Black Mountain College - student group

ReVisiting Black Mountain College – we never learned how to be political

Can the historical Black Mountain College serve as a model for finding new ways of working together between disciplines? This question was posed by staff at the Zürich University of the Arts.



Outcome A focus on exploration and process

The history of Black Mountain College

The Black Mountain College was an experimental college founded in 1933 in North Carolina. It was based on the pedagogical ideas of John Dewey and emphasised an holistic and interdisciplinary approach to learning. Moreover, it placed students and educators at the same level. As a consequence, students took part in institutional decision-making and could decide themselves when it was time to graduate. In this project at the Zurich University of the Arts, teachers belonging to different disciplines wanted to explore how this model could serve as an ideal for cross-disciplinary projects.

Fostering freedom and expression

The aim of the project was to foster students’ freedom and expression. Since students did not have much experience with this kind of work, they were extremely sceptical at first. However, when students realised teachers’ intentions, they became very engaged, showing that they were starved for this in their everyday curriculum. Through the process, students showed an increasing openness and willingness to take risks.

Offering real-life scenarios

One of the groups expanded their portfolio as an experimental music theatre ensemble through the process. As they were all in their graduating year, this helped them launch into careers with more experience from working in real-life scenarios.

Description An elective and explorative process

Recruiting students

The project was an elective course, with one student project leader appointed for each group. Teachers approached students they knew already worked in ways that could fit into the ideas of Black Mountain College. Still, a lot of encouragement and explanation was needed in order for students to volunteer for the project. Once they had student project leaders in place, all music students were invited to participate in the different projects. In the last stage of the process, all projects were presented to an audience. One of the major points was to expand the audience expectations of what the the music department could sound like.

Pursuing artistic interests

Each project was an attempt by the students to pursue artistic interests beyond the purely autonomous musical listening experience. In order to do this, they worked with alternative ways of integrating the insights of European art music with alternative forms of artistic production. A goal was to provide conditions for students to create knowledge that undermine the containment traditionally found in European art music. As a consequence, the projects created a situation of instability and risk-taking. To the teachers involved, this was a sign of healthy questioning of and active experimentation with the discipline’s tacit knowledge.

Practical advice Integrating experimental practices

The main challenge in promoting experimental practices to music students was how to fit such a project into the preexisting administrative structures of the institution. Therefore, the greatest feature of the project was that it represented the initial steps of cross-department communication at the institution. Hopefully, this will facilitate more and qualitatively better transdisciplinary, cross-departmental projects in the future.

Do you want to learn more?

Click the link to see videos from some of the projects



  • Brandon Farnsworth

    Music Department Curator, Revisiting Black Mountain College, Research Associate
    Institution: Zurich University of the Arts
  • Kaspar König

    Artistic Associate, Sustainability
    Institution: Zurich University of the Arts