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Celebrating the 5th Granfalloon, the eclectic arts festival honoring Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

May 9, 2024

Granfalloon revelers attend The Flaming Lips' main-stage show in 2023 on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington. Photo courtesy of ... Granfalloon revelers attend The Flaming Lips' main-stage show in 2023 on Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Hogan, The Bloomingtonian

What is a granfalloon, anyway? Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. coined the term in his 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle,” defining a granfalloon as “a proud and meaningless collection of human beings.” In other words, a granfalloon represents something that loosely and somewhat randomly categorizes and unites people, like being alumni from the same school or being a Hoosier from Indiana.

At Indiana University Bloomington, Granfalloon represents an annual celebration of art and ideas that kicks off the summer arts season, unifying the campus and the local community. Hosted by the IU Arts and Humanities Council, Granfalloon celebrates its fifth summer of festivities inspired by Vonnegut this year.

The late Indiana author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is the inspiration behind Granfalloon. Photo by Jill Krementz The late Indiana author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is the inspiration behind Granfalloon. Photo by Jill Krementz

“We settled on Kurt Vonnegut because he is a Hoosier hero in all sorts of ways,” said Ed Dallis-Comentale, assistant vice president for arts and humanities research and director of the IU Arts and Humanities Council. “Vonnegut inspires a lot of the council’s values, like the idea that everyone should be practicing art, the commitment to civic good and support for local institutions, and his intense commitment to free speech and democratic principles. We thought that he represented Hoosier arts at their finest.”

Bolstered by the university’s reputation for and commitment to cultivating the arts and humanities, Granfalloon has grown with each summer festival since it began in 2018. The first festival took place at a small amphitheater in the parking lot behind Upland Brewery. Roughly 1,200 people gathered to see headliner Father John Misty play. Among the other acts that year were Waxahatchee and Damien Jurado.

Additional events the first year included “Random Acts of Granfalloonery: The Art and Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.,” an exhibition at the Lilly Library, which is home to the world’s largest collection of Vonnegut’s materials. Vonnegut donated the bulk of his papers to IU before he passed away in 2007, and more has been added to the collection since.

Since then, and despite having to take a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Granfalloon has attracted musicians like Neko Case, Car Seat Headrest, Tune-Yards, Khruangbin, Kaina, Son Lux and Michelle. In 2023, about 15,000 people filled Kirkwood Avenue as The Flaming Lips performed a dynamic show on the main stage, complete with giant pink inflatables and confetti fluttering in the air.

The 2024 Granfalloon will take place May 20 to June 9, bringing female-fronted punk bands Sleater-Kinney and The Linda Lindas to the Bloomington main stage.

Beyond the lively musical acts, there is also a quiet, contemplative side to the festival each year, including author readings, discussions and keynote speeches. Notable literary guests have included Dave Eggers, Dan Wakefield, Ted Chiang, Deborah E. Kennedy, Ashley C. Ford and Michael Martone, among others. This year’s festival includes a keynote address from Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Carl Bernstein.

In recent years, the festival has run in conjunction with the Bloomington Handmade Market and the IU Writers’ Conference. Organizers said the festival is as much about creating art as it is experiencing or consuming art.

A giant puppet of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was part of the Kurt Vonnegut's Nature Tour of the Century event during the 2022 Gran... A giant puppet of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was part of the “Kurt Vonnegut's Nature Tour of the Century” event during the 2022 Granfalloon. Photo by Jeremy Hogan, The Bloomingtonian

“We really pride ourselves on the fact that the festival supports working artists and working craftspeople as well as working writers,” Dallis-Comentale said. “The festival inspires a more thoughtful and literate life. We tried to create a lot of access points for different kinds of community members: young and old, introverts and extroverts. We really think about the diversity of our audience and try to have something for everyone.”

With a steadfast focus on the community, Granfalloon organizers also seek to highlight local talent, which is found in abundance throughout Bloomington.

“It’s important to us that local artists are sharing the stage and the spotlight with national artists,” Dallis-Comentale said. “That’s key to what keeps Granfalloon vital.”

The 2023 festival saw a performance from Girls Rock Bloomington, which partners with the IU Arts and Humanities Council. Founded by grunge-pop artist Amy Oelsner in 2019, the organization offers community-led workshops, summer camps, after-school programs and open-mic events where participants under the age of 14 learn to play instruments, write songs and engage in band practice together. The workshop culminates in a final showcase where campers perform their original music.

A group from Girls Rock Bloomington performs at the 2023 Granfalloon festival in Bloomington. Photo by Anna Powell Denton A group from Girls Rock Bloomington performs at the 2023 Granfalloon festival in Bloomington. Photo by Anna Powell Denton

The programs offered at Girls Rock Bloomington are meant to cultivate self-esteem and encourage self-expression in local youth.

“The opportunity to perform at a big festival like Granfalloon is a huge deal for the Girls Rock youth participants,” Oelsner said. “What 12-year-old can say they opened for The Flaming Lips or Sleater-Kinney? It definitely contributes to a feeling of higher self-esteem and encourages these young performers to continue pursuing their musical dreams.”

Girls Rock Bloomington will return to Granfalloon on June 8 for a special performance by The Sera-Tones, an all-girl indie rock trio that formed through Girls Rock Bloomington. Oelsner will perform as well, under her stage name Amy O.

Oelsner said it’s interesting to participate in a festival themed around Vonnegut since her grandfather worked alongside him at the Cornell Daily Sun during their college days.

For many Hoosiers, finding a connection to the Vonnegut family is like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The Vonneguts made contributions across the state through architecture, business, literature and the arts. Vonnegut’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, was a renowned architect. Among his architectural designs is IU’s Frances Morgan Swain Student Building, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings on the Bloomington campus.

Nanette Vonnegut will deliver an artist's talk in regard to Bad Math, an exhibition of her artwork that will be on displa... Nanette Vonnegut will deliver an artist's talk in regard to “Bad Math,” an exhibition of her artwork that will be on display during Granfalloon at the Cook Center on the IU Bloomington campus. Photo by Rommel Demano, Getty Images

The artistic legacy of the Vonnegut family continues at Granfalloon this summer. An exhibition of artwork titled “Bad Math” by Nanette Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s daughter, will be on display at the Gayle Karch Cook Center for Public Arts and Humanities. Nanette Vonnegut’s illustrations have been featured in The New Yorker, and her prints are included in collections at the New York Public Library, Hampshire College and Wheaton College.

Her artwork will be on display from May 20 to July 3, and she will deliver an artist’s talk June 6 at 5 p.m. at the Cook Center. Both the talk and exhibition are free to attend.

Nanette Vonnegut said that while she has never lived in Indiana, she feels a strong connection to the Hoosier state where her father was raised.

“I’m not at all from Indiana, but when I’ve gone back to Indianapolis, I have felt something powerful,” she said.

While growing up, she said, she and her siblings were always encouraged to make art. In her artist’s statement for “Bad Math,” she wrote, “Lucky for me, I was raised in a house that did not question the redemptive, humanizing value of the arts.”

By celebrating the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Granfalloon aims to inspire and celebrate the value of the arts in a community where the arts thrive.

“One thing I love most about the festival is in the weeks after it, you really can’t go into a coffee shop without seeing someone reading Kurt Vonnegut,” Dallis-Comentale said. “Granfalloon doesn’t just end with the final performance; it has this interesting afterlife that seems to inspire people to think more about their creative and intellectual lives.”

A full lineup of this summer’s events can be found on the Granfalloon website.

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IU Newsroom

Julia Hodson

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