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Sunday, September 8,2013

Days of future past

‘Steampunk’ gala views future through lens of past

By Evan Peter Smith
Photo Credits: Evan Peter Smith for The Athens NEWS
Photo Caption: Above, dancers move to the music of Qiet during the nocturnal portion of the Steampunk Spectacle.

A man decked out in a frock coat, top hat and long black boots is watching the town come alive. 

It's Saturday night, and he sits in the open doorway of 29 E. Carpenter St. as football fans stream out of the bars and begin their hard slog down the sidewalk. The man eyes them with vague curiosity, but says nothing. He appears stuck outside of his time: calm and dignified, occasionally brushing at his goatee or adjusting his large, Ben Franklin-style glasses. 

He might appear strange, if it weren't for the other costumed men and women who keep appearing in the doorway, all of them outfitted in old-style coats, puffy gowns, brown vests, brass buckles, fighter goggles and shoes that would have been fashionable in the era of pistol duels and horse-drawn carriages.

This is the Steampunk Spectacle of Athens, a gala celebration of that strange science fiction genre that has, in recent years, grown into a broad social movement, one that mixes the fashion of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with pseudo-futuristic gadgetry. For those unfamiliar with steampunk, it can be difficult to fully explain.  According a brochure handed out in the lobby, the steampunk mindset asks the question, "What if the people of the Industrial Revolution had actually been able and willing to build everything they imagined in their novels and scientific theories?" 

In other words, steampunk is a vision of the future as theorized by society 150 years ago. If the actuality of that future – our society today – is here to contradict this notion, so be it. It's not about actuality; it's about an imagined reality, and that reality is riveted in steel and wrapped up in a tightly bound corset. 

The attendees wander around, talking and smiling and gesturing with courtly civility.  The hall splits off into a side room, where costumed vendors lounge behind tables stocked with brass trinkets, comic books and jewelry, and bottles of red and amber elixirs. 

The bathrooms are off in the back, and a long line of women stand under glowing lamps, fanning their faces as they wait.  The line doesn't seem to be moving very fast, probably a result of their thick gowns, their elaborate corsets. In the men's restroom, a solitary figure sits on the toilet, only his polished black cobbler shoes and white britches visible under the stall door. 

Keep walking down the hall and you'll enter the open dance floor.  Onstage, Amber Brooks of the Athens Historical Society & Museum announces the start of the gala.

"Hello, hello everyone. Thank you so much for being here," Brooks says, "Just so you know, all of you paying for your tickets and coming out has really helped to support us at the Historical Society, so we just want to say thank you, thank you so, so much."

Brooks is dressed up in a long pink gown that she put together herself. 

"This was totally a last-minute thing," she admits. "Like really last-minute.  I was up till 5 in the morning."

Now the band members are tuning their instruments, the trumpet player swigging a watermelon Four Loko just before the show begins. A quick strum of the guitar, a tap of drumstick on metal rim, and a group of dancers flows out onto the floor as the music inundates the room. 

This is why these people are here. Later tonight will be a costume competition, and later still a promenade down Court Street and a soiree at Jackie O's Pub and Brewery. But for now there's only a crowd of bodies all dressed in similar garb, all dancing, all smiling, and I am standing in the middle of it all.

The dancers spin and twirl. Cameras flash, glinting off buckles. The music rises, and the trumpet player hops down from the stage. He bellows on the dance floor, stepping around the costumed bodies, the tweed jackets and flowing satin, and now he is behind me. Now I am rising. I see the floor lower beneath my feet. I see the trumpet glinting out from between my legs.  He has picked me up on his shoulders, and is carrying me up onto the stage. 

The crowd dances down below. They all seem happy, and most seem to be adept dancers. But under the hanging lights, they appear as dim blurs, the ghosts of souls long dead or never born at all, citizens of a world that never came to fruition. I look at them through the screen of my iPhone. 


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