Big Car: Working toward a social practice masterpiece

Big Car's Tom Streit fights against strength in numbers during a community event at the Service Center.

"We liked things that were experimental and different, that we weren't seeing around here ...We wanted stuff that wasn't here. We wanted to make it happen."

That's Jim Walker talking to NUVO in 2011 about Big Car's early days. Those days were ten years ago now, down in Fountain Square. Back then you'd find your way into the Murphy Building and climb a couple of flights of bowed, creaky stairs, point yourself through one of that labyrinthine landmark's characteristically bruised passageways, and hope for the best.

Or, if not the best, then something wild.

What went on at Big Car in those days wasn't so much about judgment as what we'll call the three Es: Energy, Exuberance, and Enthusiasm, with, it should be noted, at least a whiff of the Exotic thrown in for good measure.

Indianapolis already had places where, if you wanted to experience art, the best (or a reasonable facsimile) was on offer. But these places, better known as institutions, favored people who already had a pretty good idea of what they wanted when it came to the arts, and that was work certified and branded with something like an institutional seal of approval.

Big Car had other plans. At a time when arts administrators seemed more than a little anxious over what to do about their aging, shrinking audiences, Big Car offered a remarkably good-natured suggestion, which was actually a kind of critique.

What Walker and his fellow-travelers in the fledgling Big Car collective wondered about, from their Murphy Building perch, was how those institutions ever hoped to attract newer, younger audiences if they weren't willing to make experiences available that those audiences might consider, well, fun.

Fun, according to Big Car, could be part of the creative deal.

And so an evening at Big Car might include a multi-media show playing across walls hung with pictures by tattoo or hot rod or burlesque artists, after which there might be a reading from randomly selected texts having to do with boys' (or girls') adventures and vintage sex and home repair manuals, accompanied by a live band, some of whose members had made the instruments themselves.

This is actually an over-elaborate way of saying that much of what went on at Big Car had less to do with curating (though there was that) than with being impresarios of the imagination. Big Car mixed it up, became a gallery that was also a live music venue that was also a venue for the occasional installation or live performance. On some nights it might seem a shambles, on others a party, and on still others, as its name implied, inspired transport.

Sure enough, Big Car gradually built an audience for itself. In the process, it also, as so many creative enterprises do, contributed to a previously derelict part of town. A neighborhood that had been seemingly amputated from the central city by a wayward superhighway became an avant-garde destination for a new generation.

But this was still Indianapolis, a city with an outsized need to know not just what art can be, but what it's for. In this, Indy turns out to be not that different from the rest of the country these days. It's just that it's been that way here for a very long time.

It didn't take long for the artists at Big Car to realize that what had started out as audience building was, seen from another angle, community building, too. From there it was a short stride to the realization that, in addition to experiences, the arts also represented creative processes, ways, that is, to solve problems, that might benefit people and the neighborhoods where they live.

This approach to artmaking is called "social practice." While in some quarters, social practice art might seem experimental to the point of blurring lines between the arts and social work, this approach looks like common sense in Indianapolis. It gets people outside, doing and making things. It finds untapped potential and turns it into public value.

Just as important, it flips an all-too-tiresome form of social calculus. Where, traditionally, artists and arts organizations have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to go to communities to ask for financial support, social practice art places artists in positions where they are able to use their expertise to help support communities.

Although Indianapolis is not a city known for supporting the arts, its support for Big Car's social practice approach has been phenomenal. At times it can seem as if Big Car has turned into the city's collective camp counselor, proffering a virtually inexhaustible supply of activities for all ages.

But while fun remains a key to understanding Big Car's motives and attraction, its level of ambition and potential impact have grown. The leap from Fountain Square to Lafayette Square added an exponentially greater degree of social complexity to Big Car's mission. And questions: What, exactly, are the political implications of this work? At what point does the social practice of community enrichment evolve into real community empowerment?

Nobody knows what the equivalent of a social practice masterpiece might look or feel like in Indianapolis yet. Ten years on, Big Car seems by far the best way the city has of getting there.

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