BLACK MOUNTAIN REDUX
Black Mountain College, 1933 - 1956. A paradigm of arts education - progressive, experimental, and influential in its pedagogy + curriculum. Investigating new program and campus development on the existing site, what would be an architecture that embodies the spirit of a new BMC? Could a system of design accommodate this unique approach to education, lifestyle and the arts?
THE SPACE OF LEARNING
Black Mountain College was established to develop creativity and the intellect in equal measure - through 'learning and living' - with a curriculum that fostered drama, dance, music, science and the arts. There were no required courses, rather, students and their advisors developed a course of study unique to each individual and attended courses voluntarily. All work responsibilities were shared - food cultivated and harvested from the campus farm, meals served, even buildings constructed and maintained. It was an unrestrained and flexible experiment in democratic self-rule, a community of experiential learning, with such influential and profound characters as Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller molding its character.1 This paradigm, with roots in the Bauhaus and branches in a utopian ideal, was neither infallible nor oblivious, and its primary commitment was to maintaining a vital and responsive atmosphere for personal and collective growth.
How would such an approach to education manifest itself today? Beyond social and anthropological analysis and critique, this thesis will attempt to identify an architectural language that generates and perpetuates the spirit of Black Mountain College. An architecture of reciprocity, interventions into BMC's campus provoke the need for elastic space of expression and experimentation - not one that predicts or dictates an outcome, but one that generates the best possible scenario for chance, for dialogue, for mistakes and discovery, while at the same time providing structure for dedicated research, production and tangible outcome. An architecture of doing, of making, but not of rote production. The shared space, scalar intimacy and de-institutionalized conditions that supported BMC's activity in the mid-century were catalysts for a dynamic and reciprocal spatial engagement, a physical dialogue with space. Could today's embodiment of BMC cultivate this relationship further? Could the space of learning itself become a generative component, an operative medium?
EXPANDED FIELDS, OVERLAPPING EDGES
The setting is widening; after the isolated object, it now can embrace the whole scene: the form of Gordon Matta-Clark or Dan Graham's work can not be reduced to the 'things' those two artists 'produce'; it is not the simple secondary effects of a composition, as the formalistic aesthetic would like to advance, but the principle acting as a trajectory evolving through signs, objects, forms, gestures . . . The contemporary artwork's form is spreading out from its material form: it is a linking element, a principle of dynamic agglutination. (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics)
Developing a contemporary model for art and architectural education must inherently address ever widening circles of culture and society. The Expanded Field of Rosalind Krauss has indeed expanded immeasurably, beyond the object yes, increasing to encompass not only the various manifestations of the art and architectural disciplines but also to the fields of science, mathematics, ecology, sociology, politics, etc. While this is not news and has been widely discussed, what I believe hasn’t been addressed and explored in an equally expansive way is the impact that all of this has on the institution, and, in return, what impact the institution can have in this evolving context.
We have gone from the revered object of the Beaux-Arts model, a spectacle separating the art world from its beholders; to the self-referential surface - its materiality or its representation - of Modernism, engaging the subject, if at all, on a one-to-one basis; to the critique of art consumption, "mixing signifier and signified", of Pop Art. This evolution began to expand art's frame of reference beyond the object to the everyday, contextualizing it and raising an awareness of its contiguity. As this trajectory continues, evolving into present-day works of artists such as Rikrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, and Ai WeiWei, we can understand art's potential as the event itself, a moment and place of exchange, liberated from the object : "the point of contact between the artist and the space he occupies, the space itself being a complex weave..." (Haris Pellapaisiotis, Speaking Thoughts) In this manner, the disciplines of art and architecture are increasingly connecting with the world not only conceptually and politically, but physically. Whether a literal event or a construct, the art of today is necessarily more social, more relational, more about topology than topography. We ought to talk of 'formations' rather than 'forms'. Unlike an object that is closed in on itself by the intervention of a style and a signature, present-day art shows that form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic proposition with other formations, artistic or otherwise. (Nicolas Bourriaud)
Yet much of the activity of the academy still remains tethered to the conventional art school model, emphasizing the output of the object, the "production of consumable artworks". Creative institutions and those engaged with them are increasingly aware of a point of stasis, a systematic rejection of subjectivity (Guattari), of repeated attempts to resurrect worn-out models, of an academic fatigue (Michael Meredith). This timely introspection rightly questions pedagogy and approach, but at the same time begs to question the very idea of the "creative institution", and how this term, conceptually and substantively, may no longer be applicable. Perhaps those two words can no longer happily coexist unless they are redefined.
If we are to reimagine the academy in this context, emphasizing process rather than product, is teaching then simply a matter of "galvanizing students into 'networking, self-organization, self-positioning, [and] self-management . . .?'" (Olaf Metzel) Manifesta 6, initiating a collection of essays entitled "Notes for an Art School" in response to a perceived awareness of "crisis" in art education, contributes this insight from Jan Verwoert : When . . . conceptual work is reduced to an ephemeral gesture, project or proposition that challenges and renegotiates conventional definitions of art, the primary mode of existence of such a dematerialised work may in fact be its discussion and documentation in a contemporary academic discourse. Setting up a framework which embraces indeterminacy and fosters collective conversation could be the answer. Perhaps we could imagine expanding the breadth and the very idea of the institution instead of delimiting its reach and further isolating the people and activities within its walls. Perhaps the very walls themselves could be reconsidered.
The education system is after all a system - no longer a hermetic one of authority and hierarchy, or of self-reflexive or even utopian aims, but a system in the truest sense of the word - one of inter-relationships, networks, inter-dependencies, cause and effect and cause again . . . not a singular structure but a collapsing and layering of structures to get beyond assumed ideology to a more performative, engaged, heterogeneous, and heuristic culture. Instead of a space for production of signs, theories and the representation of said signs and theories, the creative institution could be a place for the production of spaces and situations, of provocations and even real solutions - responsive to forces beyond the campus.
Breaking down the oppositional logic of Krauss’s Euclidean-derived model ... we stand to appreciate more fully the meanings of multivalence, impurity, and intertextuality ...There is far too much difference and nuance to account for the gaps between things than the model of opposition describes.
- Jan Avgikos "The Shape of Art at the End of the Century", Sculpture Magazine, April 1998 Vol.17 No. 4
A RETURN TO ENGAGEMENT
. . . the academy today must be understood not only as an institution for education, but always also as a site for the production, discussion, circulation, collection and documentation of contemporary conceptual art practices. To open up the academy to these new tasks also means to break down the boundaries of the institution.14
In On Weaving, published in 1965, Anni Albers noted, Material form becomes meaningful form through design, that is, through considered relationships. This spirit manifested itself not only in the work she, along with her peers and students, developed at Black Mountain College, but in the world beyond the studio. The experience of education here was a holistic one, of self-guided work and independent thought, alongside collective participation and immersive discussion. This "learning and living" model fostered at Black Mountain College often re-emerges in the discourse of today, along with the methodology of the Bauhaus, HfG Ulm and comparable institutions, as a provocative precedent for pedagogy and academic life.
If we acknowledge this history as a worthy precedent, its relevance lies in this spirit of participation, experimentation and production that was present in the daily life of the College. Their facilities were neither technologically progressive nor sophisticated - their engagements with materiality and making were often tested directly in real time. Equally significant was the engagement of faculty who, both out of necessity due to the remote location and a desire to embrace the time spent there, worked aggressively and passionately on their own projects - some, such as Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, generating perhaps the most provocative and pivotal work of their careers. Through an ongoing relationship with MoMA in New York, many of the artists were given exclusive showings of the work they produced while in residency in North Carolina, providing an important cultural outlet and additional impetus for productivity. At Black Mountain, students and faculty (this faculty of world renowned artists and designers in the prime of their careers) shared and perpetuated this equalizing dynamic through working (and living) side by side without preconditions or restrictions.
To imagine this intensity of engagement and immersion, one could see the school itself as a “lab”, a non-hierarchical space for testing ideas freely and inviting collective feedback. This space of production and experimentation also potentially liberates us from the closed loop, the need for a completed work, presented and evaluated based on its merits as an object. Maintaining a sense that this creative work exists as part of a trajectory or field - and an awareness of alternative and evolving research and other circles of thought and activity - fosters social and dynamic exchange and invention, and dispels the myths of the hermetic institution.
Beyond the workshop, typically relegated to the basements of academia, the lab is an inclusive, freer model, one inviting exploration into the spatial, temporal, social and physiological as much as the material. As the influences and output of the creative world are increasingly diverse, expansive and experiential, the traditional campus model, the polarizing hierarchical structures, and the banal architecture of the institution all fail to reciprocate.
LAYERED TYPOLOGIES / DIFFUSE PROGRAM
Art education is supposed to take place in the academy, art production in the studio, art presentation and circulation in the gallery, art collection in the museum and private home, and so on. If we assume, however, that the assignment of distinct roles to different institutions . . . is, in fact, a strategy to consolidate existing power structures within the art world, should it not be a primary political goal to question such authoritative definitions of what an institution is supposed to be and do? (Jan Voewort)
It is because of this crossing of the borders and status changes between art and non-art that the radical strangeness of the aesthetic object and the active appropriation of the common world have been able to come together and constitute the third way' of a micro-politics of art, between the opposed paradigms of art becoming life and art as resistant form.... If there is a political question about contemporary art, it is not to be grasped in the grid of the opposition modern/postmodern. It is in the analysis of the changes affecting this 'third' politics, the politics founded on a game of exchanges and displacements between the world of art and that of non-art. (Jacques Ranciere)
A creative institution has to have relevance outside of itself. A critical point in the feedback loop of its effectual place in society is in its ability to look outward, to provide a public cultural interface. This is the space of encounter, dialogue and opportunity for the deployment of potentially radical ideas and actions (in art, architecture and culture) . . . transformative in both a self-reflexive way - feeding the energy, content and evolutionary potential of the institution itself - and in a much broader scope, opening the potential for dynamic exchange and engagement within not only the larger creative world, but with people and places and politics, avenues of research and demographics, both local and global, that perhaps reciprocally elevates both contemporary society and contemporary art.
Hans Ulrich Obrist refers to Alexander Dorner’s manifesto Ways Beyond Art, written in the 1920s and perhaps applicable now more than ever : he describes the museum in a state of permanent transformation; the museum on the move or elastic museum. The museum as status quo, separated from art production and education and acting as a mausoleum of objects, no longer applies. In an inclusive ‘lab’ context, the programs of instruction, production and presentation layer and collapse - instead of discrete entities, activities intermingle, replicate, disperse, recede and reconnect at different intervals in space and time. The space is dynamic and social, with the lab environment’s flexibility (both conceptually and physically) encapsulating, or interweaving, the typically private space of instruction with the social space of exhibition.
Nicolas Bourriaud describes this “arena of exchange” of art and society as relational and dialogic :
Art . . . tightens the space of relations, unlike TV and literature which refer each individual person to his or her space of private consumption . . . At an exhibition . . . even when inert forms are involved, there is the possibility of an immediate discussion, in both senses of the term. I see and perceive, I comment, and I evolve in a unique space and time. Art is the place that produces a specific sociability.
- jenny myers