Experimental filmmaker Cauleen Smith visited the CalArts campus in April to lead a workshop for students in the School of Film/Video and to screen several of her films. The workshop was inspired by the spontaneous nature of free jazz, which Smith uses as a model for improvisational filmmaking.
Smith was one of five artists each of whom received the $75,000 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (HAAIA) last May. Since 1994, the Herb Alpert Foundation, in collaboration with CalArts, has been awarding the unrestricted prize to exceptional mid-career artists in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theater and the visual arts.
Smith’s interdisciplinary approach to filmmaking revolves around connecting communities through art-making, as well as drawing from history to imagine new possible futures. “I’m very interested in speculation and history, that combination of looking backwards and then thinking forwards.” She found her muse in visionary jazz musician Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, a philosophy that views themes relating to the African diaspora through a technoculture and science fiction lens:
I actually consider Sun Ra one of my teachers in the sense that when I started really looking closely at how he ran his Arkestra and how he developed his own persona and career. I really identify with his way of making and tried to experiment with it and use his work as a model. He’s considered one of the pillars of Afrofuturism in the sense that he’s a person who declared that he was from Saturn and he was constantly talking about the cosmos and our human relationship to outer space, using space as a metaphor for a lot of different social conditions.
Smith’s video for the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band is directly influenced by the music of Sun Ra. In it, she commissioned Chicago’s Rich South High School Marching Band to learn Sun Ra’s classic album Space is the Place, and congregate as a spontaneous flash mob in the city’s Chinatown district. The results whimsically disrupt perceptions of reality while bringing the community together through art and music.
Smith’s work is rich with metaphor as is evident in her film Crow Requiem. It was created during a residency in Syracuse, New York, in 2015 when the increased exposure on social media of police-involved shootings had reached its peak. She was astounded by both the large crow population in the city, and by a local policy that allows residents to shoot crows, which are considered public nuisances.
“I used the crow as a metaphor,” says Smith, “For thinking about death and mourning and murder and called it a Requiem because it’s just a very melancholy reflection about the conditions of being a black person and being targeted for certain kinds of violence, particularly during that year.” She continues, “even linguistically, if you think about Jim Crow, there is a relationship between the way that we think of this bird and the way that black bodies are sort of received and perceived in our culture.”
When asked about The Alpert Award, Smith says that she feels incredibly honored to be named one of the five winners. “I have to say one of the things that really took me by surprise was the way that we were treated at the award ceremony, and the kind of generosity and care that was lavished on us, really, really moved me and imprinted on me. It made me think about what it means to sort of give back and to contribute and support others.”
She plans to use her funds to eventually establish a free alternative school, where people collaboratively work with one another, teaching each other what they know. “I want it to be so that anybody can come in and learn what they need and then move on with that knowledge. Maybe it’s not so much about the institutional building, but just being able to rent enough space so that it can be inhabited. I think there’s really no words to talk about what it means to have someone actually make the impossible possible in your life. Winning the Alpert Award has been huge, so I just want to pay it forward.”