To Whomever Finds This Note:
Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Words fail.
When I read those words from a suicide note from one of the people who died in Jonestown, I felt as if I was receiving validation from the universe in support of my art and all the hard work I had put into the show.
When most people learn about Jonestown, the most common reactions is that they “would never fall for that.” It is my contention that anyone of us would “fall for that,” at some time, given the right set of circumstances. My goal had always been to give a voice to those who died at Jonestown. I felt a kinship with them because I could understand the devotion to – and fear of – the leadership and the cause.
My first article for the jonestown report described the planning stages of an art installation titled Jonestown: What Flavor Are You Drinking? It was my first art exhibit and all very new to me, born out of my own emotional pain and healing from a physically and spiritually abusive past.
But it has been successful. As Dana Walker, director of the Trailer Box Project, which mounted the exhibit, described it:
Though the 1978 Jonestown mass murder was decades ago, the exhibit is incredibly timely. In today’s social media-driven society, it’s easy to find oneself living in an echo chamber of one’s own beliefs. Beneath the vivid colors and repetition in Houghtaling’s brilliant installation lies a significant question: how susceptible are we to indoctrination, and how do we protect ourselves? In Jonestown: What Flavor are You Drinking?, Houghtaling utilizes mixed media including resin, stamp carvings, and Flavor Aid packets to resolve her spiritually and physically abusive past through the lense of the Jonestown murders.
In addition to the art pieces, I was inspired to collaborate with a local artist, Malcolm Tent, to create a soundtrack for the exhibition, which included choir music, Jim Jones speaking and a raga created for the show. Tent had compiled some of the music by the Peoples Temple choir and excerpts from Jim Jones’ final exhortation to the crowd on November 18, and created “Raga Jonestown.” As he explains, “While compiling an anthology of music made at Peoples Temple in Jonestown, I came across a track that suffered from numerous recording defects. In attempting to correct them, I accidentally created the basic track for ‘Raga Jonestown.’” He continued to manipulate the basic track, from which emerged the finished raga. (A short video of the exhibition, including some of Tent’s raga, appears on youtube.)
“I have been to many art openings and people mostly stand around, talk with their friends, and eat cheese,” Tent added. “Never have I been to such an inspiring art exhibit before where the only discussions were about the art, and the subject matter.”
The combination of the visual art and the audio component made for a powerful show. Either of the elements could stand alone as art. However, when put together the impact of this powerful combination is undeniable. People were not only moved by the art and the impact of 918 resin-coated Flavor-Aid packets hanging in a 30-foot trailer, they were fascinated by the history because many of those in attendance were unaware of the history of Jonestown. Not only was the show moving and informative, the original mission I set out to accomplish was realized: it got people to stop and question their own beliefs, where they came from and should we just take things at face value.
Jonestown: What Flavor Are You Drinking? was also invited to Dusklit: Interactive Bazaar at the Seligmann Center at the Citizens Foundation, where more than 600 people attended the event.
(Beth Houghtaling is currently studying Holistic and Integrated Health at Western Connecticut State University and plans to pursue a career in Holistic Healing including art therapy. Plans are underway for another Jonestown: What Flavor Are You Drinking? show in 2018. She is open to all invitations to speak with groups and display her art. She can be reached at email@example.com.)