Finding the pulse in avant-garde

Painter/assemblagist Allan Kaprow didn’t coin the art term “happening” until 1959 — but, according to some schools of thought, the first “happening” happened at Black Mountain College back in 1952.

That year, composer John Cage presented his “Theatre Piece No. 1” with a little help from his BMC artist friends, among them modern-dance pioneer Merce Cunningham and painter Robert Rauschenberg. The multifocus performance simultaneously involved a piano recital, improvisational dance, paintings hung from the ceiling, a poet reading from a ladder, and a lecture by Cage, while slides and films were projected into the mix.

To make things even more interesting, the event took place among the audience rather than on-stage.

By the time happenings and the “fluxus” movement officially took off in the ’60s, Cage’s influence was already embedded in the art scene. (Although both were considered forms of intermedia performance art, happenings included an element of randomness or improv, whereas fluxus artists were less concerned with creating a new medium than with reinterpreting existing media through unexpected outlets.)

There’s been a buzz around the ghost of Black Mountain College ever since the seminal institution shut its doors in 1953. It’s no secret that the WNC-based school did things a little differently. Established by Florida professor John Rice and by students of the Bauhaus movement — most of whom were escaping Nazi Germany — Black Mountain College began in 1933. The approach to education was highly experiential: Classes were more often discussions than lectures, and student life focused on communal living.

“Every moment there seemed alive in a way that few have been since. This had to do with being asked to be fully awake, to be at a new threshold of perception whether in class, in the work program, in our own work or in the life of the community,” recalled A.G., a student from 1943-46. Boasting such noted faculty and alumni as geodesic-dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, writer/potter MC Richards, painter Willem de Kooning and poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, Black Mountain College, in effect, revolutionized American arts and sciences.

Avant-garding a new generation

But as artist and Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center board member David McConville points out, most contemporary interest in the school centers on what happened in the past.

Granted, the college itself no longer exists, but many of its former students are still around — and still generating art. McConville and others involved with the museum/arts center shared a vision of bringing educators together to talk about the school’s influence, rather than just its history.

“Francine du Plessix Gray [a BMC alum and author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography At Home with the Marquis de Sade] was complaining that there’s no more avant-garde,” he says. “She attributes many cultural problems to this.”

Referring, perhaps, to the current political climate, McConville goes on to muse: “The role of experimentation, which BMC was so involved in, is [about] encourag[ing] innovation and finding better ways of solving problems. Without the practice of conscious immersion in ideas, things just kind of happen, and people aren’t proactively seeking creative solutions.”

As the 50th anniversary of Cage’s first happening drew near, BMCMAC members saw it as a prime opportunity to promote the legacy that not only Cage, but also the college itself, had created. And so a four-day festival began taking shape (appropriately enough, as a collaborative work involving many artists) around the idea of commemorating “Theatre Piece No. 1.” As McConville explains it, “[We wanted] to see if avant-garde is out there today, and what effects it’s had.”

A call went out to see who was interested in contributing, and the first person to respond was none other than renowned multimedia artist Yoko Ono (who was involved with the fluxus movement long before she happened upon the Beatles). Ono sent Asheville her revived interactive installation “Mending Peace” — which asks viewers to repair shards of broken pottery — in memory of 9/11.

Sounds like school spirit

Cage’s impact reached beyond any one genre, inspiring visual artists and musicians alike. “DJ Spooky acknowledges Cage’s influence, because Cage was one of the first people using turntables and sampling [as early as his 1939 work “Imaginary Landscape No. 1″],” McConville relates. Spooky, a trailblazer in “illbient” music who often works with digital pop artist Moby, acknowledges his found-rhythm works as a move toward the avant-garde.

Locally, Cage’s compositions will come to life during a Sept. 21 concert at Vincent’s Ear that’s part of the festival.

“A lot of his works call for radio,” explains McConville. And even though Cage wrote these pieces decades ago, they are always contemporary: Whatever happens to be on the airwaves at the time becomes part of the performance.

Pauline Oliveros knows a thing or two about becoming part of the performance — the meditative-music innovator and arts educator will lead a “Deep Listening” workshop at UNCA on Sept. 21, capped by an evening performance.

“Hearing,” she has said, “is an involuntary physical act that happens through our primary sense organ when sound waves impinge upon the ear. Everyone with healthy ears can hear. Listening takes cultivation and evolves through one’s lifetime.”

And if avant-garde is dead, don’t tell that to the forces behind the sound-image act Negativland — these enthusiastic genre-jugglers have created a late-night film/lecture event that will run at the Fine Arts Theatre on Sept. 20. Project founder Mark Hosler will present a film collaboration covering such issues as media literacy, anti-corporate art, and the evolution of art, law and resistance in our media-inundated world. Negativland — whose members use a band format, among other incarnations, to satirize pop culture — are best known for tearing apart and reassembling mass-media imagery and sound bites (such as those from the ubiquitous Pepsi campaign in their album Dispepsi) to create social and political statements. Along the way, they’ve been sued or threatened by such pop kingpins as U2 and Casey Kasem.

“At Black Mountain College, there was all this intermingling of ideas and information that came from living in such a tight community,” notes McConville. “That’s happening again today as more artists become generalists and respond to a variety of interests.”

He goes on to explain: “There are people out there who are exploring the entire realm of their discipline, whether it’s music or artwork or poetry. That started 50 years ago at Black Mountain College. Carl Jung and Albert Einstein sat on the advisory board, so there were people who were really rearranging the rules of the game.

“Because people at Black Mountain College were thinking and experimenting with these ideas decades ago,” McConville argues, “artists today can look at how new technologies can be applied to different art forms.”

Alarums and excursions: festival events

Thursday, Sept. 19

• Tony Conrad’s “Hearing Things in Pipes and Strings” workshop
Time: 1:30-4 p.m.
Location: UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium
Cost: $5 (free for students)

• Opening Reception
Time: 5-8 p.m.
Location: Pack Place Gallery
Cost: Free
Events: The Pod installation
WCU Gamelan Ensemble performance
Ray Johnson Memorial Mail-art exhibition
Jack Danger’s “Microtable” installation
Vincent Wrenn’s “The Field” performance
David Dawson’s “Harlem Pizza, uh, John Cage?” performance

• “Inter-Media and Techno-Utopianism: The Visual Initiatives of Stan VanDerBeek” — film presentation by Craig Baldwin
Time: 9-11 p.m.
Location: Fine Arts Theatre
Cost: $7

Friday, Sept. 20

• “Frederick Sommer and Black Mountain College” — slide lecture by Eric Baden
Time: 6-7 p.m.
Location: Asheville Art Museum
Cost: Free with museum admission

• Tony Conrad performance
Time: 8-9 p.m.
Location: UNCA’s Lipinksy Auditorium
Cost: $12 ($10/UNCA faculty, $5/students w/ID)

• Negativland: “Our Favorite Things” — film presentation by Mark Hosler
Time: 11 p.m.-1 a.m.
Location: Fine Arts Theatre
Cost: $7

Saturday, Sept. 21

• “Beyond Black Mountain College: Innovative Approaches to Education” panel
Time: 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Location: UNCA’s Owen Conference Center
Cost: $3 (free for students)

• “How to Draw a Bunny” screening
Time: 1-2:30 p.m.
Location: Fine Arts Theatre
Cost: $5

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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