Eighth {Re}HAPPENING manifests the history of Black Mountain College

WORK IT OUT: As part of the extensive {Re}HAPPENING lineup, local dancer and choreographer Kathy Leiner,  pictured, presents “Firewall.” The multimedia performance is “created collaboratively by dancers and the audience [and] uses choice and chance to explore barriers, vulnerability and to question how our exposure or anonymity affects our actions.”   Photo courtesy of Leiner

{Re}HAPPENING, the annual art event and fundraiser for the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, is defined by the simultaneous. In the legacy of John Cage’s “Theater Piece No. 1,” a multimedia extravaganza that took over Black Mountain College’s Lake Eden campus in 1952, {Re}HAPPENING presents a dizzying variety of artists, musicians and installations in tandem, and it delights in the unexpected synchronicities that arise among them.

From a broader perspective, explains museum Executive Director Jeff Arnal, the event aims to shrink the distance in time between BMC’s 1933-57 lifespan and the present day. “We like to look at the history and legacy of the college and connect that past work with contemporary practice,” he says. Attendees can experience this philosophy in action at the college’s former grounds, now Camp Rockmont, on Saturday, March 31.

Arnal mentions headliners Roomful of Teeth as an example of how {Re}HAPPENING’s lineup is shaped through consideration of the BMC ethos. The Massachusetts-based ensemble blends vocal techniques from around the globe, such as Tuvan throat singing, Alpine yodeling and death metal growls, into dynamic performances that defy easy classification.

“They very much reflect what BMC did. It was a crossroads, a cosmopolitan place with people from all over the world,” says Arnal. “The college looked to find these innovators, the very best artists anywhere, to come and exchange ideas here in Western North Carolina.”

The event draws other featured artists from considerably closer to home. The Media Arts Project and REVOLVE, based in Asheville’s RAMP studios, is producing the “John Cage Room,” a multimedia installation that combines live coding, sound, performance and visuals. Bassist and UNC Asheville graduate Frank Meadows performs “Tribute to James Tenny” by Alvin Lucier, while Asheville experimental sound collective Mystery Meat debuts three new audio dioramas, each meant to envelop a single listener at a time.  And local writer and Xpress staffer Alli Marshall will perform “Sleeping on Rooftops,” a poetry cycle inspired by mythologist Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, in collaboration with dancers Coco Palmer Dolce and Sharon Cooper and cellist Melissa Hyman.

Perhaps borrowing most directly from the BMC legacy is “Time Is No Object: Jean Varda’s Trojan Horse.” Designed by Warren Wilson College art professors Jacob Brault, Julie Caro and Anna Helgeson in conjunction with their students, this installation and performance piece bring back to life a legendary celebration that took place at the college’s summer institute in 1946.

As Caro was conducting research for an upcoming BMCM+AC exhibit on painter Jacob Lawrence, she came across a photo of a giant, elaborate wooden horse on the lawn outside the college dining hall. Contemporary letters and oral history interviews with institute attendees revealed that the horse was just the most visible element of a Greek costume party that had consumed the entire campus.

At the root of the festivities was the free-spirited painter Jean Varda. “He was always dressed in superbright colors and drove around in this vividly painted pink and yellow convertible,” recounts Helgeson. “The sculptor Leo Lionni actually came to the party dressed as Varda because his style was so distinctive and eccentric.”

What made the event more than just another college blowout, Helgeson explains, was its timing. “This was right after the end of World War II, and there was a sort of somber mood in the air,” she says. “Varda brought a sense of playfulness, this invitation back to life. In the writing of some of the folks from the summer institute, what comes through is how much of a relief it was to just have fun again.”

The Warren Wilson instructors sought a way to give people a deeper sense of the party’s impact than would be possible through merely presenting the old photos and letters, a process Helgeson calls activating the archives. “A really powerful method for that is performance — you’re taking your own body and reimagining it in a different time and place,” she says. “It’s a profound way to dive into history.”

To that end, Helgeson’s performance art class at Warren Wilson is developing interpretations that both re-enact accounts of the party and use the archives as a jumping-off point for their own imaginations. Brault’s sculpture students are constructing the wooden horse that will provide the stage for the performance, and Caro is continuing her historical research to inform the overall effort.

How exactly “Time Is No Object” will play out is yet to be determined; the students will be finalizing their performance plans right up until the Trojan horse’s debut at Camp Rockmont. That joyous spontaneity may be their finest tribute to the spirit of Jean Varda and the happenings of BMC.

“The very foundation of our reality right now is built on the past. Time is not necessarily simple, and it’s not necessarily simply linear,” Helgeson says. “There’s a way in which the past is always coming into the present again.”

WHAT: {Re}HAPPENING, rehappening.com
WHERE: Camp Rockmont, 375 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Saturday, March 31, 3-10 p.m. $20 advance/$25 adults/$15 students and youths ages 10 and older


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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