The interview partners were all in the core group of the Revisiting Black Mountain project from within different departements: Bitten Stetter, Design Department; Brandon Farnsworth, Music Department; Dorothee Richter, Continuing Education and Department of Cultural Analysis; Jochen Kiefer, Department of Performing Arts and Film; Martin Jaeggi, Department of Art and Media; Paolo Bianchi, Department of Cultural Analysis.
The questions were posed by Ronald Kolb.
The group expresses notably different positions on the innovative nature of Black Mountain Collage and the project “Revisiting Black Mountain College”. The overall project, which was spread over nine months with forty different artistic, curatorial and design projects developed by students and lecturers throughout the building of the Zurich University of the Arts, presented a variety of experiments, of embedded concepts of creativity and authorship, of creative or artistic work, and of curating and design. Therefore, we also wanted to keep the different opinions in this email conversation as an engine for further discussion.
1. Can you briefly describe how the members of group found each other and what the original idea was behind the project? Was there a specific interest or motivation in your particular discipline?
Jochen Kiefer: In the working group “Kuration / Curation” at the ZHdK, a group has regularly come together to compile the values and views of curation in the disciplines involved and in particular also for the respective teaching formats. It quickly became clear that this discourse is important, but that it is also central to develop a common practical perspective that transcends the disciplines. In other words, to curate something together. In this phase, the Head of the Department of Performing Arts and Film, Hartmut Wickert (Wickert retired in the meantime) and the Department of Cultural Analysis DKV, Christoph Weckerle suggested bringing the exhibition on Black Mountain College at Hamburger Bahnhof from Berlin to Zurich. Interdisciplinary arrangements in the curriculum were evident at Black Mountain College—and at the same time connected to experimental and cooperative work between lecturers and students, which was strongly influenced by visual art and design. The obvious question of whether Black Mountain College could or should therefore be a kind of role model for the ZHdK triggered contradictory, utopian, and in turn reflective, but in any case motivating reactions. A revisiting could be a mirror and/or a desire machine for reflecting on art and design studies today and at the same time doing so by artistic means. It quickly became clear that showing the same exact exhibition from the Hamburger Bahnhof in Zurich would not make sense. Addressing Black Mountain College in the heart of an art college (and not as a collaboration between a museum for contemporary art and a university) would offer the opportunity to make visible forms of teaching and learning in teaching, experimentation and research, and finally as artistic reflections.
Dorothee Richter: Curating means that the most diverse artifacts, installations, objects, events, performances, screenings, and texts are combined and introduced into new constellations. In this respect, in the neoliberal world we presently inhabit, it is also a term that unites certain imaginary productions. Thus, with the idea of the curator as a professional profile, an authorship is designed that is independent, project-based, globally active, and networked. A desire production, as I said, that awakens desires and extends the concept of curating—a kind of meta-production—to many fields. In fact, of course, this depends on all kinds of factors. For example, the fact that other immaterial labor, self-employment and perceived independence are often bought at the price of precarious working conditions.
Interestingly, the request for the Black Mountain project came from the two heads of departments of the ZHdK, who asked for a renewal of teaching and learning in the university. But this would provoke (in my opinion) an interdisciplinary and radically democratic approach. In short, the whole thing was a contradiction in terms. In any case, in our small group this led to amusement. I joined on the group’s suggestion, as the member who would be concerned with the curation of this event, as my expertise lies precisely in the curatorial: I lead two courses of studies which deal with curators, the CAS/MAS in Curating, as well as the PhD in Practice in Curating; in addition, I intend to set up a digital platform with Ronald Kolb as research on curatorial practice, and I publish the web journal OnCurating.org.
Bitten Stetter: The starting point was the search for a confrontation between curation and mediation practices at the ZHdK and the founding of a space for thinking about curatorial practices in the Toni-Areal [the Zurich University of the Arts building]. Within this discussion, the participants of the interest group discussed inter- and transdisciplinarity and reflected on forms of curation and teaching in their own disciplines. Over the course of the meetings, we became interested in the exhibition Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933 - 1957 at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin. Here, we were intrigued by the mediation and the topic, but above all by the questions about current university teaching that arise through an exhibition like this one. After all, Black Mountain revolutionized higher education and left behind a very specific image of teaching and learning. And last but not least, we were driven by the question of what the Black Mountain Collage and ZHdK models have in common, because, in fact, the models couldn’t be more different. The radically different model of Black Mountain College, according to the idea, should therefore be used explicitly as a mirror for teaching at the ZHdK, in order to discuss (im)possibilities experimentally, playfully, and critically. At best, we hope that dealing with past and present models will lead to new visions of the future, which may be contrary to the existing ideas of teaching and learning at an art academy.
Paolo Bianchi: The working group Curation at the ZHdK sees itself as an exploratory group. The term “probing”, derived from the tool, stands for the assessment and estimation of certain conditions. In the context of curating and exhibition-making, it is necessary to activate one’s “curatorial ego” in relation to art objects. It is the ability to “let the exhibits be”, to think of them as phenomena. This opens the door to negotiating the meaning of things introspectively. An exhibition like Revisiting Black Mountain has the potential to refer to the fact that its expressive value is always bound to a materiality and that the representational always needs its own appearance in order to be able to read and interpret it. The meaning of things is not per se inherent in the objects themselves but is only revealed in the “dialogue” between the pointing, the observer, and what is shown. At the same time, the art objects move into an alienating proximity and a revealing distance. They become rebellious, accusatory, and evoke another narrative and distance themselves from thought patterns. At this point, the topic and motivation of curating become one. Using this project as an example, the audience can be motivated by Black Mountain College as a topic to engage in an open-ended process. And to try out their own “curatorial self”.
Brandon Farnsworth: I am seeing an increasing number of musicians and composers who are interested in inter- or transdisciplinary projects. Many feel attracted to musical theatre. Here, the scenic elements and the performativity are already part of the artistic expression. Many musicians see this as an opportunity not only to occupy a seat in the orchestra, but also to implement their own artistic ideas.
Yet, if I ask these musicians what they think of John Cage’s Theater Piece No.1 or the interdisciplinary experiments of Black Mountain College, for example, I only encounter astonished glances. So, while many musicians want more than just an orchestral career, they often have little insight into artistic practices outside the classical repertoire and its specific performance traditions. I can confirm this from my own experience at several universities.
My motivation for this project starts from here: on the one hand, to offer musicians an opportunity to be able to engage with the history of experimental art during their studies and, on the other hand, to enable projects in the Department of Music that have the potential to be “wild”, experimental and connectable beyond the Department. The special thing would be to act out of the specific history and questions of music and not to imitate the performativity discourses of other disciplines.
2. What is interesting about the Black Mountain College model for the way you are currently teaching or for today’s teaching methods in general? Can you describe this desire to engage with Black Mountain College (and other historical models of experimental teaching)?
DR: Art schools are historically based on a number of different models: the academy, the Bauhaus model, and contemporary approaches, which we are grappling with at the ZHdK. These models are based on fundamentally different constructions of creativity. Every art academy wants to provide its graduates with the greatest opportunities after graduation, as artists, curators, actors, conductors, musicians, designers, filmmakers, dancers. How to get from A to Z in this endeavor is in turn based on the respective creativity concept. Do you want to equip the students with management knowledge as much as possible in order to pave their way into the creative industries? Do you want to provide them with expertise in their field, or is critical thinking required, as well as the ability to cooperate that enables students to survive in an extremely complex world? The fascination with Black Mountain College lies in the fact that a kind of wild knowledge emerged, as far away as possible from ECTS, fixed timetables, and curricula, and that the artists and students present there enthusiastically worked together in unlikely and free constellations. They understood teaching and learning as a collaborative process, they grew, cooked and ate together, they talked and lived together. However, the situation was certainly hierarchical: only wealthy students could afford to be there, and African-American students were also for the most part the exception at Black Mountain College. So, I see it as symptomatic when, after the Europe-wide process of schooling and unification, a desire for free, wild thinking and wild action arises.
The most important point of reference to Black Mountain College for me is Fluxus, of course. John Cage made his first attempts at minimalist instruction at Black Mountain College, travelled to Japan and to the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, and appeared as a teacher of many Fluxus artists at the New School of Social Research in New York. There, experimental action led to new formats, a reevaluation of everyday culture and high art, and a radical change in the concept of authorship. Then, at the end of the 1950s/beginning of the 1960s, all of this began to revolutionize every concept of art that had previously been valid. Film, video art, happenings, events, democratic design, new music, and new extreme forms of dance and theatre all began here. The understanding of all art forms changed; art wanted to become political, and no longer only be there for the upper class. In production, too, the idea of an ingenious individual artist turned into group authorship. Since art was equal to life, at least as a slogan, this had far-reaching consequences; cooperative ways of living and gender roles were experimented with.
As such, I see experiments in art, in teaching and learning as fundamentally important, but only when teachers take risks, only when experiences are understood beyond getting to know practical or theoretical activities, and only when there is more at stake. Only then can something be taken from teaching—a joint action, a joint responsibility, a struggle for content. From this perspective, performative work in the arts combines with work on forms of living, the knowledge of social contexts, the drastic changes in infrastructure through digital media—all this informs interdisciplinary art and gives it depth and relevance.
MJ: For me, the “necessity” of dealing with BMC and other experimental teaching methods lies in the fact that, on the one hand, they offer an opportunity to question one’s own actions, even in a very critical sense if they lead to the insight that certain things are no longer possible under the given circumstances, that the limits of what is feasible become visible. Equally worth considering, of course, is the precarious nature of Black Mountain College, its end, its failure at the ideal. And of course, the projections that Black Mountain College invites us to make can be used to define our own visions that may not necessarily have anything to do with historical reality.
The promise for the future that Black Mountain College still holds seems to me the constant reinvention of teaching and the institution, the variability and capacity to change. This resulted not least from the constantly reconfigured interactions between the arts, but also from the teaching content of humanities. To create an environment in which this is possible seems just as relevant to me as ever. Black Mountain College also remains forward-looking in its understanding of the school as a community of teachers and learners, in which this role is not so clearly distributed in every situation, where the school becomes a testing ground for all involved.
JK: The performing arts are art and media cannibals and have understood performance itself and its staging as an independent art form since the historical avant-gardes. In their dramaturgies, they use methods of the other arts to create an experience that can also be understood as performative work on the other arts. In this sense, interdisciplinarity is an integral point of reference for the performing arts. I believe, however, that the self-evidence with which Black Mountain College cooperated (without constantly addressing the subject of interdisciplinarity and thus putting the disciplines in their own right again), can be stimulating for trying out artistic methods cooperatively and seeing how far they lead and how productive they are. It is in this pragmatic sense, like at Black Mountain, where the utopian potential could reside.
As far as further suggestions for performative practice are concerned at the moment, in my view it is not so much the diffusion of the avant-garde in Black Mountain that is important, but the idea that art and design are capable of producing their own forms of knowledge as aesthetic spaces of experience. At Black Mountain College, experimentation is often coupled with an action-relatedness and performativity that aims at changing everyday practices that affect the processes by which art itself emerges. This may indicate to us that the talk about the social art form of the performing arts should not (only) be thought of in terms of production aesthetics, but that it also obliges us to question social relevance in relation to the conditions of our own actions. For me, this is also one of the main potentials in terms of the innovativeness of an art academy: not only in the training of creativity techniques, but also in the freedom to test and reflect on them in a way that hardly seems possible in the art business and its (sub)markets.
It would be a mythical construct to see this discourse already in Black Mountain. In the largely ideologically uninhibited and pragmatic experimentation of the collectives, however, for me there is the potential to introduce something different, something different from the outset. Black Mountain itself seems to me to be more of a random innovation, perhaps even a model of unintended conceived new forms. In my view, this can explain part of the reverberation emanating from a college built in 1933 right in the American heartland. It would be unclear to me what real innovation could really be planned.
BS: Black Mountain College has been experiencing a romanticized resurrection for years, precisely because personal responsibility, self-organization, self-sufficiency, and self-empowerment are back in high demand. In times of standardization and commodification and times of reminiscence and of closeness to nature and depression through consumerism, the ideas of the college trigger longings for freedom and alternative forms of living and working and thus question supposedly immovable structures in the context of life and work. From this perspective, taking a look at structures, learning and teaching models, and the relationship between teaching and learning bodies, as well as the location and the link between education and life, seems interesting.
Yet, a closer look at the failure of Black Mountain College also seems necessary, since concepts such as community, collectivity, and the idea of community are currently being uncritically positivized.
In principle, it is imperative to deal with different pasts but also current, new and innovative models, since access to knowledge and forms of mediation are changing significantly in the age of digital transformation, and thus the values and needs of the “managers” and “users” of a university are in a state of upheaval.
PB: BMC offers an exciting potential for stimulation especially with regard to the form of teaching and learning through an emphasis on experimentation. There are the psychological perceptual experiments of Josef Albers, based on systematic testing. Then there are the inverse experiments in which theoretical concepts are obtained through practical experience. Worth mentioning are heuristic and trial-and-error experiments on the effect of colors and shapes. This continues in the possibility of failed projects in working with variants and variations, and in action-related experiments according to the motto “how and not what.” All this leads to experiences with an open outcome.
The pedagogical practices and creativity models used at Black Mountain College are more interested in the process than in the results and products. From this perspective, there can be no right or wrong results, only right or wrong approaches. Derived from this, the motto is: “to teach method, not content” and “to emphasize process, not results.” Students should learn to make intelligent decisions and to think independently. They were asked to search for things themselves and to find them independently; they were supposed to learn instead of imitating them. The aim was to reach “totalization” with intuition and reason (Paul Klee, Josef Albers). All in all, the focus was on conveying a process-oriented approach.
The focus of the training was on “art”. This meant a cross-disciplinary combination of fine arts, theatre, music, literature, architecture, mathematics, physics, chemistry, geography and history. This was influenced by pragmatic aesthetics (John Dewey). A synergetic continuity between art and everyday experience was sought. This led to the understanding of art as an educational practice. This, in turn, took place in conjunction with performative aesthetics, participatory visualization strategies, and delimiting art practices.
Four special things stand out at Black Mountain College: 1) the life of the community; 2) the experimental; 3) the aesthetic-educative models (e.g. Spectodra as an early form of happening, an interplay of art and knowledge, a hybrid linking of music, dance, drama, painting, stage design, and light); and 4) the social effectiveness of art.
Building on the Bauhaus tradition (creative artist community, combining of art and crafts), a campus life with seminars, table/dinner conversations, field work (instead of sport), and kitchen duty will emerge. All in all, the transgressive concept of art existed there and at that time was fascinating, concerned with the transgression from artefacts towards aesthetic events. This resulted in a hybrid, disparate, non-causal sequence of performative actions. An aesthetics of representation and of the work was transformed into an aesthetics of presentation and process. “Action” became a medium of art and art a medium of (social) action. Seen in this light, Black Mountain College is highly topical.
3. What do these approaches, methods, and attitudes mean today in the omnipresence of the digital?
BS: If we speculate about a university in the near or distant future and rely on the positive aspects of Black Mountain College, an art academy of the future could teach independently of location and adapt to the working forms and ways of digital nomads. But it could also be a university that is partially consciously opposed to networking and urbanization. A place of retreat with consciously applied digital withdrawal, where lived experiences, self-sufficiency, and DIY strategies are once again at the center. Not a place that refuses digital transformation and technologization, but a place that cultivates a conscious and new approach to media and technologies and multi-optionality. In the context of trends, transparency, and knowledge-sharing, the boundaries between teachers and learners could also dissolve. Current teaching models such as the “Open School” in Austria are already propagating this today, and instrinsically motivated learning could once again become more important.
MJ: That’s a tricky question, because on the one hand artistic and pedagogical concepts developed at Black Mountain College can be carried forward into the age of the digital, especially the approaches in the field of the trans- and intermedia. On the other hand, Black Mountain College also raises the question of the importance of real places, the genius loci, which is an integral part of the Black Mountain College myth. However, the digital should not simply be read as an antithesis to location. Networking with the outside world, the American cultural metropolises that distinguished the College, would be much easier under the sign of the digital. The idea of a digitally networked Lake Eden campus has its appeal and points to possible future perspectives in which the genius loci and the digital would complement and provide feedback for each other.
DR: Bernard Stiegler once spoke of a global hallucination through digital media. Our consciousness is produced by a great machine without us becoming fully aware of it, and if one assumes that subjectivity is formulated and reformulated in ongoing processes, the constitution of the subject inevitably changes. A self-assured subject of the central perspective is pushed back in favor of an infantilized, casually formulated half-subject. Decisions that are made on an algorithmically produced supply of images are firmly anchored in our everyday lives, i.e. every time we surf the net. Every art form, every piece of information, every financial transaction is conveyed through 1 and 0 operations; this means an incredibly high degree of abstraction, and, as we are now experiencing, it is increasingly difficult to find out who controls which digital operations. I do not see the arts as a counter-world to the digital (sounds, images, and movements have long been produced digitally), but as an urgently needed way of dealing with the omnipresence of the digital. The quasi “cumbersome” materiality of many arts can also cause a distancing from exuberant, hallucinatory visual worlds.
PB: Mankind today is at the beginning of a radical age: the fourth industrial revolution will epochally reduce the difference between man and machine. Nevertheless, the potential of creative human intelligence remains indispensable for artificial intelligence. The Revisiting Black Mountain project seeks to have an impact beyond the contemporary pressure to perform and the overhyped hysteria for creative industry. It plunges into the reality of two different concepts and contexts of art mediation—Black Mountain College at Lake Eden and the ZHdK in the Toni Areal. Both examples make it clear that it is fundamentally valuable to activate creativity as a resource. This activation should try to subject the analog-digital phenomena to a zigzag course, whereby the relationship between the analog and the digital turns out to be something processual. Pedagogical practices and creativity models do not passively follow the course of a waterfall, but instead occur actively through circularity and along the loops in the dynamics of a spiral movement: “forwards” and “upwards”.
BF: If we see Black Mountain College as a prime example of current transdisciplinary working methods, it still has a lot to tell us. Of course, it is fundamentally different from our institutional framework.
For me, the special situation at Black Mountain College is the concentration and presence in one place over a longer period of time, which we can hardly imagine today. You had no choice but to deal with the students and teachers. i.e. the different skills and personal backgrounds also became effective in this sense as a social experiment.
If I look at this from today’s perspective, I imagine this situation to be quite unique. I often work transdisciplinarily together with artists and academics from different disciplines and backgrounds. But a comparable situation is only a dream for us. It’s much easier than ever to be present anywhere in the world, maintain contacts, etc., but these remain comparatively fragmented. However, it takes such moments of intensive and concentrated cooperation to create the conditions for successful collaboration. With every project, I am reminded again and again how much time it takes to reach a common denominator at all, on which serious work can only begin.
The Schwarzenberg project by Benjamin Ryser, which I supervised, is interesting in this respect: a group of musicians and people interested in music are invited to spend a weekend in Emmental in order to understand hearing as a political practice. The focus is on community-building processes of mutual recognition.
JK: Against the background of digital technologies, I am most interested in the significance of the analogue, what it means when everyday spatial experience transcends the sensitive glass of the displays and in the future migrates more and more scalably into the virtual. The aesthetic experience in bodily constituted performances can then be understood as a dual-sense laboratory, as a laboratory of the virtual and the analog. Since imaginations and ideas have found their reflection ever since the idea of the aesthetic, the spirits and ghosts of the analogue return to the stage today, and the rebirths of a co-presentational human image based on presence become the increasingly strange appearance of wondrous “people”.
Xanti Schawinksy, the Swiss comrade-in-arms of Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus stage in Dessau, founded a theatre laboratory at Black Mountain College. This Spectodra, as he calls it, is directed entirely towards the sensualization of knowledge, towards knowledge that shows itself aesthetically, towards vivid abstractions. This Spectodra would undoubtedly only be reenactable as a parody of modernity. A “Spectodrama” of the present would perhaps not be driven by a love of geometry, but rather inspired by atmospheres and affections of the virtual, by non-ontological phenomena, by the spirits of the analogue, by the comprehensibility of the incomprehensible, by the sensitization to the untouchable.
4. “Black Mountain” as a wish machine: What visions of the future are linked to the overall project? What could it initiate?
JK: Wish machines are unconscious processes at the source of Deleuze/Guattari’s concept formation that cannot be modelled by even the most complex algorithms. At the very least, every art academy is wrapped up in the desire for this kind of wish machine—with all necessary purposeful and market-related legitimations. Otherwise, the art academy would lose its social function and innovativeness. In my opinion, this idea is a central idea for the Revisiting Black Mountain project in Zurich.
MJ: If the project can initiate a discussion about teaching and school institutions and thereby bring people into conversation who weren’t previously in an exchange, it would already be successful for me. In the utopian ideal case, a culture of joint reflection at the ZHdK on school and teaching would develop from this project. In the realistic ideal case, these would be approaches that would continue to grow. The project raises the question of whether and how a school can think about itself. The Revisiting Black Mountain project is an attempt to find an answer to this question and thus, of course, also an invitation to pursue this question further, possibly with completely different approaches and perspectives.
BS: We would like students as well as lecturers and designers of the university to understand the exhibition as a reflection vessel and space for thought and to reflect on current and future developments and social, socio-economic and political changes, because they have strong influences on our understanding of values, but also our understanding of teaching. Migration, scarcity of resources, and self-organization are not only topics that have shaped Black Mountain College, but also current topics that continue to occupy our society.
BF: After more than three years in the Toni Areal, many traditional borders and old territories can still be felt at the school. In the course of the work process on the Revisiting Black Mountain project, however, many small moments of exchange and cooperation were created. From my point of view, these contribute to a serious change of the school.
PB: Providing an impetus inevitably means developing an idea and a vision of what is to be initiated. In our revisiting project, the vision combines with a look back to a retrovision. Looking back, we plunge into the era of Black Mountain College. This doesn’t mean a nostalgic backward shift, but, on the contrary, a foresighted consideration of the existing, the past and the future.
So, is it about finding standards in the past to judge the present? In the myth or in the memory of a “golden age” in order to draw from a distant past? To regard the past as a cultural, political, and psychological treasure trove? Retrovisionary thinking is neither oriented inwards nor backwards, rather it dissolves outdated structures and mental stagnation, critically rethinks its own history, and renews itself again and again.
Retrovision stands for the “past as future” (Jürgen Habermas, 1990). But it does not stand for the seemingly irresistible tendency to choose models of the past as patterns for interpreting the future. In fact, the focus is less on faith in the past than on the memory of it. Revisiting thus means, in the present time of the ZHdK, to make possible a moment of remembrance of Black Mountain College that could lead us to new shores, to new spaces and depths.
DR: I can well imagine that through “meeting points” in terms of content, other collaborations between students and teachers are possible across disciplines (and possibly across departments)— interest-driven teaching and learning, which, as Derrida called it, could go in the direction of an university without conditions, in project work, in studios and as talks, with invited guests... I hope that the university takes that risk. With the Revisiting Black Mountain project, I really like the fact that students and lecturers could all submit projects, that theoretical and practical parts have intertwined, and that the symposium offered opportunities to invite international cultural practitioners as well as showing and discussing projects that were being developed at the ZHdK. As bell hooks puts it, there is a great opportunity in academic and artistic learning (and teaching): “The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”
Jochen Kiefer is head of the BA Dramaturgie at the Department of Performing Arts and Film and Professor for dramaturgy and head of the practical field dramaturgy in BA & MA at the ZHdK.
Dorothee Richter is the head of the PhD in Practice in Curating and the CAS/MAS in Curating at the ZHdK.
Paolo Bianchi is lecturer at the Master Art Education, ZHdK.
Martin Jaeggi is lecturer at the BA Fine Arts, ZHdK.
Bitten Stetter is Professor of Trends & Identity, head of the Master Trends & Identity at the ZHdK.
Brandon Farnstworth is Scientific Researcher at the Master Transdisciplinarity Studies at the ZHdK.
Ronald Kolb is co-head of the CAS/MAS in Curating at the ZHdK.