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Photo by Cauleen Smith, Lessons in Semaphore, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

On Becoming an Artist:
High Line Teens Interview Cauleen Smith

By High Line Teens | September 16, 2020

The High Line Teens Art & Culture Council (TACC) is a group of local youth who produce public programs at the High Line, combining arts, culture, and social justice. These teen staff members spend more than six months thinking critically about power and cultural production, attending events across the city for inspiration, and working in teams to develop their own programs and events—which bring together more than 1,500 teens from across the city.

Each year, the Council focuses on select High Line Art projects to inform their programs and learn about the process of commissioning and exhibiting public art. This spring, TACC spent three weeks studying the five films in Cauleen Smith’s High Line Channels video exhibition Signals From Here. Smith’s exhibition began this spring, and after the High Line’s brief closure, has been extended through October 28, 2020. You can view the exhibition on the High Line at 14th St. daily from 6 – 8pm.

Inspired by Smith’s films, TACC compiled questions for Smith that delve into the story of how she became an artist and filmmaker; the musicians, writers, and what liberation looks like to her.

High Line Teens Art & Culture Council: When was a camera introduced to you in your life? Was there someone in your life that inspired or encouraged you to start making films and videos?

Cauleen Smith: My dad is an avid photographer. I would watch him load 35mm rolls of film into his Minolta SLR with awe. It looked so complicated to me.

I was probably nine when my mom and dad gave me a hand-me-down Kodak Instamatic camera. I wonder if you have ever seen one? All you had to do was point-and-shoot, like a digital camera now. The film was 110 gauge, which is totally obsolete now. It came in packaged cartridges that I could just pop into the camera really easily. I mainly took pictures of my cat.

My freshman year of college I took a class called Audio-Visual Techniques. Almost all of the technology we learned to use in that class is now non-existent, but I still use the basic principles and all of the technical craft I learned, even with digital technology, and I’m glad I have that foundation. I had a teacher who taught us the physics of photography, how light refracts through lenses. That blew my mind, and it still does. My first time-based work was syncing up 35mm slides with an analog signal from audio cassette players. I loved making up a story, getting actors, finding locations, photographing them. Years later I ended up using that piece to apply to films school at San Francisco State.

TACC: When did being an artist click for you? What was the moment you felt everything fall in place and thought, “Yeah this is it, this is what I’m going to do with my life”?

CS: I was living in Austin, Texas, working as a professor, a screenwriter, and teaching film directing at the university there. But I was only hanging out with artists. I hated hanging out with film industry people. [We had] interesting, generous conversations—I was always learning so much. I never enjoyed film festivals and the Q&A’s after film screenings are often just inane. I loved watching my artist friends make their work. Finally, I shared some of my work with my artist friends and they were so enthusiastic and supportive of the same work that people in the film industry dismissed out of hand. They encouraged me to show and make more. I’m indebted to my friends there, like Mike Smith and Deborah Roberts, for supporting and showing me that art [could be] a sustainable life.

TACC: Where do you start when creating a video? Do you start with a person? A place? A lesson?

CS: Each piece I make attempts to deal with a different idea. I allow the idea to determine the form of the film, how it will be shot, who needs to be in it, what locations and other materials need to be present. Some artists have a very clear style and any topic they investigate gets filtered through the particular form they’ve devised for themselves. You experience things the way the artist experiences them and can come to understand the principles of the artist. For me, the subject itself is more important than my way of doing something; I’m trying to find an entry point into the subject on its own terms. This makes each work I make different from the other. The films playing for the High Line offer a range and assortment of styles and tactics. Each one had a different starting point—a place, a film, a political incident, etc.

Cauleen Smith, Three Songs About Liberation, 2017.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: Do you consider yourself a storyteller? What else do you consider yourself other than an artist?

CS: I still think of myself as a filmmaker, even though most of my work now exists as installations. I think like a filmmaker and I approach my projects the way a narrative filmmaker would approach directing a movie—even if I’m making a drawing, I’m thinking about character, narrative, action, conflict, theme, symbolism, pacing, structure, rhythm, and sound. I think of this training as foundation so that I can do and learn whatever I want in whatever medium.

For the past four years I’ve been making drawings of book jackets. When I first made them, I’d really never drawn before. I had to figure out how to do it. I had to decide whether or not it was an okay thing to do, considering how many wonderful artists have dedicated their lives to drawing beautifully. It was the story of the project that made me decide to do it. I had something I wanted to say and I thought that the drawings were the best way to invite people in and deal with time and slowness. So, even though in many ways I’m anti-narrative—I don’t want to tell a spectator every little thing to think and feel in the way a movie does—I’m also deeply invested in [narrative] as a way of beginning a conversation with the viewer.

TACC: What is the importance of settings and locations in your videos and films?

CS: Crucial. I can’t even imagine a scene without knowing where I want to shoot it. The location determines how I will shoot something. Location, for me, is always a central character. Sometimes I go to a place and I know I want to shoot something there, but I have no idea what or how. I have to wait years sometimes to have a reason to return to a place to make something there. It’s the location telling me what’s possible. Three Songs About Liberation was like that. Those locations (the empty lot with the elevated train tracks and the Southside Community Art Center) were places I’d loved from the moment I saw them in my neighborhood in Bronzeville, but it took me seven years to create reasons to shoot there.

TACC: We noticed you sometimes use collage. How do you think about building, layering, and unearthing in your video structures? What’s your process in constructing that story or narrative?

CS: I think collage, or even assemblage, are fundamental principles of film editing. You’re always putting one thing beside another thing when you edit, and the excitement comes from what emerges from that juxtaposition. This is what I love about filmmaking, because you don’t just do it on a two-dimensional surface of paper, but in space and time.

TACC: What influences you to create abstract videos?

CS: I believe that mainstream media insults the viewer by taking away choice and consciousness. Each plot point is explained and re-explained—each emotional pivot is articulated, dramatized, and diagrammed for the viewer, enabling us to just sit back like a little baby and be spoon-fed our entertainment. The problem is we’re being fed racist, heteropatriarchal, sexist, ageist images that erase people whose bodies don’t conform to a very, very narrow idea of normal. We’re fed poisonous images that ultimately make us wish we were someone else, wish we had things we can’t afford, believe that if only we had that thing or looked a certain way, or had a certain body, we’d feel okay and be okay. This is toxic.

It’s changing, of course—and thank goodness for TikTok—I swear people show up there at their weirdest; it’s refreshing.

I try to make images that make space for people to be themselves and recognize themselves in the work. I’m asking us to think about things or see things from a point of view that’s skewed from the ones we normally see. I want my films to need a viewer, not to just dump ideas on the viewer. When you watch my films, I want the meaning to be made inside of you.

Cauleen Smith, Crow Requiem, 2015.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: What are some of your artistic influences?

CS: Even though I make films, I spend more time, at this stage in life, reading and listening to music. I rely on my students to tell me what music to listen to currently, because my preferences lean towards jazz and improvisation.

I like studying artists/musicians/writers who have created works bigger than themselves and beyond their own personal narratives to create something for other people. I try to emulate people like Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Horace Tapscott, Toni Morrison. Just trying to emulate them (and not even really succeeding!) has made my work and my life better. Art-wise, I try to study artists who’ve thought through and tackled a lot of problems and questions about sociality, how to live, critical stances on social systems and abuses of power, or communal gestures of sustainability and creativity—even if I don’t personally love their work. Art isn’t always about what we like; it’s not like buying a couch or a pair of shoes, it’s about how the encounter with the art makes us think and feel. Those feelings may not always be great, but they have the potential to be profound and destabilizing so that you leave the encounter thinking differently or understanding differently than before.

Artists who accomplish that for me are Mike Kelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Pierre Huyghe, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Senga Nengudi, Lorna Simpson, Zoe Leonard, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Labelle, Sylvester, Earth, Wind & Fire, Gregory Isaacs, Minnie Riperton, Grace Jones, Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, Simone Biles, Saidiya Hartman, Jack Whitten, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Suzan-Lori Parks, Rammellzee, TLC, Alma Thomas, Missy Elliot, Sondra Perry, Julia Dash, Kerry James Marshall, Elizabeth Catlett, Dr. Mae Jemison, and Wangari Maathai.

Also, I just saw Travis Scott in Fortnite; it was so fun it made me rethink video and the social.

Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: After earning awards and honors such as the Rockefeller Inter-Cultural Media Arts Fellowship, a Creative Capital grant, 3Arts Chicago Artist Award, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, Artadia Award, and a Rauschenberg Residency, do you feel accomplished in conveying any of your messages to your audience? Or do you feel like there’s more you have to say or understand?

CS: There is always, always more. Always. And what my bio doesn’t talk about is all the awards I haven’t won! An award is someone saying, “we like what you do—please keep going.” It’s really nice to receive that encouragement and support.

Cauleen Smith, Three Songs About Liberation, 2017.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: You made a video about liberation! What are ways we can stay liberated and create change in a system not built for us?

CS: I’m going to tell you some stuff that is the hardest things in the world for me to do:

– Don’t be afraid to confront hard and scary questions.

– Be prepared to lose what you believe to be essential, in the quest for living a life in which you thrive and make space for others to thrive. We can adapt to having less money, mobility, and even access when we’re are doing something important to us.

– Give yourself skills that enable you to be useful and contribute to projects greater than yourself, and make a living while you work to get free.

– Do as little harm as possible to others, other beings, and the planet.

– When something feels wrong, sit with it and think about why it feels wrong. This is especially hard to do with people we love. It’s terrifying and painful to realize that sometimes the people we love aren’t going to love us back in a way that liberates us.

– Let yourself circle closer to hard questions until you can sit right beside the question, look at it dead in the eye, and confront it. It’s hard to recognize that the thing we have worked so hard to create may not be working. But the only way to get to the other side is to move through the trouble.

– Do not borrow money if you cannot envision a real way (not a wishful way) of paying it back. Debt creates fear. Debt paralyzes.

– People with lots of stuff to lose are easier to control. We can’t get free trying to protect the things we accumulate. We get free by building things that thrive on their own.

– Don’t let anyone tell you that whatever they are offering you is your only path, or that it determines your worth in the world. They lie.

– Don’t let the world tell you what to want. Show the world what we need.

– Don’t accept abuse in exchange for security. Find ways to make change, or find a way out.

– You make your path with your deeds, your integrity, your skills, your ability to contribute to things bigger than yourself or your own needs, and your ability to make others feel needed and good.

– Find your people. Your people may not be the people that happen to be around you or that you happen to be related to, but love those people as well.

Figure out for yourself what you want. To me, being a good artist means being a good citizen, showing up for people, following through on the things I’ve said I would do, and treating everyone the way that I want to be treated. It’s important to try to find ways to make space for other people, and to make space for my own body, mind, and soul. I don’t want to go through the journey of life isolated or feeling superior to people. I want the world to be the best it can be for not only humans, but for all living beings—that’s what I want to contribute to. That’s something I can fight for. Maybe liberation is something else for you—like raising a kid, or having a lot of money, or owning a sailboat, or running a restaurant, or growing sunflowers, or delivering the mail. But figure it out for yourself.

And until we undo capitalism completely, we know this: C.R.E.A.M, cash rules everything around me. Surely we can do better than this.

All of these things are very difficult things to do. I’m still trying.

TACC: What motivates you to keep going and making?

CS: See above. 🙂

TACC: What’s your end goal?

CS: See above 🙂

TACC: Thinking about Three Songs For Liberation, what does liberation look like for Black communities in 2020? Is it changing?

CS: I’m depending on young people like you to answer these questions.

Cauleen Smith, Song for Earth and Folk, 2013.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

To accompany two of the videos in Smith’s exhibition, the Teens asked specific questions about her works Lessons in Semaphore and H-E-L-L-O.

Cauleen Smith, Lessons in Semaphore, 2015.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: Where is Lessons in Semaphore located? What’s the inspiration behind this setting?

CS: This film was shot in a Chicago southside neighborhood called Washington Park that has many—too many—empty lots just like that one. Residents of the neighborhood resent the lots because they represent the decades of economic neglect and exploitation. But in the spring, after the snow thaws, [the lots] come to life in a way that I thought was beautiful. I was hoping to convince other residents of seeing the beauty, as well. I’m pretty sure I did not succeed in that, but lots of folks were excited to see the filming.

TACC: In Lessons in Semaphore, what was the purpose of adding an extra person in the video (the boy who enters at the end of the video)?

CS: There’s no such thing as an extra person. Malyk shows up at the end spontaneously. He was a neighborhood kid who visited my studio frequently. He was coming home from school when taisha [paggett] and I were filming. Because I was always trying to get him to do stuff in my studio I think he felt comfortable collaborating with taisha and me. To tell the truth, I thought that I’d run out of film by then. I was just pressing the trigger on the camera so that the motor would make a sound and Malyk would think I was filming him so that he would keep making new choreography for taisha. I was so happy when I got the film back and he was on there.

Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014.Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York.

TACC: In H-E-L-L-O, how did you decide on New Orleans as the setting for this video?

CS: I was commissioned by a curator to make a live procession in New Orleans as part of her show about Caribbean performative culture. New Orleans is essentially the last stop on the island and coastal hop through the Caribbean.

As I spent time there and did research, I realized there was nothing that a kid from California could offer the people of New Orleans with regards to procession culture. They have it down! So, I decided to think of the procession differently, through space, time, sound, and history. My friend Rebecca Snedecker, a New Orleans native, had just finished writing a book with Rebecca Solnit that was a series of maps of New Orleans. Each map looked at something different like sea culture, or drag queens, or—in the instance that relates to my film—bass. The low-end, low-frequency history of New Orleans. They made a map of places where musicians made history, where low frequency sounds like lion roars could be heard. I used that to look at New Orleans from the POV of the “Undercommons.” [The Undercommons (2013) by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney]

At the same time, I was feeling alienated from New Orleans. Black people were being pushed out of the city. New Orleans depends on the culture that Black people produce in so many different ways.

I don’t quite remember how I arrived at using John William’s music from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it’s one of my favorite movies of all time,despite the fact that Spielberg seems to believe that aliens visiting earth would only attempt to communicate with white people. In the film, the aliens try to make friendly communication with humans by sequencing out five notes for them to decipher. Instead of paying attention to the code they’re sent, they project all kinds of militaristic ideas onto the aliens. This is one of the ways that the alien is an easy metaphor for being Black. This is what white society does to us, constantly.

Then it was easy to imagine musicians skilled in improvisation playing bass clef instruments at these different sites and asking them all to play the same five note sequence.

The real gift was that I only asked them to play the five notes—they all decided to improvise and make music out of those five notes. That allowed me to edit them into a symphonic composition in the video. H-E-L-L-O is one of my favorite films because making it felt so right all the way through, and what a privilege to meet and work with all of those amazing legendary musicians.

TACC: What was your process in deciding which instruments, musicians, and specific locations to highlight? Do the instruments that are being used have a connection with the setting?

Some of the musicians were matched to the site. The man in the blue shirt playing sax in front of the empty lot, for instance—Roger Lewis—he’s part of the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They revolutionized second line music by having the tuba play a funky bass line. In their early days, they gigged at an underground club called The Glass House, which was washed away in Hurricane Katrina leaving only that empty lot [shown in the video]. When that musician arrived on site, he was a bit surly. He said, “Do you know where we are right now? This is the site of The Glass House!” And I said, “Yes, sir, I did know that, that’s why I asked you to come and play here.” And then he played—amazingly. I’ll never forget him. I’m so grateful.

Also, the tuba player at the end, Kirk M. Joseph, is the tuba player who put the funk in the second line. A true legend! He grew up right around the corner from the site where we filmed him on Congo Square. He showed up happy and nostalgic. He played for such a long time; I didn’t know if my cameraperson would be able to hold the shot. Congo Square is one of the most important cultural sites in North America, I kid you not. Go read about its importance to North American music.

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