ESR 9 Blog September/October 2022: Sophie Mak-Schram

Image 1: Archival image of Black Mountain College, labelled ‘Newhall Trojan Horse’, courtesy of Western Regional Archives, North Carolina, via Angel Bellaran


Is the present our most radical moment?


I asked this question with a lilt of critique as part of a presentation at Black Mountain College + Art Center’s annual conference last week.[1] It was early on a Saturday morning.


A few weeks prior, I had been wondering about a related question in the context of the Bauhaus. Speaking as part of the European Association for Architectural Association’s conference on a new European policy directive entitled New Bauhaus,[2] I was intrigued by the reference, which seemed to function both as a reprisal and as something more. At the time, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, I asked:


What does it mean to ‘rescue’ a past in order to envision – and shape policy for – a future?


References do something in the present, as much as they tie us to a past. In telling a history, one affirms, and enacts, it. Both the Bauhaus (1919-1933, Germany) and Black Mountain College (1933 – 1957, USA) are canonical examples of alternative art schools. Their pedagogies of and in the arts have been influential on subsequent ideas of what art education as much as art is, and what the relationship(s) between art and other sectors, most prominently craft, design and industry could be. In instating these two schools as the roots of later alternative art education projects, one affirms these two as the building blocks for the present. We stand on the shoulders of those we choose to call giants.


When thinking, with and alongside, other scholars speaking at both conferences, I was wondering about the relation we were instating in the effacing or collapsing of the present. Whilst my (partial) response to my first question is that the framing of the present as most radical is one structured into a linear ideal of history, where history is (wrongly) understood as singular, progressive and accumulative, I was also wondering about why and with what import we choose to speak of the past. And, more vitally and more obviously, which pasts we choose to speak of, for whom they are at present a past, and which pasts we might not be able to access (yet or ever).


The idea of drawing from a past to project into a future is one we might reflect via a different metaphor. Deep Neural Networks (DNNs), as I continue to learn from a valued interlocutor,[3] are trained on existing sets of data. In so doing, two things happen: only existing sets of data – so, information pre-formatted to be usable or documented or archived or visible – inform the training of these networks, and further, the anticipatory information these networks go on to produce is thus premised on a past. A deep neural network in your phone that is trained to identify the kind of photograph you are taking is making that identification on the basis of its training; on that which a past group of people input as definitions of that identity. So, a landscape is a landscape because of a historical accruement of what the ‘we’ of history writing decides to believe a landscape is. A future is yoked to a past by way of how and what we choose to use to shape the projection whenever we draw on histories as an example.


How then, to situate or hold elbow room for the present that functions as the submerged joint, pivot, bridge or holder for this past to future relation, without getting lost in a self-referential infinity room where the now is forever receding as I write it? I’m reflecting – in process and progress – on how the 1980s moment of historiographical critique, which I wrote about in my MA thesis back in 2019, comes into relation or distance with more recent thinking about queer temporalities and decolonial approaches to knowledge production. I’m wondering how histories can warp and weave by way of scholarly and performative warps and wefts. I’m not so much thinking here about changing the idiomatic giants on which we stand – canon additives are by now widely critiqued as a partial solution if not a continuation of dominances – but rather about how we think about that contact between our feet and their shoulders, our legs and their arms, what forms we bend each other into when we come into relation.


And further, although even more partially, I’ve been thinking about the stumbling that occurs when thinking of these kinds of practices of weaving/re-historicising/relating the past and the present with an interest in radicality or change, without thinking of materialities or addressees.[4] Beyond the obvious but still vital ‘for whom’, addressing here also proposes a (horizon of) relation, that pre-shifts or maybe even prefigures the position of address – but perhaps now we loop back to my ongoing thought about the abstract ‘you’ of this reading.


A loop that might in itself produce meaning? A thought for the next months.

Image 2: Anni Albers[5] at her loom, courtesy of Western Regional Archives

[1] The conference was called ReVIEWING Black Mountain College – you can read more about the conference and watch the keynotes here:

[2] The New European Bauhaus is an initiative connected to the European Green Deal, led by the European Commission. More here: The conference about it, entitled Towards a New European Bauhaus, has its online presence and afterlife here:

[3] With gratitude to this ongoing conversation with singer and scholar Emilio Aguilar – whose text on DNNs and eco kitsch is forthcoming.

[4] This emphasis on address comes from one of the keynotes of the ReVIEWING conference and a subsequent entangled conversation of thinking-in-process with the speaker, Genji Amino.

[5] Anni Albers, along with her husband Josef Albers, taught both at the Bauhaus and subsequently Black Mountain College.


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