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Cauleen Smith and the Black Radical Imagination

Written by Gazelle Mba


Gazelle Mba and Cauleen Smith in conversation, November 29th, 2020

It has been said that a period of crisis can also be an opening, that upheaval presents an unexpected opportunity – a portal of sorts through which we can at least see, if not bring into being a radically different world. This fertile space of possibility, what is often referred to as the ‘otherwise’, is inherent in our COVID present, where everyday more and more people gather in communal awareness of the untenability of what passed for ‘normal’ in the years before the pandemic. But how do we continue to develop this consciousness? How do we stop the fury from escaping? From being misdirected, petering out? How do we sustain ourselves and our communities long enough to keep fighting? To retain as in Gramsci’s famous formulation ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.’

These questions are sketched out, examined and brought to life in the work of interdisciplinary filmmaker and artist Cauleen Smith, whose 31 year practice, ranging from her early days as a filmmaker in California in the late 1980s, where the landscape of American film had been transformed by the political and aesthetic experimentation of the L.A Rebellion, a group of African, Caribbean and African American filmmakers, to her present short moving image works titled COVID MANIFESTO for CIRCA 2020 made in collaboration with The Showroom. Smith’s COVID MANIFESTO will grace the giant screens of Piccadilly Circus all through November, producing as she says in our interview a ‘short circuit in the day of libidinal capitalist advertising’, an ‘interruption’ capable of pulling us out of the calm daze of acceptance, a prodding reminder to direct our attention towards the otherwise.

Smith’s interest in short circuiting complacency, the established modes of thought and feeling which nullify us to the world’s ongoing oppressive violence, enjoins with her engagement in the theories and practise of change, how the world is made and remade through collaborative, repetitive social acts. These new videos then foreground the process of making, they are as interested in the techniques (drawing, writing) through which declarative and descriptive statements are made as they are in the content or ideologies they elucidate. They are also emblematic of the change in working conditions brought about by the lockdown in mid March, a time when she believed she ‘wouldn’t be doing much of anything’ as filmmaking is a ‘very social activity’, a social art where in the past she fondly remembers being ‘barnacled to her cinematographer.’

The CIRCA 2020 COVID MANIFESTO can be read as exercises in circumventing those restrictions, they give the sense that by working within the current limitations one can generate and express new ideas about the political, economic and social state of the world. For Smith, the loss of filmmaking as a ‘social art’ did not have to entail the end of creativity, in fact it necessitated it, instead she was pleased to find ‘that I could use drawing as a space for thinking.’ The manifestos, written on pieces of lined paper, are pithy and assertive, connecting the dots between racial capitalism, imperial borders and the global pandemic in one: ‘cops, COVID and ICE are giving me a fever out in them streets’ and inverting the dictates of neoliberalism in another: ‘exploitation is the only thing that trickles down’ [To be displayed on the CIRCA screen on 17 Nov 2020]. They began their life on the artists instagram page before making their way to the screen as part of CIRCA 2020. Each, she says, were an attempt to ‘reach out to the kind of community that already was on instagram but formed during COVID’ full of ‘people trying to keep track of each other.’ She senses that the nebulous and dissonant nature of lockdown, with many existing and communicating primarily as online avatars meant that the ‘COVID MANIFESTO was striking a chord now more than in other circumstances, because people were so confused about the situation, so disorientated. Everyone’s trying to keep things together, keep things going.’

As records of our collective disorientation, the shared experience of watching the centre not hold, and instead fall to pieces, Smith’s work brings together many of the contradictions and difficulties that came about from the transfer of embodied, real life interpersonal as well as institutional relationships unto the internet, to form these new mutant covid socialities. As many continue to physically distance from each other- I write whilst reckoning with the impending UK wide national lockdown- how can we still think, work, learn and simply live together. Is true communality something we must wave goodbye to? Or is there some unforeseen and liberatory potential in our new disembodied forms of interaction? Although Smith rejects the institutional demand that ‘all moving image artists just put their work online’ and feels strongly that much is lost in the individualized ways we watch films now at home on our laptops, namely the ‘social component of what happens when two different, unrelated individuals encounter something and are arrested. When they share that moment of being penetrated by the ideas or experiences being offered by the film.’ Something akin to a dynamic process of ‘triangulation’ and exchange between the films, individuals and the group. Yet, there is something of the manifestos that seeks to redirect that positive triangulation into other forms, through writing, the immediacy and ubiquity of the pen, whilst locating herself still squarely within the field of moving image.

Smith’s manifestos spurn the electoral connotations that typically follow political manifestos as a genre of writing, her works can be thought of instead as the love-child of artist manifestos and the Combahee River Collective statement. She keenly avoids the mix of false promises and lack-lustre plans found in most election manifestos, for Smith does not wish to provide solutions or lay out a political and economic strategy (her motives behind the manifesto are far more interesting.) As vessels by which some of the overarching themes in Smith’s filmography, particularly her research into social formation, the forces which gather individuals into groups on the basis of a shared, project, aesthetic, or even objects finds expression, the manifestos comment on the possibility of critique as a means of crafting sociality out of the isolation, physical and emotional distance of the present. This dimension of Smith’s work, its fascination with relationality and the social is borne from her deep engagement with black feminist theory, which as she describes was ‘developed out of sociality.’

‘Black women’, as Smith says, ‘have created ‘their ideas through the experience of their lives.’ Experience is always bound up in the relational, the social, it is not something that occurs in a vacuum. We need each other to live. Political praxis stems from this recognition of our inalienable interdependence, it and black feminism are crucial to any project which seeks to radically transform the world.

Smith asks like many black feminists before her, that we ‘consider relations with everyone.’ That we distance from a ‘20th century project’ where ‘African Americans at least, formed their activism around patriarchal capitalism’, we must instead heed the ‘abolitionist, queer and feminist movement’ unfolding before us. In the direct, urgent statements which make up COVID MANIFESTO, Smith articulates the ways in which COVID makes clear on a global and temporally unified scale our vulnerabilities as humans as well as our interdependence on both humans and the non-human world, whilst at the same time keeping an eye to how these relations are exploited and marketised under global capitalism. With COVID MANIFESTO and elsewhere Smith articulates a counter-poetics of social relations aimed at critiquing the perverted, exploitative capitalist social structure in order to value reciprocity, the gift and non-instrumentality.

How can we get to a world where we are not regarded and judged in relation to our ability to generate profit, our productivity, where our time is not sold for the benefits of a wage? For Smith this problem is one that cannot be overcome except without a serious appeal to the imagination. In our interview she laments our current state, where ‘we can’t imagine a world outside capitalism, we don’t know ourselves as humans outside this form of exchange. It’s something Sylvia Wynter speaks about, this human 2.0 that just accumulates and accumulates.’ Much of our conversation rings with anger at the way that capitalism as an economic system and ideology are naturalized, how we are coerced into acclimatizing to its violence, to the idea that everything on earth can and should be made into a product that can be bought and sold.

Ridding ourselves of this destructive system would require both internal and external revolutions, it would be to know ourselves differently, to develop new forms of self-recognition and understanding that are disobedient to the transactional logics of capitalist exchange. On this Smith is clear: ‘this is not the only way to be human, there are other ways to be human’ and while her research is committed to recuperating world building projects that display alternatives ways to exist as humans, such as in ‘Give it or Leave it’ (2018) which explores the utopian worlds of Alice Coltrane and her ashram, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy’s desert assemblages and black spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson and her Shaker community, she also insists that these alternatives are to be rooted in the here and now, in the ‘collective resistance’ activated in the wake of COVID. She gives some examples: ‘I originally thought when people couldn’t go to work and earn money, that this is our moment, this is our moment to bring the banks totally down, we should just all stop paying them.’

The rejection of debt in favour of alternative currencies and exchange systems are ongoing demands- which Smith even includes in one of her manifestos [To be displayed on the CIRCA screen on 14 Nov 2020]- that are made even more prescient by the global pandemic. But as Smith says in our interview, the ability to make these demands and fight for them, is also a question of believing they are possible, even as the capitalist class will use the language of practicality and economic reason to argue that they are not so. The radical imagination is where some of this believing takes place, it joins up with the will to draw people into collective struggle and resistance. For Smith, art can be a method of undoing the restrictions that capitalism places on our imagination, our ability to inhabit the spaces of radical imagining. She sees her task as ‘trying to think about ways that art can help us get closer to believing in what we’ve been told is impossible.’

One way that Smith has found to get us to believe in impossibility, is through a rewiring of the senses and our perceptual capacities. To get out of thinking in accordance with ingrained economic principles, we must also learn to see and feel differently. In our conversation, Smith laughingly recalls how at a recent install in Los Angeles, the layout of her show caused the security guards to ask if she ‘wanted people to party in here.’ She describes how she has a ‘shag carpet in the installation so you can just lie there and look at the ceiling.’ The simple act of lying and looking, of luxuriating in a shaggy blue carpet, forms a large part of Smith’s mission to ‘alter those equations about sociality and what’s possible.’ 1 Equations that put a price tag on so many experiences, especially those that give pleasure, that cause us some fraction of joy and delight.

Smith is adamant that the work of freedom ‘can’t just be an intellectual or linguistic project. It has to be embodied somehow and it has to function on levels we are not always conscious of.’ What develops in our conversation is a sense of both the conscious and non-conscious levels of the drive towards liberation, that is despite her love of the sensorial, she also views the acquisition of knowledge as a weapon that can aid us in the struggle against oppression. We discuss her past project HUMANS_3.0, a reworking of Sylvia Wynter’s maxim, Humans_2.0, where after noticing ‘blind spots’ in the self education of young activists, she sought a way ‘without wanting to intervene…to suggest this wealth of knowledge’ from the activists who came before them. So in 2015, Smith created a hand drawn reading list, full of books that changed her life, in an effort to connect young people to an older tradition of African American anti-capitalist organising.2

The aim of the project, being how we can ‘inoculate’ our imaginations to bear the ravages of capitalism is still deeply relevant today. To prove her point, Smith compares the ‘early aughts and late 90s’ to the present, where she ‘felt like young African American people really thought that capitalism was the way forward, that if they could just win and succeed that they would somehow be liberated.’ But now she says, ‘what’s clear is that the system that we are in is actually a kind of matrix, that we need to unsee and undo… You can’t do that without knowledge.’ She then declares, ‘I don’t think we can move forward until we have different imaginaries, different thought projects, different mental and spatial environments to work through who we are and what we want from this world.’

From our conversation it became clear that ‘moving forward’ is impossible without also moving backwards. That the imagination is just as concerned with the past as it is with the future. Historical speculation, whether it be a deep dive into the ‘eccentric, autodidactic investigations’ of the Afrofuturist jazz pioneer Sun Ra, or a look into the ‘intense devotional practice’ of spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson and her Shaker communities practice of creating a space ‘so that they could take care of more than just themselves’ is an important feature of Smith’s filmmaking practice. When I ask her about the relationship between historical speculation and world building, she begins by situating history as this ‘totally subjective enterprise…a form of storytelling’, that by going back to can enable us to find ‘working models for social projects that were successful.’ Right now, she is ‘looking at black economic collectives in the United States, black communists. What did these initiatives actually produce? Not so much to return to them. But to understand the mechanics of how people were able to transform their lives and their worlds.’

Her subtle connection of history as a form of storytelling and the work of finding these instances of historical models for how we can transform our world shows that so much of what we’ve been led to believe about historical narratives of progress leading to and affirming capitalist expansion and the need to accumulate, are the fault of a particular mode of storytelling. It follows then that we can actually tell the story of history differently, to take in the patchiness of capitalism, the ways ordinary people did and continue to resist its totalizing presence.

We also dwell for a long time on the idea of permanence, how as she describes ‘in Western culture everything is supposed to last forever and that’s an absurd notion.’ We are in agreement that ‘things don’t have to last forever, if a project lasts for ten years then it’s a 10 year project where something occurs. It’s not a failure when it ends, it simply ends.’ Smith plays with this concept of impermanence in her filmmaking, where she says ‘you can just put one thing next to another thing. You can move from one thing to the next. You can move forwards, backwards, horizontally.’ Here, incommensurable moments in time are given an equality in her darting frames, the past does not have to be subordinated to the present or future and vice versa. They derive an equal and mutually-reinforcing importance by being placed next to each other.

Throughout our conversation, our talk goes in many different directions but we keep returning to this question of the social and its relationship to political change. I see that this mirrors Smith’s own body of work, which finds novel ways to address a set of core preoccupations. Her explanation for experimenting with flash mobs or processions ‘as a form of protest but also as a form of celebration’ is one of many instances. These social formations, be it a militaristic march or political protest are an object of interest for the way they ‘occupy space and change energy’ rather than the ‘ideology behind them.’ She tells me that she wishes to ‘hijack those ideologies because of course the military, the idea of needing one is such a problem, but the way in which you can get all these different people, with so many different specialized skills to work in tandem with one another and to look after one another in adverse conditions is so interesting to me.’ But she is not really interested in harnessing the particular power of the procession to relay a rigid political message, she is more excited by the prospect of using that same form as a ‘kind of dispersion’, to create ‘instability and even chaos.’ Embracing chaos instead of turning from it might be key to unlocking the radical imagination, to thinking outside of capitalist state structures.

But how can we simultaneously be in capitalism but not of it? How do we negotiate the muck, uncertainty and precarity of everyday existence and survival and still believe in the possibility of change. Smith discusses how in preparing the COVID MANIFESTO for CIRCA 2020, a project about ‘using the internet to critique the internet’, she wanted to ‘examine our relationship to these things and just thinking that there might be another to talk about being inside and to talk about how this phone has been my only connection this past year to almost everybody that I love.’ She goes on to say ‘we all have to live, we all have to pay bills, we all have to participate in this neoliberal capitalist system and we have to do it in relation to these very powerful institutions and corporations.’ Smith word’s perfectly capture the contradictions of existing within capitalism, and it seems the phone is a nexus of that, where it both functions as a lifeline connecting us to our loved ones as well as flattening relationships and individualising social problems. But Smith’s expansive imagination continues undeterred by these challenges, as she says ‘I think about that a lot in terms of value and use value in art work, how does it get valued, what is valued and what isn’t, but I’m also interested in trying to figure out how to translate those perceived values, those fetish values into something outside of that.’ The opportunity to produce something ‘outside of that’ is why she’s so excited about exhibiting as part of CIRCA 2020, to ‘put a stop for that two minutes is interesting’, to just see what can happen when things short circuit for one moment.

1 Cauleen Smith on How Art Facilitate Protest and Introspection, by Cauleen Smith, in Art in America, June 19, 2020

2 Human_3.0 Reading List, June 16, 2015, by Cauleen Smith