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  • Source: Art Basel Magazine
  • Author: Greg Tate
  • Date: December 1, 2021
  • Format: Print

Screening Now

Filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith chats with Greg tate to share a look through her profound lens

GREG TATE I’ll just start by asking, what you got cooking now, Sis? And how has your practice and your sense of mission been affected by the new `adapt or die realities’ of the ongoing, never-ending pandemic world?

CAULEEN SMITH You know what was so funny about last year with people finally having to confront the wanton police violence? How all of the sudden anything any Black artist did was somehow related to Black Lives Matter. And that is something that I’m still trying to disentangle from my work. Not because I don’t 100% support Black Lives Matter—the mission, the activism, the work—but because we’ve been doing this work for many centuries. It’s not a 6-year-old movement. It’s a 200-year-old movement. It’s a 500-year-old movement. And so I really, really resent the way arts writers and curators and education programmers and museums and the like cannot look at this work without collapsing it. Like, literally, people will say, `Is this work a response to the Black Lives Matter movement?’ I’m like, are you serious? And also, the second question that drives me crazy—and I hate to start this conversation with these gripes, but it’s just been on my mind because I can’t get people to stop doing it—this question of ‘How has your work changed since George Floyd?’ Why would it change? That eight minutes of it wasn’t new. I’ve been making work about this for 20 years. Why would it change? It might change now that y’all seem to be somewhat aware of it. Maybe I can talk about something else now. But those are the things that kind of came to a head for me. And this happens generation after generation with Black artists in America. How easily people want to reduce our work to serving a function in their world, how resistant they are to reckoning with the work as it is, and how it functions in the world at large, you know. And so that’s that.

I do feel like maybe I am responding by wanting to be even more oblique, even more abstract than I generally am.

Cauleen Smith. Photographed by Dustin Aksland

GT You know, the hottest market going now is, like, 80-year-old Black abstract painters who’ve been doing their thing for 60 years. Now they’ve become `rediscovered’ like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters were in the ’60s, right?

CS Well, there’s that. But there’s also the other hot market, which is just paintings of Black people. You can make a bazillion dollars painting pictures of Black people.

GT You’ve got to give it up to some of the folks. They don’t stop.

CS I’m not disparaging that it’s being done. I’m just saying that producing images of Black people is a very lucrative market right now.

GT Well, I always like to point out that Black people in numbers being allowed in these international gallery and museum space just happened five minutes ago. And as we know, you can suddenly not happen five minutes from now, too, you know. So that’s in the context of The Game also.

CS OK, but you know I’m actually not in the game, so I can kind of do what I want, right?

GT Yeah, but I mean, you know, it’s like the framing goes on, like you say, and the easiest route to release and absolution is just throwing some money at some Negroes—like the HBCUs, where somebody just drops a bag of dough on the doorsteps of Howard University.

CS You know they needed it.

GT Just let people know we gave it to you and we’ll see you next crisis.

CS And the guilty will dump another load of money over here.

GT Let’s go back to 2019. What were you thinking about? What was on the calendar? Where were you going to be flying?

CS These past four years have just been amazing with the opportunities I’ve had to make shows with museums, the opportunities to have those shows travel across the country; talking to people in other cities in the world that I really want to engage with; having my work live elsewhere. That has definitely slowed down—traveling to set up work you’ve already made… where you have to show up and make sure the work gets remade properly. So, in the meanwhile, my mind is thinking about, like, ‘OK, what’s next?’ Like I want to make another film. As you know, every time I’m making a film, I’m trying to figure out how to run the crew, how to do it.

So I’ve been thinking about that—thinking about traveling to some sites around the world and filming. I am literally doing my little exercises and training so that I have the physical ability to, like, hike to specific locations. And I’m thinking about the stuff the Earth makes, the stuff we make. That’s where I’m at right now And when I talk to people who have liked my work up until now, I can see the light in their eyes dimming. They’re like, ‘Geology? What the hell?’

At the end of the day, what I keep coming back to is how Black people in America, in the Caribbean, we’re like a new people perpetually. How we just didn’t exist until 500 years ago. In the scope of human history and the planet, we are literally a brand-new people.

GT At a dinner one night, Jamaica Kincaid said, `Without Black modernity, the national dance would be the polka, and without Black people, this country would be Canada.’ The blues can be traced as a form to early Reconstruction, and so by the time you get to recording it in the ’20s, it’s such a refined form of expression. That’s why you get hundreds of people just leaping out the box, conjuring up incredible songs.

CS Because they’ve already been mentally free for a generation. They’ve already had to learn all these different tactics.

GT W C. Handy talks about how he first came across the Delta blues in the early 1900s. He’s at a rail station in Mississippi; he’s about to fall asleep, and this brother next to him is just kind of mumbling, moaning, humming and muttering, with a guitar, and he’s got the slide thing going on. Reading that, you realize this is the culture we nurtured in the silence of slavery, like this is what was going on in Black people’s heads in captivity. And it was able to freely develop after that because nobody knew Negroes were thinking out loud. They thought they were making strange sounds because they didn’t know any better. Because everybody who heard the stuff the first time thought it was the most bizarre alien thing. Even the most sympathetic progressive white folks heard it and thought it was…

CS …some weird shit….

GT …some weird barbaric shit. But we like things like that. And everything that we now put under the rubric of Blackness started in the blues as expressive culture—Black abstraction, Black sex, Black silence, Black porn.

CS I’m so glad you brought that up because I’m obsessed with Wanda Coleman right now Yes, I’m late to the game. I didn’t know! Took a deep dive into her book of poems, Wicked Enchantment, which Terrance Hayes edited, that compendium. So he just put it all together for us. I am reading it and also learning that she edited the first six issues of Players magazine, which was like the Black version of Playboy when it was launched in the ’70s.

GT You ain’t got to tell me about Players. Talking about my generation, ha ha.

CS OK, so, like, the only issue I haven’t been able to get is issue No. 2, and that’s because Pam Grier was on the cover, so I can’t get that one. Wow, these magazines are amazing. Like what she was doing with this platform where she was creating this whole, like, nonhierarchical discourse. So there’s a review of Bill Gunn’s film Ganja and Hess, and, yeah, well then there’s also, like, a ‘how to lay your lady down’ article and the like, but I mean…

GT Stanley Crouch’s national journalistic career begins with Players.

CS Yeah, I think that came a little bit later because there was another editor after Wanda who was also hyper-radical and, like, under the watchful eye of the white publishers who wanted to keep it at a debased level and were threatened by the intellectual content the Black editors kept sneaking in. Yes, we have this long legacy of music being the site through which we can discreetly think out loud, but there’s actually language like textiles, and all these other materials, through which we were doing that. We just haven’t really been able to totally excavate it thoroughly.

GT Some of that undiscovered country began to be recognized in the late ’60s, early ’70s, through folk art exhibitions of the visionary Black Southerners Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith. That was the evidence some other stuff had been going on concurrent with the blues. Folks were hiding their visually expressive genius in plain sight because most white folks thought, ‘This is just garbage.’ The artists had it all so disguised, right?

CS That action was the way to camouflage it. What’s really exciting is this idea about a kind of camouflage, a kind of opacity. Right now I’m really interested in that, particularly in film. Because with the lens, you’re just pointing it at people. Opacity is not a thing in cinema. It’s not a thing. You have to make it a thing. This is an interesting challenge for me right now, opacity and the moving image…

GT I don’t know if people know that your career really began in the Black independent film movement. Same as Isaac Julien, John Akomfrah, Julie Dash. A long while ago, I had an interesting conversation with Akomfrah where I asked, ‘John, do you think that Black filmmakers will ever have complete autonomy in making narrative films for studios?’ And, point blank, he said, ‘No.’ So, you know, John just shifted, as Isaac did, to this artworld space where he didn’t have to deal with people sending him editorial notes about his third act.

CS Yeah, that ‘third act’ crap. That was my revelation. I remember the day when I was like, ‘This isn’t going to work; I can’t do this.’ I was riding an elevator down from, like, the 21st floor after a pitch meeting. And the feedback I got, I was, like, I can’t believe I have to listen to people who were this ignorant tell me what to write. I’m not claiming to be the best writer in Hollywood, but how is it that I’m subjected to this. After having this amazing conversation with Jordan Peele where it was kind of incredible just to talk to the brother and hear his mind… I realized, like, hey, I don’t actually love cinema, I have an argument with it.

The people who can really thrive in that ecosphere are people who, at their core, can love it indiscriminately. Like when they watch The Lord of the Rings, they just love it. They’re not people like me who ask, ‘Where are the Black elves? Y’all can’t figure out how to do a Black elf?’ And that’s all I do when I watch something like Lord of the Rings.

GT Or like with The Hunger Games, where they dared to actually cast a Black character in the book with a Black actor in the movie…

CS And in social media they beat the shit out of you and beat the shit out of Lenny Kravitz too. So it’s not viable as an industry and site of production, but it is viable as a medium, as a material. You just can’t operate at that kind of super high level of technical prowess and polish, you know what I mean?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do it, how to create a nonpatriarchal form. How do you take this form that is so patriarchal and colonial that it is literally a form where all the metaphors for how you make films come from war. All the technology comes from war. Like, how do you take that and turn it into something that isn’t a tool that’s actually designed to destroy me? That’s what I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out, especially for this next project.

A still from “Sojourner” (2018), by Cauleen Smith. Courtesy of Cauleen Smith, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York

GT From a political standpoint, what have you figured out?

CS Remember when you made me write that manifesto, my ‘cinematic maladjustment’ manifesto? I still go back to that as a test of ‘What are these principles? Are any of these principles viable?’ The one thing that I do think about a lot is this idea of taking over space. My favorite thing about cinema is the way in which the location and the site can make the story. Create the space you like, find the right site and you’re, like, 90% there. Find the right actor and find the right site and you’re done, know what I mean? But this idea of taking that space over the way you see in Hollywood—like they roll up on the street and you have to walk a half-mile block just to avoid the cop show Chicago P.D.‘s shoot, that’s ridiculous. What am I looking at here? This is all about a certain kind of exertion of power and extraction and all these things. It’s an occupation. Through the lens itself, through the way you look at things, through the hijacking of territory. So like in my film Sojourner, I have all these really gorgeous women walking through the desert, but they never really show you what they’re thinking. They emote a little bit, but even a little bit is too much to me. I was like, I do not want anybody watching this film to feel like they know these women. I don’t want them to think they know what they’re thinking. I like that you can be with them, spend time with them, but you will not know them. And I will not be having them eviscerate themselves for the camera or for you, the spectator. They’re just doing their shit. You get to be with them and that’s all you get. And that’s this kind of aesthetic principle, which I’ve noticed is actually frustrating for a certain kind of viewer. There’s an expectation of what Black cinema is supposed to do. It’s supposed to elucidate them, supposed to teach them something, supposed to give them some fucking factoids that they can sprinkle around at the next dinner party or whatever.

GT So there is the illusion of a diversity dream at work, right?

CS It’s supposed to be there. There is an expectation that this obligation must be fulfilled. So they just can’t deal with the fact that they’re not being given any of that. The work gets interpreted as fantastical, which is something I kind of feel like I’ve been up against. Thank goodness for the babies and their Afrofuturism boosterism, you know what I mean? Because it made my work legible. Like, suddenly the spaceship made sense, you know. Because before it was like, ‘Aliens, that’s not real, not authentic. That’s not Black.’

GT Forty-five, 50 years after Sun Ra, and Space Is the Place being shot in Oakland, and after Parliament dropped Mothership Connection on the Top 40.

CS I mean, I don’t know what to say. This is like the remedial level of film aesthetics that we’re at, even in the artworld. I think there’s a lot to learn about what this material can do. It can do more than look slick, polished and feed you predigested sexy images. And, yeah, we just have to, like, do it. I love what Ja’Tovia Gary is doing, just scraping on the film. And this is not a new thing, but for her to do it now really matters. It’s an important intervention because it reorients people. They have to think about film history altogether. They have to think about her in it. And that’s why I think there’s still all this work to do before we can just love cinema for cinema’s sake. I’m just so divested from the idea of cinema the way we understand it now.

I think about all the ways that cinema over and over again just sort of reinforces the same violence and it doesn’t really matter who’s making the work. So it’s hard for me to even go see a movie because inevitably the film insults me or somebody that I love or care about or respect. I am shocked when that doesn’t happen because it doesn’t matter who’s making the movie, these same violences are enacted.

A still from Cauleen Smith’s Pilgrim, 2017.
Courtesy of Cauleen Smith/Corbett vs. Dempsey/Kate Werble Gallery

GT Who was it who said cinema was ‘all about a girl and a gun?’

CS That was Hitchcock and Truffaut. There’s a great deal of pleasure in that. I was just talking about Tarantino, how that man knows how to put music with a woman walking with a weapon. And it’s an orgasmic cinematic experience. He knows how to do that. Look, the fact that I don’t really want to see it doesn’t mean that when I do see it I don’t understand completely the power of the image that he’s making, you know what I mean? But, I mean, there’s got to be another thing to do with this material.

All these films that I made 15 years ago are just now getting play. Last time I was in Rotterdam, I did a screening of my short films, most of them made before 2010. And in the audience was a pack of young, Black Brazilian women filmmakers. And I said something like, ‘You know, three of these films were rejected by the Rotterdam Film Festival when I made them, and so it’s kind of ironic that they’re playing now.’ I understand that sometimes you’re making your films for a future audience. Sometimes the audience isn’t there when you’re making the work. And so then when the screening was over, these women surrounded me, Greg. And they’re like, ‘We’re the audience; those films are for us.’ I still get all weepy when I think about them. Like, here they are. So, I’m still trying to make work that doesn’t have a site to land yet, but I know it’s going to be there.