Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey
Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey

Close Encounters at the Collective, Edinburgh: Cauleen Smith

Title:
H-E-L-L-O

Dates:
22 Jan 2022 – 1 May 2022

Times:
Thursday-Sunday, 10am-4pm

Venue:
Collective
38 Calton Hill
Edinburgh
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH7 5AA

Filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith (b. Riverside, California, 1967) has her first solo exhibition in Scotland at Collective with H-E-L-L-O.

Currently based in Los Angeles and teaching in the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts, Cauleen Smith’s work often explores themes of hope and transformation in troubled and uncertain environments. Her work typically addresses contemporary African-American identity, historic erasure and tumultuous histories. Smith’s first feature film, Drylongso (1998) a murder mystery, dealt with themes of African American youth and gender identity. It received the Independent Spirit Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.

H-E-L-L-O (2014) takes us on a contemplative 11-minute journey around significant locations in New Orleans. This US city is known for its vibrant live music scene, Mardi Gras festivities, street band parades and cuisine – all of which reflect a blend of French, African and American cultures. The film maps a musical conversation of connection and growth at sites around the city since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

At each New Orleans site, local musicians play the famous five-note musical tone by composer John Williams. It’s the sole means of hopeful communication between extraterrestrials and humans in the 1977 Hollywood film Close Encounters of the Third Kind

In H-E-L-L-O, each scene links to the next with the familiar musical tone and some added solo improvisational riffs. It feels almost like birdsong or a call-and-response, a tradition rooted in African storytelling culture. One musician wears a t-shirt bearing the words Listen to Your City

Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey
Cauleen Smith, ‘H-E-L-L-O’, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey

We visit significant and symbolic locations across New Orleans, tracking and panning through urban settings, parks and neighbourhoods:

Congo Square is considered the birthplace of jazz. Enslaved people were permitted to socialise here, and celebrated the rhythms, dances and music of their homeland. Congo Square still hosts music festivals, community gatherings for brass bands and protest marches. It epitomises the history and resilience of New Orleans’ African-American culture.

Preservation Hall hosted racially-integrated bands during racial segregation. It revived traditional New Orleans live jazz in the early 1960s. This venue, with its classic Creole-style architecture, reopened in 2006 – eight months after Hurricane Katrina, setting up a relief fund to assist New Orleans musicians affected by the disaster. The Glasshouse is also a famous local venue for brass bands and a popular street parade stop.

Booker T Washington Auditorium has a turbulent history. Built on a contaminated former dump, it formed part of the first public vocational high school in New Orleans for African American students. It didn’t re-open after the hurricane in 2005 and the school was demolished. The abandoned auditorium fell into disrepair, despite its architectural and historical significance. It’s now being restored to resemble its original Art Deco design.

St Augustine Church was established by freed slaves and is the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. The church was shut down after the hurricane, despite providing lifeline community support. A powerful protest ensured that the church re-opened again.

Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey
Cauleen Smith, ‘H-E-L-L-O’, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey

Other landmarks include a local levée. A $14 billion network of enhanced levées and floodwalls in New Orleans was created post-hurricane. However, many feared it was not enough, and there is hope that ongoing repair work can turn this around.

New Orleans is home to some of the oldest southern live oaks in the world. Audubon Park has one of the largest, named Tree of Life. These resilient trees are crucial to stormwater management, absorbing gallons of water a day. They are highly wind-resistant in hurricanes, shedding branches to survive.

H-E-L-L-O takes some time to linger on the long branches of the live oak. Here we find time to also consider this tree as a metaphor for the resilience and growth of New Orleans culture. 

Cauleen Smith, H-E-L-L-O, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey
Cauleen Smith, ‘H-E-L-L-O’, 2014, HD film still, Courtesy of the Artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey

The end credits explain that the film is partly inspired by Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker). In the book, Solnit describes New Orleans as a multi-faceted and contradictive city that has found cultural resistance through music. 

As Sorcha Carey prepares to take on her new position as director of Collective in February, H-E-L-L-O has arrived at a time of change and growth for the gallery. The film resonates with Edinburgh’s own relationship to landscape and built heritage, including Collective’s location at Calton Hill. The fully restored Observatory House is now available for holiday lets with a contemporary interior featuring new artworks from Rachel Adams, Thomas Aitchison, Rabiya Choudhry and Christian Newby. Profits from the rental go back to the gallery. 

Edinburgh communities could find inspiration in New Orleans’ story, as we navigate the preservation and restoration of long-neglected significant buildings. Listening to the voice of a distant community or even the one sitting right next to you is so valuable for growth and connection.

H-E-L-L-O screens on a loop inside the City Dome at Collective. Entry is free with no pre-booking, but a short wait may be required at busy times for social distancing.

With grateful thanks to Artmag contributor Julie Boyne for this review.

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