Social Alchemy

With this multifaceted, multiyear project, Indianapolis-based arts organization Big Car Collaborative — with our partners, the University of Southern Indiana, Indiana State Museum, Historic New Harmony, and others –– is exploring, learning, and sharing how utopia has informed places and pursuits over time. Social Alchemy explores historical and contemporary examples of utopian experiments, fictional utopias and dystopias, and social and cooperative-living design projects (linking back to our affordable artist housing program on our block in Indianapolis). Through a variety of public programs — made possible with support from Indiana Humanities and Efroymson Family Fund — it offers a deeper understanding of the relationship between the built environment and social good.

What we’re doing:

More details once COVID-19 pandemic is in confirmed decline.

In 2021

  • A series of radio broadcast/audio programs related to utopian ideals, planned communities, and related art and literature with a focus on New Harmony and its past, present, and future. Listen to this episode about George Rapp and the Harmonists who first built New Harmony and these episodes linking Native American culture with utopia and dystopia.
  • Conversation and future-focused work in New Harmony that may include philosophers, writers, historians, designers, architects, placemakers, urban and rural city planners, and community organizers. 
  • A series of exhibitions at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art focused on New Harmony’s visionary civic leader and preservationist Jane Owen (1915–2010) and the Minerva Society of early feminist leaders.
  • An exhibition at the Tube Factory about the history and art of New Harmony (designed to travel), with emphasis on Marguerite Young’s Angel in the Forest and visual interpretations of this lyrical text. 

Summer 2021-Summer 2022

  • A series of five art shows featuring New Harmony-based artists in galleries at the Tube Factory campus in Indianapolis. 

Ongoing 

  • Partnering to participate in, support, and promote other events happening in New Harmony.

About New Harmony: This southern Indiana town was the site of two utopian experiments in the early 1800s. The first was a separatist, religious community known for its hard work, communal living and property ownership and celibacy. The second, was a rationalist social experiment in giving people of many backgrounds an opportunity at a better life and work environment.  Then, in the 1940s until the 1980s, town leader Jane Blaffer Owen envisioned New Harmony’s built environment as a mix of historic Hoosier and cutting-edge contemporary. Today, New Harmony brims with art, history, architecture, and a strong sense of place.

A quick history of New Harmony Pop. 763 (as of 2017)

THE WOODLAND INDIANS: From 400 AD, the Woodland Indians maintained a complex, productive community, including earthen mounds built for ceremonial and cosmological purposes.

THE HARMONISTS: German farmer George Rapp and 400 followers arrived in New Harmony in 1815, creating a community based on productivity, worker-owned industries, and shared resources.

THE OWENITES: The Rappites sold the land in 1825 to Robert Owen, a Welsh socialist. At its height, 1,000 Owenites were part of a “Village of Unity and Mutual Cooperation” prioritizing worker rights, scientific research, and artistic expression.

JANE BLAFFER OWEN: For nearly seven decades, Jane Blaffer Owen was the driving force behind the restoration and revitalization of the town of New Harmony, Indiana. Owen had a vision for the town, bringing in and commissioning renowned architects, visual artists, musicians, and writers. Her time there is often referred to as the town’s “third utopia.”

About Big Car Collaborative and why we’re part of this: As a nonprofit organization working in art-based community development, we’re very interested in intentional and inclusive communities designed for all to thrive. That’s our goal for our 15-building, one-block Cruft Street Commons project in Garfield Park––to make an arts-focused, socially cohesive neighborhood. And this work is inspired by our research into historic utopias in New Harmony and elsewhere. 

Why is this called Social AlchemyIn our research about New Harmony, we discovered that Father George Rapp — founder of the Harmonists, the first utopian experiment in New Harmony — studied alchemy and was trying to make gold and other precious commodities to fund his vision of utopia. Today, with New Harmony already a successful town with much to offer (including events and public programs), this project and symposium combines all the assets of New Harmony: the people who live there, the architecture, art, and food to celebrate and expand the town’s magic to Indianapolis and hopefully even further. We’re calling this mixture of everything Social Alchemy.

Project Partners: University of Southern Indiana, Historic New Harmony, New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art, Working Men’s Institute, Indiana State Museum, Indiana Humanities, Pattern Magazine, University of Indianapolis, The New Harmony Project

Our Focus on Marguerite Young: A book that has shaped our thinking for this project is Indiana-born Marguerite Young’s Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (1945). It’s a non-fiction work with a surrealist style: a lyrical, magical take on the New Harmony true-life fable. We’ll highlight Young’s work in a related exhibition in 2020 to follow up on a mural of her commissioned for Tube Factory in 2019. Born in Indianapolis, Young (1908-1995) studied at Butler University and taught Kurt Vonnegut at Shortridge High School before joining New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene in the mid-1940s. Some believed her work was every bit as groundbreaking and masterful as James Joyce’s. Young once said: “I believe all my work explores the human desire or obsession for utopia, and the structure of all my works is the search for utopias lost and rediscovered. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.”

Themes for this Social Alchemy work 

STORYTELLING

  • Connecting the past and the future 
  • Ideas for New Harmony/Main Street/young people, families 
  • Art and culture as utopia 
  • Literary New Harmony/utopian literature over time 
  • Spirituality, philosophy, alchemy, and utopia

PLACE

  • Current utopian experiments and planned communities, contemporary communal studies 
  • Activating spaces/placemaking as utopias/temporary utopias  
  • Food, drink and agriculture in utopian/planned communities 
  • Preservation and history/context 
  • Tourism as temporary utopia
  • Architecture and landscape architecture 
  • Labyrinths/other physical metaphors/sacred geometry

More about the project: We all grapple with divides in society and real-life examples of dystopia (shootings, mass incarceration, ecological degradation) and utopia (experiments such as co-living communities that make people demonstrably happier). This project is about exploring historical and contemporary real-world examples of utopian experiments and social design projects as well as theoretical and fictional utopias and dystopias. Our goal is for the impact of Social Alchemy to be a deeper understanding — via history, literature, and the philosophy of art, design, and architecture — of the relationship between the built environment and social good.