Bliss, Idaho is a town of about 300 people, close to the Snake River. Jon Horvath was intrigued by the town’s idyllic name while passing through the state, and in the summer of 2013, he followed the road signs and ended up talking to a resident about the place and its history. The encounter inspired Horvath’s ongoing multimedia project “This is Bliss,” which takes the town and its residents as a jumping off point for exploring the overlapping mythologies of the American West and the pursuit of happiness. Among the parts of the project, Horvath created a multi-channel video of the sun setting in different locations around town, and a video recording a drive down a dirt road on a dark night. Other parts involve the town’s residents—Horvath melted down the bottle from his first beer ever, consumed in the Bliss Saloon, and formed it into a glass slipper, in honor of the name of the bartender, Cndrlla, who served it to him. Other parts of the project include photographs of the towns residents and the places they have introduced Horvath to. Horvath tells PDN about the project in an edited email interview.
PDN: There is a sort of open-ended feeling of inquiry that comes with the project, as if each component is an attempt to get at some truth about the place or your ideas. Were there particular ideas you wanted to explore in the still photographs?
Jon Horvath: My original intention when visiting Bliss was to remain open to the project evolving organically. I went with the simple prompt to seek out a better understanding of different pathways towards happiness, how local residents might come to define that individually, and also how that is observed in grander ways within a region of the country that is rich in reflecting the complicated narrative of Manifest Destiny and American Idealism. Allusions to the broader history of Bliss and its surrounding region are handled within other parts of the project. With the photographs, I was primarily concentrating on the current condition of the town and its approximately 300 residents. I photographed a number of individuals who might traditionally be associated with a path towards happiness: the pastor of the church, the prom queen and king, the bartender at the Bliss Saloon, as well as many others. I also looked at the town itself, situated on the banks of the Snake River and a stop on the Oregon Trail, which is now mostly a hop-on-hop-off stop for drivers to get gas since the construction of I-84 directed traffic away from town. Much of the local industry was negatively affected at the time, so that provided a complicated backdrop for a project about happiness and idealism.
Since the broader Bliss project grows into a narrative about my personal encounters and experiences in town (to the point where I make occasional appearances within the work), the Bliss that is represented in the pictures reflects what I was introduced to by the residents themselves, who were always supportive and excited to show me around. I’ve visited Bliss on five separate occasions and there are photographs from each of those trips included in the project.
PDN: Your images seem to avoid being documentary. How did you decide what to photograph, and what to include in the final edit? Were there things you avoided photographing, to stay away from making a more documentary project?
JH: I was never really interested in attempting to tell a definitive story of Bliss. Mostly because, as an outsider, I don’t believe that is my story to tell. More so, I went to Bliss as an individual seeking an experience, welcoming a connection with new people, and trying to gather a deeper understanding of how we come to define our personal ideals. I shot my first gun with a local resident in the desert, I allowed for the pastor of the church to pray for me (as a non-religious individual), and I drank the first beer of my life in the Bliss Saloon, which was delivered to me be a bartender named Cndrlla, making the experience all the more memorable. So, the photographs contribute to establishing a backdrop and a framework for a project that comes to be more of a short story based on real events than a documentary work. The pictures serve to introduce the people and places that factored in to those experiences, as well as embrace small symbolic moments encountered along the way. There wasn’t anything I avoided photographing, but working within more of a literary mindset allowed me the freedom to abandon some of the more archetypical documentary shots.
PDN: What have been some of the challenges of the project? Are you still working on the Project? What has the reaction to the work been like from the town’s residents?
JH: As an artist (and a little bit of an introvert) who had not previously attempted to make work by engaging with a new community of people, I thought the biggest challenge was going to be establishing a connection with the people of Bliss to the point where they’d take interest in the project. However, I had nothing but positive and welcoming experiences from my first day in town. Those experiences have actually led to the project expanding in ways that I had never imagined, even including some small collaborative works with the residents. So, the new challenge is distilling the many different parts of the project down to a coherent and manageable narrative. One thing I’m regularly experimenting with is how different iterations of the Bliss exhibitions can concentrate on different aspects of that broader narrative, allowing for the project to become flexible and embrace various forms. I’m in the stages of finalizing the project now, with just a small number of pieces yet to complete by early to mid-2017. I’m hopeful to then begin exhibiting the work on a broader scale and certainly within reach of Bliss, so that the residents have the opportunity to see it in person. They continue to be supportive of the project and welcoming at all times and I’m looking forward to sharing it with them when it’s complete.