Charles Gaines: Manifestos



Kent Gallery

October 20 – December 20, 2008

Manifestos, Charles Gaines’s first exhibition in New York since 2000, is composed of a suite of drawings and videos related to the artist’s transcoding of four manifestos into musical scores. Beginning with seminal manifestos from the Black Panthers, Socialist Congress, Zapatistas, and Guy Debord, at every point in the texts where a letter corresponds to the letters in musical notation (a-g, and h for b-flat), that note is written into the musical score, with all other letters scored as rests. This Cage-ian methodology is consistent with earlier projects in which Gaines exploited dissonances between visual and textual (or aural) representation. The resulting music, performed by a piano quintet and played on four video screens that scroll the source text, is eerie and unsettling. Watching and listening, I could not help but try to glean some metaphorical meaning that Gaines’s system had transcribed from the source texts. But my desire for meaning was answered only with absence: The Zapatista Manifesto exclaims “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in bold capital letters. But the musical iteration marks no distinction comparable to this typological embellishment—the same simple notes roll along without remark.

Faced with an opportunity to contemporize these historical texts, nostalgia could only be stifling. The desired metaphor was displaced by Gaines’s chosen metonym of the contiguous graphemes in written music and written language (the letters a-g). But ultimately these semantic parts signify different things. Comparing music and language, Gaines sets the stage for the irresolvable dialects of experience and logic, sentiment and intellect. Indifferent to these machinations, the manifestos remain tied to specific historical and social moments as artifacts. If we are to treat Gaines’s installation as a hermeneutic allegory, then we can move beyond this discursive dead-end. After each of the scores and videos has run consecutively, they play simultaneously in a layered, arranged composition that is complex and mature. Strangely, what the musical manifestos lack alone, they gain together through complexity, but at the loss of the simple, legible connections to the original letters and words. The music feels full, but it required the integration and degradation of these four canonical manifestos through an additional degree of abstraction. The transcoding opens these systems to expose our desires for transcendence. Gaines’s epistemological investigations are inherently political, and if we accept this model of interpreting history, then no text is sacred.

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