The year is 1951. Dusk has fallen. Strains of music and conversation echo across the campus of Black Mountain College. Students and faculty dine on vegetables harvested from on-campus gardens. In a nearby building, a dancer covered in iridescent powder moves in time to an ambient soundtrack produced on site. The year is 2010, and performances spill out onto the front lawn of the Black Mountain college campus.
Known internationally for its interdisciplinary approach to the arts and sciences, the former Black Mountain College (1933-1957) influenced a legion of artists, many of whom went on to gain worldwide recognition. Experimental approaches to learning were encouraged at the school, including spur-of-the-moment events that later became known as “happenings.” Merce Cunningham did them, John Cage did them, and this Saturday, April 9, more than 60 artists will be doing one, on the original grounds of Black Mountain College.
While transcribing oral histories of BMC students a couple of years ago, local arts advocate Jolene Mechanic kept hearing about the “Saturday night dinner parties” that took place in the dining hall at BMC. “They were outrageous, wonderful and totally unpredictable,” says Mechanic. “One night you might have Charles Olson doing spoken-word stuff, another night it might be Merce Cunningham and his dance company, or John Cage and his crew doing something. I thought, what a party! I would have wanted to be there.”
Inspired, Mechanic enlisted the help of artist Gene Felice to organize a night of performances and site-specific installations at the college in March of last year — the original Happening. That event served up a multi-course dinner, poetry, music, dance and more. All told, more than 30 artists participated. This year’s Happening has expanded its scope to include even more of the original Black Mountain College campus, and twice the number of artists. “The idea is that art is ‘happening’ all around us simultaneously. It’s up to us to determine how we experience it,” says Felice.
Produced as a collaborative effort between Black Mountain Museum and Arts Center and The Media Arts Project, Happening is a fundraiser for both organizations, and encourages interdisciplinary approaches to art making. The merging of various disciplines and schools of thought — such as mathematics, visual art, astrology and literature — was essential to the Black Mountain College curriculum. Such hybridization can ultimately serve as a model for creating a sustainable economy, says Felice.
“I grew up in an era of specialization, where a person is known for being good at one thing. But that is a mode that is outdated. Specialization leads to extinction,” he says, citing his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., as an example. “The city was all about specializing in steel manufacturing, and when that industry left Pittsburgh, the city basically fell apart.”
Felice’s own work combines technology, science, biology and design, which he says are not exclusive of each other. This year at Happening, he is planning a performance and installation that will take place on Lake Eden, combining the work of two dancers, an architect, a video projectionist and a musician. As Felice sees it, the lake itself is a primary player in the project, as are the historic grounds of Black Mountain College.
The relationship between The BMCM+AC and The MAP is a logical one, considering that the first organization seeks to preserve the school’s legacy while the latter cultivates innovative forms of technology in Western N.C. “It’s not about old school vs. new school,” says Felice. “We should cherish the interdisciplinary traditions of BMC and bring them out into the current era of technology.”
what: An evening of performance, multimedia, art, music and more
where: The former campus of Black Mountain College, at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain
when: Saturday, April 9. Dinner tickets are sold out. Other events run from 8:30 p.m. to midnight, and include drinks, snacks and art. $15, tickets on sale at BMCM+AC (56 Broadway St.), and Harvest Records (415 Haywood Road). rehappening.com.