Toward a Black Alternative Media: On Robeson Taj Frazier’s “KAOS Theory”

By Jamal BattsApril 30, 2024

Toward a Black Alternative Media: On Robeson Taj Frazier’s “KAOS Theory”

KAOS Theory: The Afrokosmic Ark of Ben Caldwell by Robeson Taj Frazier

I WAS ROCKED by Ben Caldwell’s I & I: An African Allegory (1979) when I first saw the film at a screening curated by his former student, the filmmaker Arthur Jafa. The film offers an early iteration of what scholar Tina M. Campt calls “a Black gaze”—a visualization of Black precarity that physically moves you. In I & I, the experience of the Middle Passage, a common motif in Black film, becomes somehow intimate; the camera places us amid the brutality, expanding our ways of imagining the captive and her condition. It does not make the slave trade into spectacle but grounds it in a kinesthetic swaying that makes us similarly move. Caldwell’s vision brings the hold of the slave ship—in the enormity of its consequence and the impossibility of its figuration—into the everyday. This transference of that which seems too large to represent into a quotidian register provides a way of reading Caldwell’s aesthetics in general: his work evinces an artistic ambition that moves across scales, never forfeiting the potentiality of liberation embedded in the conjunction of life and practice.

KAOS Theory: The Afrokosmic Ark of Ben Caldwell (2023), written by Robeson Taj Frazier in conversation with Caldwell himself, provides a necessary, rare, and comprehensive look into the life of a Black experimental filmmaker. Caldwell is an artist, philosopher, and media-arts organizer, activist, and educator based in historically Black South Los Angeles, where he founded the Leimert Park–based arts education center KAOS Network. He is most known as a member of the L.A. Rebellion, that foundational group of Black moving-image creatives that came out of the graduate filmmaking program at UCLA from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. These artists worked at the project, as Caldwell once declared, of “emancipating the image” from a Hollywood system invested in the promulgation of racist Black archetypes and colonial forms. Frazier’s book charts the vast and expansive Black geographies that created the conditions of possibility for Caldwell’s Afrocentric healing images and material world-making capabilities.

In its granular focus on the singular “ark” of Caldwell’s life, KAOS Theory is a unique contribution to the growing list of publications on contemporary Black artists. Frazier explores the “forces, belief systems, cultural practices, and people that have shaped and sustained” Caldwell’s “ark,” as well as the “historical blend of cultural networks and traditions of which he is a connective part and to which he has served as an electric spark, caretaker, and custodian.” Caldwell’s film and video works utilize rhythmic glitches, imperfections, and layering to link the visual dimension to Black musical, linguistic, and spiritual principles of diasporic connection via fragmentation. In a similar way, the book’s stories, symbols, collages, codes, and archival photographs amount to a collective biography of the artist. Though Caldwell is KAOS Theory’s driving force, his story becomes that of a multitude of creators, educators, and strivers—many of whom are Black women—that make his work possible and sustainable. This is, in short, a wide-ranging cultural and ecological history. In wondrously lyrical yet accessible prose, it provides a working manual for the making of alternative media in service of Black communal formations.

KAOS Theory’s first two chapters provide a history of the Black Southwest and the family structure that made Caldwell possible. In accordance with the African philosophical traditions that motivate his practice, the text begins with a veneration of ancestors. In 1942, long before Caldwell’s arrival, we are introduced to his grandfather, John Waits, then “a forty-year-old migrant farmer and laborer […] staring at the Mimbres River” in New Mexico. Thus begins the story of a vast lineage of Black migrants to the Southwest and their relation to that land—a land that serves at once as a metaphor for freedom (with its vast skies and deserts), as the ground for the creation of underrecognized Black lifeworlds, and as a site of labor exploitation, segregation, imprisonment, genocide, and military conscription. The desert motif recurs throughout Caldwell’s early work, and Frazier observes that these images reveal “an elsewhere: a different plane of being, existence, and interconnectedness.” This “psychedelic Afro-diasporic interpretation of the U.S. southwest” figures visually what Tiffany Lethabo King theorizes as a “Black shoal,” a “location of suture between […] hermeneutical frames that have conventionally been understood as sealed off from one another.” As Brittany Meché has argued, desert areas in particular are “often decoupled from ideas about Blackness and Black/African cultural practices.”

The practice of embedding oneself in place is a through line in KAOS Theory. Each chapter begins with geocoded coordinates that locate the discussion; it is what is made from and with these places, how they become networked social ecologies, that interests Frazier. As Frazier points out, Caldwell has become known as the “Village Octopus” for the sprawling range of relationships he has fostered. KAOS Theory shows how his life serves as a linchpin for parts that are often thought of as distinct yet work in alignment.

An early chapter covers the artist’s participation in the Vietnam War, exploring how his involvement in this conflict came to forge a cultural worker who produced a critique of “[w]ar and its manifestations—colonialism, racism, poverty, genocide.” One of the book’s many intriguing photographic collages is a two-page diptych (meticulously crafted by design studio ELLA utilizing Caldwell’s archive): on one page is printed a black-and-white portrait of the young artist at work on a painting, the picture surrounded by a field of bursting red that symbolizes how Caldwell’s plans were temporarily thwarted when he was drafted into a war that disproportionately conscripted the Black and the poor; on the following page is an image of Caldwell’s collage They Got My Back, Amka Reflection (2020), whose foreground shows a grainy photograph of US tanks and soldiers in Vietnam but whose horizon is a sepia-toned scene of human figures wearing West African horned masks.

KAOS Theory explores what bell hooks called “the contradiction that black men should serve in wars, die for this country, for this democracy, which institutionalized racism and denied their freedom.” One of Caldwell’s photographs, expanded to take up two pages, displays two tanks traversing the “muddied soil” through which the displaced “Montagnards” (the Indigenous residents of the Vietnamese highlands who refer to themselves as Degar) must trek. Here, the conjunction of image and text exposes resonant histories of migration and displacement that suggest the implications of Black participation in US empire-building. The Vietnam War isn’t presented as a pause in Caldwell’s artistic development but rather as a site where he bore witness to the violent destruction of life and the earth: “Here we are in this beautiful space, driving loud mega-ton tanks, killing trees, tearing up the earth to build roads and bridges and pipelines, cutting up their space. Every place we touch, everything we touch—we’re aggressive, we’re violent.” The ancestral spirits in Caldwell’s collage could thus be read as protectors or critical guides that point to an alternative tradition outside the dictates of nation.

KAOS Theory follows Caldwell through a number of sites—cultural nationalist community centers, experimental aesthetic classrooms, and Black art galleries and film festivals: training grounds that made it possible for Caldwell to become a masterful organizer and advocate for young Black and Brown Angelenos and their cultural productions. From New Mexico to Arizona to Los Angeles to an academic post teaching film at Howard University, Caldwell held fast to a belief that the filmmaking process—its “conceptualization, production, distribution, exhibition, and criticism”—can be “liberating.” Caldwell’s practice shows that aesthetics have, in Frazier’s words, “the ability to produce new social relations.”

The apotheosis of this belief is KAOS Network in Leimert Park, Caldwell’s long-standing media-arts training center and performance venue—an institution that encourages young people to develop skills in alternative media and performance. It is also the home of numerous cultural experiments that have left a lingering imprint on the landscape of Los Angeles, including the open mic events I-Fresh Express and Project Blowed, stages that have been traversed by many West Coast hip-hop legends including Yo-Yo, Eazy-E, and Medusa. KAOS Network was also a staging ground for Hollywatts, a new-school “vaudeville show that combined theatrical performance, pre-recorded video, and live video work” with diasporic Black musical traditions. Composed of Caldwell, actor Roger Guenveur Smith, musician Mark Broyard, and others, the “Hollywatts Posse was at the forefront of Los Angeles’s experimental performing arts scene” in the 1980s and ’90s. They produced works that proposed new temporalities of Black radicalism that linked up with the televisual innovations of Nam June Paik and the films of Shirley Clarke. Theirs was a practice of “performative assemblage,” inspired by Los Angeles’s “tradition of Black Assemblage art and freeform jazz and funk musicianship.”

Arthur Jafa, Caldwell’s former student, has long argued that Black film should aspire to the tone and intonation of Black music, and in his foreword to KAOS Theory, he claims that Caldwell’s work was where he first experienced a “fully realized jazz cinema.” For his part, Frazier offers a detailed analysis of the ways that music is spoken through the image in Caldwell’s work, guiding the reader through the mechanics of cinematic jazz. This approach works especially well in his chapter on Hollywatts, named after Smith’s stage alter ego (a reflection of the linguistic shifts he performed in his career as an actor moving between Hollywood and South Los Angeles). The group often utilized live singing, rap, dramatic monologues, guitar playing, and video to break down disciplinary restrictions and forge connections between disparate publics. Smith’s performances were filmed and live-projected on video monitors by Caldwell and his former student Wesley Groves. The projected images were made to stutter, stop, glitch, rewind, and distort in improvisatory dialogue with the rhythms of live music and vocalizations, as well as with Caldwell’s prerecorded images. In Frazier’s elaboration of this process, the conjunction of moving image and performance “enabled Roger to engage in a call-and-response with the videos; he would ask the screen a question, and Ben’s edited videos answered with an image or cinematic sequence,” with “he and the screen engaging in back-and-forth chant.”

In 1996, the KAOS complex was stormed by police during a late-night Project Blowed session. This led to a conflict in which the police assaulted and arrested many members and attendees, including Caldwell himself, who would proceed to use alternative media—here, his daughter Dara Caldwell’s footage of the conflict—to provide a counternarrative to the common trope of Black criminality. In defense of his vital hub, he asked the media, “Where can our children go to be themselves, to become themselves, if not here?” Another way to consider the “ark” of the book’s title could be to think of Caldwell’s KAOS project as a kind of protective vessel, guiding young Black artists amid racialized state suppression.

KAOS Theory should serve as a model for work on other Black artists and cultural organizers. Expanding the genealogy of Black alternative media creators is critical to the project of contextualizing our now. If the archive of the moment does not feature Caldwell and filmmakers such as Louis Massiah, the founder of Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, it misses foundational figures working at the inseparable nexus of artistic creation and political struggle. Caldwell’s practice is embedded in the fugitive Black aesthetic strategies of the present. His vernacular jazz aesthetics are in conversation with the work of contemporary video artists such as Darol Olu Kae, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Kahlil Joseph, and in some ways, his institutional work prefigures the projects of artists Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford, whose own social justice arts space, Art + Practice, is also located in Leimert Park. KAOS Theory, in its sustained and careful attention to a single artist’s life, provides a guide for many.

LARB Contributor

Jamal Batts is an assistant professor of Black studies at Swarthmore College and a member of curatorial collective the Black Aesthetic.


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