High up in the former Observatory buildings on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, in the imposing City Dome that once held a substantial telescope for the use of the city’s amateur star gazers, the sound of alien music is ringing out.

Or at least, alien for those who recognise the base chords in Cauleen Smith’s 2014 work H-E-L-L-O as those of the extraterrestrial visitors in Steven Spielberg’s epic sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Already emotive, those chords take on new significance in this evocative work from the American artist, here with her first solo showing in Scotland, a piece filmed in New Orleans some nine years after the devastation and loss of life and home of Hurricane Katrina (2005).

“Smith has taken those five notes from that iconic score and reinterpreted them,” says guest curator at Collective, Emmie McCluskey.

Filmed in places of historic importance for the communities that live and lived there – whether that is Congo Square where enslaved Africans would meet and make music on their ‘free’ Sundays or St Augustine Parish Church, the first Catholic church to be founded by free people of colour in the 19th century – the music is played by some of that city’s musicians on instruments ranging from the wrap-around sousaphone to the cello and the cumbersome contra bassoon, an instrument whose lowest notes are in the lowest ranges of human hearing.

In a city synonymous with music, with marching bands and mardi gras and jazz, and with a long African American culture, Smith’s work uses music to denote the grief of loss and the hope for the future post-Katrina. “There is also a sense of unity, this is [the musician’s] testament to their city,” says McCluskey.

McCluskey points out that in Close Encounters, humans spend a lot of time overcomplicating the issue of what the aliens are trying to say – usually involving wildly elaborate mathematical calculations – when all they’re really trying to say is Hello. “When you hear it in the film, in the Dome, it’s a very full-bodied experience. These huge instruments, you can walk whilst playing them, you can imagine the amount of breath and energy that takes.”

Born in 1967 in California, Smith, who currently holds positions at Vermont College of Fine Art and the California Institute of Art, studied at San Francisco State University (Creative Arts, BA) and the University of California, Los Angeles, Film, Theatre and Television School before realising that her experimental work sat more comfortably in the realm of contemporary art.

“Her work is about black people and their lives,” says McCluskey. “Smith’s work, with its emphasis on the possibilities of the imagination, touches on Afro-futurism allied with a sense of history, leaning towards optimism and kindness and ideas of radical giving and community, such as in imagining and seeking out communities that have found a way to function successfully, explored in her 2018 film, Soujourner.

“Her influences come from those who’ve looked to space as a way of imagining different realities for a world that may be not working for that community.”

McCluskey first encountered Smith’s work some years ago, programming it as part of Lux Scotland at Glagow’s Tramway in discussion with Ima-Abasi Okon and Kimberley O’Neill. “But it operates totally differently in a film festival context, and the three of us at the time were keen on how to install it to best effect, and we thought the Dome was a really interesting building to stage it in. I have to credit Ima and Kim in that! We were in awe of Cauleen’s practice.”

McCluskey also felt the work would resonate in another way in Edinburgh. “New Orleans is very different to Edinburgh, but this idea of how Edinburgh functions as a city based around culture, is part of the interest of the work in Edinburgh.

“All these creative industries are based in Edinburgh, and yet there is also displacement of people. There are all these issues around who can be in the city, when, and that’s come in to sharp relief during the pandemic.”

In April this year, a live performance of the film score is in hopeful planning, using musicians from Edinburgh’s community, something which Smith is very keen to explore, McCluskey tells me.

“Smith sees her films as invitations. Her belief in art and culture to be central to everything and her optimism about the essential need for culture is key. Hopefully that is something that people will take away from the work too.”

Cauleen Smith: H-E-L-L-O, Collective Gallery, City Dome, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, 0131 556 1264, www.collective-edinburgh.art Until 1 May, Thurs - Sun, 10am - 4pm

Critic's Choice

Consciously Rising is a new group exhibition by 12 women who started to meet regularly online during lockdown, using the technique of feminist consciousness-raising, first posited in the 1960s by the Women's Liberation Movement, to produce new works of art on paper. This process, of being able to speak in turn, unchallenged, about issues relating to their lives, showing both the differences and the similarities between the women involved and giving them fuel in the everyday battle against a misogynistic society, was used in online meetings, leading to group contributions to works of art made by some of those involved. The group was organised by artist Helen de Main, as part of a PhD investigation in to the use of feminist methodologies in the creation of art at Glasgow School of Art.

The women hail from diverse professions and parts of the Glasgow community, united in their modern day experience of misogyny, as were their predecessors in theirs. When lockdown eased in 2021, the group began to meet in Glasgow Women's Library, where this exhibition takes place, working collaboratively to create risograph prints – a Japanese process that allows quick, bold printing of images – which feature feminist texts, reminiscent of the 'actions' that the WLM consciousness-raising participants would take after every meeting. What emerges, too, here, is the sense of community and comfort in meeting as a group, and in artistic stimulation, that kept many of the participants going in the periods of extreme isolation which many experienced in the first – and subsequent – lockdowns.

Consciously Rising, Glasgow Women’s Library, 23 Landressy Street, Glasgow, 0141 550 2267, www.womenslibrary.org.uk Until 5 Feb, Tues - Fri, 10am - 4.30pm (Thurs until 7pm), Sat 12pm - 4pm

Don't Miss

William Morris' iconic wallpaper and fabric prints are still going strong since they were designed over 150 years ago. Now the wallpapers come to Edinburgh's Dovecot, incidentally founded with two weavers snaffled from the Morris factory, in this first exhibition of the archival prints in the UK. Showcasing Morris in the context of the times in which he emerged as a serious designer, the exhibition contains many original prints, some of which have annotations scribbled on to them by Morris himself.

The Art of Wallpaper – Morris & Co, Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, 0131 550 3660,www.dovecotstudios.com 28 Jan – 11 Jun, Mon – Sat, 10am – 5pm, Adults £10.50, Under 12 Free; other concessions available. Viewing by appointment at dovecotstudios.com