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GEAR up, professor, it's full steampunk ahead

Rollicking Victorian vision comes to life at Portland's GEAR Con


by: COURTESY OF GEAR CON - The Victorian Martials Arts Symposium is new to GEAR Con, with top-notch instructors sharing their knowledge. GEAR Con is July 5 to 7 at Doubletree Hotel.Imagination lies at the center of the steampunk movement, which takes center stage in Portland July 5 to 7 with the third annual GEAR Con festival at the DoubleTree Hotel.

It seems that everybody outside of steampunk has to be educated on what the heck it is. In short, it’s a fascination of yesteryear — the Victorian Period (1837-1901), the Industrial Ages — and what could have been, as in adding science fiction and creativity to the mix to create an alternative society. It’s fantastical. But, they’re not Trekkies, beamed up to fantasize about being Mr. Spock.

Let Stephen Couchman, founder of GEAR Con, explain:

“Steampunk has been shined onto the mainstream stage through a prism. Those who’ve just discovered it often think it’s a fashion style, or a flavor of industrial sculpture, or a visual design aesthetic, and are unaware of the global, interdisciplinary steampunk arts movement and its roots in science fiction literature. There’s also a push to package steampunk as an alt-culture lifestyle — like being goth or a hippie — which I think misses the point. Steampunk’s value to the wider world is in mainstreaming not its themes and trappings, but the values of participatory creativity — making things, learning and sharing useful skills. Steampunk is many people’s gateway to the concept of producing, rather than just consuming, culture.”

GEAR Con has expanded, moving to the larger venue at DoubleTree Hotel, 1000 N.E. Multnomah St., and added to its lineup of activities, with art, writing and filmmaking contest and more entertainment: Abney Park, the biggest name in steampunk music; Good Company, the country’s only electro-swing bang; Poplock Holmes, chap-hop emcee; Veronique Chevalier, renowned chanteuse; magicians. Portland’s own Professor Gall — the man, the band with New Orleans vibe — remains part of the show. A big attraction promises to be the Victorian Martial Arts Symposium, led by Jeff Richardson, a partner with Portland’s Academia Duellatoria, who has attracted an all-star list of instructors.

“Really, this could be a standalone event,” Couchman adds.

Panels and vendors galore will be part of GEAR Con. Chris Lang, owner of Wells and Verne period clothing and accessories store, 8315 S.E. 11th Ave., says steampunk “is moving into the height of the movement. It’s going more mainstream; it’s been in the mainstream vernacular. It’s bringing humans together. Teenagers come in (the store) with their parents and everyone can find things at the store.

“It’s a love of history, fashion, literature, re-imagining of historical times. In our case, we like the Victorian times. ... I think you’ll start to see more at mainstream clothing stores. You’re going to see it in the tech industry with Intel, Apple, Microsoft — IBM has already stated (interest). That’s the industry in which we get a huge base of our customers.”

Couchman also runs the annual Rose City Steampunk Film Festival each Valentine’s Day weekend, the only steampunk-focused event in the world that features creative films, music videos and documentaries, including new work in the neo-Victorian retro-futurist vein.

It’s not revisionist history with steampunk, as much as putting the imaginative spin on things.

“The early Industrial Age is recent enough that there’s a trove of cultural information to draw from,” Couchman says, “and far enough out of frame that we can draw selectively according to our tastes. Technophobes love the perceived simplicity of the period while science geeks see it as a thrilling age of discovery. Moralists see a time of propriety and floor-brushing hemlines, hedonists see absinthe-swilling bohemians.”

It was a time where “you start to imagine a world where genius, prosperity and the gifts of rampant mad science aren’t held back by greed or fear,” he adds. “You ask yourself: That was only 100-and-change years ago, why not build that world now?”

The introduction of the Victorian Martial Arts Symposium adds a dose of reality to GEAR Con (which stands for The Gaslight Explorers, Adventurers and Romantics Convention).

It harkens back to the days of bartitsu, jiu-jitsu, bareknuckle boxing and cane fighting and other techniques used on the mean streets of London, circa Sherlock Holmes days, and has expanded into an amalgamation of self-defense.

“You can take everything we do, even with sword play, and apply it to self-defense in the streets,” Richardson says. “Things are starting to come back together again. Prize fights and people afraid to be on the streets set up the wave for this to happen.”

The list of instructors includes David McCormick of Vancouver, British Columbia, Tim Ruzicki of Seattle, Tim Badillo from the San Francisco Bay Area and Stewart Sackett of Portland and Richardson and Matthew Howden of Academia Duellatoria.