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Full Steam Ahead

Locals put Cincinnati on the map of steampunk empire

By Jac Kern · April 25th, 2012 · Cover Story
steampunk

“I’m known to many as Aloysius Fox, and I am actually British,” says the enigmatic founder of The League of Cincinnati Steampunks. Though role-playing is a significant part of the literary genre-turned-cultural movement, Aloysius assures that his charming European swagger is, in fact, authentic (he notes that he moved to the States from Britain in the mid-1990s).

Dressed subtly dapper and equipped with a name like an old-timey detective, Aloysius lives up to his unofficial role as Cincinnati steampunk authority. In addition to founding the local group in 2008, he also co-founded Steampunk Empire, the “steampunk equivalent of Facebook,” in 2009 and Pandora Promotions in 2011. The promotion company will present Cincinnati’s first Steampunk Symposium this weekend. All this, and he still has perfectly coiffed hair.

The term “steampunk” was first coined in 1987 by science fiction writer K.W. Jeter to describe a genre of novels by himself, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. Each of these writers combined Victorian-era settings with futuristic fantasies such as steam-powered airships, often inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne (the “godfathers of steampunk”). From there, the genre opened up to other forms of expression: visual art, film and television, design and fashion. Each blends elements of late-19th century Britain and American Old West with futuristic fictional technologies and gadgets, creating, as Aloysius describes, “an antiqued tomorrow.”

One of the earliest recognizable examples of steampunk in popular culture was the 1960s television show The Wild Wild West (which inspired the Razzie-awarded 1999 Will Smith/Kevin Klein film). Even though there wasn’t a word for “steampunk” yet, the ’60s program implemented all the classic aspects of the genre by creating an alternative history fantasy.

More recently, the movement has made an impression on mainstream fashion — popular handmade marketplace site Etsy features a steampunk section filled with modified broaches and pocket watches with exposed gears — and music — Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj and David Guetta have made steampunk-inspired videos.

However, like most trends brought from the obscure to the everyday, these examples represent merely the surface of the culture. Back underground, there exists a bubbling steampunk revolution — a “quiet rebellion” right here in the Queen City.

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Aloysius helped cultivate Cincinnati’s steampunk scene after noticing the trend while living California. He returned to Cincinnati with the hopes that similar groups were popping up, to no avail. A relatively new Cincinnatian in the 2000s, Aloysius fell into the oft-common rut of believing there’s not much happening in the city. During the last five years, however, he took a proactive stance: “I decided to get people together and make things to do — quit complaining about it and just do it.” And after finding a handful of interested locals, The League of Cincinnati Steampunks held its first salon at Arnold’s in October 2008.

What started as a modest group of five people has evolved into a regular gathering drawing 30-40 steampunks to Arnold’s every first Saturday of the month (as the oldest bar in Cincinnati, Arnold’s is a fitting venue). Included in this group are Diane Brauch, aka “Evangeline Mezzanotte” of Northside, and Greg Simerlink, who goes by “Sir Ernest Octave Suszczynski” and treks south from Kettering. Brauch, a customs classification analyst for Procter & Gamble by day, became interested in steampunk after reading books by Tim Powers and Mark Hodden.

“This type of alternative-era fiction was really appealing to me,” Brauch says. “The gadgets, alternate timelines and inclusion of historical figures in the literature make for a nice read.” While getting into these novels, she met some locals from the League of Cincinnati Steampunks. After she saw the group marching in 2011’s Bockfest parade, she created a Victorian-inspired identity of her own and came to the next salon.

“I spend a great deal of my time in the business world, so for someone like me, the steampunk culture allows me to branch out and express my more artistic side through story creation and costuming,” Brauch says.

Simerlink was introduced to the culture in 2008 while reviewing music for an online zine.

He received an album by Abney Park, a popular Seattle-based steampunk band. Immediately intrigued, he looked into the band and discovered that there was a whole subculture behind their music. Two years later, he finally had the opportunity to check out Abney Park when they performed at the first World Steam Expo in Dearborn, Mich. With his wife (who has since adopted the moniker “Dr. Gintia Peaseblossom”) and son in tow, Simerlink went to the steampunk convention to see the band and learn more about the movement.

“By the end of the evening we were all hooked and had ideas of looking for a local steampunk group,” he says. “Not finding one, we started our own.” Within a year, the Airship Passepartout — Dayton’s local steampunk organization — took flight. While relatively smaller, this Dayton group continues to gain popularity and enjoys collaborating with those in neighboring cities, like Cincinnati’s League. Aloysius believes that this type of friendly acceptance contradicts the exclusivity often found in underground cultures. There doesn’t seem to be much concern about steampunk becoming too mainstream or popular, and this relaxed nature is a recurring theme within the culture.

This isn’t to say the movement isn’t recruiting more fans by the year. When Aloysius noticed the growing popularity of the monthly salons, he began working on more projects in which the League could get involved. During the past few years, the steampunks have participated in various local masquerade parties, summer picnics at Loveland Castle and outings to see movies like the new Sherlock Holmes series. But elsewhere, as in aforementioned Dearborn, Mich., steampunks have been presenting their own conventions for years. While popular science fiction/comic conventions have always drawn a vast cross-section of niche groups, steampunks are beginning to draw large enough crowds for their own large events.

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SalonCon, believed by many to be the first true steampunk expo, took place in New Jersey in 2006. The event featured burlesque performers, bands, a masquerade ball and panel discussions on various neo-Victorian topics. While the convention only continued through 2008, its presence inspired Jeff Mach, who went on to co-create today’s most popular steampunk festival, The Steampunk World’s Fair, which also takes place in New Jersey. (This year’s event is May 18-20.)

People get interested in steampunk culture in various ways, Aloysius explains: “There’s a very common story of people being steampunks before they realized it — they’re into Victorian fashions or enjoy the novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.” Such was the case for a young Mach, who first became interested at age 12 after seeing K.W. Jeter’s Internal Devices in a bookstore.

“I loved that book so very much,” Mach recalls. “I was completely captivated by the possibilities of a milieu which had both the approach of modern technology and the wild genius of an age before the digital world made everything immediate and, sometimes, slightly sterile.” Years later at Saloncon, he’d discover there was an entire “subculture and art movement based on irrepressible whimsy and individual creativity,” as he describes it. Mach is the mastermind behind many quirky projects, including events such as the Wicked Faire and a production he wrote titled Absinthe Heroes: a Steampunk Rock Opera. In 2010 he helped organize the first Steampunk World’s Fair. Unlike Saloncon, SWF approached the event more like a festival than a standard convention, offering three days of entertainment on three stages, with professional sound and lighting. Originally expecting around 500 guests, the actual response was impressive.

 “We were surprised to get not only a national crowd — more than 35 states represented — but an international one,” Mach says. “We got an amalgamation of all manner of folks — Rennies, goths, geeks and people without any specific or single classification.” More than 3,500 eager fans showed up that weekend.

Noting such success of the SWF in New Jersey and WSE in Michigan, Aloysius decided it was time for the Tri-state to tap into its burgeoning Steampunk scene and present its own expo. This Friday through Sunday, Springdale will get an antiqued makeover as fans from across the Midwest and beyond fill the Atrium Hotel in Tri-County. More than 500 guests and staff members have confirmed, and the entire hotel is booked for the weekend. Noted authors, musicians and artists of the genre will be on hand in addition to panel discussions, vendors and workshops. Much of the entertainment, however, comes from the guests themselves.

“What’s cool about this event is a lot of attendees bring their own creativity,” Fox says. “It’s a very participatory event. It’s not just a passive, performer-audience relationship. You get a lot of eccentrics who come to these events who want to show off. There’s a swirl of creative energy going on.” The weekend’s lineup is full of quirky activities like a battle of wits, mustache contests and tea dueling, which demonstrate the humor of the culture. And while it’s clear that most steampunks don’t take themselves too seriously, there is a certain admirable ideology expressed by those who’ve adopted the lifestyle.

“In a way, the ‘punk’ aspect of ‘steampunk’ is actually acting incredibly civil,” Aloysius explains. “And it’s by one’s choice, not having it forced upon you as some kind of rule, but sort of a conscious decision to be polite and to be civil to others.”

Brauch likens it to a “quiet rebellion.” Simerlink likes to focus on the style aspect of it, noting, “It really is about rejecting the mass consumerism of Walmart and having an appreciation for hand-crafted goods by people of skill.” As quirky and specific as the culture may be, there really is something for everyone. And in what seems to be consistent across the trend, members of Cincinnati’s League are a diverse but welcoming group, ranging from teens to retirees, science geeks to history buffs.

“It seems the community really wants to share with new people,” Aloysius says. “I don’t think there’s really an exclusivity. Sometimes steampunks might come across as a bit snobbish, but most are very open and want to have fun with it.” So if you happen to see a mustachioed dandy and corset-clad dame around town this weekend, don’t be afraid to bid them good day — they just might invite you back to the most refined hotel party Cincy’s ever seen.

“We’re taking the best of the past and using that to shape the future,” Aloysius says. “Even though we look like a bunch of Christmas carolers often, we’re actually very futuristic. It’s really the best of both worlds.”  ©


Steampunk Symposium Saturday Schedule

Full weekend passes for the the Steampunk Symposium are sold-out, but one-day tickets to Saturday’s events will be available for $20 at the door. Performances, workshops and other activities run from 10 a.m. until around 2 a.m. Here’s a taste of the day’s schedule; check out steampunkempire.org for a full lineup.

10 a.m.: Stage Combat Workshop/Monster Survival 101/Steampunk Art
11 a.m.:
Steampunk Dance Workshop/Steampunk 210/ Steam Around the World: Beyond Victoriana/Mustache Parade
Noon:
Bartitsu Workshop/Growing Up Steampunk: Kids and Steampunk/A Reading from Leanna Renee Heiber/

Nerf Dueling
1 p.m.:
Steampunk Dance Workshop/From Disaster to Dashing: Dressing for Men/Photo Manipulation/Croquet
2 p.m.:
Gun Spinning Workshop/A History of Cincinnati/Envisioning a Better Steam Society: Steampunk and Social Justice/Tea Dueling
3 p.m.:
Belly Dance Workshop/Steam Dollies/Steampunk Fashion/
Verbal Dueling
4 p.m.:
Lolita Punk/ Love, Sky, City, Burn/ Tiddly Winks
5 p.m:
Drunk & Sailor/Trash to Treasure/Umbrella Dueling
6 p.m.:
Zalikir’s Magic Show/Wars of Other Men/Airship Races
7 p.m.:
Extraordinary Contraptions/The Mystery Airships of 1987
8 p.m.:
Steampunk Story Time
& Fashion Show
9 p.m.:
Ford Theatre Reunion/
Victorian Spacecraft
10 p.m.:
Victorian Drinks and Drunkardness/Veronique Chevalier
11 p.m.:
French & the Punk/
Meet the Vagabonds
Midnight:
Deadly Sins Burlesque/ Midnight Masquerade


 
 
 
 

 

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