Lessons in Semaphore (2016) by Cauleen Smith

Four Films by Cauleen Smith
April 29–May 23, 2021
presented in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
program curated by Steve Polta and Tanya Zimbardo

This online program of four short films by Cauleen Smith, created 2015–2017, is presented in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of Future Histories: Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith on view through May 23, 2021. The SFMOMA exhibition features the film Lessons in Semaphore (2016), presented here, as part of a different constellation of works by Smith, including the installation-only presentation of the majestic Sojourner (2018).

Beginning with the serene atmosphere of the ashram founded by jazz composer and swamini Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda as a spiritual sanctuary in Agoura, California, Pilgrim stems from Smith’s extensive research and journeys to locations important in Black spiritual and cultural history, where, the artist believes creativity, generosity, and community building occurred. Crow Requiem considers histories of human invention and state-sanctioned violence within nearby cities of Auburn and Syracuse in New York: the birthplace of stereophotography; Underground Railroad stations and the resting place of Harriet Tubman; and Auburn Prison, where the first execution by electrocution in history was carried out.

Smith worked in Chicago for a number of years before returning to her home state of California. In Lessons in Semaphore, dancer and choreographer taisha paggett activates a vacant lot in the South Side of Chicago through an improvised performance with the expressive tool of artist-made semaphore flags. There paggett encounters the young local Malyk Singleton, who often spent time in Smith’s studio at the Washington Park Arts Incubator. Smith has observed that residents of the neighborhood often resent the lots because they represent decades of economic neglect and exploitation, but that in the spring these spaces come to life with prairie grass in a way she found beautiful. For Smith, “It’s the location telling me what’s possible. Three Songs About Liberation was like that. Those locations (the empty lot with the elevated train tracks and the Southside Community Art Center) were places I’d loved from the moment I saw them in my neighborhood in Bronzeville, but it took me seven years to create reasons to shoot there.” (Program Note by Tanya Zimbardo)

Related Event
April 29, 2021 at Noon (12pm, PDT)
Artist Talk: Cauleen Smith

In partnership with UC Berkeley Arts + Design’s A+D Thursdays series, SFMOMA has co-organized an online artist talk with Smith, who will discuss the research and process behind her time-based works currently on view in Future Histories: Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith and in this online program.

full details at

Recording available below:

SCREENING: Pilgrim (2017); digital video, color, sound, 8 minutes. Crow Requiem (2015); digital video, color, sound, 11 minutes. Lessons in Semaphore (2016); 16mm screened as digital video, color, silent, 4 minutes. Three Songs About Liberation (2017); 16mm screened as digital video, color, sound, 10 minutes.  


Pilgrim (2017) by Cauleen Smith

A live recording of an Alice Coltrane piano performance accompanied by a visual track that documents a pilgrimage across the USA taken by Cauleen Smith, tracing historic sites of creativity and generosity: Alice Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram, the Watts Towers and the Watervliet Shaker Historic District.

Crow Requiem (2015) by Cauleen Smith

A Speculation: Humans are estranged from our origins. We left the commonwealth of Animals and declared ourselves the custodians of that dominion. And now We are Man; and all else is Other. Our knowledge of ourselves is a fog that consumes us. We cannot see past it, because we do not want to look into it. There are more than two points of view, but the fog makes it difficult to see. This is a sad song, a blues song, an elegy for the past sphere of consciousness we abandoned in favor of eating our own young. (Cauleen Smith)

Crows are known for their mythological reputation as tricksters and harbingers of death, but less [as] creatures of remarkable intelligence who lead complex social lives. Smith became fascinated by crows […] during her residency at Light Work. She learned that the native crow population circulates between Syracuse and nearby Auburn, that this migration is partly in response to harassment and […] state-sanctioned violence at the hands of humans who view them as a nuisance. Smith interweaves the figure of the crow through the histories of these two cities, both […] key stations on the Underground Railroad and [sites of] innovat[ion] in early cinematic and 3D technologies. (Anneka Herre)

Lessons in Semaphore (2016) by Cauleen Smith

Choreographer taisha paggett dips into one of the ubiquitous vacant lots of southeast Chicago’s economically abused landscape. Seen and heard, she is. (Cauleen Smith)

Three Songs About Liberation (2017) by Cauleen Smith

A response to Dziga Vertov’s film, Three Songs About Lenin (1934), Smith’s film records three women reading excerpts from Gerda Lerner’s book Black Women in White America (1972). Film commissioned by the Smart Museum, University of Chicago in conjunction with Revolution Every Day exhibition curated by Zachary Cahill, Robert Bird and Christina Kaier.

Artist Bio

Cauleen Smith is an interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. Operating in multiple materials and arenas, Smith roots her work firmly within the discourse of mid-twentieth-century experimental film. Drawing from structuralism, third world cinema and science fiction, she makes things that deploy the tactics of activism in service of ecstatic social space and contemplation. Born in Riverside CA, she grew up in Sacramento, earning a BA in Cinema from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television. Smith has made over 40 films and her first feature length film, Drylongso (1998), filmed in the San Francisco Bay Area, premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival before circulating with acclaim to other film festivals. The touring solo exhibition Cauleen Smith: Give It or Leave It is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through October 2021. She has held exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago; ICA Philadelphia; MASS MoCA; the Studio Museum of Harlem; the New Museum, New York; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and the Kitchen, New York and was featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. She is the recipient of numerous awards and residencies including the 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship and the Studio Museum of Harlem’s 2020 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize. She has taught at various universities over the span of the last two decades and is currently Art Program faculty at California Institute of the Arts. Smith lives and works in Los Angeles.