Basin Climbing: An Interview with Mountain School of Arts

— Piero Golia and Eric Wesley (2007)

Un entretien simple mais qui aborde ce projet à LA. The Mountain School of Art affirme ici être une véritable école, pas nécessairement une école d’art.

Fillip has a conversation with Mountain School of Arts about their curriculum, vision, and location. Mountain School of Arts (MSA^) was established in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown by Eric Wesley and Piero Golia in 2005. Since then, the school has organized countless free seminars with the “unique objective,” its founders claim, of “supplying the academic community with a distinct brand of cultural fortification.” Among the many visual artists to have taught there are Dan Graham, Pierre Huyghe, Paul McCarthy, and Richard Jackson. The classes extend far beyond the fine arts into a vast array of subjects and fields of knowledge.

Fillip: What is the basic setup of the school? Is there a central building or a set of teaching spaces where classes take place? Or are courses conducted more nomadically within the greater Los Angeles area?

MSA: We hold classes three months a year from mid-January to mid-April. Classes are held two nights a week—usually on Tuesday and Thursday or Tuesday and Wednesday. Each night there are three classes that last approximately forty-five minutes to an hour. A third day is devoted to either a lecture from a professional field (not only in art), or a studio visit to someone’s home or office. The school follows a basic university or college scheme. When we began, our events took place in the Mountain in Chinatown. Next year, we will be developing a kind of campus in Chinatown where we will collaborate with a new space to hold lectures and special events. The MSA library will also be housed in a local gallery. Classes have never been nomadic. We think this goes against our approach to considering the school as a solid and stable cultural entity.

Fillip: We were thinking “nomadic” in the sense that you have organized quite a few “field trips” to artists’ studios, galleries, collectors’ homes, and other sites around the city. Is that not the case? Or, would you say that these trips are no more frequent than any other school?

MSA: True, the number of off-site field trips is higher than usual for MSA, but this is not necessarily a nomadic trait as our on-site presence is strong. We always return to a fixed location.

Fillip: The name and structure of Mountain School of Arts seems to refer, at least in part, to the legacy of Black Mountain College of Arts. Interdisciplinarity was important to Black Mountain. Could you discuss the importance of interdisciplinarity to Mountain School of Arts?

MSA: The similarities between Black Mountain College’s name and our own is really a coincidence. Of course, all the art people involved with MSA are aware of Black Mountain. But the similarity between the names is purely coincidental. We all appreciate what they were doing at BMS, especially in terms of the interdisciplinary angle, but MSA is its own thing.

Fillip: Other aspects that were important to Black Mountain College, borrowed as they were from the European avant-garde, was the notion of “retreat” and proximity to nature as being central to creativity. Downtown Los Angeles is far from the idyll wild of the rural Eastern Seaboard. How does the idea of nature and retreat—or perhaps a move away from these notions—figure into your program?

MSA: We would not fully agree with the statement that downtown LA is so different from the rural Eastern Seaboard. On a good traffic day, downtown LA is just minutes from remote nature. Elysian Park is right there too! But, we could also look at LA itself as a retreat. What we mean by this is that no one comes here except to visit or study. The art world is completely insular and unnecessary to the wealth of New York and European artists, collectors, dealers, etc. In a way Los Angeles is a wasteland and a wasteland can be a beautiful retreat. The idea of a retreat and its connections to creativity—maybe this is why LA produces a steady flow of important art and artists, while other cities—like New York and London—are more concerned with the production of art infrastructure. This concept interests MSA, as creativity can often be found in a careful balance.

Fillip: Proximity to the numerous art schools in the Los Angeles area seems to be important. What is the relationship between MSA and these schools? Do you see the MSA program as trying to disrupt and agitate these bureaucratized systems? Or is it more of a complimentary relationship?

MSA: Proximity to other art schools around the world really is important, but we are trying to do our own thing and hope to work with individuals before institutions. With that said, there has been discussion around the possibility of offering class credit to other schools for classes completed with us.

Fillip: Is there a different mode—or different modes—of teaching, or student/instructor relationships at MSA than that which you might find at a standard art college or university?

MSA: We wouldn’t say that we are trying to disrupt or otherwise act offensively towards any established bureaucratic system. But we’re sure there are plenty who would act this way towards us.

Fillip: Given the voluntary nature of the school, how does it attract so many talented artists and educators? What sort of freedoms does the MSA teaching environment offer that other art colleges do not?

MSA: The voluntary nature of MSA is its strong point. It is such an integral part of the system and somewhat of a mystery. It takes on its own life. We think this is closely connected to the idea that “the real recognizes the real.” The whole thing simply moves forward on its own and we think this attracts great minds. Of course, freedom to teach or behave in any way you want is key. We don’t have the government or private “supporters” to woo either the students or the faculty. The school’s board and the random person at the bar downstairs pretty much have total freedom within the limits of the law.

Fillip: What have been some of the more unorthodox courses or classes that have been taught at MSA?

MSA: The most unorthodox classes are yet to come. Until now we have been attempting a fairly standardized approach by offering courses in art, law, philosophy, science, and so on. We wouldn’t describe this as unorthodox unless you mean for an art school, which we are attempting to transcend. We have repeatedly said that we are a school, and over and over again someone throws “art” in front. Next year, we are planning to offer courses in such fields as “religion” and “food.” This approach could be seen as “unorthodox.”

Fillip: We’re not sure courses on “religion” and “food” are outside the curriculum of many art schools, which, in many cases, are incorporating more diverse selections of liberal arts courses. We’re interested in the way MSA seems to maintain a close proximity to fine art schools and galleries. We’re thinking of the way you have collaborated with galleries such as the Serpentine and artists such as Peter Coffin to produce your school banner for instance. You also produce artist editions and design your own furniture for your school. There is a level of hands-on creativity and design that is rarely seen at other schools. Would you consider MSA an institution at this point? To what extent are you trying to develop—or avoid—an institutional structure in terms of administrative staff, boards, and so on, either now or in the future?

MSA: The extent to which we support and/or avoid the idea of the institution revolves around the financial end of things. Here we’re referring to things like hired staff, the board, equipment, printed material, and so on. All of these things are contingent on what we have to offer in return. We think this question is premature for MSA.

Fillip: How do you see MSA as falling within a broader set of experimental educational arts programs that have been developing worldwide over the past ten years? Why is there this new interest in experimental approaches to education and arts now?

MSA: It has always been the goal of MSA to be considered a “real” school and—although all real social phenomenon are subject to experimentation—it is important to understand that when instructors at MSA go to work, they are really going to work. This also applies to the students.