Monday Original Content: A Convention Coming of Age?

by Ehud Maimon

Turning thirteen is a big deal for a Jewish boy. As a Bar Mitzva you’re expected to take on all the religious responsibilities of an adult and become a member of grown-up society. In it’s thirteenth year (sort of, more on that later) ICON, the Israeli festival for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Role-Playing seems to have come of age. Like all such transitions it has good sides and bad sides.

ICON was not always a festival. Actually, it wasn’t always ICON. The first convention to be held during Succoth in 1997, was called Sector 972, and the next year it was renamed ICON. In the first few years ICON was the sort of convention where everyone knew everyone else, and if you didn’t know people you could always go up to a group of people, badmouth an author, get the verbal abuse you so richly deserved, and be accepted to the Fandom whether you wanted to or not. It was a modest affair, lasting two or three days, that included mostly lectures and semi-legal screenings of movies and favorite episodes from series, sometimes recorded from the TV on a VCR. The first major turning point for ICON came in 2003, when Orson Scott Card was guest of honor. Suddenly people started showing up by the truckload, and a feeling of “What are all these are doing at my ICON” started creeping in. Like most things that fall into a radioactive bog, ICON too started growing tentacles. While it was still only 2-3 days long, it crawled out of its original home at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to a nearby school and there were more and more events to choose from. Around this point in time (2002) the Israeli Roleplaying Association joined the original organizers – The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy and Starbase 972 (the Israeli Star Trek fan club). ICON also grew longer until this past October it spanned a full week, and along the way it acquired a film festival and an academic convention, which I’ll get to later.

The other important thing ICON picked up along the way is a more professional management. Rather than volunteer representatives from three organizations, it now has a paid manager and a producer (at least for part of the year), that can plan ahead and introduce notions like different start times to events in order to better balance the number of people in rooms and in the lobbies. They are becoming much more adept in the arts of PR that help transform ICON to a showcase of SF&F in Israel.

But all this comes at a cost, sometimes too high as far as the veteran fans and activists of the SF&F community are concerned. The issue of paying the festival manager was a major point of contention in some Internet forums in the last 18 months, with veterans seeing it as a betrayal of the old spirit of ICON (and other conventions) where by all the work is done out of love for the genre, and the success of the convention is the only reward. This has caused some key people who played important roles in the past to not only stop volunteering, but swear off ICON altogether. Fairness forces me to admit that the personalities of the people involved play a role here, but the thought that while the manager and producer get paid while all the other hundreds of people involved in organizing ICON – from lecturers to gofers – do it for free, is a substantial thorn in many sides.

The film festival is a relatively new addition to ICON, held for the third or fourth year. On the plus side, it has built itself to be viewed by some as a serious rival to the Haifa Film Festival (held for the 25th year), which also takes place during Succoth, and the fact that it is a wonderful way of getting financial support. But the need to fill a quota of screening hours has led to a stretching of the festival over more and more days, somewhat drowning the core lectures in a flood of films, some better than others. But the most detrimental effect, as far as fans are concerned, is that it led to the marginalization of the more “hard core” SF&F content of the festival. Last year, while Mexican b-movies were being shown at the major Cinematheque halls, lectures on alternative realities as a way of stretching the boundaries of sexual conventions or YA fantasy were consigned to small rooms in the less visible venues of the festival. This causes fans to feel that they are being not only pushed aside, but also somewhat tucked away in shame.

The effect of the academic convention is somewhat different. This is the second year an academic convention is held as part of ICON, and the idea is to incorporate lectures of a more academic nature and list among the lecturers PhDs and PhDs in the making. Since there is very little study in the Israeli Academia in core SF&F, the result is lectures and panels which deal with the periphery of the genre. It might have to do with this year’s festival theme (Future Cities) but I heard from more than one person the same complaint – while last year there were time slots in which they were torn between 2 or 3 different tihngs they wanted to get to, this year there were entire days with nothing that looked interesting.

Taken together all this has the effect of giving veteran fans the feeling that ICON is taken away from them, that what they worked hard to create over more than a decade was taken over by outsiders while they themselves were being snubbed, marginalized and passed over. This actually led to the creation on Reverticon this year, a half-day old-style convention during one of the days of ICON, where you could find that good-old-fashioned spirit of yore (i.e. crowded, somewhat chaotic, informal and very fannish).

So what are we to make of all this? ICON is no longer ICON, not as we remember it. Rather than Nir Yaniv and Ilan Eshkoly onstage at the opening ceremony, goofing off and leaving the audience laughing so hard they are gasping for air, we have a prim and proper ceremony with a member of the Israeli parliament as a keynote speaker. On the other hand, we can now list universities and embassies amongst the sponsors and collaborators of ICON, and the Israeli SF&F community has a showcase never seen before in Israel. Those, like me, who miss spirit of old ICONs find it in other conventions during the year, let ICON do what it does best and come to terms with the fact that this particular radioactive monster is too big for our britches.


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