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Could Black Mountain College exist today? – a question that has been asked many times of Ruth Erickson, co-curator of ‘Leap before you Look’ – the first comprehensive museum exhibition in the US to examine the history and legacy of the experimental art school that has had such a pivotal role to play in the development of Western art of the 20th century. The answer I receive is a resounding no – according to Erickson, the presence of mind demanded of its students by BMC would be impossible to achieve in today’s information-heavy world, with so much stimulus occupying our attention 24/7. In her interviews with BMC alumni, many talked about how the remote context enabled a fully absorbing and engaged experience – “We had so much time there” was the line that kept coming up. However, Erickson isn’t too pessimistic about this – the constant access to information and experience that technology brings us simply presents a new and different set of challenges and opportunities. Fair enough I suppose. However, the story around ever-diminishing time and space will feel painfully familiar to most artists and art students today. In my own work I seem to be continually juggling commitments, grabbing a few spare hours here and there to take care of my practice. I’m constantly wondering when there will be enough time to process all of the information, ideas and conversations.


The exhibition at The Hammer Museum has been both carefully and beautifully put together, showcasing the impressive extent of the work produced by students and faculty members at BMC. Full wall size documentary photographs of the college in action are utilised as a framing device for archive display cases to sit in front of, creating a visual motif that runs through the show, which helps to hold together the diverse array of material on display. Personal highlights are an early abstract painting by Ray Johnson, more famous as one of the originators of mail art, Ruth Asawa’s mobile wire sculptures and a full size dance floor installed in the gallery for performances of dance pieces by Merce Cunningham.

Something I notice across the works in the show is a certain modesty of scale – while there are some larger works, there is nothing that could be described as monumental. I wonder if this may be in part to do with the style of teaching led by Josef Albers at BMC, where the ethos was ‘learning by doing’ – students were encouraged to produce study after study in an unending process of refining ideas. Another facet of the teaching was in setting assignments where each student would be given the same ‘problem’ – the various solutions arrived at would be examined and discussed together afterwards. It strikes me that there is something particularly collaborative about this approach, where the learning process is placed firmly within a common experience. This seems a world away from today’s arts schools where each person develops their own isolated line of enquiry – the process of learning together is largely relegated to the theoretical discussion that takes place about an individual’s own particular aesthetic struggle, which everyone else hasn’t shared in, so can only speak about from a relatively distanced perspective. It leaves me wondering  if the BMC approach introduced a more empathetic aspect to the learning experience.

Some of these thoughts are echoed later when I meet with Piero Golia, one of the founders of ‘The Mountain School of Arts’ – taking its name from the Mountain Bar that became a base for its activities when it began in 2005. Piero tells me that students are encouraged to suspend their production but not their practice when they come to join the School. Over a 3 month term students put to one side their regular studio/work production and engage in discussions and activity centred around invited speakers drawn from a range of specialisms and fields, including but not limited to the arts. The school is entirely free, which means that Piero and co-founder Eric Wesley pull together an impressive curriculum of activity from their own generosity and that of their network within LA and internationally who contribute to making the school happen each year. Piero tells me that he can spend up to 15 solid days before term begins on the phone pulling together a program of speakers. When I ask if the school could exist without him, his responds by saying that if it cannot, it will be a failure in his eyes. While it is clearly sustained by his incessant energy and dynamic personality, it seems that the project has already achieved a huge amount having existed for 12 years, much longer than the average life-span of an artist-led project.

The sense of not needing to wait for external validation that is at the heart of the Mountain School is also central to the work of artist Karen Atkinson, who I meet the next day. Karen is a member of faculty at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) and founder of GYST (Getting Your Sh*t Together) – an independent initiative with the goal of enabling artists to become better aware of art world operations so that they can continue to stay practicing for longer. Karen tells me that she began the project because she could see that artists for the larger part were ‘dismally unaware of how things work’. Having witnessed so many of her peers and students fall at the first hurdle, she resolved to create GYST, which offers an incredible range of services including software to keep track of artworks, assistance with funding bids, archiving, fabrication, websites, legals etc etc. The goal of GYST, however is not simply to train people up for a career in the art market – Karen is interested in developing what she calls ‘Hybrid Practices’ – whereby the artist derives part of their income from work that is tangentially related to their core practice. She gives as example, the artist Bernard Brunon whose house-painting business, That’s Painting Productions, (with the motto: “With Less to Look At, There’s More To Think About.” ) creates ‘paintings’ that stand outside the codes of representation and merge the economic fields of art and life. Many of the GYST services are accessible online, including a fantastic free archive of over 300 interviews with artists talking about how they have managed to develop and maintain a practice. It’s a pleasure to meet Karen, and great to see someone directly addressing these important issues.

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