Compared to other time periods, the 1700s have not inspired many larp settings. Even putting medieval fantasy aside, way more designers attempt to emulate Pride & Prejudice than Dangerous Liaisons. And when Nordic larpers do indulge in tricorns and powdered wigs, they seem to opt for a serious and dark tone like St. Croix (Norway, 2015) and Libertines (Denmark, 2019). I did not attend either of these, but I did attend an international run of De la Bête (Czech Republic, 2017). While clearly reminiscent of the monster-hunting film Brotherhood of the Wolf, the larp avoided the film’s kung fu fighting and video game weaponry. Instead, it focused on the recreation of 1700s village life, using plotlines more inspired by French literature than by pop culture.
My interest for the “Lace Wars” era probably started with an 18 minute-long, Barry Lyndon inspired, lavish music video: “Pourvu qu’elles soient douces” (Farmer 1988). But I also loved less polished mashups, like the presence of an electric bass player in a supposedly historically costumed orchestra (Rondo Veneziano 1983), and a Marie-Antoinette inspired performance of Vogue at the MTV music Awards (Madonna 1990). I wasn’t alone: from “Rock Me Amadeus” in Austria (Falco 1985) to Spain’s Loco Mía (1989), it seems the combination of ruffled shirts, embroidered frock coats, glitter, sequins and synth pop was extremely popular throughout late ’80s and early ’90s Europe. But in larp, this type of 1700s kitsch crosser has been even rarer than more historical options. So when Kimera Artist Collective announced that they would open their Finnish Rococo-punk-camp-queer larps to an international audience, I immediately signed up.
For Disgraceful Proposals – In the Garden of Venus (Finland 2022) to be successful, every participant must faithfully adhere
to the composite, yet specific visual style. Luckily, as its name implies, Kimera Artist Collective includes several professional visual and performance artists. They used multiple types of media for visual communication, from original art to hacks of historical engravings, to a video trailer and finally a full music video that ensured every interested party understood what they were aiming for. Importantly, Kimera also quickly realized that the online excitement about the visual style, and peer pressure of wanting to look fabulous, could also generate stress among the players, so they later released the following statement:
“Many of you have been planning outfits already and thinking of what to wear. Don’t stress. The point of all this is to have fun. If you think your choices are fun and cool, they are! Go wild! Be extravagant! This is not a costume competition, this is crazy fun play with friends. You will not be judged. The guidelines are just for inspiration, not rules to stress about. Each and every one of you will be adored.” (Kimera 2022)
This serious-but-not-too-serious approach permeated beyond the costuming advice, and was at the core of the the fictional 1700s setting:
The larp takes place in a place called Venusberg somewhere in Central Europe. Venusberg is an independent principality ruled by the Princess Bishop, a self-proclaimed Venus and goddess of love. They hold their court in the famous Party Orangerie, a beautiful winter garden on a mountain top. The Orangerie parties attract a wide variety of revelers: pretty peasants from the nearby Village and fierce Dandy Highwaymen from the Forest, as well as more outlandish visitors and creatures. And they all party like there’s no tomorrow. The night our larp takes place is a very special night, as the Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1776 is coming tonight. (Kimera 2022)
From my French cultural frame of reference, the Germanic flavour of Venusberg (see character names below) instantly amped up the kitsch factor: this was neither gilded Versailles, grimy London nor mysterious Venice: this was queer Baron Munchausen high on Mozartkugel candy.
To my surprise, Kimera put in as much style and intent in their written content as in their visuals. How often do larp info letters put a smile on your face? One started with:
Dear fluffy shiny pufflings! You glorious diamonds of meringue sparkles! (…) Peekaboo! Your character is waiting for you! You can find your character in this folder(…) (Kimera 2022)
Character text was transparent for all players to read if they so chose, with succinct public descriptions that were equally hilarious:
Name: Count/ess Frou-Frou
Position: Boudoir Designer
Countess Alexandra / Count Alexander Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Plön, or Count/ess Frou-Frou is Venusberg’s most wanted boudoir designer. They are married to Porcelain-Dolly, and they both love to hate each other and have an intense rivalry on seducing others. Lady Bee, the leader of the teen girl gang the Powder Puff Girls is their daughter who tries to outdo her parents in scandalous notoriety. Good luck trying, girl. (Kimera 2022)
Individual character texts were in the same vein, consisting three pages full of whimsical flourishes, but also directly usable info, such as suggestions of “Whims, ideas of what to do in game” (make-your-own-fun sandbox style of play was explicitly discouraged). More classical connections between characters were called “Liaisons”, and beyond the jokes, backstories also included opportunities for deeper connections and more serious scenes during the game.
Wolfgang jr. was born as a bastard child of Papa Wolfgang and the well-known porcelain polisher Leonora Möller. Papa Wolf did send money for his son but spent his time hanging out in the Forest in pursuit of manly sports and activities in the forests with the rugged Dandy Highwaymen, and never understood his son’s sensitivity and love for pretty things.” (Kimera 2022)
To encourage play across social classes, characters were also part of “Hobby groups” with ludicrous names and goals, from the “Cake Crowning Society” to the “Water Fairy Appreciation Club”. They were actually neither jokes nor useless fluff, but accurately described what would happen during the game. A group did crown a cake in the center of the dancefloor, another group then really guillotined said cake, water fairies were very present, sociable, and appreciated.
I kept wondering how Kimera would maintain the announced “intense larp comedy” energy for the full duration of an international destination larp, i.e. much longer than a pop song. The designers had thought it through:
It is a three-day event that includes the pre-larp workshops, the larp itself (estimated length 6 hours), a debrief and the option to hang out afterwards. The actual larp time might seem short, but we want to be able to keep up high energy for the whole duration of the larp. These six hours will be a breathtakingly delightful exhilarating spiral into silliness – trust us, more would make it less. (Kimera 2022)
This short in-game duration was a good indicator that the organizers knew what they were doing. They had a clear vision, and clear expectation of how long people can keep up a certain type of play. This became crucial to me, as a global event was about to affect my energy levels for years to come.
Not Your Average Knuteflu
Disgraceful Proposals was announced at the end of 2019, confirmation of participation was swift, and info letters started flowing, for an intended run at the end of March 2020. But the pandemic hit, leading to the following email:
Mar 12, 2020, 6:36 PM Dear players,
It is with heavy hearts that we make this decision. Today the Finnish government issued a ban on all over 500 people events until May and a recommendation to also reconsider all smaller events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the current situation we just can not justify holding an event like this, with a lot of physical contact which is a high risk no matter what we do. Even if it breaks our hearts, and it really does, we have to do the right thing and decide that this will not happen now. We need to do our part in slowing the pandemic down to protect the weakest ones.
But we are not forgetting you, sweet cream puffins. We will rearrange the event at a later date. (Kimera 2020)
This cancellation increased my confidence in the organizers: for them, participants – and innocent bystanders, i.e. society at large – indeed mattered more than games. Even though they weren’t forced to do it by law, they refused to organize an event that could inherently become a Covid cluster, at a time when no vaccines were available. I did catch Covid in early 2020, and never fully recovered. I stopped crafting my costume, sheltered in place, and hung tight while at least 3 million people died worldwide. Fast forward to 2022, and another email felt like the return of spring:
Fri, Apr 15, 2022, 12:41 PM Dear disgraces,
It’s been two years since the world changed with the Covid-19 pandemic and we all had to let go of the frenzied expectation of Disgraceful Proposals. Today, the world is still not okay – not by far – but we want to believe that in six months we can come together and frolic again.
And so we are back and we’re having another go at this. Disgraceful Proposals – In the Garden of Venus will run in October 2022 in Hauho, Southern-Finland. (Kimera 2022)
The larp world had changed too, and there were not enough sign-ups anymore to fill several runs. But both organizers and remaining players seemed ready to make that one run an event to remember.
Since my initial infection, I had developed a series of chronic symptoms now referred to as Long Covid. This means that I regularly lose cardiopulmonary, muscular and cognitive abilities in a very unpredictable manner. I often need to prioritize using what energy I have left for work, rather than for hobbies. So shorter larps are more important to me than ever. Exhaustion did affect my play, but Disgraceful Proposal’s design proved to be rather Long Covid friendly.
A Clockwork Orangerie
First, the organizers recognized that Covid-19 was a current, ongoing threat:
There is still a pandemic going on, but at the moment it looks like it is possible to larp in October. But please only come to the larp if you’re healthy, and preferably take a covid test before the event.
If someone gets sick during the event, we have rooms where you can isolate yourself apart from the rest of the players and rest. (Kimera 2022)
Second, the three days were very well planned. The numerous workshops took things slow, step by step, and had breaks in between, long enough to rest (I could go lie down regularly in my room) or to get to know the other players off-game. Particular emphasis was put on safety, repeating there would be no nudity, no touching the bikini zone, and that participants should focus on co-creative appreciation, adoration and stepwise intimacy. The collaborative spirit translated beyond the workshops: players helped each other putting on their costumes, calibrating to play each other up, or just lending nail polish remover.
Third, spatial design was also extremely precise, and well thought-through. All the pre-game activities, workshops, meals and sleep happened in a building that was large and comfortable enough to avoid overcrowding, including a large number of bedrooms with private bathrooms to avoid any dormitory or tent camp feeling.
Players only discovered the in-game location at runtime, and even more spatial design had gone into it. The Orangerie was a large, multi-level wooden barn, with a main dance floor surrounded by a bed and couches, shelves with rococo kitsch porcelain ready to be worshipped, a portrait of Mozart with a “Rock Me Amadeus” graffiti, etc. This space provided many options for public play, from socializing to performances, happenings, etc.
A basement room had refreshments, including a dizzying array of meringue flavors (some vegan, and one of them the oh-so-Finnish salmiakki), tea and alcohol-free bubbly, which provided enough calories to keep the energy going. It also had plenty of comfortable couches, pillows, and macramé braided cords hanging from the ceiling. Literally turning these iconic kitsch flower pot holders onto their heads transformed them into ropey curtains/cages suitable for more private dance performances. Upstairs were more pillows in a mezzanine, as well as a “winter garden” that was actually cold, decorated with a magnificent silk paper cherry tree and a rococo sofa. As announced in advance, some doorways and stairs were not wheelchair-accessible, and proved a bit difficult to navigate for my giant wig made of EVA foam. Attention to prop detail extended to the character name tags, made from those lace-like paper things usually placed under small cakes, i.e. perfectly matching the theme.
When we all gathered in costume on the dancefloor, my jaw dropped and I had to do a 360° turn to take it all in. Per the announced rules, I knew there would be no in-game photos, but what stood before my eyes was a visual orgasm of kitsch and camp: polyester corsets, outrageous makeup, piercings, proper lace lingerie, funky colored wigs, gigantic fake eyelashes, panniers with skirts, panniers sans skirt, two halves of a birdcage as panniers, sea creatures wearing fishnet stockings, sea creatures wearing actual fishing nets… you name it. I was also impressed by the Peasants characters, who somehow managed to go all-in in the meek and innocent direction, including a shepherd boy with a cotton-wool-like wig.
Then, what actually happened? The groups mingled, gossiped, betrayed and worshipped each other, there was some gentle flogging, foot rubs, rivalry between teen gangs, some theatrical kidnapping, a lot of yelling… So not a full six hours of frantically running around and laughing hysterically, but quite a lot of it.
There were also those very classic larp moments where multiple groups tried to take center stage to each have their 15 minutes of fame, or when everyone ran to achieve their secret society objectives or resolve their personal conflicts just before the end of the game. There was also co-creation, such as when a hobby horse race was made more participatory by using non-rider players as obstacles. And there were also slower moments, as well as opportunities for those deeper scenes that were hinted at in the character text. I did feel the eponymous disgrace when one of the main inspiration songs, “Crucified” (Army of Lovers 1991), played just as my character was being betrayed by his prophet, in front of everyone.
Long Covid did affect my experience, but it didn’t spoil it, thanks to a steady supply of medications and energy drinks, my co-players’ support, and Kimera’s inclusive design. The off-game safe room was very quiet, and had comfortable beds, plus chocolate to snack on. I visited it within 20 minutes of game start, because I had to lie down and take an actual nap. In any larp, experiencing fatigue makes it hard to do justice to a character written as being “the life of the party”. Now try making a dramatic entrance when at least 30 of the other players are already busy being very dramatic.
I quickly realized I was doing a pretty poor job as the leader of my character group. One of the players was friendly, but had chosen a very different direction compared to the other members, both in terms of costume choice and of the amount of hanging out with the group vs. going exploring on their own. The other player, who was playing my sidekick, yes-man, and planned to repeat every witty thing I was going to say, was extremely kind and supportive… but I didn’t provide many punchlines or cool moves to mirror. Both of these players seemed to have enjoyed themselves, but for me it was a missed opportunity. I did not play the character as intensely as it was written, or as I had intended to. In retrospect, based on that latter player’s impressive energy and creativity, I would have done a better job as their sidekick.
The Comet is Coming!
The lights dimmed for the final scene, as the comet came down on the Orangerie (the giant chandelier-feather-boa-string-lights contraption attached to the ceiling lit up). The players gathered as practised during the workshops, first dancing separately, then closer, turning into a giant group hug, a progressive vertical cuddle puddle of silk, sweat, glitter, perfume, and those musty smells typical of rented theatrical costumes made with furniture fabric. We gently swayed for four songs, which was really long. It reminded me of calibration workshops where you practise hugging a person until it gets uncomfortable and you use the safeword. Except we were doing it in a human mass made of all the players. I was definitely uncomfortable by song two, especially as this was the first time in years that I was within centimeters of multiple people’s breaths. But it was the final scene of the larp, and I eventually gave in to loudly singing what I could remember of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” (Dion 1996) – and I did not catch Covid. The magic of larp, I guess.
After this sensory overload, I needed some alone time, fresh air and to remove my makeup. People debriefed gently, and chilled in small groups, as both buildings provided multiple spaces for it.
While my main regret was my own lack of energy and leadership, the main criticism about the larp that I heard from other players was that they expected more intimate sensuality, and felt burdened by the sheer amount of safety measures. I agree that it felt a bit like every single safety meta-technique in the book was workshopped, from lookdown to taps, to squeezes to two different safewords. These were intended to let people explore in a safe way, but they may have actually discouraged some players, who interpreted the organizers’ intention differently. Or maybe the players just had different expectations – I was OK with the level of sensuality I experienced.
These minor gripes aside, I think Disgraceful Proposals was a resounding success. Starting from a very niche concept, organizers and players from multiple countries and different larp cultures pushed themselves in the very same creative direction. They were sensual but not sexual, and they took this intense Nordic larp comedy very seriously – but not too seriously. So since you’re asking, yes, I’d gladly get disgraced again.
Disgraceful Proposals – In the Garden of Venus
Creative and practical work: Kimera, e.g. Tonja Goldblatt, Vili Nissinen, Kirsi Oesch, Nina Teerilahti
Character writing: Kimera, Jade Heng, Ernesto Diezhandino
Info, safety and support: Joonas Iivonen, Arhi Makkonen
Scenography building helpers: Tia Ihalainen, Milla Heikkinen, Joonas Iivonen
Meringue madness: Kirsi Oesch
Cake guillotine: Arhi Makkonen, Mikko Ryytty
De la Bête. 2017. Czech Republic. Rolling.
Libertines. 2015. Denmark. Atropos.
St. Croix. 2015. Norway. Anne Marie Stamnestrø & Angelica Voje.
Army of Lovers. 2018 (1991). “Army of Lovers – Crucified (Official Music Video).“ RHINO. YouTube, March 1.
Céline Dion. 2012 (1996). “Céline Dion – It’s All Coming Back to Me Now (Official Extended Remastered HD Video).” Céline Dion. YouTube, Aug. 24.
Falco. 2009 (1985). “Falco – Rock Me Amadeus (Official Video).” FALCO. YouTube, October 25.
Loco Mia. 2022 (1989). “Loco Mía – Loco Mía (Con Santos Blanco) Sabados Gigantes – 1992.” Solrac Etnevic. YouTube, Sept. 2022.
Mylène Farmer. 2015 (1988). “Mylène Farmer – Pourvu Qu’Elles Soient Douces.”
Mylène Farmer. YouTube, Nov. 2.
Madonna. 2010 (1990). “Madonna – Vogue (Live at the MTV Awards 1990) [Official Video].”
Madonna. YouTube, Nov. 18.
Rondò Veneziano. 2023 (1983). “Rondò Veneziano – Rondò Veneziano – La Serenissima (1983).” Rondò Veneziano Italia (Fan club). YouTube, 2023.
This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:
B., Thomas. 2024. “Kickass Rococovid Kitsch: A Review of Disgraceful Proposals.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas et al. Helskinki: Ropecon ry.
Cover photo: From the photo shoot for the promotional music video. Photo by Kimera.