Meet Ben Caldwell
Founder of Kaos Network and Leimert Park Art Walk
Los Angeles-based artist, educator and independent filmmaker Ben Caldwell grew up assisting his grandfather, who projected movies at a small theater in New Mexico. His passion for the visual arts led him to study film at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and reside in the neighborhood of Leimert Park, the epicenter for the African American art scene in Los Angeles. After teaching film and video at Howard University in Washington D.C. from 1981—1984, Caldwell returned to Leimert Park to create an independent studio for video production and experimentation that became the KAOS Network, a community arts center providing digital arts, media arts, and multimedia training. It remains the only organization of its kind in South Central Los Angeles that offers courses in video production, animation, web development, video teleconferencing, and Internet exploration. Its legendary Project Blowed, a weekly open-mic workshop, gave birth to rappers and rap groups such as Aceyalone, Medusa, Busdriver, Freestyle Fellowship and Jurassic Five.
Caldwell’s films often trace historical and cultural connections. Eyewitness: Reflections of Malcolm X & the O.A.A.U. (2006) presents the Harlem reunion of ex-members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. La Buena Vida (The Good Life) (2008), filmed over the course of three years while Caldwell taught at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), documents cultural exchanges between a group of L.A. hip hop artists and musicians and their counterparts in Havana, Cuba.
When did art become an integral part of your life?
Art has always been an integral part of my life from childhood to now. I’ve been fortunate to stay in it until now. The first time I was tapped as an artist was when I was in New Mexico and I was in about 2nd or 3rd grade I won a country fair blue ribbon for my drawing of a horse that was done on a metal template. From then on I considered myself an artist. I had art shows at the library by the time I was in high school. Although I was mostly seen as a jock, my underground life was an artist. I got involved with the art scene in High School. I know how to use leather, throw pottery, and I've done sculpture work. I made sculptures with pottering techniques. I did that for our prom night decor. I made some ceramic Roman heads. And I still have one. I think, I still have one at home. I fired it and molded it.
When did your love for photography and film develop?
That was almost the same time because at that time my grandfather worked a bunch of different jobs. One of his jobs was as a projectionist for a movie theater that was right in front of his house. He was an assistant and clean up man. Then he later he started taking care of the movies, so I would do his job cleaning up the theaters. Even though I didn’t think I was going to be a filmmaker I grew to have a perspective of what that business was like from the distribution side from that experience. As a high schooler, I got a number of scholarship offers to go to art school. I went to an art school in Arizona where I learned to draw and paint. The teacher was an animation person from the Disney Corporation who set up a school in the desert called Phoenix College where I studied business and art. That’s when I really gained a greater sense of being an artist.
What’s your favorite movie from your time spent with your grandfather at the movie theater?
Well, I got to see some of the early visceral scary movies, they were the ones that stuck in my brain. And I think The Monster from the Black Lagoon is the one that really terrified me. That's the first kind of scary film made by Carpenter. And it was a low budget film, but they used all of the methodologies of tension and music to scare you more so than what was really happening. It's just the anticipation that you're worried about the person made it feel pretty real. I also must say that I liked the cowboy movies, too, because they were pretty prevalent.
How would you describe your work?
I would describe my work as art. Art as it should be. It's whatever different ways to form ideas creatively. I try to work with it that way. At first I would have called myself an artist by just painting, but I don't think painting is it. It's a limited way to describe art.
And then once I got into still photography, they thought I was getting lazy, that I wasn't developing, you know, the painting artists thought I what I was doing was lazy because you come up with an image quickly. But I didn't. I didn't feel that way.
I got into UCLA because I started actually dyeing and painting my photographs. So my photographs were also one of the kind pieces, too. I used it as a format to get a design. But I also would go beyond that by adding other things and make them beyond just a photograph. It also has a lot of my energy and feelings and also the model's energy. So that was how I would form most of my work. During that time period. And that's the way I would describe my work as creative... the creative incubation ideas. And that's the basics of art, is to always incubate things and discover.
What subjects, issues, and themes do you explore in your work?
There isn't anything I haven’t touched.
What subjects and issues have captured your imagination most intensely?
I’ve always been fascinated with the ethnographic history of languages and of the Spanish Conquest in the Americas. That's one thing that's kind of fascinating me right now, but the project that has really gotten me by the jaws since 2000 is when I started working with Michael Beckwith, Krishna Kaur, and Paruja.
We went to Cuba and we did this opening the embargo to our hearts in Cuba Yogi Bhajan, who couldn't move around really well then, so he was going to meet us there, but I think he ended up having to go to Africa at around the same time. It was, I would say the grand spiritual gathering at the start of the century, 2000 that gathered in Cuba.
I got to hang out with them for five days and the project was called Ancient Arts for Modern Living. And we were doing a deep drill down on that, so that's something that I'm still working on because it is it was far beyond. I was able to find out things far beyond what I knew. If I had died, then I would have been mad to to think that I could have died then and not have known all of what I've been able to know these last 20 years. It's just pretty phenomenal about ourselves.
So that's the most important project that I've worked on when it comes to film. And it's called Ancient Art for Modern Living. And it's going to be like a novelesque film that discovers fourteen hundred years of our cultural sweep and includes that Spanish conquest to Portuguese, British, French. So starting with the Greeks. So that's going to be that kind of fun I'm dealing with now. So but then artistically, I chose to stay in this neighborhood to see how I could work as an artist with business.
So that's what Kaos Network is and its been a whole lot of fun. I started it in 1984 as Video 33-33. Then in 1990 when I got married my wife we both dubbed it the Kaos Network. So we preceded Fifth Street Dicks and when Dick opened we were so happy because my wife, who was a lawyer and I both had our little masters degrees and we were only making about $50 dollars a week. It was not paying for our life. We asked ourselves what were you doing? So I switched back up to what I was doing up until that point, which was doing future technology. Got it. And I was teaching I did murals that SPARC at that time. I was working with 9 murals. And then I started teaching at Cal Arts in 1990.
How long have you been in Leimert Park and what drew you to the Village?
Drew me here because my aunt lives on Eighth Avenue. It's like right up the block. And so when I first came to Los Angeles, this is the neighborhood that they introduced me to. And it was a growing black community that they were very, very proud of. And they took me to various places around the community here because I came here before, but then I was accepted to UCLA and so they kind of gave me the runaround and let me meet the Black community. And so that's one reason is that it was right up the street from what I knew. And I really loved this place when she gave me the tour. And then that was really it.
So when I came back in as a student. My next friend was Larry Clark and Larry Clark was a student that kind of advocated for me to be at the school at UCLA. And so he gave me a tour and introduced me to Alonzo Davis, who started Brockman Gallery. So that was my first weeks here at UCLA. So I got to meet him almost 1971 ish on. I've been enamored by this community because they all gave me a tour and I got to meet Sika around that time.
It's just a lot of the guys that are still around me. They are the old schoolers are the folks that kept me here.
Did you work with Brockman Gallery?
I ended up offering them we can video workshops that I offered for free every Saturday. And so I said I would bring the equipment from UCLA and then go into the community and started teaching with it. So, yeah, that was the first time I started working with them. And as soon as I graduated my first degree, I started working with him and Beverly Robinson on producing about three to four years of film festivals. So I worked with them as the film festival director.
How do you envision the future of Leimert Park?
Well, the Sankofa City concept that we're working on now. I think that gives people a little bit of an envisioning. I think it's a it's a kind of a proactive look at the future where we engage the future instead of letting the future happen to us. And so so what I'm doing right now, while everything is dormant.
We have a project of getting a makerspace and in the front part of the front of L.A. Commons here, where we'll be making autonomous vehicle parts and ideas for the moment, see how we can stretch and pull it.
And that's a part of art to me. It's the matching and overlay of all the art forms and all the different ways people think to have them kind of bubble together in an idea. We can then create just string glasses like Minority Report. We can produce games. We can use fiber optics.
If we can't use five G's in places, then why? And then what can we do to mitigate the circumstances by building environments around it in a way that we create safe environments for these tools? Because almost everything we have around this is toxic. So it's just a matter of learning how to live with it in a correct way if you're going to play with it. Because we have plastic, everything. So everything is almost that way, so you have to figure out other mitigated way to make it still work for you. Well, just like we did with the microwave cookers that we keep from.
Keep up with Ben on IG @Kaosnetworkz
A selection of Ben Caldwell's films & projects: