The Health Club, 2016. Multi-Media Installation. Approximately 1400 Sq. Ft.
JACK O'HEARN seeks to amplify the social aspects of art
viewing and art-making in site-specific, interactive installations. He
reinvigorates abandoned spaces through nostalgia, carpentry, make-shift
decoration and social exchange. With the aid of The Birdsell Project, Jack completed The Office (2014) in an abandoned mansion and The Camper (2015), a mobile installation which has been exhibited at Art Beat (South Bend, Indiana)_, The Fuller Projects at Indiana University (Bloomington) and ArtPrize 7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan). Most recently he built The Health Club
(2016), an abandoned health club turned community center. The closing
reception is planned for October 15, 2016, and an additional concert is
booked for November 6, 2016. Learn about upcoming events by following
the The Health Club on Facebook.
Jack earned his BFA (2005) from Lesley University (Cambridge,
Massachusetts) and an MA (2012) and an MFA (2013) from University of
Wisconsin, Madison. Jack lives and works in South Bend, Indiana.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What role does nostalgia play in your work?
Jack O’Hearn: Nostalgia has this universal quality that can work really well at breaking down social barriers because the history of interior and product design are fairly consistent across a broad demographic, at least within a given country or region. My objects and materials are chosen based on personal nostalgic experiences, and I use them to create environments that I have a longing for and that I thoroughly enjoy spending time in. At first it might seem like a longing for the past, but it actually comes from of desire for a better present. I want to create unique experiences that connect people socially, and nostalgia proves very useful for this. People relate to each other immediately upon entering a nostalgic space. I enjoy spending a lot of time at my installations, meeting people and hearing their stories.
The Office, 2014. Multi-Media Installation. 10' x 10' x 16'
OPP: There is a glaring absence of the digital in each of your
installations. When technology is present, it is in the form of analog
television sets of an earlier era. There are no computers and no
hand-held devices. Are these installations memorials to the pre-internet
JO: The lack of computers or hand held devices in my work is mostly due to the era of my childhood. I’ve used televisions, VHS players, portable radios and old video games, but I’ve also used hidden mp3 & dvd players that have remained invisible and unknown to visitors. I like to see visitors using their phones to text or snap photos and consider those actions a part of the piece. I think hand-held devices are part of the social fabric of our society at this point. My newest work has an mp3 hook up so visitors can share their music on the stereo to listen or dance to.
The Camper, 2015. Multi-Media Installation.
OPP: I’m thinking about the words “salvage” and “scavenge” in
relation to your practice, both as processes and as subject matter. How
and where do you source the objects and materials for your
JO: Home improvement stores are the most frequented. It was a good day when I discovered that most of these stores carry the same wood paneling that was so popular in the 70s and 80s. That stuff really brings me back and I’ve used it a lot. I feel very comfortable with most construction materials because I was trained as a third generation tile setter. I always enjoyed the work, but hated doing it everyday without much creativity involved. I appreciated the craft, but would often be thinking about decorating or redesigning the bathrooms and kitchens I was working in.
If I’m looking for something specific I’ll shop online. For instance, for The Office I knew I wanted the Bob James album Touchdown, which featured the theme song to the 70s sitcom Taxi. That album, which was on frequent rotation as part of the installation, really captured the mood and feeling of a home office set in the late 70s or early 80s. I also frequent estate sales. Walking into a random person’s house and seeing a piece of their life left behind is fairly similar to my experience with a work of art. It really excites my imagination, and there’s also the fun of treasure hunting that goes with it.
Contact, 2013. Mixed Media Installation. Dimensions Variable.
OPP: Looking back to earlier work, New Town and Contact
were distinct spaces built within traditional galleries. Even while
empty, they implied human habitation. Could people enter these
installations or were they unoccupied tableaux?
JO: Yes to both. Viewers could enter but weren’t encouraged to touch anything. Contact was my first installation and my graduate thesis exhibit. It was included in a thematic show alongside a group of paintings, but it actually marked my departure from paint. That installation was still very two-dimensional and was meant to be viewed like a painting, just eliminating the window effect. A friend of mine at the time commented that I was approaching installation art as a painter because I was more focused with arranging color on the walls. I was fine with that, but was intrigued to venture into space a little more.
New Town was a four-walled enclosure with a small entrance. Visitors could enter into it, but it wasn’t interactive in any way. Everything had it’s place and I wasn’t ready to allow visitors to disrupt that. As I moved on, I became more interested in visitor interaction and letting go of the idea that a work of art needed to be precious or unalterable.
Salvage Design, 2012. Wood, Screws, and Various Objects. 60" x 72" x 36."
OPP: Can you say more about the social aspects, which
seem to be growing more significant in recent installations, of the
temporary spaces you make?
JO: I’m really interested in finding ways to break down barriers between the viewer/visitor and the work of art. I try to design environments that generate social interaction on their own so there isn’t a very directed course of action for visitors other than to relax and enjoy one’s self. It can be a challenge just to get visitors to accept this and feel at home in a work of art. Children do it naturally because they want to touch things and are always looking for something to play with. They’re less conscious that they’re in a work of art. If I notice an adult stopping a child from touching things, I’ll tell them that everything is meant to be used or touched. This eases a lot of the tension involved in approaching a work of art and also makes for a more communal experience, and connecting people is my main goal. There can also be more solitary experiences within a social environment, like when I’m working on a laptop with my headphones at a bar or cafe. I’m trying to create spaces where people can feel comfortable in the presence of others and I keep discovering new aspects to that. Social interaction has become just as important to me as any visual aspect. With my new work, I don’t really see its completion until the social aspects take shape.
For my latest installation, I solicited help from several community volunteers. They took part physically and creatively, learning design principles and how to safely use power tools. I hope to build on this and create more opportunities for creativity in the communities I’m working in.
The Camper, 2015. Multi-Media Installation.
OPP: What keeps you working with the Birdsell Project, a
unique residency in South Bend, Indiana? Has this particular opportunity
changed the direction of your practice?
JO: I first got to know the cofounders, Myles Robertson and Nalani Stolz during their first exhibition at The Birdsell Mansion. When they opened the long-abandoned mansion to the public, word spread quickly. It caught the attention of local media outlets and experienced an incredible turn out from the community. That’s when the Birdsell Project was born, with the mission of opening underutilized property to the public by hosting cultural events. I created The Office for that show, which was my fourth installation and my first time allowing unrestricted visitor interaction. Towards the end of the exhibition, Myles approached me about creating a site-specific installation with an old motorhome, which would travel to various locations. It seemed like a natural next step, and The Camper generated a lot of memorable experiences. I was able to meet and talk with such a large and diverse range of people through that project.
The three of us share fairly similar ideas about art and community, which has led to a great professional relationship as well as a close friendship. The Birdsell Project was exactly what I was looking for after graduate school, even though I was not fully aware of it. I feel very fortunate that our paths have met.
The Health Club, 2016. Multi-Media Installation. Approximately 1400 Sq. Ft.
OPP: Tell us about The Health Club, which opened in August 2016. What was your vision? And how have viewers/participants been responding?
JO: The Health Club is both an art installation and multi-purpose venue that was created for The Birdsell Project’s Summer Residency. It utilizes the men’s locker room of an abandoned health and fitness facility, which is located in the basement of an historic building in downtown South Bend. I wanted to transform the space into something functional that would be a lasting contributor to the city’s cultural activity. The vision was to create an inclusive and positive environment that promotes well being through acts of generosity, creativity and play. When visitors step inside The Health Club they’re presented with an atmosphere very similar to a children’s fort or clubhouse, although some visitors have mentioned that it brings back memories of their grandparent’s basement or attic. The point is that the nostalgia of a child’s clubhouse is much more universal than recreating a specific time period such as with my previous work. It’s something that transcends age, class and gender.
The space features a performance stage as well as an art room that’s stocked with art supplies and whose walls are painted entirely with chalkboard paint. Visitors are welcome to use the stage or make art to take home or leave behind. There is also a stockpile of board games throughout the space that visitors can play. Another feature, which has been very successful, is the donation collection bin. Visitors are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items, which are eventually transported to a local collection center.
The Birdsell Project will be able to use The Health Club indefinitely as a venue for concerts and events to help raise funds for future endeavors. I’m currently applying for grants to help expand the space to include extra rooms, a full working restroom as well as house instruments and visual/audio equipment, all of which will allow for greater capacity and versatility. As of now, it has hosted the opening reception for the Birdsell Project Residency Exhibition, weekend open hours and several community meetings.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia created site-responsive installations for two-person show Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Her work was recently included in SHOWROOM, curated by Edra Soto, at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Stacia is currently preparing for a two-person show with Brent Fogt at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) and a solo show at Indianapolis Arts Center in Indiana.