Can I Take That R2D2 Home? Expo FACTS 2012 in Ghent

Since 2007, I have been attending the Belgium FACTS. Time for a short recap of this year and a selection of field notes!

When I first went to Ghent – an experience by itself because I just had my driving license – it was located in the heart of Ghent in the conference centre ICC next to a picturesque park. Apparently I was not impressed the first time, judging by my old blog: ‘For the first time some friends of mine/ fellow douji colleagues visited the Belgium F.A.C.T.S., the biggest convention in the Benelux. Sadly to say, it wasn’t really a convention, mostly just a big hall filled with merchandise that was mainly Star Wars with random anime/Trek thingies popping up.’ What disappointed me back then was the expo character of this event, that promotes itself as  a convention. Thus I expected workshops, video rooms and many events. FACTS offered none of that. By now I know that FACTS is more comparable to Japan Expo or London expo. It specializes in merchandise, special guests and promotional booths.

The expo character of FACTS, –  as opposed to a diverse fan convention run by fans as labour of love and with a scale of events – is by now one of the reasons that FACTS sticks with me. I go there to sell some doujinshi with my friends and to buy the kind of items that I would not find anywhere else because I simply would not browse the internet for them. This year, for instance, I bought some animated posters of Firefly, got a Wizard of Oz graphic novel and some other loot. Younger me, in her blog entry, thinks it highly unlikely that she’d ever attend FACTS again. But I have been going ever since. In 2008, I looked forward to eating my ‘tosti Wan Kenobi’ again, looking at the cosplay acts that were often more like fashion shows, and petting the R2D2’s of the model-building club.

Since 2009, FACTS has been relocated to Ghent’s expo on the outer ring of the town. The big building stands out next to an Ikea and easily serves thousands of visitors. It’s hardly appealing but its roomy and it’s easy for large vendours to get their stuff in the dealer room. FACTS stands for fantasy, animation, comics, toys and science-fiction. Its diversity is the other reason that I keep going to Ghent. FACTS has grown exponentially the last years. It used to be easy to bump into the same person a few times, but this year, it certainly was not. Every year, I go with my friends and fellow artists to sell doujinshi, even though we don’t sell a lot of books. I try to make some time to at least attend a Q&A with the special guests and go to the cosplay competition on Saturday or Sunday. In 2007, I was sceptical of the state of the art of Belgium cosplay and the event itself:  ‘The cosplay compo was an advanced fashion show, which sort of makes me feel like complaining to the Abunai about how we direct our fashion shows at cons, but basically makes me proud of the theatrical elements of our Dutch compo’s.’ There were hardly any group acts that year and many performances lasted too long. I remember all too well how four mature men walked the catwalk up and down waving their guns to Ghostbusters. And I remember all too well that despite their enthusiasm, I was disappointed.

Top-down view of the expo

Guests and cosplay

This year I looked forward to several things. Above all, James Callis, who performed Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica (BSG), was attending. I loved his character and looked forward to seeing him in real life. Though I would have gone crazy over this several years ago, when the show was still airing, I was beyond excitement now. BSG is one of the television shows that I care about most. I love its disapocalyptic atmosphere, its maturity, its politics, its takes on religion. All of the characters have a clear role in the story and depth. Laura Roslin, a former secretary of education assigned to the presidential office,  is a character that still inspires me today with her conviction, strength and her development. Baltar, a scientists that made several bad calls during the show, was phenomenal, weak, and a bastard. But this made him brilliant. Seeing James Callis in real life, without a line of fans waiting to score his autograph, made me somewhat sad. I went to him in cosplay, felt very uncomfortable, got the autograph and scrammed. His Q&A later that day was inspiring. We got good background information, thoughts on acting and the techniques of the show, and some reflections on his identity as a Brit, and what that implied for the story arc in which Gaius was president.

Another reason that I was excited about the convention was that I had also spend quite some time before FACTS sewing my Harley Quinn outfit, based on Arkham City, one of the best games that I played this year (save for the navigation / maps). Harley is a favourite cartoon character of mine, a ditzy clown from Batman The Animated Series, and I had made an original version of her for my first visit to FACTS. Reprising the character was personal and meaningful. I wanted to do the outfit justice and had gone all the way to find the right fabrics. I had started late and didn’t get all of it done. The wig wasn’t styled quite properly and ultimately, I wasn’t too pleased with my corset. It was too red and there was a small error in the back. I didn’t get my boot covers done in time, which also felt like I hadn’t gone the extra mile.

During the day, I got some hugs from another Harley and had fun with a Dutch acquaintance, that portrays The Joker since many years. It felt good to see other Batman cosplayers. It surprised me that people were extremely happy to take some pics of this outfit but I have to admit, all of these were men. That also made me feel uncomfortable, as hardly any women wanted a photograph. I have to admit though that like at other science fiction conventions and fantasy fairs, a fair portion of the photographers seems male altogether. This is completely different from the attitude at many anime fan conventions, that in general also draw a younger crowd, and sometimes difficult to deal with. While it is liberating to represent the characters that you love and wear a flattering, even daring outfit, it can be tough when you feel objectified. I don’t want to go into a ramble about the Mulvey’s male gaze but analogies do come to mind. I try to work with it and be confident, but frankly, I got a bit upset when some male fans grabbed me by the shoulder for a photograph during the very busy FACTS Saturday. I decided not to wear Harley on Sunday so that I could go watch the cosplay competition in peace and save myself some trouble.

Harley outfit

Place

I was surprised by some of the new moves by the organization that tried to make FACTS a bit more comfortable. There was much more food this year (but still not enough as the lines for Belgium fries were very long), a small workshop plaza and a fast ticket sale. Still, the building seemed smaller now that FACTS was not in three halls, like the two years before, but in two. There were huge lines on Saturday and this was simply no fun. I appreciated FACTS but still found it difficult to really socialize because of the busy atmosphere. On Sunday, the convention was more relaxed, but it still lacked spaces to sit down, have fun, and chill out. There was a constant visitor flow and people were sitting on the ground smack dab in the corridor because there was no other place to chill out. Leaving FACTS and chilling outside meant re-entering the building altogether which was kind of a fuzz.

The lack of social spaces has been a minor annoyance of mine since the FACTS moved to Ghent’s expo and I hope that at some point, this will change. We don’t just go to conventions to buy-buy-buy but also to have some good times with friends. FACTS is a collector’s festival but it hardly caters to the creative fans. A friend of mine, for instance, had purposely left her camera at home because she felt that there was hardly any room to take good pictures at the festival. Unlike the many male photographers, who halt women in dress or secretly take pictures of them (which also happened to me on numerous occasions), she felt photographing was obtrusive and violated the space rather than contributed to it. Her respect and her ideas of convention etiquette (which were inspired by other convention policies) were admirable.

All in all, I felt that FACTS was a space of negotiation. Especially the workshops, which were placed smack dab in the middle of a crowded dealer room, were an isolated island in a shared space of vendours. A taiko drum workshop continued the entire day and echoed throughout the room. Rather than contributing to the atmosphere, visitors and dealers perceived it as a hindrance. Though this shows nice efforts of the organization to include socialization and participation, ultimately it was a failed attempt. FACTS caters to the inner collector but forgets the socializers, the creatives, the spectators and even the photographers. This creates a specific fan experience at the expense of others.

View of the workshop space

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