Today we welcome a guest post from Lindsey A. Freeman, co-editor of The Bohemian South: Creating Countercultures, from Poe to Punk. In today’s post, Freeman gives us a unique look into the bohemian culture within the south. Interested in learning more? Listen to Lindsey and co-editor Shawn Chandler Bingham talk about tracking southern subcultures on WUNC’s “The State of Things.”
In the fall of 2015, Chelsea Ragan and Adam Void, two artists living in Black Mountain, North Carolina, invited a slew of artists, creative folks, and teachers to get together in order to begin laying the foundations for a new school. They met by Lake Eden, the site of the legendary Black Mountain College (BMC). The new experimental learning community organized by Ragan and Void was initially called Black Mountain School, an intentional echo of BMC. In the summer of 2016, Black Mountain School attracted around 200 artists, designers, and teachers to participate in communal experimental learning on a beautiful expanse of land in Western North Carolina.
The original BMC began in 1933 with the controversial scholar John A. Rice at the helm. Rice and his colleagues wanted to create a new kind of environment for learning based on the educational principles of John Dewey. They believed that the study and creation of art was intrinsic to any liberal arts education. The college was a cultural behemoth that contained (for a moment) luminaries such as Joseph and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Eileen de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olsen, Robert Rauschenberg, and the list goes on. BMC was a wild, radical place that crossed disciplinary lines and pushed the boundaries of convention in both art and living. Although it was relatively short-lived, the school was an incubator for some of the most memorable ideas, performances, and works of art of the twentieth century. BMC closed in 1957 among some tensions between community members and after years of struggling financially.
When the Black Mountain School began last summer, many folks were skeptical of this new school growing up in the ghostly space of the old. The site had what Michel de Certeau calls “an uncanniness of the already there,” a feeling of the past that is so familiar in a space that it overpowers the present, making unknown places feel known. Ragan and Void have since changed the name of their experiment in education to School of the Alternative. Even with the name switch, the inspiration of the original BMC shines through. A pedagogical sensibility clearly exists between the old avant-garde school and the new one. This can be seen in classes such as: Lose Your Mind and Come to Your Senses, which promises instruction in Fluxus methodologies, mindfulness, and chance operations; Giant Loom Weaving, which is just what it sounds like and takes place outdoors; and Tablows Vivant, which, according to the course description, is “a series of posed scenes to communicate a story or idea. In between each scene is a mini dance party. At night, with dramatic lighting! With some bodies involved.”
Despite gestures to its predecessor in both place and programing, the School of the Alternative should not be confused as an attempt to create an exact copy of an earlier avant-garde in Black Mountain—as if such a thing were possible anyway—but instead should be seen as a response to the current American moment and its relationship to the arts and education. As their website states, “In the face of unaffordable, corporatized learning, and the ‘one size fits all’ curriculums that often define public and private higher education, we are presenting an alternative.” Their motto is “No Accreditations. No Prerequisites. No Diplomas.” The School of the Alternative gives teachers and students the possibility of imagining other ways of learning outside of traditional institutions and provides a space for creativity and community.
Still, for those who know the history of BMC, the restoration of an unconventional arts school in Black Mountain creates a seductive nostalgia. The trick is not to remain in the dream of yesteryear, but to see what we can do in the present moment. On the remains of an ended experiment, a new one is born, 15 miles from Asheville, another node in the landscape of the Bohemian South. I first learned about the school last year, after it was too late to apply to be a part of things. This year I vowed I would not miss my chance. Just after the turn of the new year, I set down to apply. The application was unorthodox, including questions such as: “Have you learned anything?” “Where is beauty? “How are you doing?” To my delight my proposal was accepted, and this summer I will teach a course on Sociological Poetry, perhaps the first of its kind.
BMC is often credited as being the seat of the American avant-garde, but it was much more than this. It was also a refuge for European scholars fleeing the rise of Hitler and fascism. BMC was a sanctuary campus, where some elements of the Bauhaus could reassemble and combine with other elements—American, Southern, eclectic—in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Thinking back on the founding of BMC, I cannot help but to see some parallels with those times and our own. In a political moment when diversity is under attack, it gives me hope to read the School of the Alternative’s mission statement, which includes these lines: “We want the School of the Alternative to be accessible to anyone who wants access. We want to share our programming with all, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, income level, or educational experience, or background. We value reciprocal education, wherein dialogue between peers, students, teachers, and community members creates space for all to learn.” As I argue in the The Bohemian South, bohemians need bohemias—places where they can come together and create. Sometimes we need them more than others. Now is one of those times.
Lindsey A. Freeman is a sociologist who teaches, writes, and thinks about cities, memory, art, and sometimes James Agee. She is author of Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia and assistant professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University. Read more of Lindsey’s posts for the UNC Press blog
- For more on Black Mountain College, see Jon Horne Carter’s essay “A Community Far Afield: Black Mountain College and the Southern Estrangement of the Avant-Garde” in The Bohemian South.
- All quotations from the School of the Alternative can be found on their website: http://schoolofthealternative.com/
- Michel de Certeau, “Ghosts in City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, Living and Cooking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.