Image via Ben Caldwell
Sam Ribakoff misses the days when Bandcamp didn’t cater to Fortnite streamers on Twitch.
In a different creative universe, L.A. used to be dotted with community art and performance spaces like Horace Tapscott’s Union of God’s Musician and Artist Ascension, Carlos Almaraz’s Centro de Arte Público, and La Puente’s Bridgetown DIY. These were small and affordable places where musicians could play, writers could read, artists could show their work, and more importantly, where they could develop and practice their art away from the market – places where artists learn from and teach one another. They’re mostly gone now.
One of the final remaining DIY tabernacles is artist and educator Ben Caldwell’s KAOS Network. In the ‘90s, Kaos Network was the home of Project Blowed, the legendary open mic night that fostered forward thinking, musically complex, and lyrically profound jazz-influenced rappers like like Freestyle Fellowship, Busdriver, Chillin Villain Empire, and Figures of Speech, Ava DuVernay’s early rap duo. Before that, Caldwell hosted classes that taught video production to the youth. Recording the nascent local hip-hop scene empowered both the kid filming and the kid being filmed, capturing the art for posterity and teaching them the ways in which various mediums could be used for cross-collaboration.
Against all odds, Caldwell has kept the doors of the space open for young Black and Brown kids to have a place to practice and develop their art in a safe and nurturing space. A new book called KAOS Theory: The Afrokosmic Ark of Ben Caldwell by Robeson Taj Frazier explores Caldwell’s parallel paths as a visual artist and educator, and how various artistic communities inspired and nurtured him – and how the community space he created continues to reverberate throughout generations of local artists.
Project Blowed, Santa Monica Pier, 1999/2000. Photo by Brian B+ Cross
The seeds started in the 1970’s when Caldwell moved from his hometown of Deming, New Mexico to UCLA to study film, where he became part of a community of trailblazing young Black independent filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Larry Clark.
At UCLA he made a short experimental film called Medea, whose earthy scenes of ominously beautiful rolling clouds at sunset reflected his New Mexican roots, and his family’s history in the Jim Crow south. They followed in the steps of earlier Black pioneers that built communities called freedom colonies in Blackdom, Vado and other western towns.
After UCLA Caldwell got a job teaching filmmaking at Howard University. At the famous HBCU, Caldwell came into contact with the improvisatory dance films of Shirley Clarke, ethnographic filmmakers, and the Howard media department faculty’s efforts to use filmmaking as a tool of liberation.
“I was shooting like Zora Neale Hurston,” Caldwell said about his experiments documenting the early go-go music scene in Washington D.C. “I wanted to get people in the environment that they’re in. Since video was available, now I could turn it on and get all the human nuances and background that normally doesn’t get caught by filmmakers doing documentaries, like the [Robert] Flaherty ethics.”
Returning to L.A, Caldwell opened Video 3333 in 1984 – which later became Kaos Network – a community space and after school media center in Leimert Park. At the time, he likely wasn’t thinking about chaos theory, a theoretical math concept about interconnected, underlying patterns of seemingly chaotic systems, but it became Caldwell’s sort-of life philosophy and a loose structure for Frazer’s book about him.
“Each person is kind of like a cultural bubble and I want to show how all those intersections have made chaos theory really work,” Caldwell says.
The give and take between MCs and young filmmakers eventually led to a series of local public TV features on the space and L.A. hip-hop culture called I-Fresh Express. While they were filming, a monitor was put up to face the dancers and performers so that they could see what the filmmaker was filming.
“Let them see themselves, their own image, so they can adjust themselves accordingly, because they need to kind of see how they’re being viewed,” Caldwell describes the process. “They need to know that the viewing is democratic. That’s the kind of method that I was using with the kids. I was part of ethnography, but using experimental film and dance methods.”
In that way I-Fresh Express became a filmmaking project, an educational and empowerment initiative, and a way to foster and nurture the interests of young Black culture in L.A.
Rappers like Yo-Yo and Eazy-E were some of Caldwell’s students at Kaos Network – the latter of whom got his mic cut off mid-bar because he was cursing too much.
No cursing and no fighting were the only two rules of the space, and those rules were put in place to create a safe and comfortable atmosphere for kids to create – or just hang out and feel a part of a community.
“He really looks at the arts, as you know, as having just as much value, if not more than, you know, going to the doctor or having a therapist,” Frazier explains. “When you go to your doctor, you’re in there by yourself. The arts for Ben, it’s like a space where people are encouraged to be vulnerable, take risks, play, share things they might not be willing to share, and to really cultivate spaces where they feel comfortable.”
When older kids from the Good Life Cafe, a health food market that hosted and nurtured its own legendary open mic nights for young local rapper, were looking for their own late night space to practice their art, Caldwell gave them a little more leeway in terms of cursing, but kept a similar ethos as his work teaching video production, giving young people of color a safe place – away from gangs, the police, and a hostile world.
In the book, Frazier describes a number of avant-garde and visionary multimedia projects Caldwell has been involved in – like early work with open networks that preceded the internet’s mass availability, and live streaming before it was a thing.
Another continuing project involves figuring out ways to subvert technologies and traditional artistic aesthetics to create a filmmaking style that mimics Black music – like the blues, culture, and thought that counters the Eurocentric mindframe of filmmaking.
“The best example to me is bebop when saxophones got into the mix. It was normally used for concertos, and beer music, then you have like John Coltrane, or Bird tackling riffs of flying notes from the heart, as opposed to Beethoven style stiffness,” Caldwell says. “I think right now, [I’m] trying to work with it in a way where it will modulate and feel like sound. We were able to do it with sound. I would like to eventually see if we could do that with film – where it instantly sounds and feels like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles.”
Caldwell’s interest in pushing at the edges of art and technology manifests into his role as a teacher too. As well as still hosting a hip hop open mic called Bananas, Kaos Network now hosts classes in building robots and AI.
Nearly 40 years after his landmark project began, Caldwell continues to keep his ears open to the music his students are playing. He integrates what they’re interested in with their historical precedence and parallels in playlists he creates and shares. He’s even messing around with TikTok now.
“TikTok is like a lot of stuff that independent artists created with Super 8 films,” Caldwell says. “It’s fun to me. It’s bringing forward a lot of things that the experimental world uses. I see it as a way to sophisticate the chops of our culture.”
He hasn’t gotten there yet, Caldwell says, but he’s still working on ways to bring jazz-like riffing to film, which mostly have to do, he added, with tweaking time based controls, like a camera’s frame rate and messing with glitches and static.
“I see myself as an artist that happens to really like the educating environment,” Caldwell says. “I see myself as a bridge between the work that is dreamed about by students and the application of some of those for the better good of our world?”