Leap Then Look Active Archive Digital Residency
THE HOW NOT THE WHAT
“I was drawn to Black Mountain because of its holistic approach, its informality, its lack of conventional institutionalism, and its earnestness. I liked the combination of intimacy, spontaneity, avant-garde, and seriousness, high standards, and commitment. There was no-one to blame for mess-ups but ourselves.”
M C Richards
Black Mountain College operated under an informal structure. Students and teachers lived together, worked, cooked, and ate alongside one another. There were classes, but often they were informal, practical, and aimed at facilitating experience rather than instructing students on particular subjects. This is not to say that age and experience did not convey some status, but there was an effort by staff to give students a large degree of responsibility for their own academic and personal development. Some took to this, others struggled, there were lengthy disputes about democracy and perceived totalitarianism. Like in a family, where everyone is a novice, rules developed over time sometimes as a result of agreement, sometimes necessity, sometimes insensitively or in reaction to difficult circumstances. It was by no means perfect, but the results for many, personally, academically, and artistically, were remarkable.
From the beginning, Black Mountain was founded on educational principles which developed the individual’s abilities to learn and develop through a process of thought and exploration. This was why the arts were seen as central to the curriculum. Through practical engagement with materials, forms, music, and theatre, students could develop better understandings of the world and integrate theoretical knowledge with their own experience.
This was a process that happened in a social context; living, working, studying, and making together. There was a spirit of collaborative, communal activity that characterised much of Black Mountain’s history.
It is something that resonates strongly with us now as artists and teachers. Working together on projects with no defined outcome can create spaces for us to learn through experience, discovering the possibilities as we go.
“Our central and consistent effort is to teach method, not content; to emphasise process, not results; to invite the student to the realisation that the way of handling facts … is more important than facts themselves.”
John Andrew Rice
Click on the arrows to see more videos in this slideshow.
We asked ourselves; can we create an artwork where the end result is unimportant, something that could potentially carry on forever, something that will end only because we run out of time or materials.
We created two structures like this from bamboo and string. Our idea was that as the supply of sticks came to an end, we could start taking sticks from one place to add to another, working endlessly. In the event the wind was so strong the structure began to collapse as we built it, the weather bringing the activity to an end.
What are you making?” passers-by asked, “We don’t know” we would answer, ‘we’ll see what happens!’
’Science has discovered no ‘facts’, only events.’
Richard Buckminster Fuller
Richard Buckminster Fuller was invited to the Black Mountain College summer institute in 1948 & 49 and brought with him plans and materials for the construction of the first large-scale geodesic domes. In 1948 his first attempt did not rise from the floor and became known as the Supine Dome. The second-year a smaller dome stayed up for a few hours. These were large-scale efforts, involving many students and members of staff. For Buckminster Fuller, they were staging events, experiments. The success or failure of the structures themselves was only an aspect of the importance of the activity. It was the process, not the outcome that was central to these collective efforts and what was learned by the doing of them. In this respect they were events, producing not fixed and rigid structures but tensions and forces between materials and participants. Creating a new understanding through experience.
Images credits: Leap Then Look, Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Western Regional Archives. Buckminster Fuller and students testing the strength of the 1949 dome; The Supine Dome, Beaumont Newhall, 1949; Dancer in an icosahedron, cutting from a Zurich newspaper, 1925; students at the 1498 summer institute, Kenneth Snelson; Elaine de Kooning (center), R. Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson, Albert Lanier, and others with the Supine Dome, 1948; Students of Buckminister Fuller’s architecture class reconstructing a geodesic dome. Photograph: Masato Nakagawa 1948.