How Ben Caldwell and Robeson Taj Frazier’s ‘KAOS Theory’ project came to be – Orange County Register

Ben Caldwell and Robeson Taj Frazier met through a mutual friend while working on a collaborative project between USC Annenberg and Caldwell’s Leimert Park studio Kaos Network.

They’d gone to eat at a Jamaican restaurant down the street from the studio, and from there they became friends and collaborators. The result of their work together has just been published by Angel City Press. “KAOS Theory: The Afrokosmic Ark of Ben Caldwell” is a hybrid biography and artist’s monograph authored by Frazier that delves deep into Caldwell’s art and personal history.

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“It didn’t start off as a book,” says Frazier, associate professor of communication at USC and director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at USC Annenberg, when we meet at KAOS Network to discuss the project. “It started off with Ben and I having conversations. Ben showing me slides. Ben showing me the physical versions of the photographs that you see.”

Eventually, the two realized that there was a book to be made. Frazier received funding from USC, which allowed him to pursue the research. Caldwell suggested that they travel to his hometown, Deming, New Mexico. Out on the road in 2018, the components of the book began to take shape as they drove from El Paso to Las Cruces and on to Deming.

Creating KAOS

Nearly 40 years ago, Caldwell, a multimedia artist, set up his studio and community art space in Leimert Park Village. It was an ideal spot located near multiple bus stops. “I earned a grant to work with youth in this neighborhood,” he explains. “I thought it would be good to be in a place where they would not always have to have their parents taking them.”

Plus, he’d be working in a neighborhood with a history of championing Black art and culture in Los Angeles. “I was part of a legacy,” says Caldwell, adding that he liked the idea of being “a steward of the arts.” KAOS Network, initially known as VIDEO 3333, became a hub of multimedia arts and communication projects. One of the space’s claims to fame was being part of the 1990s underground hip-hop scene via the Project Blowed events held here.

The convergence of visual art, music and technology is still very much a part of KAOS Network. Today, collaborators work on projects that incorporate gaming tech, virtual reality, augmented reality and even autonomous vehicles.

“A lot of the work that I ended up doing is matching up the old school with the new school to marry the two in a way that doesn’t get rid of the past in a way that tends to happen in the United States, the kind of ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ concept,” says Caldwell. “We started going through the bathwater and picked out the good things that are still there and repurposed them using the open source structure of Linux as a way to break through that.”

And while tech may change the workflow, the creative juice remains the same regardless of changing technology, says Caldwell.

“An updated tool, you still have to learn how to use it. Then you find out its textures, its feelings,” he adds. “That’s the way that I look at each of them – they’re storytelling tools.”

Making connections

As for Caldwell’s own story, it goes far beyond the confines of the KAOS Network space. What makes “KAOS Theory” so intriguing is that it’s the story of one artist and the many people and events that shaped his life and his work.

“I see ‘KAOS Theory’ as kind of a human internet,” says Caldwell, explaining the many intersections that are part of the story that Caldwell and Frazier hope to highlight for book tour events.

Similarly, “KAOS Theory” is more than a story about Leimert Park or Los Angeles. It’s a journey across the U.S., primarily through the Southwest. “I think that’s the thing that often gets missed in the sense of our cultural vibrations as African Americans,” says Caldwell, noting how the stories of Black Americans in the Southwest are often overlooked.

“California is a state that’s been made up in a lot of ways by migrants and different migration patterns, so we didn’t want to abide by the conventions of what constitutes California, what constitutes Leimert Park,” says Frazier. “These are spaces that migrants in many ways have been compelled to cultivate community and compelled to cultivate ways of imagining what the future can be and cultivating a present.”

As for the collaboration between Caldwell and Frazier, there may also be more further down the road.

“I just think it would be fun to continue this relationship with Taj and the work that we’ve done,” says Caldwell. “We’ve talked about other projects. With the way this book is rolling, it’s teaching me a lot and I’m learning and watching and I think it would be fun to see what our next steps with building out these book concepts.”

What might those steps be? Caldwell hopes to expand the KAOS space to allow more projects, archives and artists’ residencies.

“I try to dream 50 years into the future,” he says.

“KAOS THEORY” Book events

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 11

Where: Philosophical Research Society Auditorium, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd, Los Angeles


• • •

When: 6 p.m. Oct. 12

Where: Octavia’s Bookshelf, 1365 North Hill Ave., Pasadena


• • •

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 26

Where: Reparations Club, 3054 S. Victoria Ave., L.A.


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