Some might wonder why there’s an annual conference dedicated to a tiny college that shut down 60 years ago. That conference, “ReViewing,” going into its ninth year, until now has been the sole domain of arts professors with particular interests in multidisciplinary practice and the groundbreaking history of Black Mountain College.
Jeff Arnal, the executive director of the museum and arts center dedicated to the college, in downtown Asheville, is trying to heighten the contemporary relevance to both the center and the conference, which opens a three-day run Sept. 29.
“Robert Rauschenberg gave us permission to include ‘Arts Center’ in our name, which is amazing,” Arnal said, citing one of the college’s iconic students. “We’re not just looking at the history and legacy of objects. This idea of keeping it alive and active, it gives us new work. It also gives us a way of looking at multiple dimensions of the history.”
Highlighting this conference are performances of “Black Mountain Songs,” a collection of theatrical choral works and accompanying visuals, created several years ago as an homage to the college. The performances, along with new work by the Philadelphia performance artist Martha McDonald, mark a sort of turning point for Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.
By presenting new work directly referencing and influenced by what happened at the college 60 to 80 years ago, Arnal hopes to remind people he leads a contemporary arts center, not solely a museum.
Dozens of artists who taught at and attended Black Mountain College experimented and cross-pollinated there, and emerged to influence generations of artists after. The composer John Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Willem deKooning, and Bauhaus movement pioneer Josef Albers are simply a few names on the long list.
Arnal commissioned McDonald to draw from the center’s history to create and perform something new. McDonald came up with a re-imagining, as she’s calling it, of an abstract performance work called “Spectodrama.” The artist Xanti Schawinsky first performed it at the college about 80 years ago, and an oversized black-and-white image from that performance will loom over McDonald when she premieres her piece as part of this week’s conference.
“The legacy of BMC and its impact on contemporary performance are this sense of collaboration and experimentation,” McDonald said. “Events like the conference are what keep the arts center from being a dusty museum. The conference brings it into the present.”
Bryce Dessner is best known as a guitarist of the rock band The National, but he’s also deeply versed in contemporary art history, and he has composed a growing body of choral and orchestral work.
“Black Mountain Songs” was his idea, born several years ago through a commission by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Dessner says calling on a range of composers and artists to contribute was a deliberate bow to the college’s ethos of collaboration.
“In a way, art music might becoming more academic and less about collaboration and the exchange of ideas, and I think we’ve lost a sense, maybe, of some of that originality we were talking about back then,” he said. “Especially now, at a time when some of these basic values are being challenged, it’s really interesting to dive back into thoughts about learning and why art is important, and Black Mountain is one of those times in history where we veered very close to something quite essential.”
Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center is moving to a larger space next year off Pack Square. There will be more room for everything, including a season of performance.
“We’ve had 20 years of great, wonderful, dynamic programming, and now we’ve turned a corner,” Arnal said. “One foot in the past and one in the future.”