Black Mountain and Beyond
Research Practices between Universities and Museums
Annette Jael Lehmann and Anna-Lena Werner
Conversation. Collaboration. Departure.
In 2013, everything began with a few general questions. How can universities and museums benefit from each other? How can they complement one another? Where are their thresholds, and where are common grounds? What is their educational agenda? And finally, can they unite theoretical and curatorial endeavors into, well, what exactly? How could they actually bring theory and practice together? In other words, how could students, scholars, curators, and artists cooperate within one project? As a small team based at the Institute for Theater Studies at Freie Universität Berlin—namely Verena Kittel, Annette Jael Lehmann, and Anna-Lena Werner—we wanted to find answers for these questions, and started an in-depth conversation with a part of the curatorial team of Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, about opportunities to collaborate. The university is in need of practice, of social experiences with people, and of the expertise of preserving and exhibiting. In turn, the museum is in need of research, of alternatives to public programs, and of creating a fundamental analysis of art historical events, aesthetic questions, and philosophical contributions. On both sides there was not only a desire for supplementation, but also a frustration about the growing economization and instrumentalization of educational institutions. What we were looking for might sound idealistic, but we later figured that this attribute was exactly key to our aim: developing a collaborative practice-based research.
Jointly looking for a theme that could be researched and realized between both institutions,the museum proposed a subject that would potentially reflect our seemingly idealist endeavor, meta-reflexively, practically, and even historically. In relation to an ongoing research for an upcoming exhibition project at the museum, curators Eugen Blume, Matilda Felix, and Gabriele Knapstein told us about their rediscovery of two works in the museum’s collection—one painting by Cy Twombly and one by Robert Rauschenberg—that had originally been created at the same place during the same time: Black Mountain College. The college was an influential but nonetheless little-known former art school that has been subject to surprisingly scant research or exhibitions outside North America. At the threshold of art and pedagogy, liberal and pioneering in their curriculum, the educational institution revolutionized models of academic teaching and learning, and fostered crucial strategies to contribute to a development that could now be described as practice-based research. Having an extensive effect on educational methods of collaboration until today, Black Mountain was on many levels paradigmatic for what we hoped to be a fruitful project between museum and university.
Therefore, both we and the curators were particularly keen on researching on the supportive network of students and teachers, the interdisciplinary strategies between media and genre, and the experimental nature of the Black Mountain educational institution. Beginning with dialogues both on- and offline between students, curators, and scholars, we thus developed Black Mountain Research—henceforward the title of our joint project. Our research ran parallel in frequent exchange and influence, but nonetheless self-sufficiently next to the two-year preparations for the exhibition, Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment 1933–1957, which took place at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, in the summer of 2015.
The HOW and not the WHAT
Our cooperation and mutual research interest initially revolved around one central subject and question: the potentials and possibilities of Black Mountain for art and education today. Thus, we choose an archeological approach, digging out the major aspects of its interdisciplinary and experimental practices and pedagogicial ideas, mapping out connecting lines for the concept and practice of our own collaboration in Black Mountain Research. Taking a historical perspective counter to a traditional art-historical methodology as a departure point, we were focusing on the aspect that Black Mountain’s most important contribution to the neo-avant-garde of the twentieth century was its radical orientation towards collective and pragmatic tasks, considering artistic practice and research as a tool to solve problems and to improve life. Black Mountain was founded on the outskirts of a small mountain town in North Carolina in 1933, and it eventually closed down twenty-four years later, in 1957. The college was established with the aim of providing an education in the arts and sciences, loosening conventional models between student and faculty, faculty and administration, which usually served to specialize roles and bolster hierarchical distinctions. With minimal structure, borne of both idealistic inclination and economic necessity, Black Mountain’s experiment in education would be innovative, yet provisional, and ultimately untenable. The college’s institutional organization was peculiar and problematic, but it developed an unprecedented, prominent genealogy of artists, scientists, and intellectuals, mainly consisting of a European elite of exiles from Nazi Germany, like Josef and Anni Albers, Max Dehn, and Xanti Schawinsky, as well as the American postwar neo-avant-garde, including Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Olson, and John Cage.
Inspired by the Bauhaus, where many of the teachers had previously taught, values such as communal life, hands-on projects, and experimental practices were substantial to their curriculum. The credo “learning by doing”, which was coined by influential reform pedagogue John Dewey, was actively practiced at Black Mountain College to develop theory through physical performance, through experiments, through aesthetics, through chance and failure. Like Dewey, the college supported the belief in Art as Experience (1934), as opposed to a finalized “work of art”. As an institution, however, Black Mountain did not function as a harmoniously structured community, where everyone was in their specific place, taken up with the duty allocated to them, equipped with the proper pedagogical, artistic, or intellectual skills. Instead, it nurtured a paradigmatic shift from the roles of teachers or students as given social positions, often in disruptive ways. It unfolded community processes to set off unprecedented capacities in co-creation and collaboration.
In the summer of 1948, inventor Buckminster Fuller constructed his first geodesic dome: a human shelter structure. In its early construction period, it failed to sustain its own weight and was therefore called “the supine dome” by Elaine de Kooning, who was one of Fuller’s students. The design was eventually successful, and became a worldwide architectural model only a few decades later. Trial and error, or even failure, became at times liberating forces at the college, opposing a predetermined path towards knowledge, actions, or results. The necessity of making mistakes, as Fuller has prominently declared, was considered as part of the pedagogical practices and a key factor in the interplay of opposites and contradictions. The possibility of failure indeed shifts the focus from a final result to the notion of potentiality, or inactuality, as described by Giorgio Agamben. But at the same time, it also emphasizes experiences of disturbance, frustration, and disorientation for all people involved. Nevertheless, the constant regeneration and renegotiation of self-organizing patterns at work generated a common sense of co-creation and co-evolution, allowing the interplay of various people and disciplines. The understanding of education as co-creativity implies that learning and teaching are carried out as performative processes that unfold themselves while happening, consisting of an ever-changing set of processes that manifest themselves while they are acted out. Black Mountain thus unfolded an educational model that addressed and transgressed dichotomies of active and passive, body and mind, master and student, art and science, by dealing in an exchange of opposites that opened up a creative space of communitarian creative practices. While this concept might sound ideal, it was likewise deeply rooted in pragmatism. The so-called work program at Black Mountain thus mirrored nothing but a pragmatic scheme of primarily physical tasks to be fulfilled by everybody—necessary to sustain the life on campus.
These forms of collaboration were embedded in a basic disposition of risk-taking at the college, and often unfolded themselves as experimentation. Experiments at Black Mountain were actions marking what Deleuze coined “the cleavage of causality”, expanding the pure cognitive notion of knowledge, which is based on understanding the logical chain of cause and effect, or action and reaction. Experiments did not determine knowledge; rather, they offered fluid structures of experiences. Consequently, artists and scientists began to reconceptualize their understanding of an experiment. Many developed a notion of experiment that provoked an engagement with the uncertain, highlighting what is contingence, indeterminacy, and chance with an emphasis on the ephemeral and the incomplete, in contrast to permanence and durability. Experiments, in that sense, sort out potentiality, without focusing on a usually required degree of innovation, evidence, or efficiency.
In the course of our collaboration, we reencountered these central forces of education at Black Mountain: a disposition of experimentation and a dynamic network of sharing knowledge with unpredictable results, including failure and conflict, but not fierce competition. Josef Albers, who was one of the school’s teachers and periodically also director, employed experimental methods within the psychology of perception. His color theory explored socially constructed and embedded orders of perception, sensitizing them for universal schemes of form and color. He reversed the scientific notion of the experiment. Instead of disproving previous hypotheses, he believed that valid theories could only be developed within and through practical experience. Testing different materials without aiming for a specific, albeit evaluated outcome or purpose, experiments were heuristic in their nature, while being based on methods of trial and error. This approach affected both his work as a teacher and his artistic practice. Form was not ever supposed to be eternally determined, but instead he argued that “there is no final solution in form; thus form demands unending performance.” This flexibility was essential to Albers’s notion of art. Contrary to the respective content of an artwork, he proposed, “Art is concerned with the HOW and not the WHAT. […] The Performance—how it is done—that is the content of art.” The artistic experiment was thus not so much thought in categories of succeeding or failing, but instead as an inherent part of creative processes, as experiences without calculated outcomes: a transgressive conception of art.
Platforms of exchange and encounter
For Black Mountain Research, we established three different platforms of research that would encourage classic and experimental models of dialogic, written, and performative exchange throughout the project. Putting an emphasis on involving students and their ideas from the beginning onward, the first of these platforms took place as university courses at the Institute for Theater Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Led by university professor Annette Jael Lehmann, the university seminars, “Black Mountain College as a Model of Creativity: On the Genealogy of Expanding Art Practices and Performative Arts” (Winter 2013/14) and “Black Mountain – Tracing Basics: Models of Performative Art and Science” (Summer 2015), both achieved not only sparking interest for the subject in younger students, but also engaging their research practice within the project. Participants were active contributors to such research themes as, for example, the auditive component of the exhibition and the challenge of presenting sound, the engagement in experimental research techniques established at Black Mountain, or the emphasis on collaborative practices in the past and in relation to today. Students were involved in discussions with the museum’s curators, and they largely influenced the path of Black Mountain Research by frequently giving accounts of their personal experiences and ideas. Writing collaborative texts on the spatial atmosphere within the situation of mounting the exhibition, their personal impressions of its final display, and the visual progress of its de-installation conveyed their sensitive experience and emphasized their subjective perception as behind-the-scenes reports. The seminars also inspired some students to further explore certain subjects for their theses, such as Verena Kittel, who not only joined the Black Mountain Research team in 2015, but also investigated the relevance of the dancefilm at the college, and therefore traveled to the Western Regional Archives in North Carolina to intensify the research for her master’s thesis.
Further formats, such as workshops and performances involving scholars, artists, and students, took place at other locations, such as the museum’s exhibition space. One of these meetings discussed “A New Relevance of Black Mountain College”, led by artist Arnold Dreyblatt, who organized a series, “Performing the Black Mountain Archive”, with weekly altering student groups from international academies inside the exhibition, and scholars Sabine Sielke and Thomas Fechner-Smarsly, who both teach at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn. The workshop involved a group of students from Vienna’s Versatorium, and raised issues such as the critical role of a university teacher today, the success and failure of non-hierarchical models, and the precarious conditions of education at the time of Black Mountain College and today.
The second platform—bringing both students and international scholars and experts together—was formed by two large symposia. Tracing artistic strategies from past and present approaches, the Black Mountain – Models of Creativity conference, which took place in May 2014 at Freie Universität Berlin, included historical perspectives as set forth in Gabriele Brandstetter’s lecture, “Still Moving – Performance and Models of Spatial Arrangements at Black Mountain College”, and perspectives directed towards the future, such as Christina Végh’s lecture on “The Exhibition as a Catalyst for New Process Patterns”, which introduced the format of the exhibition as “more than solely presenting artworks”, and instead as a catalyst for “creative processes”. A large part of this first symposium highlighted the political dimension of the educational debate in the creative sector. In this respect, Nicholas Mirzoeff spoke about “Free Research Practice”, summarizing how “collective forms of free practice, structured among collaboration, skill-share, cost-share, free exchange, and activism” begin to appear as a trend of what he refers to as “the practice of visual activism”. Bringing Mirzoeff’s theoretical view on the worldwide Occupy movement into a case study of her own practice, artist and visual activist LaToya Ruby Frazier introduced her performative projects in her lecture, “Framework: Activism, Memory And The Social Landscape”, and called for museums to become more invested in real problems, rather than only providing a platform for the elites.
More than one year later, the second conference, Black Mountain – Educational Turn and the Avant-garde, coincided with the exhibition’s final weekend, in September 2015 at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, and focused on the beginnings of practice-based research in places such as Black Mountain College and the current development of artistic research. Eva Díaz reported on historical models in her lecture, “The Black Mountain College Experiment Revisited”, and Dieter Lesage proposed a new role for the future art academy in his lecture on “Art, Research, Experiment – The Academy Revisited”. While James Elkin’s lecture, “What is Research”, gave a pessimistic and critical overview on what he questions to be artistic research, Irit Rogoff introduced “Creative Practices of Knowledge” and posed questions about the circuits and concept of knowledge. Informed by Michel Foucault’s notion of knowledge formation, Rogoff reported on experimental expansions of knowledge production, for example, via practice-based research within and outside academia. As she stated,
In this instance I want to pay as much attention to the knowledges themselves, as we do to the demands put on them: the structures that house them, the structures that police them and the rhetorics that they are embedded in.
Embedding university courses and the conferences as classic research approaches, the third platform was our most experimental, and the only one that could unite, document, and publish the results of the two other platforms to a wider audience. Reaching out to everyone, to read or participate, our blog (Black-mountain-research.com) hosts an open-source publishing platform that features numerous articles, essays, statements, interviews, photographs, and videos, archiving and expanding the research we did. Students from within and outside the university, curators, various artists, and scholars contributed to creating a substantial archive of active knowledge production—text, illustration, photography—an unfinished work-in-progress online, comprising ideas, questions, inventions, and opinions. In that sense, we consider the blog and the rich content that it presents the product of our three-year performative research. To us, the most important aspect of that platform was the possibility of enabling a democratic and public access, as well as an active visitor participation to the conferences, to the making-of and the finalized exhibition process and, of course, to our research. It also demonstrated to us that university and museum research does attract more public attention than we would have expected: the statistics underlined that the intellectual capacity of the interested public is often underestimated in a discourse of digital education and research. Despite its unpredictability, the digital aspect of our project thus grew even bigger in its importance to us, as we experienced much feedback from international experts and scholars who wanted to contribute and actively engage in our project. This eventually inspired us to close the project in spring 2016 with a return from online back into offline, regaining the physical quality of a publication, which was crucial to the members of Black Mountain College. Selecting various texts, photographs, and other elements from the blog, we transformed the essence of Black Mountain Research into an analog and limited printed edition. The same-named publication, Black Mountain Research, edited in English and German, will be published in June 2016 by Kerber Verlag, Berlin, 64 pages.
Between the analog and the digital
The potential of practice-based research between museum and university is far-reaching: theory, art, and curating can merge into cross-disciplinary practices evolving from the frequent exchange between the institutions. Once established, these collaborations can potentially form international research clusters and create contact zones between controversial cultural players. But collaboration, it seems to us, needs to be considered in different terms than during the time of Black Mountain—it exists now more than ever, but it has expanded. The Internet, according to new media artist Florian Meisenberg, has become “an ultra-collaborative machine”. Collaboration takes place in different spheres between on- and offline, physical and non-physical, analog and digital. Through the Internet, these spheres are in frequent exchange; they are inherently interdisciplinary, feeding each other with information, creating a process of teaching and learning. Neither the one nor the other sphere can be ignored while realizing a collaboration between museum and university. For future collaborations, the merging of analog and digital strategies that may increase the accessibility of cultural heritage to the general public has become a key concern to us; cultural history, its research and its display need to be available to everyone interested. Our blog taught us that we are moving in the right direction, but we intend to go further. The accessibility to both university research and to museum collections has to be facilitated, democratized, and extended beyond the classic formats, such as the exhibition, the participation in public programs, or the research publication.
For this reason, digital technologies and the possibilities of the Internet are crucial to the sustainability of displaying cultural heritage and making it accessible. Inside art and academia, the Internet has already taken a powerful position, shifted values, influenced the market, and dissolved differences between categories, disciplines, and genres by replacing them with hashtags. The Internet even dissolves the border between exhibition and research. But while it has become a common notion to blame the Internet for being a manipulator and a constructor of false realities, we should begin to make better use of it. As Boris Groys has noted,
In the period of modernity the museum was the institution that defined the dominant regime under which art functioned. But in our day, the Internet offers an alternative possibility for art production and distribution—a possibility that the permanently growing number of artists embrace.
We wonder how cultural history will be displayed in the future, but the Internet itself, of course, is not the simple answer for granting the kind of access that we might be hoping for. The question of materiality and access has to be asked differently in an age after Post-Internet. New media artist Timur Si-Qin argues that
the digital age has taught us that digital materials behave and are as real as physical materials, and vice versa… what’s really happening to our generation is maybe an expansion of the idea of materiality, one that counts everything.
Digital technologies are located exactly at the threshold between the spheres of on- and offline; they join information, presentation, and physical presence in actual spaces. The museum’s and the university’s roles as educational institutions and as social spaces are thus being challenged, and they need a redefinition that considers the question: how do digital technologies change the role and the perception of the artifact, the relic, the documentation, the reenactment, and the sensual experience of art? How can they be made productive in influencing and elevating the relevance of the archive, the exhibition, the artistic, academic and practice-based research for a larger audience in the future?
Against an ideology of collaboration
Co-research and collaboration between universities and museums face multiple challenges in relation to cultural politics and ideologies. One of these lies paradoxically in the recent wave of affirmative rhetorics on inter-institutional collaborations itself. In contemporary society, academia, and particularly the economy, collaboration has become a major concept and actual force of transformation. Collaboration often serves as an unquestioned mantra for collective and institutionalized practices; it is the key strategy of innovation, efficiency, or even perfection. Our practice-based research aims at challenging the strategic notion of “collaboration” as an increasingly blurred category and an unprecedented force in the creative economy and educational institutions. There is no recent theory of collaborations that does not emphasize the importance of self-organization and collective production, stressing the fact that the participants’ involvement entails physical action, and that their experience of interactive practices is both affective and embodied. Paradoxically, co-creation, co-production, and participation as key concepts in the field of cultural creation have indeed helped to redefine post-capitalistic ideologies of production, to be rearticulated as a cultural or even artistic endeavors. In turn, the spheres of art, academia, and the cultural sphere at large have become increasingly bound to post-industrial economic structures, where terms such as “collaboration” and “interdisciplinary” now circulate as hard currency in the branding of museums and universities alike. The increasing value placed on cultural capital (in Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation), and the rise of the “experience economy” have blurred lines between production and consumption, making it necessary to redefine what effectively innovates collaboration and to identify what it is used for. In its traditional sense, the term “participation”, as Markus Mießen highlights, has become trivialized and made productive for the neoliberal project. The essence of collaboration, he believes, is thus ideally not based on harmony, but on conflict and generative friction: “conflict played out within the remit of the democratic arena”.
In a climate of instability and forced austerity, academics, artists, and cultural workers face an increasingly precarious position. How can both of our institutions, the museum and the university, depending on the calibration of self-referential ideological, bureaucratic, and financial factors, take on roles as vital archives of past practices and models, incubators of future processes, and present-tense laboratories for public education, encounter, and dialogue? Could collaboration—in this context—unfold itself as experimental tactics, as defined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, and reemploy tacit knowledge? The experimental tactics are those that are temporary, provisional, flexible, and should operate within the very spaces and structures of the systems they intend to challenge, and which have a game-like or playful quality, constantly testing the unforeseen possibilities of a given situation. These and other notions have recurring methodological relevance, interweaving practice-based research with social and cultural issues.
Towards an expanded field of knowledge as experience
As we could experience throughout the three research platforms and the museum exhibition that finalized the Black Mountain Research project, “learning by doing,” in today’s academia, might imply something that we would like to continue establishing as performative research: a method of research that is both process and experience-based, that encourages the active and non-hierarchical engagement of scholars, students, curators, and artists alike. We consider performative research a staging of knowledge as experience, a performatization of exhibition spaces, a return of the poetics of contemplation and of essential themes into both museum and university education. This seems important not exclusively, but especially because it is necessary to develop and define new ways of dealing with cultural heritage in our contemporary society. How will cultural history be displayed in the face of global conflicts in the future? What is the role of the artifact, the relic, the documentation versus the reenactment, the sensual experience of art? How can aesthetic theory and display come together? How do we categorize and archive different forms of art, especially those that cannot be defined in one simple category? Can we even define categories, or can we only approach them?
Ideally, practice-based research projects between museums and universities develop and share an expanded field of knowledge as experience, which is framed as a field of the practicable. While conventionally museums still primarily collect and exhibit, and universities research and educate, the task is to collaborate under the premise of complementarity within the realm of a specific project, such as Black Mountain Research. This supports an interplay of research and curatorial dynamics, which jointly offer a complex field of emerging relations, eventually open to the public. More specifically, it needs an institutional strategy and a shared, practice-based methodology that has to be unfolded to overcome the often dysfunctional separations of their traditional institutional functions, stereotypically established as a biased gap between theory and practice, where knowledge production and theoretical reflections by academia tend to be divided from practical tasks of the museum’s operational spheres of display and exhibition. By asking what can alternatively be done with practice-based performative research, our approach partakes in recent discussions in artistic research, performance philosophy, and performative aesthetics in general. It also engages in the emerging discussion of the challenges and possibilities of actually exhibiting performance art histories in an institution like the museum. Hence, a critical attitude towards the political, social, economic, and philosophical premises of research is inherent in this process—not as given, but as produced and articulated in and as the acts of research, renegotiating the university’s and the museum’s respective relationship to culture and society via the audiences they commonly address.
Considering what museums and universities alike can do, their sharing of a process of research and public outreach can be understood in terms of Bruno Latour’s view of “operations of networks”: a term designated to understand the relational, hybrid, and performative dimensions of such collaborative practices. The liquid exchange of knowledge is considered to function as a transient mediator for the experience and understanding of art and research. This potentially offers an attitude for everyone involved, again in the words of Latour, where “the obvious response is to ‘go with the flow.’ Object and subject might exist, but everything interesting happens upstream and downstream. Just follow the flow.”
Annette Jael Lehmann is professor of Visual Culture and Theater at the Freie Universität Berlin. She has a strong inter- and cross-disciplinary focus in research and in practice-based collaborations with various institutions in academia, art, and culture. Among several other projects, she founded and directs the Black Mountain Research educational project (www.black-mountain-research.com).
Anna-Lena Werner is a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin, researching the subject of trauma in contemporary installation art. Having studied art history, theater studies (FU Berlin), and art theory (Chelsea College, London), she curates exhibitions in spaces such as Blok Art Space, Savvy Contemporary, and DZIALDOV, and publishes in magazines such as Schirn Magazine, Performance Research and Kopenhagen.dk. Engaging in digital research and curatorial practices, she founded and runs the website Artfridge.de, and is research associate for Black Mountain Research.
 John Cage, quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. (New York/London: Routledge, 2003), 255f.
 Josef Albers, quoted in Carl Goldstein, Teaching Art: Academies and Schools from Vasari to Albers (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 73.
 Christina Végh, “The Exhibition as a Catalyst for New Process Patterns” (lecture at Black Mountain – Models of Creativity, Freie Universität Berlin, May 2014).
 Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Free Research Practice” (lecture at Black Mountain – Models of Creativity, Freie Universität Berlin, May 2014).
 Irit Rogoff, “Creative Practices of Knowledge” (lecture at Black Mountain – Educational Turn and the Avant-garde, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, September 2015).
 Florian Meisenberg, interview by Anna-Lena Werner, Artfridge,de, August 28, 2015, https://www.artfridge.de/2015/08/interview-florian-meisenberg.html.
 Boris Groys, “Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive”, E-flux 45 (May 2013), accessed February 21, 2016, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive.
 Timur Si-Qin, “The human part is arbitrary”, interview by Jane Parker, Aqnb.com, November 18, 2013, https://www.aqnb.com/2013/11/18/an-interview-with-timur-si-qin.
 Markus Mießen, The Nightmare of Participation (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010), 122.
 Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 239.
Annette Jael Lehmann and Anna-Lena Werner, ”Black Mountain and Beyond – Research Practices between Universities and Museums” Stedelijk Studies Journal 4 (2016). DOI: 10.54533/StedStud.vol004.art13. This contribution is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.