Jon Henry Engaging the Community

A student in the M.F.A. program at James Madison University, Jon Henry is at VCCA on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts supporting artists whose practice is community based, socially engaged or relational. At JMU, Jon’s under the aegis of the sculpture department, “Which is nice,” he says. “Because I use Joseph Beuys’ ideas of social sculpture as my launching point.”

Jon has been working on two community based projects while in residence. The first, Communi-Tea is ongoing throughout his stay. The second. took place on Friday December 3. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, Jon walked around the Amherst traffic circle against the traffic flow while listening to Cher’s “If I could Turn Back Time” on repeat.

“With socially engaged art there’s a big issue about documentation,” says Jon. “Usually people just choose to photograph it. Over this residency, I’ve been exploring other ways to document socially engaged art and performances. In the walking piece for example, I decided to use my cell phone’s GPS to track myself—in theory I’ll be drawing a circle. VCCA Fellow, filmmaker Terence Nance (also on an NEA fellowship supporting a community based, socially engaged visual artist) made a GIF of Jon walking (above). This has particular resonance as a GIF repeats ad nauseum, which is exactly what Jon was doing all day long.

Inspired in part by Amherst’s “weird traffic history”, the performance piece uses ritual, meditation, and exercise for the exploration of memory. It was also intended to be participatory with curious onlookers invited to join Jon in a circuit or two.

The piece came out of Jon’s exploration of Amherst. “I went around town my first week here and talked to different people. This is something I do in my practice when I’m in a new community. I ended up at the historical museum and I learned that the traffic circle is the oldest one in Virginia. It was created before Amherst had electricity and so the town couldn’t have a traffic light.” Jon also learned that Amherst County is the only county that still uses cement obelisks for mile markers.

For the Communi-Tea project, Jon placed fliers around Amherst, and took out an ad on Craigslist inviting people to have tea with him. The idea was to meet them on their turf, so they’d feel more comfortable. The Amherst McDonald’s, which has a McCafe and was what came up when Jon Googled “Coffee Amherst” is his preferred venue.

“I meet with people over tea and I have them fill out some personal info and then I take notes about what we talk about; that becomes the object we make together. I call it printmaking—they get the carbon copy of the notes and I keep the original, so it’s like editions.”

The questions are basic, get-to-know-you questions. The conversation part, the key prompts that he asks people are things like: why do you live here? What would you need more of to stay here?

Jon uses his tea get togethers as the departure point to delve into people’s personal history. “There’s a lot of hiddenness there before you get to the real point. I am hoping to use this as a prototype project for future community organizing projects, a lot of which are in the rural South,” he says. “I’m particularly interested in finding the stories of people of color and queer people.” Traditionally, these groups have made the move to urban centers. Jon wants to produce a document to present to local government that will aid them in determining what people really want and what it would take to retain them.

“Listening and dialogue are a centerpiece of my practice. I learn about related things, objects or performances through conversations. The social practice becomes like research for making and inspiring future projects. It also usually creates a feedback loop for another project. The idea is that these individual objects or the performances will lead people back into the social projects. Hopefully people will see me walking and will yell ‘What are you doing’ and I can answer ‘Do you want to have tea?’”

Jon has had tea with all the other Fellows he’s overlapped with. This has helped him to work out the kinks and fine tune the conversational aspect of the project. There’s an art and performance to it that goes beyond the questions and answers.

In addition to the performance pieces, Jon was also making assemblages with Googley eyes using them to create a figure on a slab of wood. “A lot my visual practice is kind of campy, using craft materials like Googley eyes and also glitter and figuring out what to do with them. Some pieces are jokes about art history. The way I use the Googley eyes references pointillism for instance.” He originally was drawn to them because of the noise they make when shaken, but now he’s interested in ‘the gaze’—people staring at each other and the objectification of the body.
Jon is also working on two upcoming participatory installation\performance projects. Teach Me Your Middle Name and a yet as untitled one that centers around currency. For the former, Jon will be asking “Folks to teach me to say their middle name, but to do so, they will have to readjust my tongue in order to make the sounds of their name. I won’t actually know their name, it's more a guess based upon the sounds in my mouth.”

The piece deals with issues of intimacy: we rarely tell each other our middle names and furthermore the intrusion of a hand into someone else's mouth is a profoundly intimate act that crosses all sorts of boundaries. Jon will be wearing a plastic dental device that keeps his mouth open and the participants will be wearing latex gloves. The project was inspired by Jon’s experiences with speech therapy he had as a child.

Jon is putting together a proposal with the arts council and bureau of economic development in Harrisonburg, Virginia where he lives. Slated for April 2016, the idea behind it is “to get weirder currency used in town, to use money itself to advertise the local businesses.” These will all be issued 50-cent pieces for their cash drawers so they become part of the normal circulation in the town. “Because they don’t fit into slots and things," says Jon. “These coins have fallen out of circulation, but they’re totally legal tender and they still mint them. Right now, they’re only used at horse tracks and on certain toll roads.”

The 50-cent coins strike chords within people stirring up long forgotten memories. “A store I worked at used them,” says Jon. “And I was struck by people’s reactions when they received them as change: Wow I haven’t seen these in so long… Remember when…etc. I’m interested in how money can trigger memory. With regular money you don’t have any memory because it’s so common, but with unusual currency there’s a powerful response. We got a lot of customers requesting them to give their kids when they lost teeth. This led to a marketing campaign at the store and other stores started using them. That’s where I got the idea for this project.”

Other aspects surrounding this project will include an economist talking about currency and an artist’s talk or a panel talking about their experiences with 50-cent pieces. Jon is also trying to get one of the local banks to exchange more common notes and coins for $2 dollar bills, 50-cent pieces and Susan B. Anthony dollars.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Jon is also working on an artist’s book Glitter Studies and publishes a magazine: Slag Mag.


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