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Bonsart Bokel: Recreating the history that never was

Dutch Steampunk activist, blogger, writer, columnist, actor, model: Bonsart Bokel is the artistic pseudonym of a prominent figure in European steampunk scene Alex van Hoogstraten. He is the one behind the known series Steampunk: Beginners Guide and a set of stories Association of Ishtar, where Lovecraftian motives come through the prism of steampunk. Alex is also an inventor and creator, whose unique looks always generate attention, admiration and raise curiosity. His passion for the genre is not just a serious hobby, but it is a lifestyle, as can be clearly seen through his skillfully crafted YouTube videos and amazing home. Meet the man who made retro-futurism his life’s reality, recreating the history that never was!

Please introduce yourself and what you do. Who is Bonsart and where does he come from?

I am a Youtuber, writer and voice actor from the Netherlands and I make videos dedicated to the Steampunk subculture. I discuss topics on the genre, and media Steampunks enjoy. I also started working on a series of short stories called The Association of Ishtar. I grew up near the Europoort, but moved to Gelderland due to the crash of 2008. A wonderful happy accident.

I know you also operate under another character name, Lexicon. Please tell about him.

Dankaert A. H. J. Lexicon I originally created for my blog Tupperware Steampunk. He would go out and have conversations with personalities from the Dutch Steampunk-community. When I started Radio Retrofuture on Youtube he became the host of the Steampunk Beginners Guide.
For a long time he didn’t have a real story. All I knew was he was good at breaking and entering and because he was on the internet, I turned him in a kind of a cynical hacker.
Only last year I wrote his story for the Association of Ishtar where he is still a hacker of sorts, but more in the sense of being a communications specialist who broadcasts radio signals into the Multiverse. There he has founded a community called Arkology within the wreck of an ancient space station.

Link to the story 

What is a retro-future?

A word I made up when I started my Youtube channel, Radio Retrofuture, which is a reference to Retro Futurism. I didn’t want to pigeon hole myself by including Steampunk in the name. I find it an impractical label anyway.
Retro Futurism is when a piece media combines historical with futuristic concepts or references. Steampunk is Retro Futuristic in the sense in combines historical and classical science fiction tropes with modern pop culture.

You are involved in many projects, please tell about them in some detail. You also record awesome audiobooks. Who writes the stories for it? Please tell about them and some of the characters. 

I am not so much involved in projects as I am always working on several things at the same time. The first would be Radio Retrofuture, which is my main Youtube channel. There I have various series of videos. My most popular one is the Steampunk Beginners Guide, where I talk about basic concepts and various expressions of Steampunk, like its history and music. Some of the videos are collaborations with prominent members of the community.
Other series include ‘Steampunkish’ on media relevant to Steampunk, ‘Radio Retrofuture live!’ which has interviews with various creators and ‘Steampunk Music for Fallout’, which is a fictional radio station with a host who I wrote and voiced myself. The latter was a collaboration with Old World Radio, a game modification that adds various fan made radio stations to the video game Fallout 4.

On my second channel The Retrofuture Research Foundation I publish audio dramas. My current audio consists mostly of various works written by the SCP [Secure Contain & Protect, ed.] community, unrelated to Steampunk. SCP, or the SCP-foundation, is an online community of writers, which created thousands of Sci-fi and fantasy stories. It is therefore hard to explain what it is about. The main characters, if you can call them that, work for the SCP-Foundation which secures and contains all types of supernatural objects and threats to humanity. All these story represent a report made on each of these ‘SCP’s’, how these work and how their abilities can be contained.

Steampunkish - Why you should read The SCP Foundation

I recently started narrations of more famous works, like Dagon by H.P Lovecraft and The Black Stone by Robert E. Howard. Next story might be, The Colour Out of Space. In the future I also hope to do videos on my original works of fiction

What do you consider a success for any of your projects? For example, to score a publishing deal or to get so-many followers on YouTube, etc? What do you ultimately dream of accomplishing?

Success is relative thing. The Youtube channels are growing, slowly. Sometimes I meet somebody on social media who recognizes me from the Steampunk Beginners Guide or the Steampunk radio station or my SCP videos. I did some voicework for people I interviewed and sometimes I get interviewed by somebody else.
But if the question is, do I get approached for advertisements, receive fan mail or get cited or mentioned in other people’s articles, then the answer is “no”.
Do I get more attention that I thought I would ever get? Yes. In the past I didn’t think my channel would ever make 1000 subscribers, now I am approaching 3000 subscribers. Not a lot, but Steampunk is a niche that doesn’t get a lot of attention. The first episode of the Beginners Guide surpassed the 110.000 views.
My current aspiration is to make podcasts on the world of the Association of Ishtar. But I want to work on that with a team to keep the work manageable.  Also, I am exploring the possibilities of a book on the Association. I would like to see a community grow out of it. where people write Steampunk short stories to explore the Alternate History and sci-fi aspects of Steampunk. Unfortunately, I am terrible in public relations and marketing etc.

How did you first get involved in the scene?

Around 2010 I got into writing, and because of my love of both science fiction and history Steampunk was obviously my genre of choice. In 2012 I volunteered for Emporium Vernesque, a small event in Arnhem in the Netherlands. I already considered blogging, but that event convinced me to explore what Steampunk is.
During that time I was also a big fan of movie reviewers like the Nostalgia Critic and very early on. It took me a couple of years before I made the switch to Youtube.

What is steampunk to you personally?

For me Steampunk is a source of inspiration that has motivated me to educate myself on a number of topics. Writing, presentation, making youtube videos, voice acting, sound editing. Recently I started drawing and I could go on. All these things I learned because of my interests into this genre. It combines my love for history with my interests for science fiction. And Steampunk happens to enjoy that.

And how do you evaluate steampunk scene today? Do you see how it differs from country to country? What are your impressions compared to say, 10 years ago?

As far as I can tell Steampunk is still growing. Communities and groups come and go. It is very special a self grown movement has such international prominence. There are no media companies pushing Steampunk. It has all been achieved by the community itself. But there are no standout projects, with maybe the exception of the band Steam Powered Giraffe.
The most famous Steampunk inspired projects can be found are outside of the community. Frostpunk, about the 19th century plunging into an ice age, is a highly acclaimed game. Then there is They are Billions, Guns of Icarus and the 1920+ games like the board game Scythe and the upcoming Iron harvest on PC. But the subculture never capitalised on that success. In that regard Steampunk is considered to be just an aesthetic and nothing more.

As for the community, foreign Steampunks who come to the Netherlands often give us a lot of praise for the quality and nature of the events. It might be because of how the Dutch are very internationally minded. I for example haven’t watched Dutch media in years, with some exceptions. We are multilingual, etc. So, more different influences can come together. The German scene is very inspired by Goth. The United States is very closely linked with the Comicons and Cosplay. They also big Wild/Weird West influence. The British have their own British thing. But plenty of tropes are international. Like the use of plague masks, gears and brass.

One thing I noticed in the past three years, it was become to easy to buy Steampunk-inspired stuff. It really breaks the illusion when you recognize costumes that are available on Wish or appear in Ali-Baba advertisements. Especially among the people new to the subculture, I see the question, “where can I buy stuff,” rather than: “How do I make it.”

Maybe this has always been the case in the United States, because Steampunk over there developed within a convention culture among with Cosplay. In Europe, Steampunk developed from the fantasy fairs with, which used to be less focus on mainstream pop culture. Costumes used to be unique creations then. I remember a Kingon cosplayer from like 2008 at Elfia festival, because it was the only cosplayer on the premises. Now you have Deadpool galore. The last ten years or so the Mainstream Pop Culture related Cosplay is starting to take over. Elfia is probably the worst when it comes to being like another Pop Culture convention.

Not that this gets in the way of Steampunk, but the mentality that convention culture promotes seems detrimental to what Steampunk to me stands for. I notice among a lot of Americans who come over here complain that the European scene is superior to their own. If my observations are correct, I can understand where they are coming from.

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What do you feel is lacking in the alternative/steampunk scene today?

As from a social media point of view, it annoys me how Steampunk is being discussed. I am interested in what inspires writers, makers etc. Steampunk has no owners. Its aesthetic is the result of the collective works of the artists who are inspired by history, early science fiction, comic books, gothic and cosmic horror and the 19th-century romantics. Steampunks are like the antiquarians and conservationists of science fiction and pop culture.
The discussion, however, it often goes like this. “Hi, I like this, therefore I call it Steampunk and post it in this FB group.” Then some people will give it a like, or say how awesome it is, and that is it. There are no conversation of substance on Steampunk. One reason is that discussions in the past have become very toxic. A select group of people who claimed that Steampunk could only be done one way, and that was their way. So, people became afraid to have an opinion on what is or isn’t Steampunk. That is how the cliche, ”anything can be Steampunk”, came about. That is not constructive either.

Steampunk to me is a collection of ideas and sources of inspiration coming together in a story. In this case, stories from history combined with inspiration drawn from old pop culture melted in a unique, yet relatable, work of fiction.
What makes it interesting for me is to figure out where the elements, that are not supposed to fit together, come from. What makes it Steampunk? Yet all too often I see people just remark: “ah, that is Steampunk”, without further clarification as if that is the conclusion, not the question. This kills all discussion because either they respond with: “Um actually it is Steampunk”, as if that means anything. Or you disagree with that person’s definition of Steampunk all together, which is often taken as a personal attack. If you want to troll a Steampunker, just disagree with their definition.

And where do you see it going in the future?

As for the future, Steampunk is here to stay for the time being. Individual creators have a lot of success in their respective fields. Dystopia Argentia is doing great on Youtube. Iron Harvest is coming out in Autumn. The question is, can we expect breakout media that pop culture commentators can’t ignore? Hard to say. The current steampunk related franchises that made it big have their own dedicated communities. I don’t see those crossover.

It’s difficult to find steampunk bands, but possible to find steampunk-inspired music. What do you think?

I will cite my friend Montague Jacques Fromage, “There is no such thing as Steampunk music. Just music Steampunks like.” The music played within the community varies from Ragtime and Blue Grass to Metal and cabaret. Most bands I interviewed kind of ended up in the Steampunk scene by accident. There are bands that actually identify with Steampunk and have songs about characters you would find within the genre. So, I guess you could call those Steampunk bands.
As, for finding it. For my Steampunk Music for Fallout videos I managed to find a couple of dozen bands. Since then a number of new ones popped up. Also in the Japanese Visual-K scene there are at least two Steampunk themed bands.

The Steampunk Beginners Guide #6 - What is Steampunk Music? feat. The New Jacobin Club

In the steampunk and post-apocalyptic scenes, what are your favorite bands and acts that you’d recommend we go see live?

I am not big into the music, but I really like Off Limits from Germany.

You are very productive and resourceful! How do you find the time and energy to do so much?

By not doing much else.

What is inspiration to you?

I take my inspiration from many places. Especially Russian science fiction, stories like Metro 2033 and The Roadside Picnic, and the video games based on those. Warhammer 40.000 and Elfquest had a big influence in my youth. I also find social critics like Jordan Peterson and George Orwell very interesting. And of course historical personalities and societies, how people lived their lives and what motivated them. And finally there are myths and legends which I often use to serve as examples for antagonists.

Your home alone deserves a cover story (see interactive photo gallery above)! How did you make it like that? Did you grow up in something similar or where did your interior design ideas blossom from? Where did you find all the pieces, furnishings, deco, etc. to create such a unique but also practical living space?

My parents were very active around the house. My father build a significant part of the house where I grew up. My mother enjoyed antiques. I didn’t get into that stuff until much later.
Many of the ideas were economical and much of the stuff I made up as I went along. Paint is usually my first go to, because it allows you to change an atmosphere drastically with little effort.
My apartment for example has texture paint on the walls and to get rid of it would be very expensive. So, paneling was the only affordable option. One day I got a couple of friends together, drew up a plan, bought the materials and applied it to the wall. Well, the faux brickwork took a couple of evenings.

Your dress sense is also very unique and noticeable. How has it been formed and where do you draw ideas from?

Again winging it. I come across something I like and roll with it. I always wear New Rocks because they give my feet proper support while also looking amazing.

Where are good places to hunt for unique accessories and clothing parts that you can recommend?

I like thrift stores. Most of my stuff comes from those. The other source of much of our stuff is militaria specialists who sell old army equipment. And then there is the internet, with places like Ebay or other second hand websites.

In some of your outfits are vintage weaponry. Do you actually shoot and have some experience?

I never learned to shoot. Something I still want to try. I did do 14 years of reenactment and still practice martial arts.

Some of your other accessories are functioning phone-holders, and lots of other electronic bits with wires, etc. Does it all actually have a function and if so, who built it and how?

We try to make our costumes as real and/or practical as fiction, budget and rules allow. So we try to make our battery pack not just look ‘authentic’ but also in a way the characters in their fictional world could still use these in a practical sense. That is the reason we use military equipment often as a basis to work from. We are a rough and tumble lot so we attempt to use actual metal and leather to make our stuff durable and weather resistant. I may not look as fantastical, but we make up for it with immersion.
The Phone, for example, was a possible solution I was having while taking photos during conventions, but it was annoying digging in your costume to get my Samsung out, so we made it a part of the costume. Of course, people see there is a modern phone in there, but the way it was made by Rattle and Wheels onlookers want to believe it is real. It is kinda like the effect an illusionist creates. The onlooker knows it is fake, but at that moment, or when they look at a photo, they want to believe it is real.

In the board-gaming scene, who are your favorites? Any personal highlights of say, last half a year of releases?

I usually go for Alternate History, Cosmic Horror or Steampunk themes. I don’t really have favorite designers, although most games I own are published by Fantasy Flight Games. Currently, I am really enjoying Cthulhu Death May Die. I am still waiting for Reich Buster to arrive.

Is your day job in any way related to all your cool hobbies?

No, I am an Information manager and in between jobs right now.

What are the main challenges of the modern day blogger/vlogger?

Youtube does not promote niche topics like Steampunk. I also feel there is a hostility towards vloggers for some reason like I am not allowed to share my content in certain groups. That is annoying because being noticed is the biggest issue. I can clearly see what videos get promoted by Youtube and which not. So my only option is to share my stuff manually and asking people to share my videos.

Your famous camp can be seen around Europe during the festival season. Which events are you involved and what happens in your camp? Do you have a group or a team?

With corona on the horizon I am not so sure we’ll have a festival season. The first event has already been canceled. But this year we will be at both Annotopia’s in Germany.
I do have a theme group of sorts.
In 2014 I started RAG-TAG. A group of multidimensional soldiers. They never got a fully flashed out story but we did have a number of attractions, mostly for kids. One we did was a storm course with obstacles and toy guns. When I started Radio Retrofuture we created an outdoor cinema were people could watch movie classics and Steampunk short-movies. We also created a game called R.A.T. Racing. A racing track with remote controlled cars.
Now we are working on a new theme. Steampunk space scavengers. Hopefully we can debut this camp on Annotopia in May.

It is a small but dedicated group. I do mostly the story and management side of things, while others craft the complex props and camp stuff. We attempt to have at least one crafting day each month to share ideas and work on larger projects.

You are also developing a board game. Please tell more about it and where can we find it?

Developing is a big word. Just penning down ideas from time to time. I am exploring how I
could make a games about my fictional work of The Association of Ishtar. But to busy with other projects to work on it is any serious way.

As your followers, how can we support your work or even get involved in any of your projects?

The best way to support me would be to share my videos or stories. You can also support us on platforms like Subscribestar and Patreon. As for getting involved, we have a Discord community where I post most updates. Or theme groups could also use some more members, so if you enjoy my fiction and costumes you are welcome to join. I am always open to collaborations and I am looking for people who want to help producing a Podcast. Also the Association of Ishtar is open to story submissions.

Here are the links if you’d like to support us further:

Thank you for the interview!

Journalist – Marina Minkler
photo credits: Kees Stravers, Martin Hogebom, Fred Bervoets

GastmitarbeiterInnen / guest contributions

Regular guest contributors e.g. Melanie Kircher, Tatjana Tattis Murschel, Grit Kabiersch, Marina Minkler, Jasmine Frey, Maria Levin, Elvira Visser, Nina Ratavaara, John Wisniewski