Friday, June 22, 2012

Steamy Port Townsend Tales II: The People Behind the Steam

What made the recent Brass Confederacy Steampunk Convention at Port Townsend special was that it was truly a community event, not just another weird geekfest ignored or at best tolerated by the locals.  The volunteers I spoke to over the weekend included members of the Jefferson County Historical Society and other groups that were co-sponsors of the Convention, and the Festival felt like it had the whole town supporting it.

For Teresa Verraes, Executive Director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the first challenge to getting the community behind the Festival was explaining what Steampunk was. “When I was talking to the downtown merchants, I said it was like the Victorian Heritage Days and the Kinetic Sculpture Race had a love child and it grew up to be a mad scientist,” she says, referring to two well-established Port Townsend Festivals that run at other times in the year. The result of her outreach was over a dozen original window displays featuring Steampunk throughout the downtown area, including in book stores, jewelers, antique dealers and cafes.

The couple acknowledged as the driving force behind the Brass Screw Confederacy are Cindy and Nathan Barnett, two recent Seattle transplants who took over The Old Consulate Inn, a Victorian B&B, just under a year ago. 

The splendidly atmospheric Old Consulate Inn. Old Consulate not included.

Before I left PT they invited me over for coffee and a chat. I was a little surprised when Cindy met me at the door dressed in a long black skirt and a white blouse that went up to a prim buttoned neck, but I shouldn’t have been; the couple are comfortable in neo-Victorian clothing and Nathan (who sported a natty vest and comfortably rumpled formal shirt and trousers) admitted that it’s pretty much their daily wear.

While both were worn out from the weekend’s festivities, they were also delighted that The Brass Screw Confederacy had been a hit in its “blueprint year.” They had assisted with the Victorian Festival back in the Spring, and their energy and innovations had helped revitalize that event and garnered them enthusiastic cooperation for their own Festival. “The Victorian revival in Port Townsend started in the late ’70s when people were working to revive the town,” explains Nathan. “The trouble is, those original participants are now all older, and they haven’t kept the younger people involved, so it’s become something that they’ve started to avoid. When we got involved I brought in things that were more oriented to general interest, like an exhibition bout of bare-knuckle boxing and period fencing. We even brought down a Gatling gun. Afterwards a lot of younger people told me “you know, I grew up hating Victorian days, but this is actually cool.’”

Yet the couple are both curiously ambivalent about the phrase ‘Steampunk.’ “I hate the word,” admits Nathan. “I don’t do punk. There are parts of the ‘punk’ aesthetic I like, the look of a film like Blade Runner for example, but to me that post-apocalyptic aesthetic isn’t a necessary part of Steampunk. Punk is also an attitude. It’s in your face. I don’t think that the sort of Steampunk that I enjoy is about that. It’s more refined and polite.”

“In that way it’s like this town,” adds Cindy. “Port Townsend has its rough edges and rough people, but any of them will hold the door for you. It’s the most polite town to that I’ve ever known.”

“Though one positive thing about the ‘punk’ in Steampunk is that it lowers the bar for entry,” says Nathan. “Not everyone is going to have formal trousers and vests or corsets and bustles. But I can go shred an old leather jacket and buy a cheap pair of goggles, and there’s my Steampunk costume. So while it’s not my style, I think it’s got validity.”

We discuss neo-Victorianism and living a Steampunk lifestyle. Though both are comfortable in every-day Victorian dress, they don’t describe themselves as neo-Victorian. “We have friends in town who truly live a Victorian lifestyle,” explains Cindy. “She lives corseted, even while she’s biking. They use gas lights and oil lamps, and while their house has electricity, they don’t really use it. In contrast we’re both tech-savvy and appreciate modern conveniences. But at the same time we love the aesthetic.”

They talk about their future plans for the Bed and Breakfast, which thanks to their renovations is already a gorgeous testament to their knowledge and appreciation for all things Victorian, even down to the loving stuffiness of bric-a-brac in the parlor. They explain that eventually it will have a Steampunk den downstairs, and while they’ve been reluctant to cross-promote the Festival and their B&B, they feel grateful that the business and the event inform each other.

While other people may don a bustle or a frock coat for a weekend event like Steamcon, Nathan and Cindy get a chance to live Steampunk in a daily fashion, and it encourages them to look more deeply at the movement than simply costume or reading fiction. “A friend of ours is developing a flying machine, not from a blueprint or a model, but by trying to work out things like gear ratios and speed needed for lift-off,” says Cindy. “I think this is great. Just focusing on your costume sometimes feels very self-involved to me. What we want is not just people walking looking cool, but actively thinking about issues of technology and society.”

Looking back at their own journey into Steampunk, Nathan says he’s surprised at just how much you can live your daily life as fantasy. “There was a time when I was in very much into the Renaissance. My Monday, Thursday and Fridays were fencing long sword, and my Tuesday and Saturday were singing Renaissance drinking songs. Now that we’ve embraced this new form, I teach Victorian combat once a week and get to explore this whole new world. That’s what’s so wonderful to me about all of this. Contrary to what you’re told, you can live your fantasy life. Maybe you won’t be chased by zombies or fall in love once a week, but you can still live the life you dream about in books if you dedicate yourself to it.”

As I left their magnificently Victorian home to return to the bus stop and a trip back to the real world, I realized that for me, this is the beauty of Steampunk: it's a fantasy that’s almost actually accessible, not in faraway lands but just down a street we've not gone down before. Perhaps it's something we’re living today anyway, if we adopt the right perspective. Through the wide eyes of a Victorian inventor, we are living in an astonishing future, where fantasies of flight, instantaneous communication, mechanized labor and even interstellar travel come true. Steampunk wakes us up to the miraculous nature of the time that we are actually living in.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely piece! I think Pt. Townsend is on it's way to being the home of Steampunk, or rather Steamposh, in the PNW.