Posts tagged with "Black Mountain College":

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A group of artists and architects revisit the famed Black Mountain College

A famous experimental college flourished in Black Mountain, North Carolina, from 1933 until it closed in 1957. Josef Albers taught there for 17 years, while Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer designed one of their first U.S. commissions and Buckminster Fuller attempted his first dome structure at the college. Last October, at its Lake Eden campus, Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan—artists who had settled in western North Carolina—invited a group of 18 colleagues to join them in planning a school inspired by Black Mountain College. Less than a year later, with guidance from the group, Void and Ragan launched a call for faculty, organized a curriculum, gathered tuition from students, and rented a building for a month-long experiment in community and education.

Black Mountain School—not officially affiliated with the original college—is founded on the proposition that higher education is caught in a perpetual spiral of increasing tuition and institutions unable to adapt to students’ needs. “In the face of extreme tuition cost, corporatized profit-driven learning, and a one-size-fits-all curriculum that defines the limitations of public and private higher education, we are presenting an alternative,” reads the school’s online prospectus. “A non-hierarchical approach to organization, self-directed study in a wide range of subjects, as well as communal activities and events combine to provide students and teachers with the ability to learn from one another openly in an inclusive environment.”

This summer, a group of around 100 artists, designers, and teachers came together in the rented lodge at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly—Black Mountain College’s campus prior to Lake Eden—to launch the experiment, share cooking, cleaning, and administrative duties, and participate in courses that ranged from guided hikes, identifying wild plants, and “relinquishing self,” to more structured lectures on the histories of hip-hop and contemporary art. Then, as now, the school’s location in Black Mountain, 15 miles east of Asheville—on a campus where the alternative community coexisted with Christian summer camps—placed it in the nexus of cultural change dominating local and national politics.

“We think we’re kind of in that time right now where we’re in between worlds,” Void said. “Something is coming, but we’re not quite sure what. But we’re definitely a part of that transition.”

Educators and students traveled from all parts of the country and as far as London and Quito, Ecuador, to participate in courses like the Gilles Deleuze–influenced “A New Image of Thought” by New York–based Alexander Chaparro, “No Math Architecture” by New York artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, and “Analog Data Management” by Clocktower program director Joe Ahearn.

“I came here not knowing what the plan was, but knowing there was a lot to be learned by what happens when people start things fresh,” said Ahearn, who participated in last year’s planning session and also helps organize Brooklyn’s Silent Barn alternative space. “At the same time there’s a degree of accountability that’s placed on the whole thing by its connection to the history of the space and to Black Mountain College.”

This author taught a course that proposed to use building-scale video projection as an urban interventionist medium to interact with the surrounding community in western North Carolina. It turned out that in March, after the class was submitted, the state legislature passed a regressive law prohibiting transgender people from using gender-appropriate bathrooms.

“I applied just at the point when I wasn’t aware what was going on,” said Luan Joy Sherman, a student from Savannah College of Art & Design. “I don’t think it had been signed into law yet. When I crossed the border it felt really heavy and it felt really violent. As a trans person I’m not welcome here, I’m not recognized here, I’m not valid here.”

The class opened up discussion within the school about the bathroom law and gender identity and framed a collaborative action in public space that would address the question directly. The students connected with local advocacy groups Tranzmission and Southerners on New Ground, and Sherman and filmmaker Adam Rush, another faculty member, quickly designed text-based projection installations intended to create a safe public space in downtown Asheville for sharing information and expressing solidarity with the trans community. On a Saturday evening in late May, students and faculty gathered on a slope of grass to view the projections while passersby stopped to chat and drivers honked in support.

“I feel really healed now,” Sherman said. “In a short period of time I’ve gotten over the hump of something that’s really big and is the biggest experience with personal injustice that I’ve ever felt.”

Void and Ragan hope to continue the experiment in the coming year. It was not without its controversies—more than one artist showed work that many considered racially insensitive—and the school will eventually need a stronger pedagogical theory to become more than an education-themed artistic residency. But like the original Black Mountain College and independent architecture schools like the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, Terreform’s ONE Lab, and many of the “radical pedagogies” throughout history, it clearly responds to a perceived need for an alternative to the current model.

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A new book explores Albers, Cage, Fuller, and the making of Black Mountain College

In The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, Eva Diaz describes the discordant yet equally hermetic teaching methodologies of Joseph Albers, John Cage, and R. Buckminister Fuller that were developed during the years immediately following World War II at Black Mountain College. The “unaccredited college in rural Appalachia became a vital hub of cultural innovation” and was known primarily for artistic experimentation and its holistic aim “to educate a student as a person and a citizen.” It had a major impact on what would become contemporary artistic practice during and after the mid-1940s and early 1950s. Located in western North Carolina, the college’s history presents a dynamic narrative of radical innovation in terms of educational philosophy. In addition to Albers, Cage, and Fuller, other famous participants include Merce Cunningham, Clement Greenberg, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. Among many prominent students, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Kenneth Noland contributed to the college’s reputation for free experimentation and artistic diversity. While Diaz is clear in her estimation that this study of “rival methodologies” as practiced by Albers, Cage, and Fuller help to uncover three of the most “clearly articulated positions” of this period at Black Mountain, it remains questionable as to whether or not this clarity has embedded within it a sense of priority. Based on Diaz’s expertly layered representations of the three methodologies, Albers could be thought of as the composite of Cage and Fuller, though Albers is by no means limited in his vision of the “mutability of perception.” There are many similarities among these men, and Diaz’s instinct to place the comparison within the context or theme of experimentation and even process to an extent makes a lot of sense. It is the suggested nuances of approach that challenge the clarity of the three positions. As Diaz points out, all three subjects are invested in new perceptual strategies and their formal implications, progressing culture, exploring the dynamics of habit or pattern in order to break them, ethics, degrees of order and disorder within a clearly defined testing ground, and in some instances, “total thinking.” In spite of this, it is Albers who seemingly holds his institutional role and investment in a codified educational program most sacred. This is reflected in Rauschenberg’s sentiments, included by Diaz, in an interview years after he studied with Albers: "I’m still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world." One of the most interesting parts of the book is Albers’s response to Rauschenberg’s comments from the interview, which has a lot to say about the striking similarities between Cage and Albers that are far from obvious. Albers responds to the comments in terms of the “combination,” and the changing of surface qualities in Rauschenberg’s work. He admits that the study of the “changing of articulation” was very exciting, and he recognizes this in Rauschenberg’s vocabulary. It validates Albers’s influence on the painter while suggesting a subtle alliance with Cage—if one associates Rauschenberg with Cage. Diaz’s multi-layered analysis allows one to locate a multiplicity of such connections and in turn form a personal relationship with the text is on a level of self-illuminated analysis. This ability to discover counterintuitive connections or hidden alliances, call it a richness, is not obvious in Diaz’s agenda, but is among the author’s greatest gifts to the reader. Secondary to this, her digressions, which in the chapter on Cage seem most interesting and include analysis of Cage’s appropriation of Erik Satie’s The Ruse of Medusa (which signified a major departure from the methodical theatrical events at Black Mountain influenced by the Bauhaus productions of the 1920s) and significant discussion of Antonin Artaud’s influence on Cage in the context of the French dramatist’s seminal collection of essays, The Theater and its Double, are most enticing. Whether one buys into the surface rivalry between the Albersian project with that of the explorations of Cage and Fuller or locates secret alliances among the hermetic camps that suggest some similarity between Albers’s color studies and Fuller’s geodesic domes, it is clear that the tensions at Black Mountain relate a parallel narrative concerning the Bauhaus and its relationship to experimental art, which in the end, Diaz describes as “porous.” The epilogue, though somewhat brief in comparison to the cultivated chapters on Albers, Cage, and Fuller, describes the trinity’s influence on movements that follow quite succinctly. Though this investigation by Diaz could have benefited by the inclusion of more student work to support the clarity of the three positions, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College presents a nonetheless moving account of an alternative to expressionism that is synonymous with this very exciting period of divergence at the university before its doors closed in 1957.