On Friday 18 May, I leave for Animecon 2012 with my sister and a friend. It is the eight time that I am attending this convention in Almelo. I join as an ethnographer and by now, a blogger but also as an eager fan, ready to promote YaYCon at our booth and sell doujinshi. Our artist group, OpenMinded, has close connections with the convention and has made the comics in the program booklet that is handed out to all visitors. Since 2006, when we were asked for the first time to do this, we have often made about 20-30 pages, an amount of pages that has been downsized now to keep it feasible. The months before the convention, we try to work with the theme of this year’s edition, Apocalypse Cow, a dystopic theme that feeds into Japanese movies like Godzilla as much as in Western action movies. Unlike my other blogs and fieldnotes, I’ll structure this story a bit along my personal experiences and themes that inspired me throughout the convention.
‘Cosplay are the clothes we create to make our lives less boring’
– Helen McCarthy, Animecon 2012
As a cosplayer, I focussed mostly on getting my Effie Trinket outfit, as featured above, done before the convention. Though Hunger Games has no formal relations with Japanese pop-culture (even if it has some thematic resemblances with Battle Royale) this dress inspires me before the convention. Since it is a more Asian variety of Effie’s outfit, I assume I can pull this off and wear it proudly on Friday. I even get interviewed in it by RTV Utrecht. I get some questions by fans though if I’m wearing something original or fannish but that gives me ample chance to recommend Hunger Games to anyone that hasn’t seen it. Even though I am more happy with this Effie outfit than the Elf Fantasy Fair version, the fabric is itchy and uncomfortable and though I plan to wear it on Saturday as well, I kind of refuse it in favour of a Twilight Sparkle inspired get-up that I smacked together a week before the convention. Though I am less interested in wearing the outfit because it is partly bought and completely casual, I still put it on because it is the only other option I have. Literally. I simply did not pack enough real clothing or another costume.
Wearing the outfit becomes a rather sad performance because of personal reasons as well. As a result, I distance myself from the outfit and the character, as I did a few days before already the con already when putting effort in the costume was not energizing anymore but almost a punishment. And believe me, this character and what she stands for, being an intellectual and caring, and also her colours and personality, are really representative of me. (Though my dear friend Falco often calls me a combination of Twilight and Rarity.) It is a strange but compelling fact that it is as complicated to break a relationship with a character as you would with any real person. However, the wig looks good and the outfit is snug. In fact, it does not really feel like ‘Twilight’, but much more like ‘me’ with some Twilight features. and I decide that come Halloween, I might make a more elaborate Twillight if life settles down. The character means loads to me but she’s inherently tied up to friendships and relationships that I have in real life and without them, she loses her context.
In the lobby and elsewhere, I see many other bronies and pegasisters dressed up (and their responses to me) and notice how very difficult it is to do justice to the ponies. That’s another fact why I do not like dressing up as them so much. A fur suit as well as a humanized version are both versions that simply do not capture the characters at fullest, I feel, because of their highly stylized and animated qualities. Still, I have so little other capital to express my love for this show otherwise and what it meant to me as one of the few series that is so well-animated, funny, female-fronted and diverse. In fan fiction I cannot express it, in art I cannot show it and even in costume I feel so utterly limited.
That brings me to another theme that I felt throughout this convention, and that is representing the stories that we love in an interesting, innovative way and how cosplay can achieve this. Does the authenticity of cosplay lie in its performance, the oeuvre or diversity of one’s costumes or is it more in the development of skills and taking the creative act seriously as a process? My friends all have different opinions. Marissa makes a few strong claims that one Joker cosplayer who has worn his outfit during a few editions of Animecon already is authentic in his own right and having fun. I am the last person to doubt this, but I do believe that his idea of cosplaying is not that of other people who work towards their outfit for many months.
There is much diversity in cosplay. Part of that depends on the many phases that construct this performance. Like music and performance art, and unlike literature and visual art, it is a two-step program, that is, it is allographic, art historian Nelson Goodman would say. The art consists of a stage in which it is written down and documented, or sewn in the case of cosplay, and a stage in which it is performed. The amount of performances and the quality of them then also shapes the interpretation of the art work. Cosplay is more difficult for two reasons: First, the original is more complex here because the costume also reflects your qualities as a seamstress or creative consument/appropriator that tries to grasp the character. Second, the performance depends on other cosplayers that may perform the same character or characters from the same fiction. The originality can come into play in many of these phases and will also depend on the context. I remember very well that last year, I wore an outfit of Jesse from Toy Story that was celebrated in Germany because it was so unlike what they usually saw at anime conventions whereas in Holland, the reactions were much milder.
If fandom does mean making creative, derivative art, where can we find it? During her talk ‘A brief and selective history of cosplay’ Helen McCarthy shows some very interesting outfits from science fiction fandom throughout the years. She has been an active fan for many years and hearing her thoughts on this matter are simply inspiring for my own work as well. Helen’s ideas trace back the history of cosplay to older phenomena of dressing up in subversive ways that transgressed existing norms. She explains how Japanese clothing appropriated elements of Chinese narratives that were associated with being rich. Similarly, cosplayers use narratives to show who they are. Obviously thisis more local and more related to expressing emotions about the fiction itself, but there is much truth in this broader comparison. Helen’s lecture provides ideas on the cultural dynamics of fashion and visual culture itself and what stories our clothing indeed tell. The history of cosplay and of anime fan practices in general (the development of Western doujinshi I still want to write comes to mind) is still largely unwritten but after my current project, definitely something I want to help write and develop as well. This should be out there.
‘Who’s your favourite Robin?’
– Tea Leaves doujinshi, fan booklet
What inspires me most of all though, and returns in conversations throughout the convention, is the idea that we are all artists. Helen emphasized this a few times during her lecture and there’s much truth in it. Both derivate artists and original creators are important today but unfortunately, we are wrapped up in discussions of labour so often (especially when creativity pays our income) that our own creativity and drives get lost in terms of productivity and quantity. Creativity is a real need and should be viewed in this light.
Though being an artist is a status and role that was constructed very late – indeed it is a Romantic notion as such – it is one that is only applied to the media industry and not to us fans. Throughout the convention, I again noticed how we are forerunners of a creativity that is often misinterpreted. What artist are we talking about when those that work in the industry are always held in higher esteem? Whether we create derivative art or original art, our art needs to be protected and cannot be viewed with very simple ideas of imitation. During the panel ‘The Future of Comics is Manga’ both journalist Tamara and I root for counter-voices but there are little to none. The discussion slips in a very easy, simplified idea of stealing other people’s bread whereas current user practices and publication rights are very difficult. Especially in anime fandom, where getting your hands on content legally is sometimes not even possible, there is a lot of gray ranging from fan subs to scanlations.
However, the panellists do not just discuss regular piracy but fan works and especially in these cases, current copyright law is in many countries is ambiguous and emphasizes originality and ownership which are very specific values today, not only in relation to fandom and internet, but to art in general. The discourses on how we should review our copyrights are still going strong, and with due right, but even under current copyright laws fans have more leeway than many of them think because there are rights that protect transformative works in Europe as well. I’m happy though that The Organization of Transformative Works and Cultures sticks up for fans and for misinterpretations concerning their art as piracy or infringement. All fan art to some degree displays values of the derivative artist and should be taken seriously.
At this convention, but also at previous ones, I notice the tendency of fans to debunk what they do because it involves existing content. It is one that I note all the time and that I constantly want to pull apart. There is no need to debunk what you do only because you work with existing content. You are attributing and when you transform it well and learn to develop your own voice, there is much beauty in fandom, just as much as in original art, and to be frank, the starting point may be different but the intent is the same: to tell an untold story. There’s no need to beat around the bush when something inspires you. You can either use these characters and work with them or mould them into your own new characters that wink at existing fiction. Both is fine and depend on your intent. If you want to pay homage to fiction that moved you, it is perhaps even better to be clear about this and show the derivative links. Today, we live in an intertextual culture and we should not be ashamed of this. We constantly combine stories. A convention is one way of living out the fiction that inspires us.
‘It’s dangerous to go alone!’
– Magikarp meme, Animecon 2012
Animecon manages to move me for the eight time and make me think. As one of my first conventions, it feels like home, and seeing it improve is a good feeling. The game room is better and has some innovative games, including Typing of the Death. Outside, I do Chinese exercises in the morning and marvel at martial arts. I attend the M.O.V.E. concert and feel glad that the last three years the Dutch scene has also incorporated more concerts. The band does a supreme job, technical difficulties aside, and there’s loads of audience participation. In terms of events, the convention surprises me and I am sure there is much to be gained there still but at least this year, for the first time, there are more informative events about voice-acting, comics and fandom that are inspiring. A personal highlight of mine is the EMV compo, which is a typical Dutch event by Kaj in which ecchi (light-erotic) music videos are presented. The cosplay competition, then, does not disappoint either though it is a shame that there are not as many participants now that big prizes, like going to Japan or Paris for competitions, are awarded. The group competition, which does not have an award, has no contestants at all, and that makes me a bit sad since I competed in that category all too often.
The artist alley is new (well, reborn, there was one before), and though it doesn’t draw a huge crowd because it is smack-dab in the visitor flow to the dealer room, the atmosphere is okay. Now that all artists are not in the dealer room with regular vendours between them, a few of them arranged a game to draw more people. This card game functions rather well though all in all, only about twenty people attend. Extra cards can be commissioned from the artists and though the game was intended to be location-based, it has become more of a regular card game. The Dutch scene still focuses on original booklets, and the manga awards are one way to put our own original and fan comics out there. Whereas in other countries the emphasis is on fan art and maybe selling some original prints (like I noticed at Otakon last year) in The Netherlands there’s a vibrant doujinshi scene that also makes original comics. The manga awards, that are run for a second time, nominate many of my friends and the awards go to three of them for the categories best original comic, short comic and fan comic. All of these artists come from fandom and get artistic credit for what they do by judges from Dutch comic magazines. Thanks to staff member Mattijs, the Dutch industry has to talk back to what is happening here. A vivid comic scene that draws audiences that they lost long ago: women and even teenage boys that so rarely buy comics in The Netherlands.
The other dialogue that surprises me at the convention is that among visitors. They bound not just by performing characters and by joining events but also indirectly, by putting up memes in the convention building. This is the first time that I see this kind of activity at a convention at such a large scale. The elevators and lobby increasingly feature memes of our own and almost seem to mediate online image boards. There’s a Batman looking for Robin poster that one minute is there, and then gone again. There’s little Magikarp memes, as featured below, in the elevator. There’s Loki from The Avengers, or so I heard. This almost seems to be a response to the serious flyers of Mangakissa and the maid cafe that are also put up everywhere but it gives an energetic feel. The convention ends with a sad note though. The hotel in Almelo that we occupied for years will most likely not be the place of next year’s edition. Like the community itself, or even fandom itself, it has to move forward and Animecon wants to grow bigger, better and be more international. The World Forum in The Hague might be the next stop. This will undoubtedly change the meaning of the convention but perhaps it will be for the better.
Still, a convention depends on its visitors and the cultural capital that binds them. Whether that’s an award, a character or even a meme, it doesn’t matter. For some reason, I think this meme says it all. It’s hilarious and really says to me, ‘this is fandom, this is what we do’. We change places into media environments. We bring art into the everyday. We transform fiction and fool around with it. We can transform The Hague as much as we can transform Almelo, and hey, we can do it at a beach now too. This is something worth pursuing and that means that every now and then, you have got to take a risk, be a little subversive and think outside the box. That’s fandom in a nut shell. If that’s not art, then what is?