Published November 1st, 2023 by Russ White
Ahead of Public Functionary's sci-fi/fantasy convention November 18 & 19, we get a quick primer on what to expect in A Cultured Multiverse
Later this month, on November 18 & 19, Public Functionary will be hosting ConFluence, a BIPOC-centered convention of nerd and fan cultures organized by artists. One of those artists, Leslie Barlow, has woven her love of painting, community organizing, and incredible cosplays together in her own life and practice — who better to turn to for the inside scoop on what convention-goers can expect?
So suit up, ye heroes, villains, and obscure references, to boldly go where no one in the Northrup King Building has gone before.
Russ White: What is ConFluence, who is organizing it, and how will it be different from other sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book conventions?
Leslie Barlow: ConFluence: A Cultured Multiverse is a two-day celebration of art, sci-fi, futurisms, and fantasy, centered on content by and for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. This convention will have workshops, panels, an art exhibition, vendor marketplace, a cosplay contest, special guests, a gaming area... basically all the things you would expect from a sci-fi and fandom convention.
What makes us different is that we are intentionally centering BIPOC leadership, content, and audiences in this space, which we felt was really important because we often feel marginalized in typical Con spaces. And because it's being held at Public Functionary and other satellite spaces in the Northrup King Building, it makes a lot of sense to have art and artists be a big part of ConFluence as well. From decor, to panelists, to vendors, to the art exhibition in Public Functionary's gallery, art is woven throughout.
RW: Public Functionary is known for a lot of community programming, as are you, but you both are rooted in the visual arts. Where does convention culture fit into your personal studio practice and the larger mission of PF?
LB: Art is often a part of sci-fi and fandom conventions, in the form of comics, illustration, films, animation, fan art, and more. Public Functionary is a fluid platform supporting the exploration, production, and expression of arts & culture, and has always prioritized underrepresented artists in an effort to uplift more voices in our community. Because ConFluence is advocating for and celebrating BIPOC representation in Con/nerd spaces, and centering art and artmaking as part of the healing, visibility, and liberatory space we desire to create, there's a perfect synergy and alignment there for sure.
In terms of my personal studio practice.... haha let's just say they are intertwined at the root. My first experience with textiles and sewing was actually for sewing and making cosplays, starting 12 years ago. I enjoyed working with textiles in this way so much that I began incorporating hand + machine sewing into my paintings about 7 years ago. Cosplay and cosplayer representation has made it into my paintings as well.
Leslie Barlow, Untitled (joy scape 4), 2022. Oil, pastel, acrylic, quilt, on paper, 27.5 x 22”. Image courtesy of the artist.
RW: Talk to me about role playing – I gather from the thematic reference to futurisms that you consider cosplay to be a playground for world-building (which is a very Star Trek: TNG holodeck kind of vibe). At the same time, it seems somewhat escapist in nature. What is the balance you've found in cosplay between escape and engagement? Where does fandom fit into movements for liberation?
LB: I love that Star Trek reference, yes!!! Yes there is some escapism in this space, but I think more so it's about empowerment and play and freedom. In the book Afrofuturism by Ytasha Womack (one of our Special Guests at ConFluence!), she writes that cosplay is an opportunity to push the boundaries of what you can be, and therefore imagine a whole new world of possibilities for yourself, and in turn, all of us.
I also believe being able to connect with other people in a dream and play space creates a ground for some beautiful relationships. And as Black and Brown people, we need more spaces of respite, joy, and rest, where we can be in community with one another — as (Black feminist, writer, activist) adrienne maree brown says, joy is a form of resistance, and as we work and struggle for liberation we must also incorporate pleasure. We owe it to ourselves.
I love that adrienne maree brown also talks about science fiction as a framework for activism, that organizing for social justice is speculative fiction in the ways it imagines new and possible futures. Many organizers and activists have been drawn to science fiction and fantasy for that reason. Having spaces like ConFluence allows us to connect in the love of this "nerd culture", and embody the futures we want to see.
RW: Do you have your own cosplay(s) planned? How much work goes into each outfit, and if participants haven't started on their costumes yet, when should they start panicking?
LB: Yep definitely... although you'll have to be there ConFluence weekend, or wait to see the photos to find out what I'm going to be :) If I'm building + sewing my outfit, it can take months to create a cosplay. Unfortunately I didn't have that kind of time this year being on the planning side of this convention, so most of what I'm wearing will be store bought, with a couple modifications done by me.
If folks wanting to come to ConFluence haven't started on a cosplay yet, don't panic!!! I've seen some of the most creative and hilarious cosplays come together last minute. You don't have to come in full armor or superhero getup to be in cosplay, there are many different kinds of characters to explore, and many of them wear regular clothes.
RW: What advice would you give to anyone who's never been to a convention before and feeling nervous about what to wear or what to expect?
LB: ConFluence: A Cultured Multiverse is a great convention for first timers as it's our first time too! And we'd love feedback from folks as we plan for potential future years. I totally get the nerves part, and I think it's helpful to realize so many of us attending will have that nervous-excited energy too. A space like this is kind to weirdos. Many people that go to events like these want to make connections and build relationships, but there are many ways to engage, or not engage. Workshops are an awesome way to meet people while trying something new, and if you're worried about talking, panel discussions are a great way to be a part of the action as a listener. There's even a Quiet Room available when folks are feeling a bit socially overwhelmed and need a break. You can check out the schedule ahead of time on our website and plan your days in advance — you don't have to stay the whole time.
Honestly, whether you're arriving solo or with your entire fam, dressed in full cosplay or in your favorite Stranger Things t-shirt, there is space for every kind of nerd here and we can't wait to celebrate the weekend with you. ◼︎
Leslie Barlow (at right, as Gamora) with Luke Cage star Mike Colter at a previous convention. Image courtesy of the artist.
ConFluence: A Cultured Multiverse takes place November 18 & 19 at Public Functionary in Minneapolis. Tickets are available as one-day or weekend passes.
You can also follow ConFluence on Instagram @confluence_mn.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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