(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)
Installment #22: “The New Normal”
This time of the year, most newsletters of this sort are talking about winding things down, spending time with family, and “wishing you and yours” in the hopes that the impending new Gregorian Calendar year won’t be worse than the one we’re currently escaping. While I understand the reasoning behind being silent so the beast won’t hear you (a reason why I haven’t been to a blowout New Year’s Eve party since the end of 2001; well, that and an inability to drink), and the need to stay silent on future plans so the gods don’t laugh and point, let’s talk instead about strategy, so the gods are laughing and pointing at where you were and not where you are.
At the beginning of 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was clear. The end of a 4 1/2-year job contract with a company I loathed gave a perfect opportunity to strike out and turn the gallery into a full-time affair. The plan was to alternate between regular open houses and events both inside and outside the Dallas area, with the intention of regular visits to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and even New Orleans. The science fiction and media conventions in which the Triffid Ranch started were hitting what many of us were calling “Peak Con,” a regular phase in the fandom life cycle where too many groups started too many conventions, right at the time when their most dedicated attendees were having to skip cons every weekend to focus on career and family. However, a slew of new art-related events were opening up at that same time, and so the idea was to go through 2020 by staying really busy, getting out to potential visitors, and seeing where things went next. That whole plan blew up shortly after show season got going, when I pulled into Austin for last March’s NosferatuFest just in time to hear the announcement that the big SXSW arts and tech festival was being cancelled due to COVID-19. That’s when you pivot.
And pivot the Triffid Ranch did. As plenty of social and political analysts have noted in the last few weeks, COVID-19 didn’t crash everything directly, but widened fissures that were already there. That was definitely true for the conventions and events that were a Triffid Ranch mainstay. For instance, the science fiction convention circuit went through some massive convulsions: the big media conventions that had taken most of the oxygen over the last 15 years suddenly discovered that virtual conventions didn’t work that well for them, and the same was even more true for the increasingly inbred regional cons that kept plugging along only because the attendees had been going for decades and didn’t want to break their run. Conversely, several new virtual cons started specifically because they were tired of gatekeeping both social and financial, and proved that a huge audience existed for their interests well outside of the previously recognized fandom. Maker culture, costumers, writer’s workshops, stage makeup artists…suddenly they’re realizing that they never needed to be restricted by the dynamics of old-school conventions, which were essentially unchanged since the 1930s, and we’ll be seeing the aftershocks of this for decades.
Now, it’s great that so many people are able to benefit from the shift to online events, but that doesn’t work that well for those with physical items for sale. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed on social media with friends and strangers doing their best Jay Sherman impersonations in the hopes of reaching an audience, and many are now realizing that the old “Do you have a business card?” was a way of saying “I like this, but I don’t want to buy it now, and I want to disengage without a scene.” While virtual marketplaces and virtual dealer’s rooms might offer an alternative, there’s always the issue with customers wanting to see an item in person, the joys of shipping and handling, and the reality that there’s a huge difference between someone hyping up an item they just discovered on Instagram versus actually paying for it. And with items such as Triffid Ranch enclosures, where shipping costs are often higher than the cost of the enclosure and with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be destroyed once it left the post office, it’s just simply not an option.
The good news is that things will probably change in 2021, and not just because of the promise of effective COVID-19 vaccines. The reality is that just as how things didn’t return to the old normal after the 1918-19 flu pandemic, they won’t be returning after COVID-19 is a nasty memory. Too much has changed, too many old habits are broken forever, and too many new ones established, and the trick now is getting people into new ones. While I don’t pretend to be anything approximating a prophet on how events in the 2020s will run, I can safely say that these might be A future:
Lots of outdoor events. Outdoor events get to balance between the tribulations of weather (particularly in Texas, where sudden tornadoes and hailstorms are a very legitimate concern through most of the year) versus customers feeling safer. This will only continue after COVID-19 vaccine use has gone as far as it can: the pandemic has only accentuated knowledge of the limitations of most air conditioning and circulation systems, especially with the number of patrons refusing to follow basic mask safety.
Lots of smaller events. Even before the pandemic, big art shows and events had the limitation of crowds so big that precious few people could get to vendor booths to see what they had, much less purchase anything. Likewise, really big shows had the limitation of people leaving one booth “so I can see what else is here,” and by the time they were finished, being too tired to want to purchase anything. Based on anecdotes from customers coming by last summer’s Porch Sales, I suspect that the big move will be toward smaller events of two to 10 vendors at any one location, and attendees traveling to the ones that most intrigue them.
Lots of careful selection. As overused and misused as the word “curation” was over the last decade, making a thoughtful analysis of who is offering what will be what gets most events going through the 2020s. This doesn’t just include making sure that, say, T-shirt vendors don’t overwhelm every other vendor at an event. A vendor may have a truly unique inventory without competition at a show (*cough*), but if that same vendor is at every last show in a 100-kilometer radius, that both diminishes the vendor’s brand and the shows’ brand. This goes double for events attached to a holiday or regional tradition, where it’s oh-so-easy to overwhelm vendors and customers with sheer volume.
Much more community. Finally, the biggest shakeout is going to be in creating and maintaining events where the vendors and the customers are looked at as much more than a source of revenue. This works all ways, with vendors offering exclusives for particular customers and events, customers dragging friends and cohorts to shows just so they can see, and events that highlight vendors as attractions in their own right and not just as a way to pay for big-name stars. Some existing venues, such as Texas Frightmare Weekend, are going to become business case studies on how creating real community is an unquantifiable but essential part of running and maintaining large events. Just as how it’s much harder to maintain a 10-gallon aquarium in the long run than a 100-gallon, the successful small events are going to have to work harder at it, but the returns will more than make up for the effort.
Is this a roundabout way of saying that the Triffid Ranch has plans of its own for 2021? Maaaaaybe. The important part is to borrow a quote, “We all hang together, or we all hang separately,” and stick with it.
In carnivorous plant news, some may remember last summer’s experiments with studying carnivorous plant fluorescence with a grad student’s budget, and Dylan Sheng at Plano Carnivorous Plants has taken that work to exciting new levels. In particular, he was photographing Heliamphora pitcher plant fluorescence, and even noting that some species had nectar that fluoresced as well. His work had great confirmation with a new paper by Michal R. Volos on Heliamphora fluorescence in situ, helping to demonstrate that this happens with wild and captive plants. Suffice to say, keep an eye on Dylan’s future research: he’s someone to watch within the carnivorous plant community, and I’m very proud to call him a friend.
Speaking of Texas Frightmare Weekend earlier, I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Loyd and Sue Cryer of Frightmare are now running their own horror-related storefront, Frightmare Collectibles, featuring a grand collection of autographed photos, DVDs, VHS tapes, and assorted weirdnesses gathered from around the world. Remember the mention above about outside Triffid Ranch events? Loyd and Sue recently hosted their first outdoor event by their location in Justin, Texas, and while it was far too cold this time to bring out plants, expect to see carnivores at future events once things start to warm up in spring.
Now that the holidays are nearly over, it’s time to get back to the construction side of the gallery and get to work on new enclosures, and the various books from Rinaldi Studio Press on model kit weathering and detailing are essential inspirations for those. Michael Rinaldi has spent the last few years not only mastering new weathering techniques but putting everything he can into books that focus on one single kit and show how those techniques can be applied elsewhere. While they last, I highly recommend snagging his single model volume Fish Submarine, if only for ideas and atmosphere for other artistic pursuits.
The late 1990s weren’t a good time for rock music in the States, but Powerman 5000’s combination of heavy riffs with science fiction themes was a wonderful respite from the overwhelming majority of whiner rock bands from 1995 to 2000, all of which seemed required to have at least one song with the theme “Mommy Won’t Let Me Buy Heroin With Her Credit Card.” One of the statements on the general worthlessness of terrestrial radio over the last 25 years is that not only is the band still together and still producing albums, but those new albums are so much more alternative than what’s being played as such over the air. Speaking from experience, not only can you do much worse than rock out to “V Is for Vampire” when starting work at a new day job, but it’s great for keeping pace on a bike commute to the same.