Just about everything is left to chance at Big Car Collaborative's 10th anniversary show, through Sept. 26 at UIndy's Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center Gallery, with a reception Sept. 10. Within certain parameters, that is. You can draw what you think Bigfoot looks like. Play the Surrealist writing game Exquisite Corpse. Make your own "drift dice" (where the idea is to carry the dice with you on a walk and follow the results of each roll, from "talk" to "stop" to "draw"). Like just about everything Big Car does these days, the show is about collaboration and interactivity, with enough prompts and help along the way to encourage the hesitant to get over their anxieties. And like in an alternate reality Jimmy John's, there's a road sign on the gallery wall that reads, "It's OK to try new things."
But labels and wall text won't suffice to initiate the newcomer to this show, so it's no accident that a Big Car rep is on site when I show up to look around. Working the floor is Tom Streit, Big Car's staff artist and one of the key people behind the organization's transition from Fountain Square-based art space to city-wide, social practice non-profit. "Most people have the same reaction when they walk in," he says to me as I freeze, a bit overwhelmed, and decide on a plan of attack. But before I take him up on his offer of a tour, I'd better get this four-paragraph primer out of the way, because we couldn't make it any shorter and because Big Car has done a ton of work in the last decade. Feel free to skip if you're a Big Car expert:
A Big Car primer
Big Car was founded in 2004 by a collective of artists, led by now-executive director Jim Walker, who wanted to establish, as copy for the 10th anniversary show has it, "a venue for experimental and surrealist art and performances." (Collective members helped to start Masterpiece in a Day in 2002 and were doing projects in Fountain Square from 2000, but for "simplicity's sake," says Walker, Big Car dates its founding from 2004.) The name comes from the Robert Creeley poem "I Know a Man": "As I said to my friend ... the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big car." Big Car hosted its first show in what would become its Murphy Arts Center headquarters in spring 2005. It wasn't hugely attended, but it did find Russian visitors dancing to Prince songs — and calling that a success, Big Car secured the space on a permanent basis. Over the next seven years, the Big Car Gallery hosted a variety of programming, including art openings on First Fridays, concerts, readings, film screenings and performance art. It helped to establish the Murphy as a hive of creative activity and encouraged growth in Fountain Square.
Big Car began to head in a different direction in 2008, when it received a $50,000 grant to fund Made for Each Other, a series of eight social practice projects designed to address needs in different Indianapolis neighborhoods. ("Social practice" is a nebulous term: A slightly flustered New York Times has defined it as "a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system," but for our purposes, one of Big Car's taglines will suffice, "We bring art to people and people to art.") And when Portland, Oregon-based social practice professor Harrell Fletcher suggested during a stop in Indy that artists ought to work in underserved communities such as Lafayette Square, Big Car took him up on his challenge, moving into an abandoned Firestone tire garage on the outskirts of Lafayette Square Mall in 2011. Called the Service Center, it included an urban garden (out front in the parking lot), a flexible workspace (the un-renovated garage area) and a semi-renovated "showroom" space that hosted all manner of cultural programming. Big Car was forced to move across 38th Street into a smaller strip mall space after its lease ran out on the Service Center earlier this year; its new Lafayette Square (or International Marketplace) locations, a multi-purpose gathering space (Show Room) and a sound art laboratory (Listen Hear), will officially open Oct. 1.
Beyond maintaining those event spaces, Big Car has also launched or partnered on an almost bewildering variety of projects and events, from Better Blocks (which finds neighborhood members "rebuilding" a city block for a day by putting up temporary businesses, bike lanes, lighting and so on) to the Lilly Global Day of Service (involving employees in creating sometimes complicated murals), from the 48 Hour Film Project to an adult soccer league — plus even more spaces it can call its own, such as recently opened Galeria Magnifica, an art gallery located inside Superior Market and Taqueria on the Far Eastside. And what's next? There's the aforementioned Show Room opening, followed by the first-ever Art in Odd Places, Oct. 17-18, which will find music, dance, performance art, installations and other site-specific fun occupying Market Street, starting from Monument Circle.
Big Car was operating off $30,000-50,000 a year when it received its first substantial grant of $50,000 in 2008. Since then, growth has been swift. Its budget last year was $800,000 and it currently employs five people on a full-time basis (contrast that with an entirely volunteer staff in 2008), three more
full-timers through AmeriCorps who will start this fall, plus three part-timers. In 2011, it established a fee-for-service model for design work that has given the organization more financial stability. Walker says Big Car's volunteer base numbers "several hundred," and its board includes both recent appointees and founding members. And to close out Big Car 101, we should head to the mission statement: "As an adaptive and flexible cultural organization, Big Car draws together people of all backgrounds to promote and perpetuate creativity, invigorate public places, and support better neighborhoods. Big Car is a creative community builder working to boost urban livability from an engagement-based arts and design perspective."
Guard the box
End primer. Let's get back to Big Car, No Brakes: 10 Years of Creating Vibrant Collisions. The show is divided into 10 clusters or sections that tell key parts of the Big Car story. Our first stop is at the section devoted to Big Car Gallery, where a fridge that provided many a cold beer to patrons is one of the artifacts on display.
Cluster two is devoted to Made for Each Other — and it's at this point in the timeline, in 2008, that Streit, now one of Big Car's five full-timers, got seriously involved with Big Car. He wanted to do the kind of public art that isn't just about physical objects or sculpture and is motivated by the desires and needs of community members. It didn't take long for him to get thoroughly immersed in all things Big Car, and the rewards weren't long in coming either: "Who would have thought that making art with people would be so great?" he says.
I'll confess that I'm not stopping to do any of the activities as we walk through the show. Am I a party-pooper or objective journalist? You make the call. But Streit manages to involve me in at least one game when we get to the section devoted to Fluxus, or Big Car's campaign to perform 2011 Fluxus scores in the year 2011.
Oh, hell, we need to define our terms again: the post-Surrealist art movement Fluxus, active from the early '60s through the late '70s, sought to "purge the world of bourgeois sickness, 'intellectual,'
professional and commercialized culture," according to a 1963 manifesto. And sometimes that purgation was achieved via Fluxconcerts, where the repertoire consisted of "event scores" that were comprised not of musical notes but of instructions such as "Sing meaningfully in a language made up on the spot" or "In a closed room pass over 2 hours in silence."
End mini-Fluxus primer. Because it's at this point that Streit casually points out that he happens to be standing in a taped-off square — and that, as it happens, one Fluxus score calls for a person to, quite simply, "guard a square." So I tiptoe in. Streit gives me a light shove. I consider making a little more aggressive attack. Then decide against it, seeing as Streit also holds Big Car's official title of "builder" and could probably take me. And if he wants to have the box, I'm cool with that.
The way Streit gracefully and playfully threaded that game in the middle of our conversation/interview is part of Big Car's ethos: to short-circuit routinized, everyday life in the nicest possible way; to motivate those who wouldn't otherwise give themselves license to draw or write or dance to connect or reconnect with those creative parts of themselves; to prime the imagination by showing that there may be other realities than this one. And Fluxus is a powerful and gently subversive tool toward that end, an example of how Big Car's surrealist background can still come in handy when working with a community that isn't versed in the history of performance art. "There's no virtuosity in Fluxus," Big Car's Aryn Schounce tells me later. "You can't be good or bad at it. You can try — anybody can try."
Even disinterested high school kids. Streit, who was involved with performing hundreds of those scores in 2011, recalls getting some of them to fly — performing a one-word Yoko Ono score that just reads "fly" — around a gymnasium. The results are seen on a video that accompanies the Fluxus section of the show. A few sit at tables, refusing to fly because that's just not possible, stupid, while others motor around the room, arms splayed out, circling joyfully.
But Fluxus won't work for everyone. Streit tells of going into communities last year with the Fun Fleet, which found Big Car artists accompanying Bookmobiles on trips to the Far Eastside to do programming. One kid said to Streit that he didn't want to draw; he just wanted a dollar for food. But the Fun Fleet had planned ahead: They had snacks! Had the kid really never eaten an apple before? That's what he said to the Big Car crew — and for Streit, it's an example of first attending to a community's immediate needs, and then "figuring out how to make art empower their interests." Streit says that another child he worked with during Fun Fleet programming said, "This is the first time someone's asked me to draw and it means something."
I eat tacos
Take even a casual glance at Big Car's social media feeds and you'll see that they've become a go-to community resource for art-related fun at just about any event. And so it goes to show that at this point in our tour, one of Streit's Big Car cohorts, Aryn Schounce, interrupts us because she needs Streit's help to work a table at a UIndy event celebrating Indiana-grown food. I join up for this change in scenery, meeting Schounce, another Big Car full-time employee, who started with the non-profit in 2012 on a Public Allies grant before becoming a permanent staff member.
Her first Big Car experience was a First Friday Fluxus performance. She got involved gradually, first attending meetings, then volunteering. What interested her? "It's a non-profit that uses the arts as a vehicle for community transformation, and that might not necessarily have been a new thing nationally, but it was unique here." Her presence on the Big Car roster is emblematic of the organization's growing professionalism — and growing budget. She has an MPA in policy analysis and non-profit management, and she's put those skills to work in systematizing the way Big Car approaches things like grant proposals and fundraising.
Shounce and Streit pick out at table at the UIndy event and deploy their outreach tools: flyers advertising the anniversary show, a few drift dice and a roll of nametags that read "HELLO: I won't eat [blank]." Streit thinks that's a little negative, so he crosses out the "won't" and writes down the thing he will eat. Tacos. He says he eats a lot of tacos.
Back in the gallery, Niina Cochran, Big Car's current artist-in-residence, is now playing the role of docent. A New Jersey native who earned her master's in Finland, Cochran is working with Big Car from June to November. She's already organized a show at a Garfield Park-area appliance store that was part of the Better Blocks initiative; it consisted of appliance-inspired art, including a few typically brilliant Nat Russell fliers. And before she leaves, she'll have designed and executed a mural, contributed to the inaugural exhibition at the Show Room and helped out with whatever project she was asked to work on.
Cochran learned about Big Car during a residency at Greensboro's thrift store/museum/collective Elsewhere and says she decided to come here in part because she didn't know anything about the city. It's been a good fit: "Working with Big Car gives me a little more hope about the arts." She thinks it has a good mixture of people who "play off each other's strong points." And this residency has given her a chance to figure out her own strong points (she likes organizing exhibitions, but may be average at other stuff). Beyond that, she's says it's been valuable for her, an introvert, to work with a social practice organization, where she can retain some of those introverted qualities while letting others influence her work and practice.
Will Cochran stick around when her residency is up? She can't say, but she may be ready to settle down and the great thing about working in a place like Indianapolis, for her, is that organizations like Big Car "are accessible and doing work where it really need to be done."
Hard hat area
Beyond its locations open to the public, Big Car also maintains a warehouse space, the Truck Stop, and an office at The Hinge, a shared workspace in Fletcher Place. Which is to say that the Big Car crew could end up working in any number of venues of a given day — or even off-site at Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company, which is where Jim Walker meets me in late July.
He's wearing a mechanic's shirt, a characteristically blue-collar Big Car fashion choice, pulled from a wardrobe that includes blue jumpsuits worn during performance art weirdness and a Service Center shirt designed by Andy Fry that embraced the venue's past as a Firestone garage. Walker and crew seem to be suggesting through these costumes that working in the arts is hard labor as worthwhile and Midwestern as fixing cars or mining rocks.
Our talk was full of idea-germinating takeaways, but this one stuck with me: "The art that we're trying to make is a better Indianapolis." By looking at all the city as a canvas or stage, Big Car can justify taking on just about any project that somehow involves creativity and urban revitalization.
"We were always interested in community, but we started out in the arts community because that's where we were," Walker says of Big Car's early years. "The gallery was always a place for people to get together. And that's what First Friday is — a social experience. The art is there and it's the magnet that people are attracted to, but really what they enjoy is being around other people." Walker is proud that he worked to involve the Murphy Arts Center in IDADA's then-new First Friday venture. Big Car eventually hosted First Friday after-parties that ran until 2 a.m., well after galleries had closed on Mass Ave.
And he thinks that Big Car played a big part in the revitalization of Fountain Square, noting that when they opened in 2004, the Murphy was just getting off the ground and in the neighborhood beyond, "everything was an antique store or vacant." Their goal back then as now was to "get people to go somewhere new. People always stay in their little circle and Fountain Square was the same way. We introduced them to Fountain Square by getting people to come to a show, and then they came back on their own the next time ... It was pioneering, kind of. You shouldn't just waste a part of the city."
Big Car was already thinking of expanding when its first big grant for community art projects came through in 2008: "Especially when the economy had a really bad downturn — and some of us started doing work with kids and getting into different communities — we saw that the joy and benefits that we were seeing in Fountain Square should be taken out further in the city." And with Big Car doing collaborative projects in the community, their gallery shows became more interactive as well. "We started to see how much people — not everybody, but a lot of people — were excited to have the opportunity to make a collage, to draw something and not have to worry about it," Walker says. "So we've never stopped doing that since then."
Not that interactivity and chance weren't familiar to Big Car during its surrealist salad days: "A lot of us in the group really love surrealism and surrealist art, and that was really about letting go, losing control and seeing what comes out of controlled chaos."
And it's by embracing that sense of chance that Walker is able to roll with the changes as an executive director: "I could be a control freak if I didn't control the controllingness. Working with a community and volunteers is a surrealist activity in a lot of ways because you don't know what they're going to do. We were doing a mural painting and people were letting their two-year-olds help paint. You can't say, 'No'! You can fix it later — and something good might come out of the accident. The kind of art that I struggle with and that I've never been able to be any good at is where you're saying, 'I really want this one thing to happen.'"
But since we're on the subject of control, I bring up my quibble with Walker's use of the word "pioneer" to describe his ventures into parts of the city that were unfamiliar to him. Pioneer's a loaded word; someone was there first, and it's not like Lafayette Square is unlisted on the map. He sounds a little hurt that I'd question his word choice; maybe I am being a captious critic: "In areas like Lafayette Square or the Far East Side or south of Fountain Square on Shelby, if you could have the beginnings of what people consider gentrification — like stores that are open — everybody who lives there would be really happy, and I don't see how there's a drawback. There's still a lot of people who live in affordable housing in places like Fountain Square where now they can walk down the street and get something fresh to eat or a cup of decent coffee. Who doesn't like that? It's not like everything's been kicked out, that there's not a Peppy Grill, not Bud's."
It's a fair point, and it's worth noting that while Big Car may borrow from Surrealism and Dadaism — which seek to disturb the status quo and whose practitioners have, at times, identified as anarchists or communists — Walker says the organization is officially non-partisan. "In our city government, the politics are not really partisan," he says. "People are always going to push each other around for whatever reason, like a game. But this administration has been really great to work with — SustainIndy is awesome. So we do stay politically neutral, but it's been easier to do that in a city where the administration is really trying to implement the right ideas and not get too caught up in political maneuvering."
One more possibly indelicate question: Walker and Big Car are looking back at an extraordinarily productive decade. How does he get so much done? Does he ever doubt himself? "Everybody's a multi-talented person — and they're all good at working with people," he says. "Everybody gets worn out sometimes, but it's all stuff we would choose to do anyway." Which ties into something Streit said at UIndy: "You can't be a dick and work at Big Car. It's important to have a really good sense of empathy."
Big Car's new International Marketplace location is in something of a strip mall desert. To the left, a dialysis center; to the right, some kind of religious congregation. There are a lot of empty storefronts, but those that are occupied are intriguingly out of the ordinary. One may sell bus tickets to New York's Chinatown.
Anne Laker, Big Car's program director, leads me into the courtyard-ish space that adjoins the Show Room, which was once a Dress Barn and is right beside what used to be a T.J. Maxx, in case that rings bells for longtime shoppers. The area would be perfect for film screenings, she says (Laker programmed The Toby at the IMA before she took on her job at Big Car). It already has a few pieces of furniture, all made from driftwood cleared from the nearby Little Eagle Creek by participants in a TeenWorks program led this summer by Big Car. There's a rocking chair. A sculpture of a head in profile.
The Show Room will require some work before the Oct. 1 opening, which will feature an exhibition telling the stories of their strip mall neighbors, from Saraga to that dialysis center. A mural designed by Jose Di Gregorio — whose "Stargaze" was installed across from the Alexander Hotel last year — will eventually be installed outside the space, which Laker says will function in much the same way as the front room of the Service Center, being programmed largely by the community and home to all types of events, from poetry slams to Trade School Indy classes.
We move next door to Listen Hear, Big Car's new sound art laboratory, which unlike the Show Room is ready for visitors. The space was created by John McCormick, who will join Big Car full-time on an AmeriCorps grant this fall. And I wish he was here right now to tell us how to properly interact with this room full of sound sculptures — or the back room filled with yarn and mic stands (with a picture of a kitten on the back of the door). Still, Laker's on-hand to answer a few conceptual questions. Here's one: Why create a sound art laboratory?
"It's about doing the unexpected and asking the community to engage with something they wouldn't otherwise experience," she says. "The question is how do we serve the community's needs while also inventing things that will spark their imaginations — it's all about working in tandem." Laker's been considering that balance since the birth of Big Car. She was present from the very beginning — or even before, when Laker, Walker and John Clark made their first foray into the Murphy by sharing a small studio.
As Big Car came into being, all three worked on events; Laker and Clark were founding members of the board. She joined the staff full-time two years ago when a grant fell into place. What continues to attract her to Big Car? "Its entrepreneurial spirit." And what does she mean by entrepreneurial? "It's about the rush that you get when you have an idea and you implement it. You don't wait, you don't think too hard — you just go for it because it feels right. We should also be called Fast Car!"