sort of raucous male singing that shanties tend to inspire. I listened to it this morning, and I really like it. I now understand why the woman selling the CDs couldn’t describe the sound of the band – they cover a lot of ground stylistically.
Stocking up on Steampunk Loot
Lots of stalls. Lots! Merch stalls are usually the highlights of our convention and festival activities. Yes, we’re shallow and materialistic that way (and we have no friends to play with, sob!) I restrained my purchasing, by constantly telling myself I should be building my own accessories on my 3D printer, and learning to paint them to look cool. So I aimed to absorb the inspiration and energy, and avoided taking photos of cool stuff because it feels disrespectful of the artist’s creativity, and I don’t want to be tempted to copy. I already have the book Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos that I haven’t made time to read yet.
Apart from the Anthea Wright angel print and the Abney Park audio CD, both of which I’ve already mentioned, my only other purchase on the day was the dark red Plague Doctor Mask that I used as my featured image. I couldn’t wear it immediately because I need to punch some more holes in the straps to allow it to fit on my apparently overlarge head. I’m guessing it was the stallholder’s first time selling his wares, or he would have had a leather punch with him to adjust people’s purchases to fit.
I was seriously tempted by :-
- a walking stick with a brass handle with inset compass (wow, when I put walking stick brass compass into an image search, there are lots of varieties available),
- a antiqued wooden boxed set of brass telescope and magnifying glass,
- a chinese-made hand-cranked heavy-duty all-manual leather-sewing machine (the vendor explained they are used in third-world countries to patch shoes or canvas that we would throw away, and he sells the machines mostly to people who want to repair saddles and other horsey leathergoods. They’d be perfect for sewing leather or canvas costume elements or accessories),
- a huge black woolen greatcoat with shoulder cape, as seen on all the best coachmen as they desperately flail the reins in a doomed attempt to escape from pursuing highwaymen on horses,
- numerous beautifully rugged knives and other stuff from Stephen Viola’s Wombat Forge blacksmithery. We’ve met him before at the Lismore Winter Solstice Viking Village. I bought one of his stylized Thor’s hammer pendants back then. This time I resisted. He was beating red-hot iron over an anvil with a huge hammer as I walked past, so I didn’t choose to interrupt him.
Weather it be nobler…
For those who had flown in from far southern lands – we met folks from Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand – our version of winter weather must have been a surprise. It was warm – 23 degrees Celsius – and brightly sunny! If not for the cooling breeze many folks might have been quite uncomfortable in their layers, coats and hats. As it happened, the organizers could not have hoped for better conditions. Winter is definitely the best time for festivals in the sub-tropics – no mud!
Live music on an outdoor stage during the middle of the day is a strange experience. The sound was great, and the performances wonderful and quirky-strange in the best sort of way. I just feel I’d enjoy it more in the dark.
Things to improve next year
I think this is the first time this festival has been run, and I get the impression that the gestation period was not exactly smooth for the organisers. It was wonderful anyway, in many different ways, and it is the first Steampunk event we’ve ever been to. Not counting the Antipodean Steampunk Show travelling exhibition, which was also excellent, and has a brilliant exhibition catalog that deserves to be in any Australian Steampunk’s library.
Being a first attempt, some things went less than perfectly. Here’s my list:-
- No coffee available anywhere, thanks to the only coffee vendor not showing up. I don’t drink coffee, but Joy does, and she may have lasted longer without flaking out if she’d been appropriately recharged. Maybe this was fixed on the Sunday.
- Only two food vendors, one excellent but quite small – “The Urban Hippie” – and the other being the sort of place you always find at country agricultural fairs and always swear you’ll never trust again. The Urban Hippy van was tucked out of the way, and Joy didn’t find it until she’d already bought a very unsatisfying sandwich from ‘the other place’, which contributed to her lack of enthusiasm after lunch.
- A weird country-show style carousel-ride thingy that was not only not Steampunk in any way (think 1960s fibreglass) but played loud annoying music that nobody at all wanted to hear. Folks near the stage couldn’t hear the ride music, but some stalls away from the stage heard the show ride instead of the live acts. I guess that was a nod to activity for families? Maybe they could have steampunk billycart races instead, with parents pushing the carts? Insurance permitting, I guess.
- One whole strand of activities happened (if they happened at all) somewhere other than as shown on the map. We never found them and our friendly volunteer was a bit frazzled doing his best to help us with no information at all. And no obvious communication to the organisers (the volunteer helping us looked wistfully at the intercom the security guard had on his belt…)
- The steam train might have been a bit more visible. I would love to look at it up close, but I didn’t really want to ride on it, what with the filthy smoke and all the other cleaner things to do. My first wish for a futuristic steam age (after abolition of slavery, child labour, racism, misogyny and disease…) would be a high-tech solution to making steam without coal. Oh, wait, that’s what the internal combustion engine (diesel variety) did. Steam Turbines FTW.
- More seating would be helpful, given how many folks in complicated, expensive and hard-to-wash costumes do not want to sit on the grass while chatting or listening to the bands. One stall was selling sheepskins in anticipation of demand.
- The Friday night Pre-event gala dinner was cancelled at quite short notice. Given the ticket price you’d have to assume anyone who had pre-paid was seriously invested in being there, and had booked their accommodation and transport accordingly.We heard a few grumbles about that, but we couldn’t justify the ticket price ourselves so we were not affected. We also met one person who had arrived at the venue on the friday night without knowing about the cancellation.
- Nothing organised for the Saturday evening. Most of us are grownups, and I for one tend to prefer to be active at night. Shutting everything down at 5pm seems odd. It also makes it hard for bands to generate much audience energy when the audience has had neither caffeine nor alcohol, and is standing still trying not to sweat too visibly on their costumes. At least a noticeboard where people could have written ‘meet us tonight at…’ type messages would help.
So that’s the end of my SteamFest commentary. We enjoyed it lots. I found it very inspiring, and very friendly. I want to go again next year. And since my greatest love is for the creative side of steampunk, I hope they’ll have some workshops or at least presentations on how to do cool stuff with a steampunk attitude.
Now I’ll write a bit about the rest of our trip to Ipswich, so feel free to stop reading if you’re only interested in the Steamy Stuff.
Ipswich: books and food and new friends well met
We’ve never been to Ipswich before. It’s about three hours drive away, and if we were going that far we’d normally just go to the centre of Brisbane where there are more bookshops. Though even Brisbane is suffering from bookshop attrition as a result of ebooks, Amazon and online shopping.
Anyway, we were only able to book a motel room for the Friday night, as we were not sure in advance which vehicle was not going to be in our mechanic’s garage. Accomodation was limited because there was a huge motor racing meeting at nearby Willowbank Raceway. We asked the lady on the reception desk if there had been any cancellations for Saturday night, and she laughed and said there was a waiting list.
We drove up during Friday morning and stopped off in the Tourist Information Centre. The woman who helped us normally only works in the back room, not dealing with customers. When I asked her she couldn’t think of a single bookshop in Ipswich! Horror! She could tell us about winery tours by helicopter – and who thought drunken airsick boozehounds in a small cabin was a good idea? – but not about bookshops.
It turns out that things were not quite that bad. We parked in the free un-timed parking under the shopping mall, and walked out in the direction that took us away from the supermarket, the $1 discount stores full of plastic rubbish made by economic slaves, and other plagues on modern existence.
A bookshop, forsooth!
And we found a bookshop. An lovely independent bookshop! It is called A Lot of Books and it’s probably the only reason not to bulldoze the whole mall. They had lots of things I hadn’t seen before, which is always good. They had a big manga section, a bigger sci-fi and fantasy section, and their non-fiction section was well enough stocked that I found two books worth adding to my bulging shelves:
- Creating Manga – from Design to Page, by Ryuta Osada. I have a shelf full of books on drawing and writing comix, graphic novels and manga. I keep hoping I’ll find one that’ll overcome my complete lack of practice!
Mail-Order Mysteries – Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads, by Kirk Demarais. Not just reproductions of the ads, which would have been cool enough on its own. No, Demarais has researched and bought these things on ebay, and describes what you would actually have received if your parents had let you waste your money, and why people were making such rubbish in the first place. Comic book reading as sociological research, without the big words and boredom. I’ve already read half of it in one sitting. Very Nostalgic.
When I showed Mail-Order Mysteries to Joy, she immediately remembered the ads that she read in comics as a child. “But I never bought anything from them”, she said. “Oh, except for sea-monkeys. And those packets of foreign stamps.” I remember sea-monkeys, and stamps, and coins, and little plastic magic tricks. And I remember wanting the footlocker full of 100 plastic soldiers. Looking at the ad for that footlocker, my adult brain now notices the dimensions of the cardboard box. Those things were tiny.
Good food, and other unexpected retail opportunities
Around the corner from the bookshop and we were in the “Top of Town”. Which is to say, the old high street, away from the railway line, the motorway, the mall and the Bremer river. Lots of old buildings from early last century, and some even older than that.
We didn’t even see the Bremer river, but we could see the suburbs continuing on the other side of the valley. That river flooded badly in January 2011, and wikipedia says the floodwaters reached 19.4 metres (64 feet) and inundated the central business district. There’s a reason that ‘the waterfront’ has always been an unsavoury place to live in an inland town prone to flooding. The town’s founders were smart to build the old town centre well above flood height, unlike the shopping mall.
We ate lunch in a cool little cafe in Brisbane street, a block away from the end of the soulless shopping mall. It’s called the Urban Pantry, and the daughter of the lady who served us runs the “Urban Hippie” van that provided the only good food at Steamfest the next day. We had excellent vegetarian curries, next to a photoboard of the owners chooks. Very hippy indeed. We asked her for recommendations for dinner, and she suggested “Fourth Child” across the road.
Then we wandered the streets, looking in on anything interesting. For me, that included:
- Battlestation Ipswich, a independent wargaming store which, sadly, mostly stocks Games Workshop stuff – the crack cocain of teenage wargaming (you get an initial addictive high, you disdain all other wargaming activities, you never play with friends who don’t “do” Games Workshop, and it sucks all your money out of you, IMHO obviously). They have a limited range of other stuff, including some boardgames.
- Daily Planet Comic‘s new Ipswich branch, which their website tells me only opened a fortnight ago. Joy resisted stocking up on missing issues of her fan favorites, and I just window-shopped.
- The Old Flour Mill, in Brisbane street, which is a wonderful old industrial building with a corrugated iron roof, multiple levels, exposed wooden beams, and the sadly decaying remains of an overshot waterwheel in the middle of the ground floor. I loved it for it’s atmosphere, but the shops inside were mostly closed. I wanted to evict all of them and set up an evil steampunk mastermind laboratory and Temple of Mesmerism.
- Art Time art supplies store, with resident Steampunk jewellery-making artist Kate. They have workshops in various art activities, and I bought her last copy of 1000 Steampunk Creations: Neo-Victorian Fashion, Gear & Art just before she packed up her jewellery to take it to Steamfest the next day. She tried to convince me that the water-based Pitt Art Markers she sells would be better than the alcohol-based Copic markers that I asked for, and which I’ve already fallen in love with. I respectfully kept my mouth shut. (I know Copic markers aren’t colourfast, that’s what scanners are for!)
- some sort of charity fundraising opshop-like second-hand bookstore, where I bought a ten year old first-year university textbook on cryptography for $3, hoping it’ll give me ideas for 3D-printable mechanical encryption devices like decoder rings.
After eating and shopping, we booked a table for two at the Fourth Child. While we were walking back to the car we saw a group of people going the other way, and realised that we knew two of them! We had met them at the Antipodean Steampunk exhibit in Murwillumbah months earlier. They were looking for Fourth Child too, as a steampunk gentleman from Melbourne had arranged an unofficial steampunk dinner there for later that night, for folks who weren’t going to the Gala dinner. How convenient we thought, hoping we might mingle.
Accomodations, and ostracism from the Aetheric Hive Mind
Then back to the car, to check in to our motel some distance out of town but much closer to the Steamfest venue. The room was nice, the shower was large, bright, hot and very satisfying – I’m picky about showers… – and the bed was comfortable.
When the web tells you that a motel has wifi, it doesn’t mean free wifi! To use wifi in the rooms would have meant entering credit card details into a questionably secure wifi router. I don’t have a credit card, and I wouldn’t risk Joy’s in that environment. So we were cut off from the wisdom of the web. And from email, whose absence doesn’t bother me a bit unless I’m hoping for comments to a new blog post (hint, hint).
So in the absence of aetheric knowledge, it was lucky I remembered the phone number (13 33 31) for paying motorway tolls by phone when you don’t have an electronic money-stealing tag in the car. We’re not used to paying tolls in the country, we’re used to dodging potholes.
Ipswich LifeLine Charity Bookfest – Knowledge going cheap!
Purely by luck, the day we arrived was the first day of the Lifeline charity bookfest. A warehouse full of tables with books on them, roughly sorted by category, varying in price from 50 cents to a couple of dollars. We were half an hour late for the opening, so the first mad rush had dissipated. I’m ususally in the queue for that first mad rush at our local charity bookfests, so it was novel not having to defend myself against elbows to the ribs.
I bought six books for a total of $11, so that was a worthwhile outing. I’m not going to list them, you can try to read the titles off the photo of my combined loot for the weekend.
The very elderly man in front of us in the queue for the cash registers told us he was buying bags of books to fill up his empty bookshelves at home. He was one of the people whose houses had been dreadfully flooded back in January 2011, and he was still slowly rebuilding his life. How sad.
Evening Markets on the footpath – Caution: Heat!
Next we drove back to the main street of Ipswich again, after dressing up a little for dinner. They’ve had a small Friday night market on the footpath there for something like two years now, according to the banner. Mostly interesting edible things – I bought a slice of Lime and Coconut fudge at one stall, and a raspberry and chocolate cupcake at another, both wonderful. Joy bought a variety of cheeses, and two extremely spicy European-style smoked cabanossi sausage things. They are so hot I won’t even eat them if she puts them in a stew. My stomach hurts just thinking about them.
After the markets we sat on a park bench near the art gallery and watched the parrots squawking and wheeling about in great flocks in the trees. We wondered why there were such big flocks in such an urban environment, while we who live in a paddock surrounded by densely wooded slopes rarely see more than a dozen at a time. Of course our dozen might be giant Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos, so I’m not complaining.
A main meal is enough, when the conversation flows
When the Fourth Child opened, we went inside and were shown to a long table that would have sat six or eight, with places set for the two of us in the middle of each side. It felt like eating in a medieval great hall, until you looked around at the art on the walls. We ordered our meals from the menu, then chatted til a bunch of Steamy folk arrived and, seeing how we were dressed, invited us to join their table. How friendly Steampunks are! Later our friends arrived to sit at the same table. Then more and more til there were twelve of us. Lovely food, attentive service, not that we needed much with all the constant chattering we were doing. A good meal with great company. No entree list, which is fine by me – why waste stomach space that could be spent on dessert?
I do wish to re-introduce the fashion for visiting cards. I’m hopeless at remembering names, and I’d love for people to hand out little cards with their names and contact details and a tiny portrait, without it being a business related thing. Unless their business is Steampunk in itself. I handed my card out – sans portrait -to the folks at my end of the table, but it felt a bit presumptuous to toss them willy-nilly down the far end of the table to people I’d not had a chance to speak with. I was too engrossed in conversation to think of it later, when people were leaving.
So that was dinner, and the end of the day before Steamfest. And if you’ve got this far you’ve already read my report on day one of Steamfest. We left Ipswich before dark, taking our loot and our memories home.
I hope they run the festival again next year.