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An Interview With Ben Caldwell

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The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles filmmaker Ben Caldwell.

Filmmaker Ben Caldwell shares several moments in the history of Southern California that have shaped his development as an artist.
Ben Caldwell: The Lincoln Company

The Lincoln Company

What is the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and how was it important for Southern California and for you as an artist?

The Lincoln Company was very, very important to my tradition because it was the first black media company that distributed black media works throughout the United States. So that seemed very very important to me and when I found it out while I was going to college, it really surprised me. And I guess also the reason it surprised me was my tradition. I'm from a tradition of family people who did distribution also. So that's part of the reason that it seemed extremely important to me and, like I said, it was one of the first licensed company that did distribution and film in this city.

And did they concentrate on distribution within the African American community?

Only within the Black American community.

Do you know what content they distributed?

The content was usually silent films in those days. So it was dealing with stories and ideas that were about the communities that they were in and most of them driven out of novels that people wrote. And one of the first people they grew out of was Oscar Micheaux. Oscar Micheaux did a whole breath of films that were really pretty phenomenal. The one that I liked the most was The Broken Strings that dealt with a classic artistic tension between being Western and being African and using a violin as the template to show that.


Oscar Micheaux | Image: Wikicommons/Permission: PD-US.

If you control distribution, you basically control everything, right? And in a way in your own career, you ended up creating your own production and distribution spaces on a community level, so is that the story you're talking about?

Yeah, that's really the arc for me. I really learned how to distribute and engage and work with communities through my family really doing it. So I'm a part of that tradition and I was really drawn to the Johnson Brothers for that same reason because they were independent, they believed in the business sense of how to get their work out, and never just count on people to do it. That's the tradition of the family I came from. My grandfather bought things. He bought property and he created property and I'm from that kind of tradition. I didn't know it at the beginning but as I'm growing up I found that he had a similar facility in our home little town. He would go from the theater and run a little place that the teenagers hung out in and provided barbecue and food and things like that in a dusty little town in Deming.

And what do you do now?

For 15 years, I've been teaching. I was teaching at Cal Arts and then before that I taught at Howard for 3 years. And these last 3 years, I've been really constructing and analysing the last 20-30 years that I've been spending in education. And what I mean by that is in '84, I started with the Olympics and we connected 5 disparate communities using Electronic Cafe. And that really opened my mind media-wise, switching from filmmaking into more of the electronic world of how could I do this same type of distribution because that was exactly what I thought when I saw that you could send pictures over the phone.

I've always, for some reason, even being from New Mexico and being from a multi-cultural environment, I've always gravitated towards Africans in a real real strong way. And I've always gravitated as a way for freedom because I felt, mostly when I wanted to be somebody within the U.S., I always ran into boundaries and specific ways that people thought I should act. And the more you are yourself, the stronger you are within that. So I've been always missing that so the whole process of being an independent business person was to strive towards that type of independence.

"Olympic Memories" Photo by Anne Knudsen | Image courtesy of LAPL.

1984 Los Angeles Olympics 

Tell me about the 1984 Olympics as an integral moment in your professional career and for L.A.

When I moved back out here, my friend Ulysses Jenkins was in the middle of working with the Olympics and he said, "How would you like to work in the Olympics? You can work as an artist but as an engineering artist." He already had the artist slot and I would have to study the engineering part of how to get a teleconference system to work together. And so I got to meet Kit [Galloway] and Sherrie [Rabinowitz]. And they had just done a thing called a Hole-In-Space, which was interconnecting Paris and Los Angeles together. And so they got a major grant on interconnecting 5 disparate communities in Los Angeles using teleconferencing and drawing electronically. We could key them over each other and then send that over the phone lines. And so we did that in '84, it wasn't called the internet, it was just called, electronic cafe.

What happened that really turned the city around?

'79 and '80 is when Reagan came in and killed all the artist organizations mainly. So I had worked with Brockman Gallery at the time and I had worked with them about 3 or 4 years under C.I.D.A. and the people I got to work with were just so blessed. I got to work with Kerry Marshall, who ended up getting his MacArthur Grant. I got to work with Carrie Weems, who got a MacArthur Grant, Betye Saar, also Charles Burnett, who got a MacArthur Grant. So it was just a real important time and then Reagan killed it. So all of us dispersed. We came back in '84 and all of those organization reconfigured themselves. So there was M.O.C.A. downtown. Then there was L.A.C.E. that moved downtown. And in the district, there was the woman's building, that was there. Then there was Watts Towers and that's where I ended working so my internship was with the Watts Towers under the tutelage of John Outterbridge. And at the Watts Towers we got to work with Willie Middlebrook, who just passed away, a phenomenal still photographer, and Jazz Musicians like Tutti Heath and Poncho Sanchez.

"Outterbridge at Watts Towers Meeting" by Leo Jarzomb | Image courtesy of LAPL.

Within that whole caldron was a lot of just beautiful artists that were going on there in a black sense but then also there was an international movement with everybody--Plaza de la Raza, Self-Help graphics, visual communications, all of those things were happening at the same time. And then at the end of it was L.A. Freewaves which was a media organization that Anne put together after L.A.C.E. that kind of solidified all the different art organizations that did media that she worked with. And then our real momma was Long Beach and then Easy T.V. with Michael Marcheschi. Michael helped me build my building--the lofts and things I have in it--him and Kim. There was that kind of confluence of all of us working together in the '80s up until I left L.A.C.E. on the day that the explosion took place with the Rodney King thing.

Filmmaker Ben Caldwell shares several moments in the history of Southern California that have shaped his development as an artist.
Ben Caldwell: L.A. Rebellion

L.A. Rebellion

Lets talk about the L.A. rebellion. What was that about?

The L.A. rebellion started in actually 1971. We have been labeled the L.A. rebellion because we all basically said we weren't going to work under the rubric that Hollywood set up on showing our culture. At that time, we didn't know it but it ended up being called blaxploitation films. We refused to kind of be filmmakers that worked in it because we really got smitten by the whole idea of independence again. And so we were able to do films ourselves then we say, "Why should we sell out and do something that we don't like, that doesn't represent our culture? We want to have Jazz in our work. We want to have feelings in our work. We want to have tension the way the neighborhood deals with it, tension in our work." And so we started just developing our works that way and so like from '71 to like '81 or '82 we did about 50 movies together--50 features and shorts--and then out of this, we've had a few people who have done feature films for Hollywood. One of them was Jim Fanaka who I really revered. His first film, he was able to make 20 million dollars with a penitentiary film. So we have guys like him, all the way to Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Larry Clark, and I already said Charlie [Burnett], and so all that whole group of guys which was about 22 of us all together, they call it the L.A. rebellion for that reason.

What were the ingredients that made that happen?

We were all U.C.L.A. students. Vice Chancellor of U.C.L.A. C.Z. Wilson was brought in to deal with our generation because our generation was raising hell around the world. There was the Black Panthers that was happening, us was happening, and then there was the Weather Underground that was happening. So it was just really like the Arab Spring going on except it was in the Black community and it also touched base with a lot of other people. Even in small communities, people were starting to activate.

C.Z. and groups with Chancellor Young said, "How can we deal with these problems because Kent State had just happened?" and so they chose students who had community sense like myself because I went to school at Arizona State where I ran a black cultural center. So that was one ingredient and media sense was another and then the third was to have the college sense to be able to make it in college with your grades and things. And so out of that they chose a whole group of us and the first thing they wanted to do was to get some teachers in the university. So the first teacher they got was Angela Davis, which is pretty interesting and she taught in the philosophy department. Then after that, they got Danny Bakewell, and Danny Bakewell owns Sentinel and he owns the Brotherhood crusades that he started out of that. And they got Jack Jackson who started Inner City Cultural Center. So each of the people that they ended up getting as professors had a cultural community sense and ended up using the sense that they got in the university and went back into the community. So that's the same thing that I found with all of us. All of us were chosen specifically for our community cultural sense and we stayed with that as our major focus.

Filmmaker Ben Caldwell shares several moments in the history of Southern California that have shaped his development as an artist.
Ben Caldwell: Hip Hop

Hip hop

Hip hop

How did Hip hop influence you?

In 1984, concurrent with the Electronic Cafe, I started working with Hip hop. Charles Burnett and I wrote a script called I Fresh. We were doing it so we could engage the new movement in Los Angeles and it happened to have a Hip hop tinge. It was really very L.A. because it had boom speakers in the back of their trucks. And it kind of amazed me so we started building our script around that. I was also given an artists in community grant to work with kids. So how could I draw kids and how could I work with them? I wanted to work with what they were interested in and Hip hop happened to be it. So before that time, my second focus in my degree in film school was also in ethno communication so I tried to put that hat on studying the whole movement. And so in '84, I started studying Los Angeles Hip hop, but before that I had done whole studies of blues in Washington, D.C. and also the movement, like Bob Marley, Pete Tosh, and all of those guys. Also in D.C. they had another movement called the go-go movement. So the go-go and the rasta movement were kind of growing together in D.C.

When I came out here, I wanted to see what was growing in L.A., what kind of community movement did the kids like then that was different than the D.C. movement and they were just getting focused into Hip hop but they had their own brand, there wasn't any real break dancing. It was mostly upper body movements with their dancing because they were too cool to be spinning around on the ground and stuff like that. So it was just an interesting thing to see the differences in the culture. So I started with them in '84 and then we built up our script and ideas. And then when I started teaching and developing that project, I started working with the group that I am working with now called Project Blowed. Project Blowed has ended up spawning a phenomenal group of people. The main person is Yoyo, but then out of that I got to work with some other folks like Eazy E, then I also got to work with Lebo Morake, which is a real strange one because he ended up doing Lion King but he was being kicked out of South Africa at the time. And then for Project Blowed, from '93 to now, we've been basically together as a team and it has about 150 different groups in it and they are internationally based and they are purely underground and producing and selling and promoting their own works themselves without the help of Hollywood.

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