Those were the pressing questions in my mind last week. I’d been invited to the Steampunk Carnivale by Virginia Adams and Justin Paulk, a couple of the organizers. Virginia was kind enough to comp a couple of the ten dollar tickets for Shaft and myself. She offered more for the rest of my staff, but they were unavailable, so Shaft and I had to take on the assignment.
First stop: Wikipedia. According that irrefutable source, Steampunk is ” a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrializedWestern civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian eraor American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.”
It notes that the movement (named in 1987) has spread its umbrella to include, “any of the artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures, that have developed from the aesthetics of Steampunk fiction, Victorian-era fiction, art nouveau design, and films from the mid-20th century.” There’s more detail if you want to follow the link.
So, I had a vague idea and a location for a carnival: under an overpass across Magnolia Avenue from the Public House. Which led to my second question as to whether Knoxville, not exactly known for being cutting edge had caught up with this movement? Taken another way, how many people will gather for a Steampunk event beneath an overpass on a Friday night in Knoxville. My guess was a couple of dozen. I was off by about 800 – 1000 by my guess.
We’d made the decision to drive and stopped by Beers and Steers at Saw Works before moving the party under the interstate. I know I usually walk, but I wasn’t sure exactly where this event was to happen and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on foot when I returned home. All the nearby parking (an under-the-interstate parking lot was full. We parked a block away and walked up to join a very long line winding around a corner and down the sidewalk.
The fact that we hadn’t dressed according to the motif made us stand out like ten-year-olds at the high school prom. A very different sort of high school prom. Suggested fashion elements for the night included period-appropriate top hats, leather bodices, futuristic looking weapons or other gadgets. And gears. Gears on belts, hats, clothes and any other surface one might find.
Some of the people with whom we spoke had just discovered the entire concept and hastily put a costume together just for this event. One woman said she’d just learned about the whole thing the day before and went to Wikipedia to see what to wear. One young man said he’d just heard about it that day and bought a hat from party city and gears from a craft store to glue onto the hat. He’d taken some lights from his lawn out of their casing to strap on and bought a large black coat from a thrift store.
Music which sounded like carnival music,from what I could tell, battled with the sound of the overhead traffic. The underbelly of an interstate actually fit the motif pretty well. The only place that might work better would be the floor of an abandoned factory – with the machinery still in place.
Vendors lined the perimeter of the event and some offered fashion consistent with the theme while others offered common items one might find at any carnival. Art hung on the fences, hoopers mingled with other event goers. Face painting was offered for the children and some children came to the event in their own rather elaborate costumes and seemed to know how to get into character. Many of the more experienced participants had particular characters they were portraying. Most people appeared to be in their twenties or early thirties, but there was a significant number of old participants in their sixties and seventies, judging by appearance.
When we asked people to describe Steampunk, some referred to the literature, while others made interesting references in various directions: Jules Verne, The Wild Wild West, Victorian and Edwardian eras and a post-apocalyptic world where steam has returned as the main power source. One referenced the sub-sub-genre of dieselpunk. Mad Max also received a few mentions.
I also made a couple of connections to people I’d run into while writing this blog. The first was Fred Eaglesmith who I photographed at the Blue Plate Special a while back. He had the top hat and goggles and called his tour the “traveling steam show.” Also, Tuatha Dea from Gatlinburg played Market Square last year and took a photograph of one of the lead percussion/vocalists who was decked out in total steampunk, though I just thought she was cute and funky at the time. Maybe it’s a bigger movement than I realized.
The other connection that I made when hearing the fervor with which some people get into character was the Renaissance Fair movement which has been around for quite some time. Different era, yes, but some of the same elements of dressing in character and mingling with others with an affection for the same thing.
The night also included aerial acrobatics featuring members of the Wing Project and dance by some of the same people. A centerpiece of the evening was a fashion show, which, you may be thinking seems a little redundant given the photographs you’ve seen in this blog post, but actually, it was a professional fashion show put together by a couple of designers and some of the attire obviously took a huge amount of work. It’s too much to include in this post, so tune in tomorrow and I’ll give you the fashion show.
Until then, I’m thinking I might look good in a small top hat with goggles. You think?