MarsCon is a deeply personal convention for me. I have a close connection with a number of the people who either perform for or work on the music track. I have a friend who comes in from out of state every year, and a girlfriend who comes down to volunteer with Table 27 (the table selling stuff for the musicians) and spend time with me. I’ve had a lot of interesting and intense experiences at the convention, and it seems like I have at least one more each year.
It was in this state of mind that I headed to the Airport Hilton in Bloomington earlier this month. Armed with several costumes and my trusty little red digital camera, I checked into the hotel on Thursday, March 2, and prepared myself for the events. And frankly, the events were subdued—not least because the con didn’t start until Friday, but people were still starting to check in. I got to meet up with a number of old friends and meet a few new ones, and I got to sit down and relax in my shared hotel room with my friend and girlfriend, which meant my convention was going along just fine. But that subdued feeling continued through the entire weekend.
As I wandered through MarsCon during the day and through opening ceremonies, I was struck, as I am every year, by how MarsCon seems to be two conventions smashed together. The music track, filled almost entirely with Dementia artists (as the musicians and parodists call themselves), and the geeks that followed them could make up their own convention. In point of fact, they do—there were a number of advertisements around the hotel for FuMPFest, a convention dedicated to funny music that happens annually in Illinois.
On the other side, there’s the sci-fi track. MarsCon is supposed to be a science-fiction convention, and the convention committee tries hard to support that. The guest of honor this year was Jeffrey Combs, the most punchable man in the Gamma Quadrant, and there were plenty of panels on sci-fi things. I attended a panel on intergalactic trading, where the panelists talked about how different types of faster-than-light or non-FTL space travel might affect trade with other planets. I also dressed as the Ninth Doctor and got video of myself using a sonic screwdriver to break into a panel on classic Who (and was quite annoyed when no one said anything as I perfectly mimicked Eccleston’s “nothing to see here” wallflower attempt when he gets caught).
There were other things that existed within the con space, of course. There was a panel on English folk dancing, where a troupe performed and also taught onlookers a simple dance. The anime room, run by Susan Warhole (who also plays hostess at the TARDIS Tea Room at other cons), had a small buffet of Japanese snack foods and Japanese cartoons for days. But by and large, MarsCon has always felt like a music convention and a sci-fi convention taking place at the same time, and sharing some of the same rooms, but not really being the same con.
This isn’t a complaint. It works perfectly fine, because the people who are there to experience the convention want to make it work. The music side is run by someone who performs on the track, so he has a vested interest in ensuring everything is smooth—he’s not just getting talent, he is talent, and the talent he brings are his friends and coworkers. The sci-fi track is run by people who have been in the local sci-fi community for years and have worked with conventions since the days when Minicon was the biggest convention in the area. And even though the two groups seem like two cons in one space, the dealers’ room and the parties bring them both together.
Unfortunately, “I’m sad to say I missed . . .” is going to be a common refrain when I talk about MarsCon. My ADHD and anxiety mean I was never going to be able to cover this convention in a traditional sense. I’ve been covering conventions for various websites for about six years now, and what I always rely on is gonzo journalism: I tell an over-the-top story about things I’ve done, show a bunch of ridiculous pictures of me and other things, and call it a day. If you’ve visited the Twin Cities Geek Facebook page, you’ve seen some of those pictures yourself.
But if I’m giving an honest write-up of my time there, then I can’t be as flamboyant as I’ve been in the past. Which means I have to be honest and admit that I skipped out on Saturday in order to work a wrestling match and came back in time to go to the parties. I have to be honest and say that while I did go to one panel on Friday, and I did see one episode of Gundam Wing in the anime room, I was really there to show off my Ninth Doctor cosplay and entertain my girlfriend. I have to be honest and say that I’m not the kind of person to dig deeply into backstage drama.
Which is why during conventions, I don’t notice a lot of the trouble that I might hear about after the fact. I know MarsCon has had some problems in the past, but I only hear about them secondhand. I’ve heard there have been some issues with paperwork and organization, but since I’ve always been able to get my press badge and move on, I’ve never had a problem. I go to MarsCon to get away from drama, not to find more. I’m a geek, I am inherently an escapist, which means that I—like many other people, I’m sure—do not want to dig into how disorganized something is.
I’m likely doing some people a disservice. Some of the stories of MarsCon problems involve issues with security, and no one wants to feel unsafe. But I can say that I’ve never felt unsafe. I didn’t even feel unsafe the Saturday I was there, when I tarted myself up and flirted with everyone I could find. As a trans person, that’s a dangerous game to play—but I felt safe, because I’ve always felt safe at MarsCon, because I haven’t had a problem in the nearly 10 years I’ve been going.
Yet that knowledge brings me back around to the beginning of my meandering thoughts: namely, that this year’s con was subdued. It was fun, certainly. There were parties, there was music, there was plenty to do. But it was more calm that previous years. There was a certain energy lacking. It also felt smaller, as if this year simply didn’t have as many people. There definitely weren’t as many volunteers; the con suite didn’t always have someone to cover, and the con staff were taking anyone who showed even a vague interest in helping and tossing them out to sink or swim. MarsCon needed more volunteers, and looking back I realize it’s lucky that no major problem occurred. Or, as per usual, one did occur but I haven’t been told about it because it didn’t affect me.
That sobering thought was with me as I wandered the halls of the hotel on Sunday night. I saw a lone table full of flyers and ads that had been left because it could be dealt with in the morning. But otherwise, the halls were empty. Lonely. It always occurs to me that conventions are what they are because of the energy that each person brings—the personality that every individual shows off. So there’s always that sense of responsibility. How much effort should I, as an individual, put in to making sure the convention works? In order to work right, a convention needs a certain number of people who are willing to do certain things. There’s simply no way around that. This year, MarsCon didn’t have enough people, and the only reason I don’t know if it went smoothly is because I didn’t decide to take part and help ensure things would.
MarsCon is a deeply personal convention to me, just as I’m sure we all have our own deeply personal geek events. And while I could tell you every award won at the masquerade—though not firsthand, as I sadly couldn’t make it to the masquerade—I feel like what really makes or breaks a convention is whether or not the people who attend love it enough to make it theirs. So I don’t know about you, but I think I need to e-mail con com.