22 April 2013

ID project: Chris Needham and Finding (or making) Your Role in Fandom

This week's entry into the Identity Project is another one of the "random" ones. I asked Chris to contribute after a wonderful email dialogue opened during the feedback session from last year's AUSA. Here, he documents his own experience to "find his place" in fandom. Much like Ink and Lauren, Chris has utilized "participation" in crafting his fan identity, but his journey was one with a good deal of soul searching and seeking the "right fit." 

Some of us know where fandom fits into our lives, but for others it can be a longer trip through myriad emotions, motivations and self-discovery. Some of us never find our place in the end. But the trick is to never give up. Fandom means something different to everyone: sometimes the search reveals that meaning, and other times the search itself is the meaning.

When I was asked to write something for this project, I figured I’d start with a simple statement about my relationship with fandom. My experiences in anime fandom can be best described as ___________. Except then I encountered a problem. I spent weeks trying to figure out what could go in that blank. I knew something did; after all, I do have a relationship with fandom, and it’s about as hardcore as one can have. I sit on Anime USA’s Board of Directors. I am their Director of Properties and Publications, serving as their art director, publisher, and head of attendee outreach. I’ve been to more conventions than I can count. I’ve served as a panelist numerous times. I have countless con-runners, guests, tech vendors, staffers, performers, and attendees as friends—in truth, about 90% of my good friends fall into one or more of those categories, along with virtually everyone in my social circles.  However, I rarely watch anime, and what I do watch is generally 10+ years old. I can’t tell you the last time I read manga. My knowledge of the J-music scene is largely based on when Malice Mizer was releasing music (and I’m talking the pre-Klaha days…yeah). I haven’t cosplayed, strictly speaking, in ages. So, how do I relate to fandom?

I discovered anime towards the end of middle school and promptly became obsessed. This was, of course, in the days of dub/sub VHS wars, Suncoast, and dial up internet where you might spend all night downloading an AMV. As other essayists here and elsewhere have noted, back then anime was about consumerism. Japan made stuff, and everyone lined up to buy it. I spent countless hours stocking beer at a mom-and-pop grocery store so I could buy Eva t-shirts, “Cowboy Bebop” plushies, “Ah! My Goddess!” everything, and every box of Pocky I could find (and back then, it was really, really hard to find).  However, I soon realized that being an anime consumer wasn’t really what I wanted to be. There isn’t anything wrong with that sort of fan, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

So I decided to be a fan who participated. I’ve loved costuming ever since I was little, and cosplay seemed like the perfect way to branch out my fandom. For several years, I joined cosplay groups, spent months crafting detailed, accurate costumes (and in the process learned far more about custom-dyeing fabric than I could ever want to know) and happily scheduled my entire con weekend full of meet-ups and photo shoots. It was fun, and I certainly enjoyed myself, but I came to realize that while costuming is and remains one of my favorite hobbies, I didn’t really enjoy trying to copy exactly what someone else had created. Rather, my interests began delving into period fashion and costuming, such as the vast world of Steampunk.  I found creativity as important an aspect as creating. Again, I was enjoying myself and experiencing a different type of fandom, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be long term.

Also during this time, I was actively exploring other areas of fandom, to determine aspects which I didn’t like. I didn’t much enjoy blogging. While I am a gamer of sorts, I prefer my gaming in the form of quality time in my pajamas in front of my computer with a nice pot of tea. I greatly enjoyed editing AMVs and participating in contests, but I could recognize my limits had reached a point where my ideas far outstripped my skills. Yet, in each of these areas I was making friendships and building connections to what I had come to realize was an amazing and worthwhile community. 

All this time, I had been staffing at Anime USA, starting by carrying screens and gaffing cables in 2004, eventually moving my way up the ranks to building their mobile tech division and later serving as Director of Technical Operations for two years. I really enjoyed what I was doing and spent more and more time getting involved with other cons and events as well. Unlike some of my other “fannish” activities, I was happy and comfortable with this role. I loved the challenge of putting on an event behind the scenes, working to improve processes, and make magic happen for attendees on a shoestring budget, often with limited staff. It was rewarding working with the bands and guests to put on the best possible show. My favorite part of the con was the feeling when we opened the doors to Main Events and attendees came rushing in for a show that, despite the hiccups that always occur, I knew it would be a big success. 

However, I reached a point where I had to rethink even my involvement here as well. After two years serving as Tech Director, the former occupant of that position was returning after his term as Con Chair ended. I had also had a very negative experience at another con I had been staffing for years. Around this time I had also begun to more frequently attend events for a wide spectrum of non-anime fandoms—Steampunk, Goth, Renaissance, Geek—and was somewhat frustrated with anime cons in general. While other fandoms seemed to embrace innovation and were constantly striving to reinvent things for their attendees, anime cons seemed stuck doing the same things the same ways every year, at a time where there was tremendous change in the industry.  Moreover, the culture of anime fans was no longer simply consumer based—there was far more innovation, crowd sourcing, community interaction, and creation than ever before, but cons seemed stuck in a consumer mode.

Then, I was approached to do something at Anime USA that no anime con I’m aware of has ever tried on the scale we were thinking of. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one noticing these changes in fandom, and I was asked to bring together a wide variety of functions that directly worked with or impacted attendees at cons (signage, info desk, merchandise, attendee outreach, and problem solving); reexamine the informational aspects of a con through publications (program book, pocket guide, flyers, and badges); and run with a long neglected area at conventions—the convention theme. I was to expand the art program, make the theme a central part of the attendee experience, and ensure our attendees were informed, excited, and empowered to have a great time at our convention—and have someone to talk to if they weren’t. 

It took a while to build up momentum and figure out how on earth we were going to do such a wide ranging and important thing, but thanks to fellow senior convention staff who believe in Properties and Publications, and an awesome Props and Pubs staff who have learned to go along with my crazy schemes because they’ll somehow work, we managed to pull it off. In 2012, for example, we embraced a theme devoted to turn-of-the-century circus, sideshow, and vaudeville, and all the surprise, spectacle, and theatrics that that involved. We had a cabaret, we celebrated performance, and I convinced the wonderful people at the Marriott Wardman Park to let me put on a fire show outside of their hotel after some eleventh hour discussions (and it was amazing). Attendees loved it and loved how intensely we were theming things. They enjoyed the fact that Anime USA was no longer some cookie cutter con that didn’t stand out from the crowd. In short, most of my connection to fandom these days has been wrapped up in this immense, transformative, but rewarding effort.   

I was also able to embrace another of my key interests—education. I’ve always enjoyed serving as a panelist, developing engaging, educational panels and facilitating discussions. As a convention, Anime USA has made education a priority, and I’ve been able to be part of that push as well. 

I have also found my relationship with fandom has moved far beyond fan activities. Many people talk about how they turned some aspect of fandom they particularly enjoyed into a career. Everyone has also unfortunately heard the story about the person who felt weird or different because they filled their cubical with anime paraphernalia and it was not well received by their coworkers. Personally, I have turned skills I’ve learned in the areas of management, marketing, design, and leadership at cons into assets at my workplace. I include my fan activities on my resume, framed in how professionally aspects of behind the scenes management of conventions and events work. My boss and I have discussed my Anime USA involvement in performance reviews, and I’ve been flat out asked “What skills from your interest in anime and conventions do you think could be an asset here that we’re not taking advantage of?” Coworkers of mine have staffed alongside me having no knowledge of anime or con culture, and I’ve been able to point con friends at job openings based on our professional relationships as con staffers. To me, this is another very key aspect of who I am as a fan—being an ambassador to people who think what we do is weird or strange, and showing them that a love of anime is no different than the love of a sports team or band. 

All of this brings me back to who I am as a fan. As I noted before, I know I have a connection to fandom, I spend time every day helping fandom to grow. For a while, I wondered if I was a fan of fandom itself. The concept is a somewhat controversial one—embraced by some as the fan who doesn’t let the differences in fandoms change their interest in geek culture and criticized by others as a cookie cutter geek who can’t commit and shows up to hang out at cons without adding anything.  I tend to take the former view personally, applauding those who hold multiple diverse interests and aren’t afraid to celebrate them all, but that wasn’t really what I was, at least not in relation to anime conventions and anime fan culture specifically.

In short, it was neither anime or related items, nor the community surrounding things that drew me to being a fan; it was facilitating, growing, and changing the community. I view my role in fandom as helping build a place where thousands of fans can come together, celebrate, and grow for a weekend. I love being a volunteer and helping other fans. I love solving fans’ problems and addressing their concerns, both at an event and internally so we can have an even better experience for everyone next year. I’m passionate about breathing some new life into the convention scene and working with numerous other conventions, organizations, and individuals to make the fan community stronger than ever before. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a people person. I tend to be rather introverted, yet I spend 20+ hours a day on the convention floor for a weekend solving problems, helping others, and feeling totally energized by the fan community.  My experiences in anime fandom can be best described as complicated—I am a fan of the fans.

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