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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010

Steampunks Gear Up for Milwaukee Ball

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Steampunk is a thriving subculture that embraces something old and something new, combining Victorian-era fashion with science-fiction elements—it’s a response to “cyberpunk,” a parallel but opposite cousin that celebrates futuristic technology. The visual style of steampunk embraces locomotive engines, gears, top hats, corsets and aviator goggles, and fashion elements of the Wild West can be added to create a “historical sci-fi” look, according to “Gypsy Geoff” Marsh, who is organizing an event called the Steampunk Victorian Ball on Aug. 26.

“Steampunk is about being crafty and creating your own character persona and costume,” Marsh says. “The scene has a large variety of crafters and artists, so it’s an outlet where like-minded weirdos can meet each other.”

Marsh says an influence on his style is mad-scientist prototype Nikola Tesla. Other steampunk favorites include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain and Mary Shelley. The aesthetic has appealed to a cross-section of artists and musicians who have already discovered the punk, goth, industrial and gamer scenes. Steampunks design home decoration and furniture to match their clothing, and the subculture has spawned steampunk bands.

One of the most well known of these is Dr. Steel, who performs in a lab coat, black PVC gloves and welding goggles. His sound has been described as “industrial hip-hop opera.” Other bands include the Unextraordinary Gentlemen, who play in character as 19th-century time travelers, and Vernian Process, who have started their own steampunk-themed record label, Gilded Age Records. All three of those acts are from California, and the scene in general is largely active on the West Coast, with Southern California and Seattle being steam-powered hot spots. There has been some activity on the East Coast as well—a major conference called SalonCon ran for three years in New Jersey.

Midwest entries, though, tend to be few and far between. There was an open invitation for steampunks to meet up for a “Time Traveler’s Day” at the Bristol Renaissance Faire on Aug. 15, and last year the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre hosted a “Steampunk Night” for their production of Around the World in 80 Days.

But those local meet-ups are rare examples. Marsh is hoping to give steampunks a chance to show off their unique fashion flair at more events.

“That’s why I set the show up,” he says, “because it hasn’t really been done here yet.” Marsh is a member of the Dead Man’s Carnival, a sideshow that combines circus, punk and vaudeville-style performance. The Carnival has gone steampunk for the ball and invited a variety of guest performers.

The main music act will be Water Street Bridge, a band with Americana, Balkan and Celtic influences. The four-piece band, named after their favorite outdoor practice spot, uses a wide variety of instrumentation, including guitar, accordion, mandolin, fiddle, whistle and percussion. The band’s latest album is titled Oh Death and they have supported it by playing at venues like Gen Con and various Renaissance fairs, both places that steampunks also like hanging out.

In addition, there will be an appearance by the Absinthe Minded Professors, who do a performance of steampunk storytelling with violin accompaniment, and an electric medicine man show, a vaudeville act of object manipulation and aerial artists.

In a showing of steampunk technology, Marsh says another highlight will be a “13-foot time machine” that “travels into the future at the present speed of time.” In an attempt to get people to show off their spirit for the event, the price of admission will be reduced for those who show up in steampunk-style clothing.

The Steampunk Victorian Ball takes place Aug. 26 at Hyde Bar. Admission is $13, $10 if dressed in steampunk attire.

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