In April 2020, American artist Cauleen Smith (b. 1967) initiated COVID MANIFESTO, a series of incisive photographs, social media posts, and short films. In the wake of pandemic-related public safety restrictions limiting the ways in which art could be displayed and viewed, Smith took to Instagram to stage these interventions, engaging with the intersecting crises of the pandemic and social injustice through her lens of active care, radical imagination, and collective consciousness. Contending with the daily onslaught of local, national, and global events, Smith’s series presents viewers with calls to action featuring handwritten personal reflections and carefully chosen objects from the artist’s studio.
For this exhibition, which is presented onsite and online, Smith has reactivated COVID MANIFESTO for Carnegie Museum of Art in a rotating installation of enlarged video stills in the museum’s Scaife Lobby and an online exhibition featuring all 23 COVID MANIFESTOS as a single film. This hybrid exhibition format attempts to bridge the reliance of many on virtual spaces for information, culture, and connection throughout the pandemic and the feelings and experiences that we bring as we (re)enter shared spaces. On the internet and in the museum, Smith’s work is a reminder that even though many shared spaces have reopened, we enter them with layered experiences of the pandemic which continue to affect each of us and our communities.
Smith is committed to holding multiple truths about this moment, and she pushes back against the frequent framing of the pandemic as unprecedented and the idea that there will be a return to normal. The conversations, experiences, actions, and feelings that this public health crisis has ignited are not occurring for the first time, and medical racism, ableism, and other structures that lead to inequitable care have no discrete beginning or end. For Smith, COVID MANIFESTO is a practice of being with the trouble, with the complexity of this moment—a way to hold emotions, questions, fears, and hopes simultaneously during a time when the wait for scientific answers is dominant. The process of creating COVID MANIFESTO was ephemeral, as a daily missive shared on social media, yet as the pandemic evolves over time, the work’s meaning grows and endures through each of our remembering, imagining, questioning, and connecting.
Cauleen Smith: Pandemic Diaries is organized by Dana Bishop-Root, Director of Education and Public Programs, and Kiki Teshome, Margaret Powell Curatorial Fellow.
About the Artist
Cauleen Smith is an American artist whose work builds on the historical legacy of the Black radical tradition, understanding the power structures that inform current ways of life and expanding the historical viewfinder to imagine new futures. 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 these disciplines while offering a phenomenological experience for spectators and participants. In addition to her presentation at Carnegie Museum of Art, she is the subject of solo exhibitions currently on view at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.