.Cauleen Smith’s Visual Jazz

American multimedia artist wields delicate power through poetic filmmaking

Cauleen Smith is an award-winning multimedia artist and filmmaker whose work is being featured at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive Feb. 8-11. A retrospective of her most notable short films—from a total of 20 since 1990—and a screening of her lone feature film, Drylongso, will be included in the program, “Cauleen Smith—In Space, In Time.” Her work spans a vast array of themes including Afrofuturism, feminism and Black music, as well as elements of science fiction, third-world cinema and a deep emotional connection to people and place.

Smith and I attended Chapman University together in the mid-’80s, and haven’t spoken since. Our recent conversation follows.

What’s the driving force for you as an artist?

Funny question in the sense that I never really felt like I had a career, just some notions about how I would like to spend my time and live my life, you know? 

During [college], I had this epiphany about the power of cinema and television and the effects that media and mainstream culture were having on me. I realized that the images were being made and controlled in a particular way and that “way” very consistently diminished and insulted me and all the people that I loved. And I wondered if maybe I could find a way to make images that did something different, that inspired and energized and expanded our hearts and minds instead of belittling and distorting Black people, women, queer people, disabled people, poor people, etc. That was pretty much my motivator when I was a very young person learning how to make films and remains “the force,” as you put it, today.

Why did you choose short film as a medium? 

I fell in love with experimental cinema, which is a practice that embraces the short form. In narrative cinema, the short is often considered a teaser and a taste of what the filmmaker could do if given the chance to make a feature. But a short film can just dive into an idea, and experiment with form, structure and materials. There’s a deep compression of concept and execution in a short film that is its own cool thing. 

Also, If I have an idea that I want to explore and a notion of how it might contribute to a creative conversation in the zeitgeist, I can just make a short and offer it up. I don’t have to ask for permission. I don’t have to wait indefinitely for someone to write me a check, and I do not need to entertain the opinions of those people with the pen hovering over the check. I can just create and think and share the work. That’s my idea of a good time, I guess. 

What are you most proud of in your work?

I’ve come to feel very pleased that work I made decades ago seems to have found its audience fairly recently. I’m so grateful that I let myself keep making work even when no one liked it or cared about it, even when film festivals refused to program it. I just found a way to keep experimenting with my ideas. And now, there’s a generation of people who find the work interesting. That’s deeply gratifying. It’s a reward in and of itself. 

What elements do you look back on and long for a different process or outcome?

I have a hard time looking at anything I make once it is finished. It takes years for me to be able to look at work objectively and be like, “Yeah, that’s some good work there.” I am my fiercest critic, so the list of things I would do differently or which I’d know to do differently is always long—ironically, it’s usually not the stuff I get criticized for. Generally the things a viewer might presume are mistakes are my favorite elements. 

So my regrets center around how I’ve treated people or failed to treat people. Regrets around being able to pay people what they’re worth, regrets about not enjoying the process of production more, regrets about not fighting for my vision more. But I learn every time I make something, and that joy and excitement are the antidote to second-guessing. 

What roles do people, place and music play in your work?

I am a site-specific filmmaker. I love hanging out in a place and then trying to capture the vibe or gestalt of that place. I get so inspired by different individuals and the ideas they generate, the things they make and I want to make something that responds. As a filmmaker, I rarely ever imagine making anything on my own. I am always looking for playmates and co-conspirators. 

Music is the fuel and the engine of Black intellectual life in America. There’s even an aspect of divination in Black music where it’s not only reflecting the times we’re in but the times to come. Hip-hop of course is the most epic example of that. But music in general—the music people make to transform space and communicate beyond the capacity for words—offers so much solace and oddly enough, so much structure to my life. 

Many of my films are written to emulate the structure of various musical forms rather than the traditional narrative, three-act structure. I might use the repetition of a blues song to contemplate human-driven climate change, or the structure of a requiem to make a film about state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the form of police shootings and incarceration. A song or symphonic structure, because these are also time-based mediums, are my best guides for how to make a film that isn’t overdetermined and didactic but rather poetic and effective. People, places and music are operational interests at the core of my practice.

Do politics influence your work? What impact do you hope your work has?

I hope to impact the individuals who watch my work. And my grandest wish would be for that impact to inform the way they register their world and the people they share it with. Politics is a blunt instrument. It’s not even about consensus, it’s about who has the power. And I’m not that interested in power. If anything I’m interested in eliminating all forms of violent coercion everywhere, which means a refusal of power. 

But art has powers too, it’s just that the power is super intimate and delicate. Can I make you feel something you may have been resistant to feel? Can I unsettle an opinion you hold so you walk away pondering it over again? If I can do that to one person, I’m doing a lot. Of course, if politicians thought that way, they’d never make it into office. 

What excites you about cinema and art right now? 

I feel like the 21st century is about augmented realities and virtual worlds, in the way that the 20th century was about cinema. I think cinema is becoming more like theater or the opera—a big ticket item, a special occasion. And in this century when people want to experience new art they’ll be hopping into virtual spaces together, they’ll have a bit of autonomy in their experience, but it’ll also be a shared experience. I’m not that interested in sitting around with goggles on my face, waving my arms around, but a lot of people think it’s cool, so… I guess we’ll see. 

What alarms or disappoints you? 

The only thing that ever disappoints me about art and cultural production of any kind is when an artist feels they have to diminish someone to make their point. Belittling women in a lyric, making dog-whistle, white supremacist action movies, indulging xenophobic paranoia in a crime show, this stuff is just soul-crushing to me. It’s not entertainment but rather propaganda and so I get distressed when this stuff gets mistaken for art. 

What’s the best and worst advice you have ever received? 

Worst advice: Get business cards and go around “networking” to try and get work in the film industry. That’s not how it works. All creative businesses are about relationships that produce cool stuff. Better advice would’ve been to build friendships with people you enjoy making work with and devote your energy to creating things that get you noticed. 

What are your future artistic projects? 

I’m making a film about a 350-long panorama painting. These paintings are like a proto-cinema form and I’m excited thinking about the (violent) formation of this country and the formation of cinema as an art form and how one informed the other. 

‘Cauleen Smith—In Space, In Time,’ Feb. 8-11 at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. 510.642.0808. https://bampfa.org/program/cauleen-smith-space-time.

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