Nick Bontrager is an interdisciplinary artist whose work and research explores the physical and conceptual nature of the moving image, game-based interactions and exchanges, and the idea of replicas or facsimiles as tools of preservation or understanding.

For the OJAC’s Cell Series, Bontrager has conceived of an installation of his work based on a U.S. Army field manual titled FM 21-76 Survival. Published in 1957, the intent of the manual was to provide basic techniques to enable soldiers to survive harsh conditions. One of Bontrager’s interests in this particular publication is the hand-drawn images and their associated proximity to the era of the Vietnam War and America’s counter-culture movement of the 1960s. His installation of imagery, films, and objects will employ display techniques normally associated with science and history museums to allow viewers to “contemplate how our contemporary culture attributes a narrative or historical importance to objects and imagery.”

The 2019 Cell Series is generously supported by McGinnis Family Fund of Communities of Texas in loving memory of Juli Weida McGinnis, 1941-2018, Kathy Webster in memory of Charles H. Webster, Barbra & Jay Clack, Susie & Joe Clack, Jenny & Rob Dupree, Patrick & Amy Kelly and The Moody Foundation.


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Patrick Kelly, OJAC Executive Director & Curator email interview with Nick Bontrager

PK: I want to start out by asking you to define “new media” since this is an area in which you teach and specialize.

NB: "New Media" is a problematic categorization within the arts, but I do see the necessity and/or desire to group artwork that is challenging to access or may have features that are unlike artwork a viewer has seen before. I have often described my understanding of "new media" as a fusion of traditional studio methods and concepts with emerging technologies or conversations. There are many phrases that will convey this type of making without a clear agreed-upon standard: digital art, cyberart, intermedia, expanded cinema, transmedia, art & technology, net art, electronic art, and many others. With my formal training in analog photography, I can also see how the connection to lens-based artwork, filmmaking, magic lantern shows, daguerreotypes, and other forms were once considered "new media" but perhaps without the aggregate noun.

With my students, I strive to show them that an emerging technology like 3D printing should be thought of just like a hammer in their toolbox. It has a particular use, was engineered for a specific type of material manipulation, but may not always be the best solution. New tools and technology often come with a sleek and delicate exterior; I am quick to augment or "dirty" these surfaces to allow my students to feel as if they can take a risk when learning how to incorporate these methods into their artistic practice. No one wants to be the first person to scratch a new car, but they may not feel as bad if the car already has a faded sticker and peeling paint.

PK: Along this same line of thought...in the hands of many artists, the use of a new media often seems too focused on the unique look and product. (I’m thinking video art of the 1980s.) The result is work that does not “age” well due to a lack of conceptual depth. How do youtemper your own enthusiasm for a new and exciting media and allow it to simply be a tool?

NB: This is a daily contemplation and struggle that I have learned to embrace in my studio. I often watch video art of the 1980s as this wonderful example of media play as the limits are poked and prodded with a new tool for the first time. I only wish we had a similar visual capture of the first time marks were made in stone or of pigment being applied to a surface. Rather than tempering my own enthusiasm for a new media or tool, I attempt to elevate the existing tools in my studio to see them with the same awe and urge to test the limits and boundaries they may have. This will often result in my “new tools” finding their way to the back of a shelf or bottom of a toolbox in favor of something that has been overlooked or underrepresented in my studio.

PK: Do you recall the first “new media” you encountered that you employed in making art? What were the results?

NB: My childhood summers were dominated by the ability to bring home THE computer that was used at the school where my mother taught Kindergarten. It was an Apple IIe and I spent an unfathomable amount of time in my bedroom playing games and using the most basic programming tools to draw digital lines and shapes. I owe this digital exploration to my mother’s constant encouragement and excitement to see what I had made or attempted to make on this new tool. She even enrolled me in summer programming classes where I used BASIC and Pascal languages to create animations as I pursued this interest. This path led me to an early connection with digital imaging and pushing the limits of the available tools in the late 1990s, ultimately spending an entire summer’s amount of earnings on a 3.2megapixel camera (equivalent to the iPhone 4).

I have an extremely vivid memory of encountering Paul Slocum’s Dot Matrix Synthin 2003 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (http://www.qotile.net/dotmatrix.html). I had experienced interactive devices in gaming and department stores quite often, but this was the first example that I can recall of being urged to touch and engage with the object in a contemporary arts space. I spent an entire afternoon with this work, even sending a very long email to the artist with questions (both technical and conceptual). His reply was unexpected, long, and thoughtful. Again, a majority of my experiences in museums until that point had been with dead artists or ones that might not reply so quickly to a young admirer.

PK: That answer spawns many others. How do you think that particular work still holds up? I ask that while thinking of Rrose Sélavy’s (aka Marcel Duchamp) Anémic Cinémafilms of the 1920s. Do I love them because they are his, they spawn nostalgia, or they truly hold up as great works of art? I guess the same can be asked about many dead artists’ works hanging in museums.  

NB: That particular work (Slocum’s Dot Matrix Synth) holds up for me in a few ways: the aesthetics of exposed technology and conversion of office productivity equipment to musical instrument, the nostalgia of both the materials used in the work but also a technically rich artifact that was created at the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0), and the pleasure of seeing an artists’ tool shown in the context of contemporary art. It blurred the lines between raw materials, found objects, rebirth, appropriation, and cyberpunk aesthetics for me when I first saw it in person and continues to do so now.

Anémic Cinéma is a great connection to the path that the work can take through prototyping, conception, production, and failure/success. In the same way that Slocum’s work was so difficult to evaluate or place in the timeline of art history, Anémic Cinéma had the same result only because I learned of its existence after seeing so many works that emulated it.

PK: I guess the audience has to “catch up” to the artists in some cases. Maybe some works need some distance to be fully appreciated. Would you tell about the source material utilized in the creation of works for your Survivalinstallation? 

NB: The source material for Survival initially started when I purchased an October 1957 Army field manual at a used bookstore in the mid-2000s. I was enamored with the seamless transitions in the text between pragmatic instruction, didactic illustrations, and historical storytelling. This manual became a staple of my studio bookshelf along with first aid manuals, airline safety brochures, hotel sewing kits, and other found imagery in the “for appropriation/incorporation” bin. This particular text has surfaced many times in my practice as source material, but also as an impetus for research into instructional publications and archive imagery related to the stories and examples used in the writing. In deciding how to appropriately share how I see this object, methods have included: making my own version of the manual, making a companion book to pair the possible origins of the text with the original, remaking the objects within to find out more about the mindset and gravitas they require/command, or attempts to identify and credit the original artists behind the illustrations that first attracted me to the manual.

Our research librarians at Texas Christian University have been extremely helpful in the past few years with governmental information requests, rare books acquisitions, and tracking down photographs and documents with me in the Library of Congress. These supporting documents and research items have helped to provide a deeper context of both who was writing and publishing this manual and what impact it had on warfare, culture, and future publications.

 PK: What do you want (or anticipate) visitors to “take away” from the Survivalinstallation and individual works? Are your motivations in creating the works transferable to the viewer?

NB: I hope that the works will inspire epistemological interest from the visitors and start or continue a conversation about the didacticism that these artifacts and objects capture for me. Accessibility to these topics is challenging. By placing these new artworks in proximity to original documents and photographs, context will provide one possible series of connections for the visitors. To know if my motivation in creating the works is transferable, I would need to pin down the ever-shifting target of curiosity and interest that I mentioned earlier. In packing up these objects in my studio, the line is continually blurred between artwork, artifact, and ephemera. The OJAC’s jail structure is a challenging space to bring this work to given its varied history and transition from a point of imprisonment to one of constant flux. I do not intend to discount or comment on the history of the building by re-contextualizing constructions of binding, trapping, evasion, and escape, but the materials and volume of the space cannot help but contrast with the vast Texas landscape just outside of the limestone walls.