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We Are City: Finding the soul of Indy

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"Dining Hall II," a scene from Central State Hospital. - JAMES A. REEVES
  • James A. Reeves
  • "Dining Hall II," a scene from Central State Hospital.

If someone asked you to briefly describe the personality or soul of Indianapolis, what would you say? Even natives might find this exercise difficult, but it's exactly the task that artists James A. Reeves and Oliver Blank took on in residencies hosted by We Are City, a loose collective exploring the creative ways that people engage with cities. Influenced by the philosophy and artistic tactics of the Dadaists and Surrealists, Reeves and Blank, members of the New Orleans creative studio Civic Center, aimed to learn about the city and capture its essence during back-to- back, month-long residences.

Reeves, a writer and photographer, arrived in March, thinking the city might have the generic feel of a Houston, Atlanta, or Phoenix, with masses of corporate skyscrapers laced through with highways. "Then I came here, and I was amazed by the people who live here and the city's complex layers of history and architecture," he says.

He talked to residents, gathering stories, urban legends and rumors. He liked the idea of "twinning urban legend with historical fact and fictional narrative," and encouraged others to do the same by holding salons where people could write fictional captions for historical photos of the city and its people. To that end, he and Blank created the Bureau of Manufactured History, and "based on the first few stories I heard and the buildings and monuments I came across, I began writing," says Reeves. "It was usually based on some kind truth, and then I'd try to blend this with fiction."

He also left small cards around the city, which asked people to complete a task (such as walking to a place they'd never been before), call a special phone number, and answer the question posed on the line, like, "What is the scariest thing about Indianapolis?"

"Indianapolis Scene." - JAMES A. REEVES
  • James A. Reeves
  • "Indianapolis Scene."
Blank, the designer, artist, and composer who spent April building on Reeves's work, explains that by pairing a physical experience that requires personal interpretation with the intimacy of calling the number and providing a response, they've created "a singular, ephemeral experience for the person" and gained "something interesting or unexpected or useful for the Bureau." Some of the answers are posted at the Bureau's website (bureauofmanufacturedhistory.com) and will be included in the final project.

This mode of collecting is important to Blank's work. "I love the idea that the Surrealists stepped forward and said, 'Surrealism can be considered a mode of research, and not only that, it's a mode of research that bears knowledge on a par with scientific knowledge.'"

The approach also helps him to present the city in a fresh way. "Cities have become hyper- commercial and hyper-optimized. There's a set language around cities - it's very serious, and it gets to be a very dull affair. So I want to change that. Cities don't have to be so serious. We can bring in magic, and something that's romantic, or strange or silly or quirky. Or witty or wistful. That's what we want to do with the Bureau," says Blank.

Reeves and Blank resist labeling a city with a single marketing identity. In fact, Reeves feels that the city's location in the Midwest, at the confluence of many things, is part of its identity. "I started to work with this thesis that in many ways Indianapolis is the most American city because it sits at the intersection of all these different sites," he says. "From its founding, the city relied on faith in borders and invisible edges. It sits smack in the center of the state for no geographical, cultural, or commercial reason."

Reeves is collecting the material from his stay in a book. The duo is also presenting a public exhibition Friday at the Mozzo Apartments, where they stayed during their residencies in an apartment provided by Milhaus Development. Other sponsors for the project include the Central Indiana Community Foundation, the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, and the Indiana Humanities Council. While Blank is coy about the shape of the final exhibition, he loves puns, so expect an object that plays on "bureau" and includes Reeves's work as well as Blank's sound design.

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