When we think about Cauleen Smith and our Los Angeles-San Diego-Chicago connecting Skype call, we remember that we would have probably all been sitting somewhere having coffee and chatting, had things “turned out” a different way. We remember that we could have had Cauleen in Southern California as an artist and as a tenured professor. But we don’t because our institutions historically and currently make it nearly impossible for women of color to teach in the arts and humanities, and continuously fail to support tenure-track and adjunct women of color. Those very few voices to offer some respite from the nonstop alienation of art school and historical white talk that revolves around the sustenance of its epistemological Möbius strip are consistently removed from the places where we need them.
The arts are unique in that they actively work to intersect across institutionalized knowledge systems. Contemporary arts work at the intersection of different fields of humanities, weaving into any or all of them. This facilitates how we often work based on “interest,” and not necessarily based on the needs of focus of our practice. And just as contemporary arts operate across diversely interwoven systems of knowledge, so do we operate as contemporary artists. Some of us come from a scholarly background. Some abandon art making to join PhD programs in humanities or social sciences. We have close friends and intimate partners that are theorists and emergent thinkers in their fields. We have collaborators (contemptorary coughs!) that are writers and scholars, and some of us are both artists and writers, and both of those roles are equally important to our practice.
We think this amalgamation between bodies of knowledge, research, and art exists because of desire to push forth genuinely new ideas. It is an extremely hard task as an artist to be inspired by critical ideas. Because when you are, the most difficult question arises: now what? what to do next? And the do next often, is research.
Looking at the patterns in books popular in contemporary art circles is fascinating. The ripple effect of buzzwords, the overlapping lexicons of artist statements, the trends in texts and theorists acknowledged as influences and foils, and using “of the moment” materials (or materials re-emerging in the moment) create waves of how artists purchase and reference those books and writers for years—until the next name drops. Academics who write on certain artists or exhibitions, or give a talk as part of an MFA lecture series and turn into the “go-to” theorist for artists of different kinds with different interests; art historians look at this phenomenon with some dismay, curators calling artists “pseudo-academics” and the ever returning question of what is “artist research;” academic programs and publications, trying to find some “remedy” by curating exhibitions around this subject if not dedicating an entire publication, space or MFA program on “Artistic Research,” et al.
Outside of all these chaotic cycles of trendiness, of supply and demand, there are a few artists whose practices work as a refuge, where theory is an extension of the work and the work an extension of theory. Cauleen Smith doesn’t have a huge online, public presence or the typically minimalist, equally elaborate shop window style artist website. One of the few links on her website is the Human 3.0 reading list, an art project she did with drawn images of a reading list’s book covers. It was mainly because of this inseparability of her filmmaking/art practice, as revealing a genuine new way of thinking through art that made us eager to meet and talk. This interview could not and did not intend to take a conventional form of stock questions and predictable answers, but rather a dynamic conversation, an invitation for spark and conflict and tension and growth. But it may be the first of a series of ongoing conversations with writers and artists that we feel an affinity to.
contemptorary: How have you, and do you, wrestle with the power of the narratives of The Artist? You also talk about the camera and the potential of what you’re doing and have brought up the concept of how this relates to “colonizing.” Can you say more about this?
Cauleen: In terms of what I do, which is filmmaking, I ask people to do what they do for me and I’ll pay them. I don’t even talk about it in terms of collaboration. Collaboration is such a romantic idea and has to do with falling in love, like we have a shared ideal, like it’s about procreation or something. It’s kind of nasty. I’ve never been comfortable with the way that people in the art world talk about collaboration. So I just say I really love what you’re doing, I have this much money, would you do it for me? And then they tell me what they need. Sometimes the money is enough and sometimes they need something else. I never say to them you should fall in love with me because I’m an artist and I’m making something beautiful! And most often they’re not intrigued with what I’m doing. They’re satisfied with the exchange and they don’t even care; and why would they?
contemptorary: Well, If you track your project, you’re petty. You have to stay romantic and ambiguous and free.
Also giving people “credit” doesn’t solve the problem of the unbalanced power dynamics, exploitation and narcissism, because we are working within different economies (artist in the contemporary art world vs the people of the neighborhood).
Cauleen: Again coming from film, giving credit is part of the deal. My sound guy and my camera person are not my collaborators! They’re working for me. We do collaborate but they’re not my collaborators. I pay them but also credit them because in that world that credit does something for them. Once I had a museum show that I had credited everything in detail. When the museum put up the show they redid it without all the credits and just said “thank you”! I was so mad because I wouldn’t “thank them,” I paid them.
So returning, what is colonialism? Colonialism is going to places and extracting resources and then you have to make yourself an infrastructure to do that, and you may even have to build a whole new national identity in order to do that. That’s kind of what you’re doing as an artist who works out in the world. I approach it like that.
Colonialism and art became something I started thinking about when I was teaching at UCSD and a lot of students were doing projects around relational aesthetics. My training and background is film. I went to film school which is a very different culture, in terms of what we’re doing and how to talk about it, so different than the art world. A lot of the past ten years transitioning from that world into the art world was trying to understand these different ways that we even understand what we are doing.
When I started thinking about these anecdotes of some artist appearing somewhere and attempting to make something happen, and the challenges of trying to appear somewhere and make some engagement were satisfactory in the conceptual art terrain as “work.” As a filmmaker you’d have to do all of that to get the shot and you’ll still have to get the shot. You don’t get to tell these stories except perhaps sometimes in the Q&A. You may get to tell that to one crowd if they let you, but in art that becomes the “piece,” it becomes the “thing.” That becomes a document of something in the conceptual art world, and I just thought I didn’t know what to think about that. And I didn’t know how to help my students with that, and I asked them well what is it that you’re making. And they thought that question was somehow mercenary and shutting things down! It was too overdetermined to look at it resolved, the way filmmakers would do.
Then I looked at the works of some of my colleagues, because they were the experts on this kind of practice, and especially because some of them used Tijuana as their site, and wondered how is that anything but settler activity? Who is the work really for? What is it revealing to the maker? What is it revealing to those people, spaces and places that are objectified by the work? The power dynamics for some of these projects felt unbalanced to me – as if utility for those objectified was kind of irrelevant to the experience of playing, building, crossing on the border itself.
I was disturbed by the way in which the actual stakes of what was being done didn’t need to be examined: the gesture was enough. At the end of the day, as artists we take a lot more than what we give (for example in a filming process). When artists describe their exchanges (like Hirshorn) they describe it as if the value is in the relationships. And yes, there is great value in that, of course. But how does a wealthy institution rationalize colonizing a housing project in the Bronx, intentions be damned? What is given? What is left behind? Is there any kind of symmetry in the giving and the receiving?
The fact that people have such low expectations about the way they can shape and change their environment doesn’t make it heroic. This is how we think we can think about relational aesthetics in the United States: as settler-colonial, colonizing gestures emboldened by aesthetic categories. And we, like good Americans, make sure to glorify these gestures to levels of heroism. I should say that a lot of artists are making actual and real interventions into systems, working within systems, attempting to reach into the systems and pull someone, anyone out with them. Hey we all do what it is we can do. It’s just when there’s all this money and it fails to instrumentalize real and much needed investment, development, care or repair that my desires for the transformative power of art tend to wither.
contemptorary: Remember when Nato Thompson was talking about “Community Based Practice as Military Methodology?” And Rijin Sahakian’s reply? Right. Art is the story that the artist tells the people listening to HIM. Love this so much. Can you talk a bit more about your process?
Cauleen: I’m interested in the ethics of the process. I’m not interested in the documentation of this exchange, but the question of can I be ethical in this colonial project? That’s why I talk about money right away, and I try to make it about that exchange right away. That process of trying to be ethical becomes a part of the work and determines how things are offered and I have to accept that. Sometimes there are things I can’t do. The reasons why you make things opaque is because there’s a problem there, there’s some conceptual fault or defect and you need to cover over it. I try to make my work so you can see how this has been put together and decide about that; leaving the edges so you can see how this thing was constructed, even the economics of it. I think of ethics as a part of my material.
contemptorary: How are you able to construct a life where radicality is not a theorem, but praxis where one’s politics and public life are aligned with the work? Specifically, we’re thinking about your Human 3.0 reading list, and your relationship to theory and how it informs your work, and at the same time, the way your work is in conversation with writing. Often we come across artists (such as Hirshorn, Sierra, many of the relational conceptual brotherhood) who use theory as a shield from having to answer questions, as a shield from criticism. Your work extends theory and theory extends your work.
Cauleen: That reading list came out of an invitation for a show about activism and art. I’m not an activist, I just use the tactics of filmmaking to make art. Which means that I’m much more able to go out and get people to do stuff. I loved seeing the young people in Chicago Rise Up, I loved seeing them on the news, in the street, but and I wish I had something to offer them. When I was their age, older people would come to me and say I love what you’re doing but you should read this book. And when they came at me the right way I’d always read that book. Of course, I still read books all the time when I don’t know what to think about something.
I started making a list of books to share, by making these postcards with the book drawings and put them everywhere, at local coffee shops, 7-11, etc. I dug up some of the older books. I started with the early books and moved on to the new ones. For example Lisa Lowe’s “The Intimacies of Four Continents” is definitely a book that I’d hand out to activists trying to change the world. I did drawings of 14 books and distributed them over the course of time so I could see if they were being taken, and they were vanishing! I didn’t put any kind of information where they came from, and every time I would come back to check on them, they would be gone. I made them in a particularly heavy paper so that they were each like a coaster. Even if you’re going to put your coffee mug on it you’re going to keep it. So the materiality of it was important. I ended that project at 57 books and I can’t do it anymore, so the project is finished for now.
contemptorary: Can you tell us about the things that you’ve been thinking about, and where this is taking your future works?
Cauleen: I’ve been thinking about the culpability of living in North America, thinking about indigenous people, that no matter what, I never really belonged on this land. Black people aren’t immigrants, we didn’t immigrate. My current project is trying to figure out how we should give this shit back! But if I align myself with that project of giving the land back, where would I go? I literally have no place to go. I have no other passport, I’m not related to anyone. As African Americans we’re a new creatures, we didn’t exist before – before we were sold or kidnapped across the Atlantic and dispersed to three continents. When I go to the continent of Africa I see things – gestures, affects, tones, postures that I can identify with, but we’re totally different peoples now – now being contemporary multicorporate Christian colonial Africa. I’ve been thinking about this project of colonization to the point that my body becomes some fucked up spore that has nowhere to land. I’m scared that I’ll have to turn to religion that spiritual transcendence will be the only way I’ll be able to stand myself.
contemptorary: Stuart Hall argued that, “Migration is a one way trip. There is no ‘home’ to go back. There never was.”
And in an interview published a couple of years ago on BOMB you state:
I’m interested in forcing form to override narrative as much as possible in the experimental works, in formal ways of narrating a black subjectivity.
The alien is the agent that creates estrangement from the viewer’s understood reality, leaving me free to deal with landscape, figure, and interiority. I don’t have to deal with the story; we already know it. …
In the same interview and other places you have said that you want to be in control of who makes images. How did you arrive at the decision that intervention needs to take place in the level of images?
Cauleen: I really absorb images and I grew up absorbing images that are toxic and harmful. Once I realized I can make the image I thought maybe this image can do something else, and these images are doing things at a frequency that language doesn’t work and it doesn’t exist. It’s a much slower work.
Sometimes these images occur accidentally, but I think like poetry, they’re deliberately crafted—even when you’re going out and looking for the image it’s about finding that image. Sometimes I wish I could just use words because there’s a lot more precision to them. I’m not willing to do what it takes to get the image right and I try to compensate for that in the editing process. Because to get the right image you have to be a real dictator!
Dearest Bhanu & Cauleen,
There is no summary–no additional synthesis, no additional insight that could be offered. What is a conclusion for the poetry you have provided: here, elsewhere.
Much like the years before, this year has been so difficult for the both of us. We too, have spoken up and shut down, spoken up to flee. We too witness the profanity that marks settler-colonialism into chic art, violence into art and there is a falling apart.
We don’t have a conclusion: we have a plea.
We could not exist without yous, and we cannot continue without yous.
Your art is the space from which we learn how to form a language in which we can speak to each other.
Eunsong & Gelare
All versions of our selves
At every age and into the future