artist cauleen smith grapples with the legacy of afrofuturism through her encounters with sun ra’s archives & the streets of chicago.
For me Afrofuturism centralizes formal considerations, structural considerations, and the stakes are in the praxis as much as in the language—if not more so. One of those practices, I believe, is most definitely the mastery of improvisation. …The formal concerns are where the stakes are because of the fierce rigor required to create alternative forms, alternative structures. It’s not that hard to name a record album after Sputnik, or a planet. It is more difficult (and to me more interesting) to generate several volumes of text devoted to deconstructing language, speculating about the past as it relates to the future, and living by the very forms proposed in your work and poetry as Sun Ra did and as Harriet Tubman did.
Right now I urgently have to start preparing to go to Chicago to do this film about . . . it’s not about Sun Ra. It’s more about the psychogeography of Chicago as it relates to American music, about improvisational music, about radicality in Chicago’s working classes, and about how Sun Ra was able to tap into that in the process of becoming Sun Ra. It’s also about contemporary Chicago musicians and artists who are still very much coming from what I think is a black working-class wellspring unique to Chicago. They’re called creative musicians, not jazz musicians. As a group they create sound compositions using collaborative improvisational strategies. It’s not like a traditional setup where each musician takes turns improvising. These multi-instrumental musicians, who even build their own instruments, create the composition together—in real time. It’s mind-boggling. Originally, I wanted to get music lessons from them. I wanted my camera to become an improvisational instrument.
Artist Cauleen Smith‘s great feat in her work inspired by the musician, composer, bandleader, and mystic Sun Ra is to enter into the composer and band leader’s esoteric, self-contained world without getting utterly absorbed into it. Most scholars, artists, and fans who are drawn to Sun Ra get completely caught up in his universe, and rightfully so since his self-created system of knowledge is so exhilarating in its sonic creativity, so seemingly complete in its self-contained sense of order and referentiality, so different from the usual way of doing and hearing and being, even when it comes to the rest of jazz. Those who get interested in Sun Ra want to understand this genius on his own terms, to unlock the secret code of his worldview, to grasp the complete song of his autodidactic arrangements of information and belief.
But Smith, while deeply curious about delving into Sun Ra’s many ideas, foregrounds her own concerns. Her engagement with him serves as but the starting point for her own art. Her work, on view at ThreeWalls Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago during the past year or so, is not about getting lost in Sun Ra’s world, but rather drawing upon archives of his work to make her own.
In this sense Smith’s work is part of a broader interest among recent artists in the concept of the archive, in esoterica, in examples of so-called “outsider art,” and in traces of systematized memory. But aside from those, what Smith most takes from Sun Ra is his tactic of reconfiguring conventional symbols, sounds, landscapes, monuments, metaphors, and forms into a kind of secret language.
This rearranging of the dominant into another register taps into the longer traditions of signifying and double consciousness that Smith points out are found in the richness of African-American culture, forged as it was out of the need to survive and even thrive in extraordinary difficult circumstances. Smith’s own genius is to draw out for her own uses Sun Ra’s position within this larger practice and theory of how to survive and thrive.
Most especially, her digital video works offer a kind of secret cityscape of Chicago within the existing city, a transfigured world of spiritual and political possibility that springs to life from what’s available rather than outright accepting or rejecting what’s already there. The gaze of her camera is transformative in a sharply sly way. Her art is Ellisonian with a twist, a sort of invisible woman approach to the city as cultural and political space of play, work, sound, image, struggle, anxiety, pointed critique, and pleasure. It is very moving.
Smith’s MCA exhibition takes the viewer from an outer room in which multiple versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are playing, including one by Sun Ra, through a dreamlike, space-age maze of mirrors, statues, and mysterious monuments, and finally into a video room where her digital videos screen. Entering into this pyramid-like tomb seemed, at first, like a journey into Sun Ra’s world, but the videos quickly take one back out into the Chicago landscape that Herman Blount, soon to become Sun Ra, occupied during his formative years as a musician and thinker—some of the same spaces that Smith has made her own too during a set of visiting artist residencies.
The videos feature musicians from the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the long-running institution for jazz and improvisational music in Chicago, performing around the city. Most provocative of all was a video of Kelan Phil Cohran, who performed with Sun Ra, playing under, in, and around Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, the sculpture in Millennium Park by Anish Kapoor. Cohran pulls the weirdness of Cloud Gate out from its iconographic power as a symbol of the sleek, integrated global touristic sense of the city that governmental elites in Chicago wish it to become. Suddenly, the Bean became a spaceship, a weird vessel to travel to other Chicagos distortedly reflected on its silver surfaces. It became a reflector of other sound waves enveloping it in different cultural formations. To Cohran’s soundtrack, Cloud Gate seems poised to blast off, no longer a tourist destination but rather some kind of boundary crosser into worlds hidden right there in plain view, the contorted everyday reflections flickering across its exterior. Space was the place, indeed, as Sun Ra’s Arkestra famously sang, but it was also right there where we never even noticed it.
In other videos, Smith held up paint sample cards with various names against Lake Michigan. “Ode to Blue” was the most clever one, with its reference to the musical notes that accompanied the video footage. Here again, Smith’s work emphasized the making of a world that played off existing materials to take them in new and unlikely directions and colorations. The lake, so elemental and natural, so oddly grounding in its watery presence, bumped up against the mass-produced color, with Smith’s art occupying the space opened up by the contrast between the two. An ode to the fascinating interplay between the Ode to Blue and the thing itself of light and water slapping up against the rocks just in front of her camera.
Three other videos form a trilogy of short stories—novellas of an African-American woman’s Sun Ra-inspired encounter with the cityscape of Chicago.
The first, Sonata for the Guardian of the Blackstone, portrays the impressionistic adventures of a group of masked and caped children riding their bikes along the Lake Michigan waterfront. One looping segment features an African-American girl spinning along a low wall by a pathway, her head connecting the dots of lamps poised atop lamp posts.
Another video, Nicolai & Regina, features two African-American women in red, Run, Lola, Run wigs as they run around various streets and monuments in Chicago. Are they running from something? Or just exploring the city, free to move through it with the joy of movement? It was ambiguous. They appear at first outside the window of a silent-movie style therapy session in a wood-paneled home, dreamlike visions of an alternative life form, aliens arrived to offer access to new ways of understanding the everyday city around them. Their most amazing encounter is with the “Golden Lady” Statue of the Republic that now stands at the center of a traffic circle in Jackson Park. This Statue of Liberty-like symbol of American values of freedom, liberty, and equality once, in its original incarnation, stood in front of the White City at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. But it takes on all sorts of new meanings in the context of Sun Ra’s music on the soundtrack and the presence of these two African-American women, played by Rachel Russell and Brittany Brown, running up to, around, and in the shadow of the monument. The video summons forth a sense of sourness and hope all at once, another kind of blues note on the shortcomings of American ideals of liberty and freedom, but also a recovery and recasting of those ideals. The video at once rejects the statue’s symbolic claims to stand for these ideals and reclaims them.
A piece of notebook paper suddenly appears before the camera in the video, graffitied with a quotation from Sun Ra: “You are all instruments. Everyone is supposed to be playing their part.” One can interpret this quotation in many ways. One might be to think of Smith’s camera as her instrument, playing its own part by recasting the world it takes in, transforms, and registers as containing multiple frequencies. To be an instrument in the Sun Ra sense here is, in Smith’s video world, to find a way to play off the built environment in which one finds oneself. Recast by sound and alternative systems of autodidactic meaning-making, the city’s material realities break open with symbolic and emotional rewritings, reinscriptions, reworkings. What is a city? It is cities within cities within the city, dreamscapes made real, realscapes made dream, all quite literally overlaid (or underlaid might be the better word) into its streets.
The final video, Space is the Place, offers the most powerful example yet of this transmogrification of the city by music and Sun Ra-inspired symbolic reformulation. It features the African-American Rich South High School Marching Band performing as The Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band in a flashmob that suddenly manifested itself in a Chinatown square. The band—martial, powerful, mighty—performs Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place.” The drums thunder, uniforms and hats and tassels and flags shine in glorious colors, the young musicians chant Sun Ra’s lyric—really more of an incantation—”space is the place.”
Smith’s camera catches Chinese characters written on the walls, the rain coming down around the band as they suddenly appear, onlookers unsure at first what is occurring as they listen intently. On ideological grounds, one might detect and even critique an Orientalist edge to the video, in that it trades on a sort of implied Asiatic mysticism. There is, to be sure, the uneasy collision of African and Asian American peoples in modern urban American history lurking within the surprise appearance of the marching band in the middle of Chinatown in Chicago. At the same time, there is another history surfacing too—a transformative, potentially revolutionary, anticolonial space in which people of color around the globe still struggle to recognize their similarities across differences of experience.
The rainy plaza in Chinatown becomes an immanent space—utopian, fleeting, futuristic—yet also a commons, a meeting ground of possibility, a mix of the spontaneous and the ritualistic. Then the band marches around the corner, scatters to the elevated station. There is silence but for the storm clearing, the light and shadow, leaves in the breeze, people and their umbrellas, the sun above the city, bending light through its grid.