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“It is impossible until it is done!”
Artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith writes this mantra on blue paper in chunky, cursive lettering in COVID MANIFESTO 8 (2020), one of a series of videos displayed in London last summer that questioned the selfish norms of the Western world—many of which have exacerbated the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic. In many ways, Smith’s words and intention here are a summation of her entire practice, which advocates for a kinder, more careful world and argues that things are only “impossible” because the powers that be deem them as such.
Smith’s work, across video, performance, and installation, is about envisioning these better worlds and uncovering the fact that our ancestors have already given us the tools and knowledge to create them. Since the release of her debut feature film Drylongso (1998), which follows two young women as they grapple with the intersections of gender and race in Oakland, Smith has crafted an oeuvre of immersive films and videos that dive into the utopian possibilities of community, showcasing the ways Black women have historically made spaces for themselves and built their futures outside of capitalist and white supremacist systems.
Sojourner (2018) and Pilgrim (2017)—two videos that serve as the focus of Smith’s current exhibition at LACMA, Give It Or Leave It—explore places such as Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and the ashram of jazz musician and swamini Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. Smith’s footage of these locations is hazy and beautiful, focusing specifically on the radical potential each of these communities hold. Sojourner is a cross-country view of sites built by communities that were proponents of radical generosity, while Pilgrim moves from Turiyasangitananda’s (Alice Coltrane) ashram in Calabasas to the Watts Towers and the Watervliet Shaker village in New York to the soundtrack of Alice Coltrane’s 1977 track “One for the Father.” By visiting and filming these locations, Smith places the thoughts of modern-day and historical abolitionists in conversation, combining the past and the present to show how communities that truly liberate Black women can be—and have been—created in spite of it all. The world-building that Smith creates onscreen is echoed in her installations: the LACMA exhibition space is bathed in swaths of colored light, with the occasional flicker of a disco ball. Smith’s videos are framed by ephemera, lovingly fabricated objects, and snippets of text culled from Smith’s research. The title banner, Give It Or Leave It, inverts the colloquialism “take it or leave it,” suggesting that conflict might be better resolved by determining what can be given, rather than what can be extracted. In early March, Smith and I talked over the phone about the new exhibition, her films, and the importance of experiencing art collectively, particularly in this lonely moment.
Madeleine Seidel: Since your exhibition Give It Or Leave It has been shown at so many different arts institutions across the United States, what is it like to bring this show to LACMA, considering that so many California landmarks are included in your videos?
Cauleen Smith: Yeah, it’s been a treat for me to have it here. I never expected it to have such a perfect landing in California, and I can’t think of a better institution than LACMA for that.
MS: So many of the locations in the Sojourner and Pilgrim videos revolve around the idea of utopia and how these locations consider futurity for Black women. These are spots like the Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and, most importantly, Alice Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram. What was it like being in these spaces filming and interacting with their legacies?
CS: The best was visiting Alice Coltrane’s ashram… I happened to be living in Los Angeles and teaching at CalArts for a semester, and I [decided] to go when I heard they were open on Sundays for service. It was really an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful that I got to be there before it closed and later burned down [in the 2018 Woolsey Fire].
MS: You preserve her ashram so wonderfully in your video. I keep thinking back to the opening shots in Pilgrim where you see Coltrane’s organ so perfectly encased in plastic. Despite that, it still really feels alive—yes, it’s closed off, but it’s still such a part of the space.
CS: Yeah, I’m really grateful to the people living there to let us film that. They had a sense of urgency to let people record the space and document it, knowing that it wasn’t going to be there for much longer.
MS: One thing that I have always really admired about your work—and I think this really holds true with Sojourner and Pilgrim—is that it feels like your videos are engaged in a spiritual conversation between the past and the present, while working toward the future. What is the process for you in bringing all of these voices and ideas together from very disparate places all into one?
CS: You know, it’s funny because I don’t think of it as a “spiritual” process—I think of it as an active process through imagination, like an active conversation through imagining what’s possible or using your cognitive abilities to create connections through things, making deeper understanding. I think I want to start making that distinction. A misunderstanding about art-making in general is that it isn’t really bound in reality and real faith—and it very much is, at least for me. It’s not so much a pious exercise of trying to connect spiritually with the figures I feature in these films. It’s more like recognizing the things that they did and built in their lifetimes as models for how to live now.
MS: You connect figures like Shaker elder Rebecca Cox Jackson and members of the Combahee River Collective to modern-day activists through various voice-overs that play over scenes of women exploring sites like the Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and it really amplifies the ways in which their ideas are in conversation with today’s fight for Black feminist ideals. You’ve also centered the voices of contemporary theorists, like Christina Sharpe, in your work. Do you feel like you and your work serve as an active conduit between the methodologies of the past and present-day?
CS: That’s what I’m hoping, because I think it’s through engagement and interpretation that new ways of doing are learned. I really depend on people like Christina Sharpe and other writers and theorists to help me think, figure out what to make, and determine what materials to use to make those ideas. That’s very much where all the energy comes from: through these ideas, through music, or theoretical writing, or performance. It’s the synthesis of the conversation between them for me that’s the exciting thing, you know?
MS: Absolutely. I was reading an interview that you gave in Art in America right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. You talk about the importance of viewing your work “collectively” and in public space so that there can be interactions not just between the viewer and the film, but also among the viewers in the space. Now that we’re a year into this pandemic, have you found some ways to encourage collective viewing—even as we’re so separated—be it through technology or the COVID Manifestos you’ve been posting to your Instagram page?
CS: You know, no. I don’t mean to sound so curmudgeonly, but Instagram or viewing video online is a substitute—and I’m hoping it’s a temporary one. It’s lovely to get a bunch of likes, but I think it would be even lovelier to not have to use Instagram to lament the passing of friends, family, people, and the difficulty of living in this age. I think that these formats encourage a kind of individuality that I’m really trying to undermine with my work. I hear people who are really embracing Zoom and all these new technologies, and there are some things about them that are fantastic—like not having to hop on a plane to go give a talk. That’s great. But on the flipside, I’ve realized it’s really difficult to give a talk over Zoom, because you’re just talking into a void. To me, that’s not a collective engagement. I just don’t see that as really being a substitute for what happens when you actually engage people in shared space. We’re just human beings, we’re just little animals, and it doesn’t appear to me that we’re designed to live like that. I’m not able to offer optimism in that regard. It’s not something I’m interested in.
MS: This feels especially true considering how attentive you are to the spaces you create to view your videos within exhibitions. I’m thinking of your recent Whitney Museum exhibition [Mutualities, which closed in January] and that fantastic blue couch you [and exhibition designer Jared Huggins] made for viewers to sit on while viewing Sojourner! You create such inviting and immersive exhibitions, and it seems counterintuitive to experience these spaces by yourself.
CS: That was one of the painful things with Covid—even with the blessing of having the Whitney open [last fall], they had to take out the giant blue couch, which we called the Cookie Monster. That was for safety, I guess. I don’t know. To me, that’s a component of experiencing the work—that’s just not something to sit on. These are the kinds of things that make it difficult for me to talk about the discovery of this new technology as having some potential for liberation, because I’m just not sure what is liberatory about spaces that have to deny hospitality and comfort like technology does. I’m just not sure what that means. I’m not blaming the institutions, obviously. They’re doing what they can to make art accessible, but it’s really about the fact that these are components I built into the work, so I feel that without those components the spectator is not really experiencing the work. They might as well maybe look online if they can’t sit down, you know?
Madeleine Seidel is a curator and writer based in Brooklyn. She has previously worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Atlanta Contemporary. Her writing on film, performance, and the art of the American South has been published in SSENSE, frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, and others.
Cauleen Smith was born in Riverside, California, in 1967 and grew up in Sacramento. She earned a BA from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her films, objects, and installations have been featured in group and solo exhibitions across the country, including at the Studio Museum of Harlem and the New Museum, New York. She is the recipient of multiple awards, grants, residencies, and fellowships, including the prestigious inaugural Ellsworth Kelly Award of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Smith recently relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles where she teaches at CalArts.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 24.