When it comes to conventions, size doesn’t always mean everything. I’ve been to gigantic cons like Otakon, where lines are the rule of the day and crowds hustle and smack into each other. I’ve been to midsized cons like Anime Next, where hanging out is more important than checking out events. And I’ve been to small ones like Anime Mid-Atlantic, where families go from panel to panel and spend on mementos from the Dealer’s Room.
And then there’s Conbust. Conbust is a very small (read: under 500 attendees) multifandom convention set at Smith College in Northampton, MA. It’s a school con, run out of a single building on the massive Smith campus, and yet it managed to be just as satisfying as cons ten times its size. From a loyal and very enthusiastic community to a smooth staffing experience, Conbust stands out from other conventions by promoting, and sticking to, a mission statement and executing a satisfying weekend of fun, friendship and fandom.
I was surprised initially when I found out that Conbust was celebrating it’s ninth anniversary this year. A good number of conventions that are also celebrating their 9th and 10th year events this year are all much larger and better publicized than this convention. But over the weekend, it became clear why this convention has managed to keep going despite its small size- the people who run it, and attend it, are all devoted to their fandoms and fandom participation. Unlike some larger cons, which have burgeoning populations of young attendees seeking something to do, Conbust manages to craft a fully participatory experience that encourages the attendees to take part. Rather than seeing large gatherings of “hallway parties,” panels at Conbust are actually very well attended. Meme shouting was practically non-existent, and the Sunday boffer tournament drew a good sized crowd for some good natured fun whacking other people with foam weapons. In fact, there were times when Conbust felt like being back at college, with all the assorted goofing off and learning attached.
Northampton is basically a college town. Smith dominates one side of the town, while the rest is broken down into a Main Street with plenty of food choices and shopping alternatives. In fact, Conbust might have the best food options of any con I’ve ever been to, Boston aside. Indian, Thai, Vegan, Italian, Japanese and maybe 4 Mexican eateries were placed up and down the road. Time between panels was gladly spent wandering up and down Main St, choosing where to eat, where to get coffee and shopping at one of the 4 bookshops in the area. It was a lovely area to wander around, and enhanced the experience exponentially.
As for the convention, it was located in Seelye Hall, near the Smith Art Museum. As a venue, it suited the convention perfectly. Panels were held in lecture halls, each wired with sound and built-in projectors. Several of the larger rooms even had amphitheatre-style seating which allowed for better viewing. Admittedly, it felt rather empowering to give panels in those rooms (one staffer even told me that most of the school’s post-doctoral students never got to teach in the larger rooms, which made the experience even more satisfying).
The main floor held the vendors areas, which were broken down into two Dealer’s Rooms flanking the main entrance, and two Artist Alley’s near the sides. The space was well utilized, but you actively had to go looking for the artists, whereas the vendors were right there next to registration. The main floor also included a con suite, where attendees could go for rest, food and drinks during the day. I haven’t seen a con suite like this for general attendance in a long time.
Panels were scattered mostly through the second floor, along with the viewing rooms. The third floor was dedicated exclusively to gaming in all its forms. Given that Seelye isn’t a very big hall, it was generally easy to find everything within a few minutes, and the space allowed for a lot of attendees to wander into various rooms when looking for something to do. The only downside was actually locating Seelye and the associated Davis halls. Seelye is near the entrance, but there are multiple entrances to choose from, and there were no signs pointing the way. Davis was harder, I never actually found it.
There are quite a few conventions that are panel-centric. Conbust is as well, but given the nature of the convention, it expands on this concept greatly. There were 4 panel rooms that consistently had things going on, from 9AM convention opening until midnight each day. It was very easy to “chain panels” as there were many to choose from, and almost all of them devoted to fandom pursuits. There were no “fan panels” really, nothing devoted to a specific series or characters, but there were a lot dedicated to the art of writing, music and education. The majority of panelists were part of the publishing industry, and the workshops they gave on character creation, scene-writing and publishing of works were enlightening.
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing going on. On Saturday, Higgins Armory gave demonstrations on medieval weapons and tactics, the local Star Wars club gave light-saber choreography and dueling workshops, and there was always some kind of knitting/sewing/crafting activity going on. The one “fanel” I went to was the tongue-in-cheek titled “Tits or GTFO,” which sounded dirty but really was a look at the exaggeration in modern media and art towards busty women and the female form.
In fact, that was one of the major themes of the weekend. Conbust’s mission statement states that they are dedicated to the female side of fandom and fandom pursuits. It shows- from a largely female guest list and panels dedicated to feminism in fandom, media and writing, the female aspect of fantasy and science fiction gets wonderful exposition.
As for me: this was my first weekend as an invited guest to a convention, and I had a wonderful time. I didn’t feel any different than usual, but the people who came by my panels and hung out with me afterwards were truly a blessing. I made a lot of new friends over the weekend, and I never had to eat alone. The one thing that stood out from normal: people taking notes during the slide shows. I’m used to seeing people talking to their friends, I’m used to seeing people snapping pictures of my longer slides. But this one girl on Saturday morning, in “Spirits, Wheels and Borrowed Gods,” actually asked me a number of questions about the impact of Christianity in Japan and was taking copious notes. When I asked as to why, she replied that her sister was doing a report on the subject, and needed some more information. Indeed, this is a common practice at Conbust panels- each one I attended felt more like a college class than a panel, with a good deal of discussion between the panelists and the audience. But unlike a lot of college classes, these were never boring, nor did they tend to drag on. Interactions between participants were what made the difference.
Like any other convention, just smaller. The fact that Modern Myths had a store in town within walking distance enhanced some of it, as what they didn’t have at the con could be acquired very easily.
...were the panels/workshops themselves.
I would love to remark that the demographic of Conbust was in some way different than the “standard fare,” but truthfully it’s not. The same people who go here also go to Anime Boston, Connecticon, Otakon and even Anime Next. And yet, I had one of the best experiences of my congoing life at this small convention. The smaller numbers did nothing to detract from the energy at large. People were having fun, guests were having fun, even parents were having fun. I need only point out the showing of “Underworld” on Saturday night. It was small, there were only 5 of us in there, and we had a riot poking fun at the movie and discussing adventures in the World of Darkness. I haven’t experienced that in a long time.
Conbust wins the award for “Best Kept Secret in New England” for 2011. It’s multi-fandom at its best, with great panels, attendees and events. Don’t let the size fool you- it’s small, but welcoming. The surrounding town of Northampton gives plenty of chances to distract oneself between panels, and has some of the best food choices of any con, hands down. Plus it gives off the same college town feel that is both welcoming and refreshing. The panels are educational, informing and fun. The guests don’t run away from their fans, but will hang around signing autographs and talking long after the panels are over. Next year will be their 10th anniversary, so mark the dates and attend.