Cauleen Smith

Sojourner, 2018, film still.

In this conversation for Living Content, Cauleen Smith describes how she constructs her videos and installations in a way that gives the viewers the opportunity to think about, and question, the images they absorb.Drawing inspiration from historical communes, popular and spiritual figures, literature, Afro-diasporic history, and poetry, Smith’s manifold practice carefully considers what can be adopted from past collective stories in order to envision different futures. Most importantly, the artist proposes poetic and practical alternatives for the systems that we are inhabiting.

We talk about her research and about the production process behind some of her most recent video works, currently on view online at the Whitney Museum, until May 17, 2020.

Published on:
April 16, 2020
Issue №:

Adriana Blidaru: You've been a filmmaker for many years. Looking back now, can you tell me how you decided that filmmaking is the best medium for you to express your ideas? 

Cauleen Smith: I accidentally took a class called Film Aesthetics as a freshman in college. It kind of decoded media for me; it really helped me understand its power and it really helped me understand my discontent with movies and television: what I wasn't seeing and why, and the problems I had with the way in which images were being constructed. Over time, the desire to see certain kinds of images has been replaced by a desire to communicate with the audience in a particular way. I used to be very focused on producing images or stories that I wanted to see, and now, I’m also trying to construct the films in a way that invites the viewer to understand how images are working on them. I guess the term is 'self-reflexive' but it's not quite that clinical. I'd like to have all the edges frayed so that people are always very aware that something is being made, and that they can't just sort of fall into the seduction of the movie. I have no problem with that illusionistic seduction, but I think people can be completely opened up to images that are not always in their interest. They can be receiving images that are actually not considering them. And, everything that we see in our head or imagine comes from somewhere - from these images, right? I want people to always be wondering 'what is this image doing to me?'. I want to augment that in some way with my work - that's kind of what I'm interested in now. 

AB: Why did you cross over to contemporary art? 

CS: That transition from film to art really came from working in the film industry and realizing that I didn't want to wait to get to a point where I could do what I wanted to do. In film you're constantly being told by people what to write, how to write it, what is interesting, what isn't interesting, what can sell, what can't sell, who wants to see it, who doesn't. There are all these people, and many of them are not any more informed or talented or smarter than you. Frequently, quite the opposite. Yet they control what you make. I just got really bored with waiting around and meeting with people who I wasn't even interested in meeting with. Then, I realized I was hanging out more and more with artists, and I was really interested in what they were doing. I finally showed friends my work and they were supportive. So through the conversations I had, and the way the work was being produced, and the way people were experiencing it, it just seemed like this natural gravitation towards art. And also, in this realm, I just do what I want to do, hoping that I can get people interested in the conversation that I'm interested in. Even though I work with tiny, tiny little pockets of money - of course, I don't get million-dollar budgets - I get to do what I want. 

AB: Do you find that you have a different, more direct, relationship with the public through your site-specific installations and object arrangements?

CS: Yeah, I call the objects “space stations”, they are like little capsules for people. One of the most exciting parts is trying to create an environment for the viewer. So that in addition to the film, it kind of destabilizes their relationship to the images. The room itself is making them aware of themselves and the people around them in the space. Not so much like in a theater - where your body, your mind, and all of the attention are focused onto the screen as a portal - but it’s as if the portal is two-way. The room becomes another space so everything becomes a conversation. I love watching people come into an installation and then watching them slope onto a couch or kicking off their shoes when they realize it’s shag carpet on the floor. 

Installation view of Cauleen Smith: Mutualities,  (Whitney Museum ofAmerican Art, New York, February 17-May 17, 2020). From left to right: Space Station: Charmed and Strange, 2019; Sojourner, 2018. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

AB: In your latest show at the Whitney Museum, Mutualities, the two videos Sojourner (2018) and Pilgrim (2017), are obviously connected through recurring themes. But in Pilgrim, with a hand-held camera, you're investigating the actual locations that certain communities and historical figures inhabited; while Sojourner seems to be more about manifesting or building a new community derived from these histories. How did you envision these two films together, and in relation to each other?  

CS: Well, [in the exhibition] there are three chambers: you would encounter Pilgrim first, then you go into this room with completely other kinds of spectral experience, and then, the third chamber had Sojourner. So for me, there was this sort of narrative just about the installation itself, about being introduced to these sites and to the questions that these sites produced. I’m inviting you into my own research and feelings about the places, and then complicating matters, and then ending with some kind of synthesis. Which is what Sojourner is. I was making both videos at the same time but, you know, there's a lot more shooting going on in Sojourner. It was just a different timeline of completing the films, but both are very much linked [to the point that] I actually don't like them to play separately because I think they speak to one another. But that's a really insightful way you're understanding it - one is more of a synthesis, and one has to do with trying to find ways to say ‘these places existed, and we need to really think about what was successful about them and what can still be practiced from these communities; what we can bring with us’. So it's kind of an enactment of some of the ideas that I found in the past.  

AB: You have so many interests that go into one project: from spirituality to history, science fiction, research on African diaspora, political & social activism... It's so interesting to see how you're connecting all of these narratives in your videos. At the same time, there's a poetic looseness in the way these are structured together. Can you give me a little bit more insight into your research and structuring process?

CS: So it has a lot to do with curiosity and opportunity. I just follow questions and I also follow the opportunities that come up. When I went to Alice Coltrane's Ashram for the first time, on a normal Sunday when it was open, I wasn't really expecting anything. I just thought, "oh, I'll go, I'll experience it, I'll write, I'll think about that, and then move on." But once I arrived, all the people there were like, "well, what are you doing here?”, and ”what do you want to do?”, and “oh, you're a filmmaker! Maybe we want to work with you on that." Something that I thought was going to be just an exploration became this central node [to my research]. Also, I'm not a historian and I'm not really a scholar, so the work’s not always entirely fact-based. A lot of it is speculative: 'what can be known based on what is there' as opposed to 'what we know'. Facts, specific dates, and data are less interesting to me than how all these different kinds of things can intersect and the web that they make. This web isn't perfectly symmetrical: it's this completely improvisational woven tapestry. That's what's interesting to me: those associations. It's hard to get people to trust you when you're making things up the way I am. [laughs]. 

So it's a combination of really sharing the information - which is what Pilgrim does: it goes to these places and says ‘this happened, this exists’ - and, on the flip side of that - creating something where I'm making things up in conversation with these facts. The subjectivity I’m offering in the film is suggesting that it's my own conversation, and I want that to be really visible: that's why the edges of the film are so rough. 

We Already Have What We Need, 2019. Installation view at Mass MoCA. Courtesy of the artist; Kate Werble Gallery, New York; and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago. Photo by David Dashiell.

AB: As you said, you’re building a web of references with all this poetic space in between. It makes me think about mythology - which seems to be playing a very important role in your work - especially this idea of self-mythologizing, as well as creating a collective mythology. I'd be curious to hear you talk more about this, and also about some of the strategies that you’re using to activate this kind of collective consciousness?

CS: Well, that's probably something that I learned from Sun Ra, which connects to a project that I did before I became obsessed with Alice Coltrane. I was researching the way he made his work, and mythology was so important to him. He'd use it as a form of resistance, as a rejection of social norms and social systems. So he produced a myth around himself and his own origins as a way of rejecting societal structures and I just thought that was incredible. Instead of a myth or a religion being something that you obey, it's something that actually gives you flight. That is something I learned from him. And, also, the space in between is the most important space because then it becomes not just my own discursive relationship, but it makes room for anybody else to enter into the work, which is so, so important. I'm sort of putting forth a particular kind of mythology, as you put it, but it has a broad capacity for other people to inhabit this space, without it being dogmatic. 

AB: Can you tell me a bit about Sojourner's behind-the-scenes process? 

CS: There are these women carrying banners and they appear on different sites. And by the end, you kind of understand that they're producing this entire sentence that comes from Alice Coltrane. In the meantime, they're listening to radios and they're following signals in the air, which are the voices of these women and their ideas. 

My main role here is the location scouting and the text research about what texts are informing the images. I'm thinking about what Alice Coltrane wrote, what Rebecca Cox Jackson wrote, I'm thinking about Noah Purifoy's project at the Watts Towers - and those things are informing how I'm seeing these places. That's what I talked to the cinematographer about, what I talked to the stylist about: what's important about these sites, and how we can live or be in the sites. 

I've learned that I work much better with untrained people because filmmaking is such a craft and a discipline. And the way that I'm working is really offensive to individuals with a lot of training and formal craft because if you've been really well-trained, everything I do just seems wrong. And some people actually get upset with me, they get mad because I won't let them do things the way they've been trained to do them. [laughs]

AB: Different crafts clashing!

CS: Yeah! And, you know, I found my people and it's working. At first, I thought I'm doing something wrong. And I was! I was working with the wrong people. It's really all about people who taught themselves, who are autodidacts and have this kind of flexibility because of the way they learned. They learned a way that works for them and, because of that, they can adapt. 

It was also amazing because the twelve women in the video somehow ended up forming their own tribe. They all shared the same Airbnb together while we were filming, and they formed their own little society during the shoot, that I wasn't part of because I stayed elsewhere. So that was also really interesting, I really loved that. When they were showing up at 5:00 in the morning, they were already in their own little world and culture together, and I was this outsider. It really helped me work with them.

Installation view, 2017 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo by Tamara Rafkin.

AB: In ending our interview, your project "Human 3.0_Reading list" feels useful to mention here, since it engages this idea of collective consciousness. Can you tell me more about how this project came together? It would also be great to get some reading recommendations from you, especially during these bizarre times. 

CS: One writer, in particular, had a huge influence on me. Her name is Sylvia Wynter, she's a Caribbean playwright and just an amazing thinker. She's not really published, it's really other scholars using her ideas, but she kind of walked me through how humans understand themselves in this one essay called 1492: A New World View. She writes that the way we understand ourselves is a construction, totally based on ideas about accumulation, a particular kind of alienation from our environment, and these hierarchical systems that we completely invented. She talked about a "Man 1.0", which would have been sort of our more agrarian, animistic human version, who was [better] integrated into the environment, and then, "Man 2.0", being us, right now: capitalistic, exploitative, and accumulating. She writes about how this is a complete construction and that we actually don't have to think of ourselves this way; we can imagine anything for ourselves. And, I don't know why, but for me, that was just such a gift. 

I guess in politics and activism you're always trying to change the system - and then I thought: 'what if we just change the way we understand ourselves? the system is irrelevant.' We won't even be able to participate in these weird, exploitative exchanges if we don't need to accumulate or pile things up. 

I've always thought of extreme wealth as very bizarre because there's a certain point where you have to think what will you do with all the money? Where does it go? You start thinking of making bigger piles of money or things to do like going to Mars... What we really need are some respirators right now: really badly. Your little spaceship just seems so silly. [laughs] So I think she gave me the gift of really understanding that we can imagine ourselves differently. There's also a book edited by Katherine McKittrick about Sylvia Wynter, it's called Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. It was wonderful to think about what it could mean to be human. 

Installation view of Cauleen Smith: Mutualities (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 17–May 17, 2020). From left to right: Alexis Holds Audre Lorde, 2020; Natalie Diaz, 2020; Natalie Holds Dionne Brand, 2020; Gregg Bordowitz, 2020; Gregg Holds Robert, 2020; Latasha Gave Me African Sleeping Sickness, 2020; Krista Franklin, 2020; Krista Holds Terrance, 2020; Dionne Holds Sylvia D. Hamilton, 2020; Dionne Brand, 2020. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Then, the reading list itself came out of reflecting on 2016: a year in the United States where Americans could no longer deny state-sanctioned violence against black people. Domestic terrorism has been an ongoing reality for African-Americans and it was always dismissed as isolated incidents. But because of the documentation and social media, and the way images could go viral, there was no longer a way for the dominant culture to say that these were isolated incidents it is clearly a systemic practice and a cultural practice. You could watch for yourselves these interactions and understand that this was a condition. While that was exciting, to finally have this discourse not be dismissed, it was very painful to constantly be seeing these kinds of obscene interactions with violence. The great thing that came out of it was young people returning to a kind of political consciousness and wanting to engage with the world because literally, just a few years before that, you really couldn't get young people to care about politics; ‘Obama is president, everything's good. Why do you want to talk about race?’ And that changed everything. 

And as I was listening to these young people on the news or in public talks, I just remember being young, being involved in activism myself, and having people kind of pull my coattails and say 'maybe you should read this book' or 'maybe you should learn about this, get a little bit more background on what this really is'.

I didn't want to be that person, to be condescending, but I wanted to make an offering: a way to support this activism and what these young people were doing with their ideas. 

I initially started adding on this list all the books that people told me to read when I was young. Then I became very self-conscious about that list and augmented it to the point where then I had to draw the book covers of like fifty-seven books. [laughs] 

AB: Why draw them in the first place? 

CS: It's something between the relationship of time, hand rendering, and reading a book, and the same curiosity made me turn those drawings into little postcards. Then, I was just distributing them around the city so that young activists might find them. So that's how it came about.

We've got to imagine new systems, we can't just keep fighting this system. We have to imagine new systems! 

Poetry is what I look at right now. The more confusing things get, the more I look to poets because you can read the same poem over and over and experience something new. In that way, I think that's sort of what we need to really be doing: we should be thinking about what we think we know and re-evaluate the things we think we know about ourselves. Starting with your favorite poets, and then your poets' favorite poets - which is also what that series of drawings in the Whitney show is also about: asking friends what I should read. 

AB: Such a gift! This kind of reflection is really the base for action, isn't it? 

CS: Yeah! And there's so much empathy, compassion, and complexity in poetry. You know what I mean? And so much space through the page, in between the lines… I just feel like it's a really great place to grow from in ways that other mediums maybe confine or restrict us.  

Interview by

Adriana Blidaru

Independent curator and writer, and founding editor of LC.