Some Really Big Things

KRCC’s web-exclusive project The Big Something has taken physical form in Colorado College’s Coburn Gallery. I recently sat down with co-producer Noel Black for a little insight into the significance of the medium in a program like The Big Something, and, furthermore, the role of physicality and place in a never-ending cultural archaeology project.

Andrea: First of all, I know a lot of our readership maybe doesn’t know about The Big Something, so maybe you could explain that briefly.

Noel: Sure. The Big Something was originally started at KRCC by myself in collaboration with General Manager Delaney Utterback. The purpose of it was to highlight a lot of the forgotten, overlooked and just sort of esoteric culture of the Pikes Peak Region. We felt like there was a sort of pervasive, agreed-upon view of the area—that this place was a cultural backwaters, that there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about it. There’s also a really short attention span for the long cultural history of the Pikes Peak Region. We wanted to start bringing a lot of things to people’s attention again so that there would be some awareness about our cultural identity as a region. We decided to do [the stories] as web features on a daily basis, sending them out as an email. We felt like the web was a more dynamic place to feature all kinds of different culture rather than just doing radio features. So we launched it in May of 2009.

I think what The Big Something has to offer, particularly to Colorado College students, is a view of the city and the region that goes well beyond their pre-conceived notions about it. When I ask students what they think about Colorado Springs, they’re like, “Well … it’s like, you know, the donut around the college and, you know, in between us and the mountains.” I think a lot of people come here and just kind of never [see] much outside of the campus. People allow their preconceptions about a place to act as a kind of filter, where it’s like, “Well, I don’t even have to bother looking.” No matter whether it’s Colorado Springs or wherever it is you are in the world, if you aren’t curious enough to scratch beneath the surface of a place, you’re likely to accept the received perception. And the perception here for many years was [that] Colorado Springs is super conservative, home of evangelical Christians, and anything outside of CC is just stupid and boring, or weird and creepy. I just think it’s a dangerous way of looking at the world in general. Many students do [engage in the community], many students want to see beyond what is known as the bubble of the college, but I think it takes a lot of sustained interest and effort, and that’s hard, but it’s at least good that the college is talking about it.

Aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire. Photo by Noel Black, featured in The Big Something exhibit in Coburn Gallery until Nov. 20. “Most of these photos are culled from a wide variety of features on everything from a canoe trip Craig Richardson and I took down the Lower Arkansas River to a road trip we made through the outer edges of the KRCC listening area two summers ago … This past summer’s Waldo Canyon fire (the aftermath of which is also pictured here) is just one example of the way our desire to surround ourselves with the pristine ideal prevents us from seeing how far (and close) we’ve gotten from (and to) nature’s nature.” Excerpt from the exhibit description. Visit Coburn Gallery for more.

Andrea: I think that a lot of that has to do with this idea of the bubble, definitely, but also the idea of placement. You know, you go to a school somewhere and there’s a lack of effort to understand the outside community because theoretically we’re here to complete four years of undergraduate education, theoretically, it’s temporary.

Noel: There’s just not a lot of incentive. I mean you have all of your needs provided for you, it’s a sort of a small community town unto itself and you have your social needs built in. It does require a lot of effort. Part of what we wanted to do was take some of the effort out of that for people. But our constituency is largely in the community, and that’s ultimately where we see our audience. Would we love to be more connected with students, faculty and staff here? Of course. And this is part of the effort of this show.

Andrea: You said you grew up here. What first gave you reason to “bother” finding out about what makes this place interesting?

Sand dunes. Photo by Noel Black, featured in The Big Something exhibit in Coburn Gallery until Nov. 20.

Noel: Well, I mean, I think I’m a curious person, and I think place and region ultimately shape so much of who you are. People identify with their home. If [you grow] up some place particular, you have an attachment to it that is part nostalgia but also partly that you’ve been shaped by a particular place, by its landscape, by its culture, by its food, all of these things. I grew up in this community, I felt a responsibility to [it]. I knew it to be a far richer cultural place than it was being allowed to be by media perceptions, national and local, and part of it was a reclamation project.

I’ve got a book out from Ugly Duckling Presse that is not so much about local issues or about Colorado Springs per se, but I think that you write from a place. And I definitely feel like I write from Colorado Springs. Even though I’ve lived lots of other places, this is sort of the locus of my soul, so to speak. I really believe in this idea that genius is not some inherent trait. One of the definitions of genius is spirit of a place, and I think every place has its own genius. That is what I think we’re trying to evoke with The Big Something: the spirit of this place.

“Archer, San Luis School.” Three young women with bows drawn stand in field with mountain behind, Dec. 1936. All photos featured in Coburn Gallery, courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District Photograph Archives.

“Truckers, Erma’s Café.” Four men, including two men wearing caps with badges prominently displayed, sitting in Erma’s Café, all four men smoking cigarettes. March 1959.

Andrea: Do you think that knowing it so well, having lived here off and on for so long, ever gets in the way of coming up with a new idea?

Noel: There are times when we struggle, but the truth of the matter is, the more I find out, the more I realize I haven’t even begun to explore all of [it]. I mean there are some really big things, some of which are featured here that we found right close to the surface. I think the low-hanging fruit is certainly gone, but there are so many more things that come all the time. It’s sort of like when you read a really great book and you’re like, “Am I going to be able to find another great book to read when this is done?” and there are always a million more great books to read, and the more great books you read, the more great books there are to read. That’s definitely what we’ve experienced doing The Big Something. I think what we’d like to do now is dig more deeply into certain aspects of the culture, and maybe back off of the really relentless schedule of putting on something new every day.

Andrea: You’ve briefly talked about this exhibit as not a solution to, but a kind of next step for, The Big Something after four years—how do you think taking this project and extracting it from the web and presenting it in a gallery changes the project itself or how it is received?

Noel: I think it brings the artifacts themselves closer to people. The idea was that interact[ing] with people in the digital format all the time is less tangible. I’m not saying it’s an inauthentic way of interacting, but it’s nice sometimes to just gather people together. It’s a way of culminating efforts, or of bringing together the physical community that you’re trying to create online. I think that these, the artifacts that are on the walls … it’s meant more to be a mirror for the community to see itself in a different light and in a more complicated way than I think we tend to see ourselves. It’s almost like a boosterism campaign, but what we’re trying to promote is a more complicated, nuanced and rich view of something. I mean ultimately it’s a battle of ideas, and we would like to put forward that this is a more interesting and an ultimately truer vision of what this community is. That’s what we’re trying to complicate in the process, and it takes repetition, repetition, repetition, especially when what you’re repeating is not the same thing all the time. I mean, we’re not trying to force this down anyone’s throat, we just want to offer it as an alternative.

We were moving to New York and my son who was eight at the time, his friend said, “How are you feeling about moving to New York?” and my son was like, “Well, I’m going to miss myself,” and [his friend] said, “Oh that’s interesting because”—he was part Apache—“in my culture the place that you’re from is who you are, so you are of that place.” If you don’t see the narrative of your place, or you don’t see yourself in that narrative, it’s hard to do anything other than accept a received narrative about what something is. I think a lot of people who grew up here weren’t seeing themselves in the narrative that was being presented. So then you have to tease that narrative out and say, here’s what it is, or here’s what it was and is becoming, and that’s a much more complicated process than simply saying, “Ah, this place is just this and I’m going to go about my business.”

Andrea: I know that KRCC’s broadcast area reaches La Junta and Starkville—do you reach out to those communities?

Noel: We do in the sense that the people in all of those communities are on our email list. In this show, it was very important for us to include [the Pueblo Levy Mural project]. I have images from San Luis to Monte Vista, the lower Arkansas River down by Avondale … and then we have these photographs by Jon Suhay, who’s another Pueblo photographer. It is very important to us because we’re part of KRCC to reach out to the entire Pikes Peak Region.

Andrea: So far it’s been kind of focused on Colorado Springs. Do you think that there might be a future in starting The Big Something for another localized area within the region?

Noel: It’s easier to be in the community, and it’s hard for a community to necessarily be an entire region. We do our best, but we’re not trying to deny the fact that we’re based here. And yeah, would I like to—I mean, if it were up to me, I love Pueblo. It’s not my community, I didn’t grow up there but I think it’s a much more vibrant community than people give it credit for, not unlike Colorado Springs. There was a time when people were like, “Oh, Pueblo is the armpit of America,” but the people there are incredible. So do we value all of those communities? Absolutely. And do we want to know as much about them as we can and get in there and hear their stories as well? Absolutely. Can we do that as much as we’d like? No.

“Jerry Olson and his Trained Buffalo.” Jerry Olson rides a trained buffalo into the back of a pickup truck in downtown Colorado Springs. Buffalo is wearing a saddle blanket with “Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo” on it. 1956.

Andrea: If you moved to Pueblo and started The Big Something there, as someone who didn’t grow up there, who doesn’t have the same connection as you do with Colorado Springs, do you think it would be possible for you or anyone to establish a sort of identity, and to do something like The Big Something there?

Noel: Yeah, absolutely. Can you go to a place that you’re not from because circumstances in life brought you there and become part of the community? Absolutely, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do that. Can you find the resources to do that? That’s up to you.

Andrea: Maybe with the help of The Big Something.

Noel: Right. Maybe. My ideal for this as far as a model for engaging with a community within the listening area is that every town that wanted to do something like this would come up with their own version of it, and that it not be, here’s The Big Something over here, and here’s The Big Something over here.

Andrea: So, what’s the next step after this exhibit?

Noel: We for a long time have wanted to put together The Big Something radio program, and I think we would like to do the web features a little more sporadically, if not more just straight blogging about things and then when a feature comes up that really requires an online presence—whether it’s a video or a multi-media slideshow—that we would do that when it called for it. Because of the nature of the underwriting spots oftentimes you get stuck in this combine of just like, “I’ve got to get another one out, another one out.” I’d like to back up a little bit. I’d like to do some more documentary-style projects.

I do think that the show represents the culmination of a phase. I always like when things change, all the time. This represents also a sort of opportunity for us to take a deep breath and say, “OK, how do we feel like we’re doing here?”

Andrea: And how did you do, here, in Coburn?

Noel: It was fantastic. We got a ton of great feedback, and [it was] just really wonderful to see everybody together in the same room; it’s like making The Big Something level and bringing everyone in, connecting with everyone. Of course those connections go in all different directions and [it] ends up being a big matrix of community efforts. I think that word “community” can get a little overused sometimes, and it can end up kind of sounding a little bit meaningless, but ultimately it’s about doing things together that are meaningful and it’s that simple. It’s an open door out into the scary world of Colorado Springs for some people.

Andrea: Have you ever gotten any negative feedback about The Big Something?

Noel: We get negative feedback sometimes about Kathryn Eastburn’s column on Fridays just because people seem to react to it either really positively or really negatively. I mean, it’s not verboten in public radio to have opinions, it’s just that you have to be a personality and we didn’t really want to go in that direction. We wanted it to be more about the culture, the people. Like the other day I did this thing on Corie Cole who works here at the college part time. She’s a sculptor and she does all these, what she calls, three-dimensional political cartoons and she did this project where she manufactured all these things in China … and, you know, it’s about her, it’s not about us. We’re the medium. I still see myself primarily as being a journalist, but I’m also a writer. The lines between art and writing and culture and this kind of journalism I think are really blurry. But it’s more important to me that it not be about me or us or the station necessarily.

Andrea: I think it’s interesting that it seems like so much of the initial motivation had to do with your own experience and your own self in this place, but then being able to recognize that you have to pull yourself out of it to reach the community, I think that’s really interesting and effective.

Noel: One of my sort of guiding principles in life came from this conversation I had with this poet Harry Mathews when I was in grad school in San Francisco studying poetry. We were talking about this whole idea of the “I” in the narrative, and what is the “I” or the self in any given piece of writing. He said, the way I look at it is that you can only really know yourself through other people. So you may know yourself in one way through somebody that you have known for a long time, and they know you in some way themselves, and so you create this sort of feedback loop. But then you go to somebody else and maybe you’re a really funny person to that person, whereas you’re a really serious person to somebody else. That statement—you can only know yourself through other people—holds true in so many ways. I feel like I get to know myself better through each feature that we do on maybe a forgotten photographer, or an artist like Corie, or by discovering these [lesbian folk] records. It all just adds to this faceted kaleidoscopic mirror. If it’s all about the you that you think you are, I think what you will find is some vast void of emptiness. If you were to look inward all the time you [wouldn’t] know yourself at all, because there’s no mirror there, and the literal mirror is sort of an emptiness—it’s just your solipsistic feedback of what [you are]. I think I was very affected by that statement and I think that it’s a great way of seeing the world, seeing that everyone provides you with some other way of knowing yourself and you knowing them and vice versa.

Andrea: How is it different presenting it in a gallery, talking about it as opposed to working on it in the radio station which is dark and quiet? How did that effect your kind of on-the-spot understanding of your own project and how did that change how you spoke about it or what it meant to you?

Noel: The process of selecting [from] the hundreds of features that we’ve done over the past four years … it forces you to consider what are maybe the best examples, or what would make the most interesting show on the whole. And I think getting it all together here in this one room and being able to see it makes me appreciate how this is just a window into part of the culture. When you walk out on the street it’s not like these things jump up at you out of the sidewalk. It’s about these really chance connections, sometimes somebody tells you about something; sometimes you discover something on the web; sometimes you’re out driving around and you come upon something. It represents a lot of time and energy and thought about a place, and it’s something that not everybody has the luxury of being able to do, or the desire to do at all. But it’s something that has always fascinated me. It presents this really interesting challenge which is to tease out the soul of this place when it is not immediately apparent. I mean when you go someplace like New York or San Francisco, that stuff is all there on the surface and that is what it’s known for, but it’s not what we’re known for here, necessarily.

I’m a bit of a contrarian in nature—I’ve lived in lots of cities, but there’s something about this place. There’s this nagging question that is this place. And it’s all of this, all of these images and some of the more obvious things like the Penny Arcade. When I look around at all of these things I see … a place that I want to live, that I want to be. When I hear the sort of predominant media narrative of what we are, it’s not someplace I want to be. I’m just looking for that mirror. You kind of have to make your own fun, you’ve got to go out and find it yourself. It’s not going to throw its doors open and pull you in. I hope to make it easier for some people to find their way into it and hopefully change that narrative enough that more people feel like this place belongs to them, too.