Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Black Mountain School

“Isn't it interesting that the muddle of one's personal search turns into human history for others! Doesn't it feel substantial that what we choose to do individually make a supportive fabric for others in due course. The interweavings of time past, present, and future- the interweavings of personal imagination and community endeavor- this spiritual cloth, this gold of our life-looms is being woven whether we sleep or wake, a garment we are making for each other and the planet. Or so it seems. though it be beaten thin by impact of experiences, still the gold of our lives keeps its nature even when worn through, even when dust, gold dust.” - M.C. Richards, CRAFT HORIZONS, June 1977

I am a working artist invested in radical community, I never attended college and will always be interested in alternative systems of education. Recently, I participated as the staff documentarian in the month long experimental education project called Black Mountain School. I've had a lot of folks ask me about my time there and it's incredibly difficult to summarize such a complicated intimate experience. In addition, I don’t know how to discuss or even address my time there without singling out a specific problematic situation that has made me decide I will not be affiliated with any future Black Mountain School programing. My intention is to write about this with compassion and I hope that comes through clearly in my words below.

BMS was laced with a lot of magic. I made incredible life long connections with all sorts of people. I was deeply inspired by some of the classes taught, teaching methods I witnessed, lectures I attended and conversations I participated in and overheard. I cooked and shared meals with so many combinations of amazing folks. I helped organize a direct action in downtown Asheville against the proposed HB2 bathroom law with a wonderful group of students, staff and faculty. After the Orlando shooting a group of us who had just recently met went to a vigil together, cried and held space for the lives that were lost. I’ve gained invaluable lessons from my time I spent at our weird make-shift art camp inspired by the legendary Black Mountain College. It was a true experiment, successful, but not without it’s problems and room for much growth.

On Tuesday, June 14th the second to last night of our month long camp there was a group show scheduled, organized by a BMS student. Eighteen of us, myself included, were invited to show various works, performances and films. Chelsea Ragan BMS founder and director was also invited to show her self described “racially charged” artwork. Upon entering the room where Chelsea and Adam Void were showing their work together I was instantly perplexed and confused by a number of her pieces. They immediately read on the surface as cultural appropriation and racist - I was specifically taken aback by a video of herself (Chelsea is a white woman) in blackface nursing her baby. There was no artist statement, no information and as a white person I felt very uncomfortable and unclear about her intentions.

I wrote Chelsea two emails about her work, the first a week after returning from school. She has responded to both. I am posting the second of my two emails written on June 29th because I feel it helps explain the situation further.

Hello Chelsea,

Thanks for taking the time to get back to me so quickly. I needed to sit with your response for a few days because to be honest I didn't know how to respond. For transparency sake, I feel no better than before after reading your email. I read it again, and again to try to figure out how I feel I need to move forward in order to respect my feelings and those I want to support.

Before I go any further I want to acknowledge a few things you said to me to make sure you feel heard. I want you to be assured I am taking your words, feelings and experience into consideration. I hear that you would prefer to talk about this verbally instead of having an email back and forth. I hear that you fill various rolls in your life, artist, mother, curator, friend, collaborator, and organizer. And most of all I hear your experience of where and how you grew up and how that translates into your work. I'd like to respond to those things as briefly as possible in addition to a few others that came up for me.

I'm writing you back instead of scheduling a call because it feels more productive for me personally as don't do well on the phone under pressure or conflict. I also feel strongly about having this conversation in writing to reference and clarify misunderstandings. Rooted in my own experience things said aloud can be interpreted wildly different based on the individuals involved personal experience, lost to collective memory and/or potentially not remembered accurately by either parties in the conversation.

In your email you said to me "My work is separate from Black Mountain School, in the same what that any one student/staff/faculty does not represent the entire community." I absolutely 100% disagree with you. And because of that, unless you decide to change your views on the matter, we may not ever come to an understanding about why I feel you showing the blackface video in particular is, was and will most likely continue to be a huge problem. As the founder and director of a radical school rooted in visionary artistic ethos I believe your creative practice is fundamentally intertwined. And as a white person your decision to show a blackface video at a school event (from my understanding there was concern voiced prior to the show, but maybe I'm misunderstanding the circumstances) created to what I believe an unsafe space, and has set the tone for the same to be said in the future. I again urge you to consider how your role and this decision does reflect BMS, not only to those of us who were participating in the experiment but also to the general public who have even less context. To be clear, I would be having a similar conversation if this work was shown by a student or faculty member, although being the director it represents something larger in the end.

You asked, "When we take away the artist statement and justified biography next to difficult work is the work still relevant?" My personal stance in this situation is no, it's not. In other contexts and online, I still may say no. This is said in response to my strong feelings regarding blackface and the use of the N word, in particular by a white person. I feel to put it simply that it's perpetuating racism, causing people to feel isolated and angry, regardless of the motivation or intended meaning behind it. Again, it sounds as if we have a difference of opinion that seems as if it may lead to a dead end street. But I want to be clear about my personal feelings so there is no grey area.

Last, I need to briefly respond to this- "If you feel forced to have a conversation about my work when discussing BMS, please also talk about Luan (his incredible HB2 action in Asheville), Shlomit (journey from Tel Aviv to touring the states with Bill Daniel), Kim V. (faculty member of higher education that transformed her way of thinking) and so many others. Please remember to point out that BMS is made from so many others. Hopefully, any negative thoughts about my work will not affect all of these amazing people." For the most part I've been avoiding answering all the questions from folks about BMS so far because I needed to write you and wasn't sure how I wanted to talk about my potential future involvement. When discussing BMS there is no force, I'm acting out of free will and communicating with transparency. When I choose to discuss my experience there and why I may not be involved with future planning and programing, your work is directly linked to that and will come up in the conversation, along with all the other amazing positive things I was witness to.

This brings us back to my feelings about how for me, your work and decisions to show it is not separate from the school, its intrinsically linked. In turn, when I speak of BMS to others who weren't there (and when discussing with those who were) I will continue to reiterate all the things I said to you in my initial letter about how the experience was nothing short of magic. Obviously that magic grew out of your vision and organizing- and flourished with the participation of our new community. I'm not taking away from this amazing experience or our collectively shared magic by discussing negative thoughts about your work, but I am pointing out that there were many others aside from myself who will remain unnamed at this time who in fact felt isolated, hurt and discouraged by your decision to show your work.

With that said, in solidarity for those who have already spoken up and those who I believe will continue to do so, I am letting you know I will not have involvement in future BMS programing. I look forward to being a part of conversations with you surrounding your work if you want to continue to email. I will continue to have dialog and with others about this subject. In addition I am interested in being involved in conversations discussing ways to improve upon an already amazing project if the opportunity arises. Looking forward to hearing from you if you have the space, otherwise I will be in the mix with future emails and conversations.

Faythe Levine

So those of you who have asked about my time at Black Mountain School, all I can say is- it was complicated. I refuse to say it was bad. And it got too weird and emotionally confusing at the end to say it was good. I hope this gives you a better understanding of why it’s not an easy questions to answer.

Moving forward, this July I will be working on editing down the 3000 photos I shot while at BMS while at ACRE, an artist residency in rural Wisconsin. These photos will be online for public viewing, made available to BMS for promotional use and to the folks whose work I documented. I will continue my many conversations with people who were at BMS about various dynamics, both positive and negative. I remain an advocate and participant for radical community and education, and hope that if BMS continues in the future it will do so gently. Learning from the mistakes that occurred, building on the many amazing positive experiences that people walked away with and healing the wounds that were opened- creating a safe space welcoming to all.

A few additional notes/backstory:
I heard about BMS this winter through a number of friends who were participating as faculty. I've always been drawn to the legacy of Black Mountain College and my interest was piqued when I caught wind of the project. In February I emailed the school about wanting to be involved, proposing I participate as the school documentarian shooting photos. All staff and faculty positions were unpaid, and travel costs were also covered by the participant. I was ready to take off work and sign up for the month. The school’s founders Chelsea Ragan & Adam Void contacted me and we had a skype meeting. During this meeting we mostly discussed BMS logistics, I asked a lot of questions about protocol- was there going to be safe sober space? Were the buildings going to be accessible? How was the school going to look in regards to race, whiteness, gender, queerness? And I asked a lot of questions about food, because feeding people well and making sure dietary needs are met is fundamental to a productive healthy environment. I was assured all my concerns were being addressed and handled in a responsible manner. I trusted them, and could tell they were passionate about making this project happen. I also understood the amount of time they had dedicated to the school so far. 

It never occurred to me to look up Adam or Chelsea’s personal artwork which at the least would of given me a foundation of questions to start with. I realize I signed up to work intimately with strangers, and I would do it again. But now, when faced with a comparable situation I will move forward more cautiously learning from this experience. I will look at people art practice and follow up with certain questions before affiliating myself with them and projects. This has been a huge learning process for me and will continue be so as productive conversations keep happening. I am confident that the relationships I formed through BMS are going to continue to produce some amazing things in the future and am so glad for my involvement with the program, even though the end result for me isn't ideal. Finally, I ask you to remember there are over 100 different versions of this shared month long experience and thank you for taking the time to read about a slice of mine. 

No comments: