Projections that Give: Cauleen Smith’s COVID Manifesto (2020)

Malini Guha discusses filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith's month-long projection COVID Manifesto. She argues that, unlike methods of surplus accumulation that ensure neoliberal capitalism, the piece gives viewers time to pause, process, and grieve during the pandemic without asking for anything in return.
“What if we gave everything away? What would happen? What if transaction wasn’t about the power to walk away?” 1Cauleen Smith made this statement during an online conversation with Brett Hayes Edwards on November 19, 2020 as part of the Confabulations conversation series sponsored by Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This conversation constitutes some of the programming for her show, Give It or Leave It, at LACMA, which is presently closed.

Let me describe a scenario that may have transpired in the way I imagine it, at least for some. On November 10, 2020, shortly after 20:20 GMT, a two-minute film featuring a hand positioning and repositioning a single roll of toilet paper may have brought some Londoners making their way across Piccadilly Circus to a standstill. This film was projected onto Piccadilly Lights, which is the largest 4K LED screen in Europe. Situated above a GAP store, this screen is otherwise dedicated to a continuous stream of glossy advertising. Given the content that is usually presented on this screen and its location within a prime West End shopping district, this film may have elicited confusion among those momentarily arrested by it: is this an advertisement? Some may have noticed individuals and tiny groups gathered across the street, some of whom must have been photographing what they saw. Gradually, and if these Londoners paused for long enough to realize that a corporate logo never makes an appearance, it may have become clear that this screen was appropriated for another purpose. I can only imagine this scenario as I was not there, but unbeknownst to my hypothetical Londoners, I too was watching this film on my computer in my home at the exact same time — that is, at a little after 15:20 EST.

This experience of disruption and confusion that culminates in a brief pause in the quotidian movements of some urban inhabitants is by all accounts one that would bring the most delight to filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith. This moving image work is part of Smith’s month-long projection, COVID Manifesto, commissioned by CIRCA in conjunction with The Showroom, London. Created by artist Josef O’Connor, CIRCA commissions artists to make moving image works for Piccadilly Lights that interrupt its standard advertising program for two minutes at 20:20 GMT each day (20:21 GMT now). COVID Manifesto is available to view in its entirety on CIRCA’s website and on their YouTube channel, but for the duration of the projection, viewers had the option of watching the films as a live stream. Additionally, CIRCA has constructed an archive on their site that operates as a summation of Smith’s career trajectory so far. The archive contains links to her previous works, including the first iteration of COVID Manifesto on Instagram and Human_3.0 Reading List alongside a wealth of content such as PDF scans of reading materials and clips from YouTube.

The CIRCA platform models the rich potential of public projection in these pandemic times when cinemas and other art spaces are either closed or only intermittently open. Rather than opting solely for a digital solution to the problems the pandemic raises for a public experience of art, CIRCA takes advantage of the relative safety that outdoor, physically distanced viewing affords for works of limited duration. The CIRCA platform also enables the digital viewer to experience the projection at the exact same time as those gathered around Piccadilly Lights. The formation of hybrid viewing publics who are engaged in a shared experience becomes a possibility in this scenario.

The CIRCA platform models the rich potential of public projection in these pandemic times when cinemas and other art spaces are either closed or only intermittently open

Across interviews and panel discussions, Smith recounts the questions that gave rise to the moving image version of COVID Manifesto. With reference to Piccadilly Lights, she asks whether this giant screen could “…become nonsensical… could register nothing. That seemed exciting to me…a break, a reprieve for all of us.”2See: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CIOaf7GFoA1/ While a moving image work starring a roll of toilet paper might otherwise constitute an example of the “nonsensical,” or the “nothing,” within the context of the pandemic it is anything but. Yes, this work is funny and especially when projected in mammoth proportions on a screen often reserved for spectacular images of luxury goods. But the image of the toilet roll also recalls memories of hoarding in the early days of the pandemic; the images of row upon row of empty aisles in grocery stores was very nearly a global scene as panic-driven patrons strove to accumulate as many essential goods as possible. This was one of the first mass-circulated images of taking sired by the pandemic.

Against the backdrop of increasingly troubling instances of mass taking, extending from toilet paper to vaccines, Smith advances a different proposition and one that pertains specifically to an artistic practice. She positions COVID Manifesto as a form of giving. She observes, “It’s nice when something is offered to you and doesn’t want anything back. It doesn’t ask anything of you, it’s just there”.3Ella Alexander, “Cauleen Smith: ‘We are not human without culture; art saves people,” Harper’s Bazaar, November 13, 2020; https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a34665271/cauleen-smith-interview/ Recent shows such as Give it or Leave it, currently installed at LACMA, or Mutualities (2020-21) at the Whitney are indicative of Smith’s understanding of art as that which “asks very little of people but gives so much.”4See: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CIOaf7GFoA1/ But acts of giving are especially conducive to a public art context, where the price of admission is no longer a factor. All that is desired is a brief moment of your complete attention. How does Smith configure her projections into the moving image version of giving?

Against the backdrop of increasingly troubling instances of mass taking, extending from toilet paper to vaccines, Smith advances a different proposition and one that pertains specifically to an artistic practice

COVID Manifesto originated as a series of handwritten pronouncements, twenty-three in total, that Smith began posting on Instagram in April 2020 until mid-June. Early posts include critiques, often humorously mounted, of the speed at which operations across innumerable sectors shifted to online platforms. Later posts included fierce and sometimes satirical indictments of unbridled racial capitalism, identified as the root cause for ongoing environmental devastation and for higher rates of sickness and death attributed to COVID-19 amongst Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples when compared to their white counterparts. Some of her posts addressed the summer of rebellion that followed the murder of Breonna Taylor and the lynching of George Floyd. In accordance with the future-oriented aims of manifesto writing, Smith also delves into speculative terrain. In one such post, she imagines a future where it is Black women who lead. These pronouncements, which clearly follow the chronological arc of the pandemic, were interspersed with #shutincinema, which are posts of short films that Smith made herself or in conjunction with other artists that correspond in some way to the events of the pandemic. While Smith expresses disinterest in making her films widely available for online screening programs, she made moving image work freely available on her Instagram account, which is an example of giving.

Aspects of the written manifestos and #shutincinema were adapted for the moving image version of COVID Manifesto. Smith developed a visual grammar for its presentation, with variations in mise-en-scene and sound. Each pronouncement is shot from above, featuring a desk crammed with items often including masks, half-eaten meals, and motifs from her earlier works such as statues of crows, photographs, and books. The image is split into two and the second portion is empty. The camera remains completely still as a hand, presumably, Smith reaches for a sheet of paper and writes out each pronouncement. Sometimes the hand inserts missing words or returns to what has been written in order to make the phrases darker and more legible. Once the writing is complete, this same hand presents a finished version of the pronouncement on the empty portion of the screen. Then one or sometimes both pronouncements are removed. The sounds that accompany these works vary, from those belonging to rainstorms, to the hum of insects and the calls of crows. These sounds evoke a range of sensations, including the feeling of calamity and the presence of the natural world, not to mention the tacit allusions to Smith’s earlier work, though there is a touch of humour in their use.5Someone viewing the projections in Piccadilly Circus could simply connect their headphones to CIRCA’s site in order to hear the sounds The toilet paper film is one of seven intermissions that mostly feature re-edited excerpts from Smith’s previous films, which we can situate as a version of #shutincinema tailored to the needs of public projection accompanied by durational limits.

The filmed pronouncements, described by CIRCA as a “living still life or tableau of an artist’s desk,” make unmistakable reference to film critic, writer and painter Manny Farber’s painting Domestic Movies (1985). Smith appears to pick up where Farber left off by transforming the activities performed on her kitchen table into actual moving image works. But as filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin has observed, “looking at a Farber painting is to be trapped and seduced by systems of motion.”6Jean-Pierre Gorin, “Manny Farber and All That Jazz,” Cinemascope (2006) https://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/features-manny-farber-and-all-that-jazz/ This claim is no less true of Domestic Movies and gives us a strong clue as to why the word “movies” appears in the title. Smith concocts her own version of the key attributes of Domestic Movies, which features a bird’s eye view of a table full of items including vases of flowers, partially consumed meals, bowls of lemons, and scraps of paper. Critics observe that the painting conveys a sense of medias res as well as traces of ‘systems of motion’ that span myriad activities including eating, writing and gathering.7For example, see: Dave Hudson, “Manny Farber, Critic and Painter,” The Criterion Collection, November 20, 2019, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6696-manny-farber-critic-and-painter; Sanjana Varghese, “This Art Work Changed My Life: Manny Farber’s ‘Domestic Movies”, Artsy.net, August 18, 2020, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artwork-changed-life-manny-farbers-domestic-movies This is a work without a centre and in its place is an expanse that stretches through the length of the painting and far beyond it. Smith’s mise-en-scene doesn’t just evoke “systems of motion” but also materials that she is in conversation with as part of her practice. Smith’s work espouses her deep commitment and ongoing dialogue with the tenets of an ever-expanding Black radical tradition, Black feminism, and a wide range of Black arts, including practitioners of Afrofuturism. But Smith’s interlocutors include a stunning array of critics, scholars, and artists, including someone like Farber. Her artistic practice is grounded in self-crafted principles of expansiveness that are partially documented by the “living still life,” which include items as diverse as a Ganga and Hess record and a copy of AA Bronson’s A Public Apology to the Siksika Nation. The items in each tableau are also named on CIRCA’s website, allowing a viewer to potentially follow in her tracks or as they put it, “to generate conditions of possibility.”8See: https://www.theshowroom.org/exhibitions/cauleen-smith-covid-manifesto

As many scholars and critics (including Farber himself) have noted, there are inextricable links between Farber’s paintings and his film criticism, including one of his most famous essays, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” and Domestic Movies, which is an ideal illustration of Termite Art9For example, see: José Luis Guarner, “Introduction to ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art and Other Writings on Film’”, Comparative Cinema 11, no. 4 (2014): 42–43. Farber mobilizes terms such as inertia and dehydration to describe the suffocating stylization of “masterpiece or White Elephant Art.”10Manny Farber, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” Film Culture 27 (1962–63): 245. The result, for Farber, is art that isn’t as weighty as its designation of “masterpiece” suggests. His assessment of the spectatorial experience of watching a Truffaut film is a case in point: “as the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.”11Farber, “White Elephant Art”, 245 Termite Art evinces the opposite tendency as it is marked by a continuous burrowing motion that “eats away at its own boundaries.”12Farber, “White Elephant Art”, 242 This movement inspires what he refers to as “bug-like immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, overall, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamourizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.”13Farber, “White Elephant Art”, 246.

Across interviews that Smith has given on both versions of COVID Manifesto, a newfound relevance for Farber’s notion of Termite Art unexpectedly comes into view. On the subject of her own practice, 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.”14See: https://www.theshowroom.org/events/circa-talk-cauleen-smith-zoe-whitley-enore-and-elvira-dyangani-ose It is impossible not to see the resonances between Smith’s words and Farber’s and by extension, that the dual iterations of COVID Manifesto can be understood as a variation upon the principle of malleability articulated in Farber’s definition of Termite Art. But it is the phrase “bug-like immersion” that bears a striking applicability to what it feels like to watch Smith write out her twenty-three pronouncements for an entire two minutes. It is here that we can consider how Smith’s work reconfigures some of the conventions that have amassed around blockbuster public projection.

Moving images in this context are often described as having “activated” the surfaces upon which they are projected while generating an immersive but ultimately ephemeral experience for the notoriously distracted viewer moving through public space.15For example, see: Dave Colangelo, “An Expanded Perceptual Laboratory: Public Art and the Cinematic Techniques of Superimposition, Montage and Apparatus/Dispositif,” Public Art Dialogue 5, no. 2 (July 2015): 112–130. Immersion sometimes seems to signify all that is large, including scaled-up imagery and/or participatory methods intended to arrest the movements of potential viewers. It is more accurate to consider Smith’s projection, as she herself does, as a disruption rather than activation. “Disruption” acknowledges the preexisting function of Piccadilly Lights as a beacon of consumerism, one that is not circumvented by her projections. Rather, as she puts it, her work is intended to facilitate a reprieve, to give a viewer a moment to consider something else. In place of “big” images or participatory activities, the feeling of anticipation that comes from watching someone write out a statement by hand constitutes the immersive quality of her projections. This is certainly my experience of the work, as a distracted internet viewer who achieved a kind of “bug-like” immersion for two minutes out of every day in November 2020. Smith’s decision to write each pronouncement brings a sense of liveness to the work in conjunction with a type of movement that is both concentrated and continuous. She further notes that handwriting is an embodied, tactile, time-based act that resists “the digital and the pixel,” which is the vehicle through which the work appears to multiple viewing publics.16See: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CIOaf7GFoA1/ To borrow Farber’s language, the moment is “nailed down” in the absence of glamourization while the potential expendability of the pronouncement is reinforced the moment the handwritten note disappears in order to prepare for the one that follows. A sense of the provisional is strongly emphasized in this work, further amplified by the traces of process that govern the mise-en-scene within which the pronouncements are written.

Smith’s emphasis on the provisional nature of her pronouncements aligns with a tendency to understand public projection as a mostly ephemeral experience. It may be that COVID Manifesto was most often viewed as a matter of happenstance, which is the scenario that I imagine at the start of this essay, though there is no doubt that the projection would have also drawn individuals already familiar with her body of work. However, the serial format of the work, in conjunction with the option of watching the episodes on CIRCA’s site in their entirety, opens up a second possibility, which involves engaging with the work as an accumulation. In a conversation concerning her installation, Give it or Leave it, Smith observes that she is “trying to accumulate…a knowledge or an understanding.” 17Smith in conversation with Brett Hayes Edwards on November 19, 2020 as part of the Confabulations conversation series sponsored by Los Angeles County Museum of Art A similar method is in evidence in COVID Manifesto. For example, the first few pronouncements centre on the shift to the digital at the start of the pandemic, beginning with the phrase “The internet is not the answer.” Following on from this declaration, other pronouncements detail Smith’s distracted experience of internet viewing and reading that has incorporated the cutting of toenails and the washing of dishes, building to a point of culmination: “The internet is a tool, not a HABITAT. I don’t live here.” The following episode is an intermission that features an excerpt from Smith’s 16mm film Lessons in Semaphore (2019). In this excerpt, choreographer Taisha Paggett holds a flag in each hand as she communicates in semaphore through a series of dance-like movements in a grassy lot. She makes her way to the sidewalk, where a boy named Malik responds by trying to adopt a similar set of movements. Much like handwriting, watching Paggett and Malik communicate through dance-like gestures is an invitation to pause and attempt decipherment. This series of episodes build towards a certain understanding. The intermission enables one to feel the difference between the examples of distraction outlined in previous episodes and the “bug-like immersion” inspired by semaphore, and more broadly, between standard digital communication and the ability to relate to others through the body and other tools.

If each subsequent pronouncement builds upon Smith’s first statement, Lessons in Semaphore offers both a condensation and a radical expansion of their tenets by moving directly in the realm of all the possibilities that extend beyond “normal.” Accumulation as method leads to an elsewhere in these episodes and this procedure continues across the manifesto. Moreover, Smith offers a potent response, in content but just as significantly in form, to the methods of surplus accumulation that ensure neoliberal capitalism remains on course. And she does so on a screen appropriated for just such a cause. In Smith’s hands, accumulation, as a particular kind of movement, is transformed into a mode of giving, as the sharing of thoughts, questions and insights that stretch across the work.

Smith offers a potent response, in content but just as significantly in form, to the methods of surplus accumulation that ensure neoliberal capitalism remains on course

COVID Manifesto is a work of the pandemic made for a pandemic. Smith reconfigures large-scale public projection into acts of giving and in doing so, demonstrates how some of its conventions can be deployed for a different purpose. The projections can be viewed in person and online, both synchronously and asynchronously; they lend themselves to chance-based viewing while they also cater to those who are intrigued by its serial format and chose to experience the work in that way. The malleable quality of COVID Manifesto is unique as the shift to online programming by many art institutions and universities can register as attempts to perpetuate ‘normal’, even if this is not always the intention.

In getting us to feel the pause as a brief and pleasurable moment of concentration, concurrently with the delight in being together in whatever capacity and across whatever medium, Smith gives us something we need. Time to pause, to process and to grieve has been denied on all fronts. But this denial has been experienced in the most egregious manner by anyone deemed essential, including people of colour across the UK but also Canada, the US and beyond, who have been forced to keep much of the West moving at the unacceptable cost of their health and their lives. To feel the pause, especially without being asked for anything in return, is to be reminded that other possibilities of being, making, and accumulating have always existed and continue to thrive, even now. Smith’s practice, geared towards giving long before the start of the pandemic, is perhaps so amenable to this period of crisis precisely because her work pushes against neoliberal norms as well as compartmentalized understandings of art in medium-specific terms. In documenting aspects of Smith’s practice, both onscreen and online, COVID Manifesto models an approach to public projection grounded in principles of expansion and in the potential for traction that may arise from the accumulation of insight or knowledge. Smith’s methods, alongside CIRCA’s, holds lessons for what public projection can do.

As Giuliana Bruno deftly observes, the persistence of projection as an activity “refashions architectures of materiality” rather than participating in broader moves towards dematerialization.18Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 116. This claim seems more relevant than ever now, as outdoor public projection is the kind of experience for which the internet cannot provide an exact equivalent. I can attest to this claim; while I feel privileged to have experienced COVID Manifesto through digital means, I still wish I had been standing in Piccadilly Circus watching a roll of toilet paper projected onto a massive screen, laughing in the distanced company of others. COVID Manifesto ends up being a perfect illustration of Smith’s own pronouncement that the internet is a tool but never the place where we live.

Notes[+]

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