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 design projects. 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: 

October 11-13, 2020

  • The Social Alchemy symposium in New Harmony will include philosophers, writers, historians, designers, architects, placemakers, urban and rural city planners, and community organizers. We will also feature workshops led by local artists and leaders from New Harmony, community meals, and local tours.

Symposium tickets are now live! Sign up here.

October 10-November 20, 2020 with an opening reception October 10, 4-6 p.m. 

  • An interdisciplinary exhibition at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art focused on New Harmony’s visionary civic leader and preservationist Jane Owen (1915–2010). 

November 6, 2020-February, 20, 2021 with an opening reception November 6, 6-10 p.m. 

  • 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 2020-Summer 2021

  • A series of five art shows featuring New Harmony-based artists in the Jeremy Efroymson and Guichelaar Galleries. 

Summer 2020-Summer 2021

  • Year-long public utopia/dystopia/duality book club in Indianapolis with conversations led by Big Car artists and others. This club will be linked with films and public screenings.

Fall 2020—Summer 2021

  • A film series of documentaries (At Home in Utopia, 2008; The Last Angel In History, 1996) and feature films (Afronauts, 2014) related to experiments in intentional communities.

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 the Social Alchemy symposium 

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

Highlighted speakers at the Social Alchemy symposium: 

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer living in London focused on the intersections of urbanism, culture, technology and politics. Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities, chosen as a best book of 2015 by the Financial Times, The Guardian, the A.V. Club, and other publications. Imaginary Cities roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds. 

Maurice Broaddus is an Indianapolis-based fantasy and horror author best known for his short fiction and his Knights of Breton Court novel trilogy. He has published dozens of stories in magazines and book anthologies. Broaddus’s work centers on utopian and dystopian ideas through the genres of science fiction, urban fantasy, horror fiction.

Cara Courage is a British expert on socially engaged art, arts in the public realm and a collaborative placemaker, working across research and practice. Courage currently works as the Head of Tate Exchange, Tate Modern’s platform for socially engaged and often activist art. Courage is the author of Arts in Place and Making Places published by Routledge in England.

Kent Schuette is a professor emeritus of architecture and urban design at Purdue University based in New Harmony. As an landscape architect, Schuette has studied the Athenaeum extensively.

Susan Neville is a creative nonfiction short story writer and writing professor. She is the author of: Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning and several other books. Neville lives in Indianapolis and teaches writing at Butler University. 

Kevin McKelvey is an Indianapolis place-based poet, writer, designer, and social practice artist. McKelvey works as an Associate Professor and Director of the MA Program in Social Practice Art at University of Indianapolis. He’s  the author of Dream Wilderness Poems. 

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.