Smith: I think because of my upbringing, I really only understood art as a public medium, a discourse—something that happened in museums. I've always thought of art as public, and I'm really, really invested in my work being in those public collections because of that “forever” thing they do. When the Whitney buys your film, they are thinking about how they will be able to play it in 100 years. That's an astounding project.
I don't believe everything needs to last forever. I'm not even sure my work needs to. But I love the idea of it being there for someone, because I know what it means to find, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological films that she made for Franz Boas. Those are treasures to me. There are no words for what they mean to me—how mysterious and wonderful they are to me. Thank God someone is thinking about how to play them in 100 years. Twenty years ago, when no one really wanted to screen my work, I had to tell myself, “Okay, no one cares about Afrofuturism right now, but maybe in twenty years they will. I'm just going to keep making this work for the audience that doesn't yet exist.” And sure enough, it now exists.
I had this really emotional screening in Rotterdam, where I said to the audience, “You know, half the films in the screening you just saw today were rejected from this festival ten or fifteen years ago, and now here we are watching them. I was making them for an audience that didn't exist then.” About ten young Brazilian filmmakers—women—literally surrounded me, saying, “We are who you made these films for!” Very emotional.
Earle: What sweeter music could there be? It's very moving.
Smith: So that's also why I'm committed to this long-term.
Earle: Knowing your work is constitutive—that it's making a public and bringing people together— must be an amazing feeling. We don’t have that much time left, but I wanted to ask about your use of the artists' talks archive at Skowhegan. I can't remember if we had digitized the archive by the time you were there. But did you ever listen to the recordings of the talks?
Smith: I would get a recording, like, maybe every other day and take it into my studio and listen to it. I would pick them quite randomly, because at that time, Skowhegan really was like art school for me. I was trying to learn as fast as I could. I was like, “I don't know who Agnes Martin is, so let me listen to her talk.” I remember listening to John Biggers’ talk, and my mind exploded. Not because it was the most exciting talk, but I didn't understand that painters were just really interested in paint! (Laughs) That's all he was talking about. He's talking about the surface and the paint. It was like, “Crazy!” I didn't know. I thought there was more that I'm supposed to be doing with a painting, but I can also just look at the paint. It's cool.
Earle: That reminds me that so much of Martin Puryear’s Skowhegan lecture that was mainly about the behavior of wood.
Smith: Right, and that was revelatory. To me, to hear them talk, and what they thought about, what they cared about, what they wanted you to care about, versus my own ignorance or presumptions, and kind of filling in those blanks. I listened to so many of those lectures, and they were my education. It's still how I teach. I send my students to go look at or listen to other artists. Because it was just an accelerated way of learning for me.
Earle: For me, too. It was an amazing engagement with not only the past of the place—the community of artists—but with people I no longer had access to: encountering Elizabeth Catlett in conversation with a younger generation of artists. Special, too, because of the breadth of Skowhegan’s engagement with Black artists throughout its history: the late ‘40s onwards. A Skowhegan Black Archive would be interesting.
Smith: A Skowhegan Black archive would be amazing. It’s a really precious resource. It makes me think of UbuWeb, where they have all this video art and experimental art, free. I still go on there, and just explore—watching to learn, basically. Also, just the way we live now, with our Bluetooth and everything, and our multitasking. This kind of deep listening is the way people are learning. For me, it was invaluable. Approaching that archive, I didn't know what was there or how to find anything, so just I explored. I was there for weeks before I listened to David Driskell, because I was just overwhelmed. I was sort of slowly slogging through it and stumbling on things that I didn't even know I would have an affinity for: an artist that you didn't think was for you but is, because of the way they speak about their work. I love the unknown of the archive.