Cauleen Smith graduated from John F. Kennedy High School. She was a talented cello player and accepted a music scholarship from Chapman University in Orange, California, but soon realized that her true passion was film. She transferred to San Francisco State University, a school known for a strong film program.
In 1991 Smith completed her B.A in Cinema at San Francisco State University. While a student there, she completed several films, two of which received a lot of attention: Daily Rains, which was completed in 1990, and Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron, which was fully completed in 1993.
Once she finished her B.A., Smith was accepted into M.F.A. program at UCLA. Her work there gained worldwide recognition. In her second year of the program, Smith decided to shoot a feature-length film titled Drylongso. However, it was against UCLA’s rules for film students to shoot feature-length films, "and for good reason, you don’t know what you are doing!" as Smith has said. She was, after some struggles, able to complete the film, and it got a significant amount of attention at the Sundance Film Festival, and took home several Best Film awards from other festivals, mentioned below. In 1998, Smith graduated from UCLA with her M.F.A. and a growing reputation as an up-and-coming force in the film industry.
In 2007, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
Drylongso was a highly acclaimed film that gained Smith much attention and popularity. Smith made the movie while completing film school at the University of California, Los Angeles. The film takes place in Oakland, CA, and follows a young African-American woman named Pica, on her quest to photograph her concept of a dying breed, referring to African-American men. The movie follows Pica through the attrition of the young black men around her and how she balances this with her dysfunctional family's struggles. The film brings up the topic of gang violence that took place in Oakland which claimed the lives of many innocent African-American young men. "Drylongso" is an old African-American term meaning "same old" or "everyday". Drylongso was well received at many film festivals, most notably Sundance Film Festival. in 2000,Drylongso also won best feature at the Urbanworld Festival, Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival, and the Philadelphia International Film Festival. Yusuf Bey's son Sayyed Yusuf Bey had a minor acting role in the film, he was photographed by the main character Pica.
Smith has held consecutive residencies in Chicago at ThreeWalls, the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, and the Experimental Sound Studio. She currently is an artist in residence at the University of Chicago Arts Incubator. In 2012, Smith installed overlapping shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and ThreeWalls, and was named Outstanding Artist by the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. Smith has also been a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while exploring the intersection of art, protest, commerce, and community on Chicago's South Side.
Smith's site-specific installation, "17," ran from March 10, 2013, to July 7, 2013, both at Hyde Park Art Center and on the corner of East Garfield Boulevard and Prairie Avenue on the South Side. "17" features approximately 260 feet of hand screen-printed wallpaper. The title of this exhibition materialized from Smith’s "meditations on the number’s spiritual significance as a marker of immortality" and further alludes to numerous aspects of art and culture spanning from ancient history to modern day. "17" was also inspired by Smith's research of the life and legacy of Sun Ra. Sun Ra, a student of numerology, was interested in a kind of "cultural immortality” for which the number "17" has been said to carry significance.
Marking Smith's entrance onto the Chicago art scene was her work in creating the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band Project, the yield from her residency with Threewalls. Composed of members of the Rich South High School (Richton Park, Illinois) marching band and occasionally the South Shore Drill Team as well, the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band descended like a flash mob on various parts of Chicago that had been hit with waves of youth violence, including Chinatown and the meatpacking district, a few times throughout the fall of 2010, playing and dancing to an orchestration of Sun Ra’s "Space is the Place" led by music director Y. L. Douglas. Smith coupled the militant undertones of marching bands with the Sun Ra-style of free jazz in an attempt to combat youth violence with music.
Smith is a player in the movement of Afrofuturism, an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.
In an interview with BOMB Magazine in 2011, Smith noted: "There’s the strand of my work that is Afrofuturist. Afrofuturism, for me, is about speculating on the potentiality of what is known about technology and physics to create metaphors that allow me to explore an African diasporic past and generate possible narratives for the future. Dark Matter is part of this. I had constructed an alien narrative—not an alien-abduction story, but one about alien assimilation. Aliens are never caught. Nobody ever notices them. The conflict is that the world that they land in doesn’t work for them; it’s toxic for them. But Afrofuturism is also a rumination on memories to which I have no access. My investment in it as a production strategy has run its course; Afrofuturism provides a way to investigate trauma very explicitly. But we only reenact traumas, don’t we? We don’t reenact prom night, or our favorite birthday party. This is a problem—it doesn’t seem to fix things; it amplifies them. There’s gotta be something else, the after-the-trauma."2010
Remote Viewing. 4K digital Video. TRT: 15:00. Funded by Creative Capital.
The Grid. 4K digital Video. TRT: 15:00. Funded by Creative Capital.
T Minus Two. Digitized 16mm. TRT: 2:00.
Good Clean Family Fun. Digitized 16mm. TRT: 5:00.
Black and Blue Over You (after Bas Jan Ader for Ishan).TRT: 8:00.
Demon Fuzz. (loop) Digitized 35mm. TRT: 7:00
Elsewhere. (Installation loop) Digitized 35mm. TRT: 5:30
Sine at the Canyon Sine at the Sea. Appropriated 16mm NASA films. TRT: 4:00.
Not the Black. MiniDV. TRT: 1:39.
ENTITLED Super-8. TRT: 6:30”
THE FULLNESS OF TIME MiniDV. Single Channel. TRT: 50:00”
NEBULAE – Austin. 16mm film installation with sculptural component.
Right Hand Only Left Hand Lonely Two Channel Video Installation
(Afro)Galactic Postcards from M94 Three 20MB Video Podcasts and Website
I Want To See My Skirt Multi-Channel Video with sculptural component. In Collaboration with poet, AaronVan Jordan.
Marriage Is For White People Two Channel Video and 3D Installation.
Cantata for Salamanders and Twelve Choirs In Collaboration with artist, Daniel Bozhkov. S-16.
Dark Matter and The Post Card Video Experimental Narrative. DV. 8 and 2.5 minutes.
The Carbonist School Study Hall Commissioned documentary featuring the founding members of The Carbonist School. MiniDV. 12.
The Green Dress Series Six Channel. 35mm. Color. Sound.14 minutes. Six channel loop.
Hollywould If She Could. DV Narrative. 15 minutes.
The Changing Same 35mm 9.5 minutes.
Drylongso 82 minutes 16mm narrative. Distributed by Video Data Bank.
White Suit 16mm 3.5 minutes.
Sapphire Tape #2: VHS. Five minutes.
A Thousand Words 16mm 14 minutes. 1993
Sapphire Tape #1: The Message VHS video.
Memory Poison Bones Site-specific installation.
Chronicles of A Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron 16mm 5.5 minutes.
Daily Rains. 16 mm. 12 minutes.
Wall Doc VHS. 6 minutes.
Film Arts Foundation Personal Works Grant.
Rockefeller Inter cultural Media Arts Fellowship.
American Film Institute Film and Videomaker Grant.
National Black Programming Consortium Funding.
Western States Regional Fellowships.
Graduate Opportunity Fellowship, UCLA.
Graduate Student Support, Academic Affairs.
Honorable Mention Best Feature Film. Hamptons Film Festival.
Nomination. Independent Spirit Award Best Debut Performance.
Winner. Independent Spirit Award Movado Someone to Watch Award.
Urbanworld Film Festival. Best Feature Film.
Participant. Sundance Institute Writer’s Lab. Winter.
Participant. Sundance Institute Writer’s Lab. Summer.
Participant. Sundance Institute Director’s Lab. Participant.
Texas Exes Teacher of the Year.
Tribeca All-Access Participant.
Rockefeller Technical Support Grant.
Texas Filmmaker Production Fund Grant.
University of Texas Office of Research Special Research Grant.
University of Texas Dean’s Fellowship.
University of Texas Summer Research Grant.
National Black Programming Consortium. New Media Initiative.
Creative Capital Film/Video Grant.
James D. Phelan Art Award in Film, Video, and Digital Media. San Francisco Foundation.
Nominated for the Alpert Awards in the Arts.
National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture Artist Award.
3Arts Chicago Artist Award.
Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant.
Artatia / Chicago Expo Artist Award.