On a new relevance of Black Mountain College

Last Friday, a couple of students, curators, artists and scholars met at the “Black Mountain – ein Interdisziplinäres Experiment 1933-57” exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin to address issues of Black Mountain College from various perspectives – about aspects of the curatorial, performances, pedagogy of current university education,  expressionist art, the significance of poetry, space and hierarchies. Participating in the educational series “PERFORMING the Black Mountain ARCHIVE” that is run by Arnold Dreyblatt, Prof. Dr. Sabine Sielke (North American Studies Program) and Dr. Thomas Fechner-Smarsly  (German / Skandinavian Studies) from the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn mentored the weekly program from 13th to 20th July.  A group of students teamed up with a group of students from the Vienna “Versatorium”, who engage in translating Language Poetry and perform texts from the “Black Mountain Archive”.

The meeting, intended as a larger discussion group, begins with Arnold Dreyblatt posing questions about the experiment and its relevance for universities and art academies today. Literature scholar Heinz Ickstadt brings the notion of the experiment in context with creativity. He argues that Black Mountain College, however, eventually failed as a college – hence it inhabited more teachers than students. Exhibition curator Gabriele Knapstein highlights how different this particular model of exhibition was, compared to more classic formats of exhibitions that do not incorporate such a high number of documents. Explaining the exhibition title, she emphasises the importance of differentiating the terms of experiment, experimentation and improvisation. The former dancer Leanore Ickstadt, who had once studied in a New York course of Black Mountain teacher Merce Cunningham, reports that also for him the experiment was more important than techniques.

Sabine Sielke raises the question of why this particular part of history might be interesting again today. She critically remarks that Black Mountain College was not always an interdisciplinary experiment, but that it had changed drastically between its beginnings in the 30s and its end in the 50s. In its final years, Sielke argues, the college resembled an artist retreat. Picking up on this, Gabriele Knapstein remarks that also the curation of the exhibition integrates the development of Black Mountain as a period of three phases.

Asked for their opinion as a group of students, Anne van Westen criticises that within the conversation, they – as students – ought to have names, too and that the non-hierarchical model of Black Mountain College was not transferred to the current happening. She believes that, generally, non-hierarchical models would often fail. Responding to this comment, Heinz Ickstadt imagines the perfect teacher as one who is silently in the background, almost invisible and instead helping students to grow. At Black Mountain, he believes, this would not have been possible, since most of the teachers had big egos. Partly agreeing, Gabriele Knapstein claims that although there were exceptions, Black Mountain College actually achieved working without hierarchical models.

Heinz Ickstadt emphasises the significance of Black Mountain College for poetry, and says that the school was the beginning of a new movement in poetry. A moment in which the poet was thought as a prophet, reacting to changes in society. Anna-Lena Werner believes that art and society are, however, unthinkable without each other, and that the current political changes in Europe would also affect the art drastically and more than in the two recent decades. Also dance, as Leanore Ickstadt says, is vulnerable to changes in society. Literature scholar Ellen Hinsey agrees, and remarks that Black Mountain was interesting for its dichotomy between structure and chaos. Thomas Fechner-Smarsly reminds of the significance of the voice in Olson’s projective verse and asks what we have to contribute in a digital world.

Anne van Westen speaks about her notion of space and how there is always a space, or a gap, between different people and different groups, and that even models like Black Mountain were not able to change that. Leanore Ickstadt partly agrees to this notion, and refers to a development of artists going away from the community and instead establishing a space of individualism. She recalls that in her student days artists were studying and working further collectively. Anna-Lena Werner disagrees, and argues that she observes the opposite in the scene of art and design. People are coming together, working in collectives and groups, rather than immersing themselves in individualism.

By the end of the conversation, Ellen Hinsey and student Annabell Gentgen speak about conditions of education today, and the fact the new systems – as the Bologna reform– make it impossible for students to have time to actually learn. Working next to their education, Annabell argues, is necessary to survive.  Ellen Hinsey is interested if students today would look at their future in an optimistic or pessimistic way, and thus encourages everyone to reflect on the past discussion and to think about what education might lack today, when compared to Black Mountain College.

Participants: Prof. Dr. Heinz Ickstadt, Leanore Ickstadt, Arnold Dreyblatt, Dr. Gabriele Knapstein, Prof. Dr. Sabine Sielke, Prof. Dr. Thomas Fechner-Smarsly, Ellen Hinsey, Anne van Westen, Kim Schibilla, Katharina Anton, Annabell Gentgen, Verena Kittel and Anna-Lena Werner.

Documented and written by Verena Kittel and Anna-Lena Werner
Research Associates for Black Mountain Research