Differential Equations (on Charles Gaines)

October 2011

In Charles Gaines’s sculpture Falling Rock, 2000, a sixty-five-pound chunk of granite suddenly and repeatedly drops onto—or just short of—a sheet of glass. We have no way of knowing which of these outcomes to expect; it is determined by a computerized mechanism. When I first encountered the piece roughly a decade ago, I had little idea what to make of its recurrent, timed brutality—the rationality of clockwork married to the irrationality of violence. Or, more accurately, I had no idea what the artist intended me to make of it. After being similarly confounded by later bodies of work, I was only partly relieved to find out that Gaines claims no control over his work’s reception. He goes further, recently noting that he was “interested in how remarkably meaningful things could be produced in situations that didn’t use the apparatus of subjectivity.”[1] To be clear, Gaines has no desire to deny the viewer’s subjectivity, only his own. This has remained a consistent strategy over many decades: Thirty years ago, he stated, “The art work, the total art work, involves many aspects of myself, not just one, and they all want to participate in the work. But when the work is done they all disappear, claiming ignorance of the whole affair, and documenting alibis.[2]

The Los Angeles–based artist has long employed systems and rule-based procedures to widen the distance between concepts and their interpretation. Like many artists of his generation who emerged in the late 1960s, Gaines abandoned painting and in the process attempted to jettison subjectivity and replace it with noncompositional rules and generative structures—with systems, on the one hand, and chance, on the other. His grid-based work in the ’70s was championed by Sol LeWitt, among other generation-defining figures, and Gaines would exhibit in the ’80s at Leo Castelli and John Weber in New York and Margo Leavin in Los Angeles—all galleries associated with the Conceptual tendency, broadly defined. Understandably, Gaines is often seen in this context, although he connects his approach more directly to John Cage’s explorations of indeterminacy in both composition and performance, with its emphasis on unexpected results.

For the video installation Manifestos, 2008, for example, Gaines employed a self-imposed set of rules to produce musical transpositions of four twentieth-century political manifestos with revolutionary ambitions—those of the Black Panthers, the International Socialist Congress, and the Zapatistas, along with the Situationist text “Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life.” The letters A through H were transposed into notes (H was notated as B-flat), with other letters and spaces between words indicating rests. As each of the four texts scrolls on its own screen, we hear, on speaker, the scores performed by a string quartet. (A fifth score, titled Swarm, combines the melody lines of the other four scores.)

Much like Cage’s systematic composition Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, 1979, which Gaines cites as an influence, the music in Manifestos is not determined by the subjective preferences of its composer; it is structured only by the alphabetic content of the given texts. But if Cage’s libretto and score are generated from Joyce’s ready-made text, the work also includes fragments of field recordings and traditional Irish music; Gaines’s Manifestos, by contrast, is stripped down, focusing attention on the procedural act of translation from historically significant political speech to new instances of instrumental music. The Zapatista “Declaration of War,” which states, “We have been denied the most elemental preparation so that they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country,” may evoke a strong emotional response in its reader—whether in solidarity or in opposition—but the score may produce the opposite effect. When I saw a live performance of Gaines’s work at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this past spring as part of the exhibition “All of This and Nothing,” the music (arranged on this occasion for a piano quintet by composer Sean Griffin) sounded decidedly elegiac: A violent speech act, a literal declaration of war, was stripped of its original force, transformed into a work of music unlikely to incite rage, let alone political upheaval. But even if a listener finds the work beautiful, sad, stirring, or unsettling, such reactions result from his or her taste and social conditioning, rather than the artist’s intention.

If Gaines hadn’t had the original texts scrolling on video alongside the resulting scores, one might argue he had undermined their potency. Or one might have seen an elegant but easily dismissible take on familiar “death of the author” strategies. But Manifestos exploits the potential for conflict, particularly because the drama is not resolved when the music’s over. It is too unlikely that the artist has no investment, personal or political, in the implications of the manifestos. That much of Gaines’s chosen subject matter can incite strong emotional reactions only raises the stakes for the idea that the artist put forcefully in an unpublished letter to a former student about this work: “I am not interested nor do I have any intention whatsoever to whatever connection you make between an idea and a feeling. . . . There is nothing in my approach that tries to determine from my own interest what type of feeling you have.”

Such a firewall between cause and effect is explicit in Airplanecrash Clock, 1997–2007, which gained considerable attention when it was exhibited in the 2007 Venice Biennale. For this piece, Gaines created a scale model of an urban disaster, with an airplane crashing into a city amalgamated from buildings in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The wooden base of the sculpture is outfitted with two clocks; the plane, attached to a motorized aluminum armature, takes flight across the skyline before nose-diving into the street below (to a sound track of sirens and screaming passengers) every seven and a half minutes, only to revert to its original position and start the action again after a two-minute pause. Gaines has cited Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of suspense—that is, the audience must be aware that the bomb will go off before it actually does, in order to generate anxiety—as an inspiration for the work’s (repetitive) impact. Showing up the radical consequences of Gaines’s stated notion that he has “nothing to do with the way you respond to the work,” Airplanecrash Clock was conceived four years before the attack on the World Trade Center, but it is impossible to see the work after September 11, 2001, and not make a cognitive and emotionally charged connection to that day’s events and to their portrayal and spectacularization in the media. For Gaines, in other words, the application of systems is a means rather than an end—and hence his focus on systems that, according to the artist, reveal the operation of ideology in language and representation. Like Hitchcock, the consummate manipulator of audiences, Gaines draws us into the relentless drive of mechanized suspense but coldly lays bare the devices of manipulation; nevertheless, it becomes difficult for a viewer to avoid entanglement, attaching emotions or associations that the artist could never have predicted.

An investment in the mechanics of suspense also informs the 1993–95 series “NIGHT/CRIMES.” For each of these works, Gaines placed three photographs—a mug shot of a murderer, a crime scene where a murder occurred, and a star-filled night sky—in proximity, implying a causal connection. Though the first two kinds of images were taken from the photographic archives of the Los Angeles Police Department, the juxtaposed images are not connected to the same criminal act. In NIGHT/CRIMES: Cassiopeia, 1995, for example, the murderer in the mug shot is not the person responsible for the crime documented in the adjacent image, which, in this case, depicts a dead body being recovered from Santa Monica Beach. Both of these images are situated above an image of Cassiopeia, a constellation visible from the scene of the crime when the murder occurred. Physical proximity signals relations between parts regardless of their actual connection, and so the juxtaposed photographs dare the viewer to play detective and triangulate the evidence. But in the end, the three images provide a flimsy case, and the viewer is left fundamentally unsettled.

Such use of juxtaposition recalls the Kuleshov effect—the signal understanding of montage, named for the Soviet filmmaker who initially demonstrated it, that placing one shot after the other produces meaning through proximity. Unlike in film, however, Gaines’s juxtapositions—which the artist forthrightly admits are “manipulative associations”—are usually spatial rather than temporal, with the images remaining next to one another for the viewer to respond to. The side-by-side images and texts in “Explosion,” a 2005–2008 series of drawings, represent a related strategy, while following from the interest in disasters that was inaugurated with Airplanecrash Clock. As the artist has remarked,

I’m interested in dissolving the difference between aesthetic response and the localized emotional response. Disaster narratives are exaggerated examples of metonymy where the sentiments that are produced are not a result of a realistic identification with the experience but are instead the result of a “floating feeling” that happens when one cognitively encounters unrealized anticipations of unimaginable consequences.[3]

Painstakingly rendered in graphite, the mesmerizing drawings represent fire and billowing smoke clouds without showing the cause of the explosions. The “appendix” accompanying each work consists of a handwritten text that systematically describes a violent incident, which is in fact an arbitrary composite of two or more sources, blended into one apparently seamless, singular voice. Gaines’s disaster narratives thus obviate the presumed satisfaction or relief implied in narrative resolution. Instead, these works lure the viewer into an encounter with pathos produced by the visceral impact of text and image.

Like a controlled burn, the power of Gaines’s work lies in its ability to unleash irrational forces that disrupt certainty. This is obvious in the artist’s recent output, but it also applies in important ways to the body of work with which Gaines first garnered attention in the ’70s and ’80s. Series such as “Landscape: Assorted Trees with Regressions,” 1980–81, “Faces: Men and Women,” 1978–80, and “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance,” 1980–81, largely relied on Gaines’s self-imposed rules for transcribing photographic information—images of trees and deadpan faces, and stills of Trisha Brown performing a dance routine, respectively—into gridded drawings of numerical data. But these works, too, evidenced the irrational or unexpected emerging from a coolly systematic approach. Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, 1981, for example, plots a sequence of Brown’s movements onto a single, cumulative image, which appears as a nearly psychedelic compound of numbers and colors.

If Gaines has regularly employed systems since the early ’70s, his work since the ’90s has explicitly used them, he says, as a tool to “unpack the force of ideology.” (This roughly parallels the trajectory of Hans Haacke, for example, whose early investigation of natural systems became a critique of ideologies and institutions—of “the system.”) With a pivotal series titled “Submerged Text: Signifiers of Race,” 1991, Gaines directed his systematic attention not only toward the construction of language but also toward material carrying obvious social and political messages. Individual works in this series extract words and phrases apparently related to racial identity and related stereotypes—black, dark, unemployed, useless, and so on—found in sources (including Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and articles in magazines such as Film Comment and Artforum) that are not explicitly about racial subjects. These words, floating as fragments on white fields, activate the arbitrary, but they also implicate the ideological foundation of the viewer, with the artist “disappear[ed], claiming ignorance of the whole affair . . . documenting alibis.”

I’ll mention here that Gaines is an African-American artist, but I do so reluctantly, cognizant that such racial qualifiers are not used to define white artists such as LeWitt or Haacke—or, for that matter, the author of this article. Even as Gaines implores his viewers to accept the notion that he has “nothing to do with the way you respond to the work,” his oeuvre raises the question of whether any system, however mechanical, can fully separate an artist from the resulting work. Well after the death of the author and the birth of the reader/viewer, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Gaines’s generation, for all its negation of subjective expression through Conceptual strategies, is also a generation largely defined by volatile cultural revolution, the Vietnam War, civil rights, protest, and political speech—all of which suggests the opposite of cool remove. The fraught nature of the terrain for Gaines specifically is evident in his 1993 essay “The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,” in which he frankly engages the question of race: “Racism is in part the practice of excluding from political and social power those groups that have an ethnic identity different from that of the dominant race,” he writes. “With this in mind, it does not seem that the amelioration or the obviation of the subject is in the political best interest of the minority. . . . The presence of a subject is essential for the implementation of political power. Turning to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of deterritorialization, he adds: “Race destabilizes mainstream subjectivity, but in so doing it does not make politics irrelevant, for the destabilization is itself an act of politics.”[4]

It has been argued, of course, that the shift away from authorial subjectivity actually marginalized a number of authors who were just gaining a voice. Frantz Fanon would fall into precisely this category, and Gaines made Fanon’s classic Black Skins, White Masks (1952) the subject of a 2010 series of drawings titled “String Theory: Rewriting Fanon.” Exhibited last year at Houston’s Project Row Houses, the series rearranges Fanon’s words according to a series of predetermined procedures, yielding short, grammatically correct sentences that achieve what the artist calls “a sense of compelling meaningfulness.” The texts are less absurd, in the sense of Surrealist play, than disconcerting. “The reality of the Negro is, indeed, the fantasy,” reads one paradoxical sentence. Who defines reality—or fantasy? Surely it is not mere chance.

Like Gaines’s Manifestos, the “String Theory” series can be considered as a way to allow incendiary postwar texts—denuded of radicalism shortly after they were authored, absorbed into radical chic, etc.—to give rise to a different kind of effect, one that is not didactic but is predicated on conflict: Power, like meaning, is destabilized even after “the man behind the curtain” is revealed. Gaines’s favorite tool for destabilization is metonymy, which informs the operating systems of most of his work, and which he consistently invokes in his writing and teaching as a renewed field of investigation. Given its predication on contiguity—on a material link between sign and referent—metonymy is the banner tactic for artists investigating the real, the material, the immanent (over and against metaphor’s seductive cultivation of romanticism, symbolism, universal truths, or bourgeois ideology). As Gaines states, “I’m interested that this set of rules that produce this result could produce an infinite number of other results. . . . Systems reveal the existence of possibilities, possibilities outside of them.[5] Such possibilities are not art-for-art’s-sake playfulness but something more ambitious: Like Cage, Gaines sees the anarchist implications of letting the work be released into the world and investigating material effects, physical contingencies; of the composer’s notion of “letting things be things” so that new perspectives might arise, worldviews that do not settle into simple oppositions or dogmatic positions.

This fall, Gaines’s work will be on view at various exhibitions throughout Southern California. In addition to several historical surveys undertaken in association with the Getty’s sprawling initiative “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,” they include another exhibition that opened in September at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, for which Gaines fabricated a major new work titled Skybox, 2011, which enfolds aspects of “NIGHT/CRIMES” and Manifestos. Skybox incorporates excerpts of four texts on social justice, composed over a six-century span (Gerrard Winstanley’s “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England” [1649], Ho Chi Minh’s “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” [1945], Fanon’s “On National Culture” [1961], and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s “Negritude: A Humanism in the Twentieth Century” [1970]), which are juxtaposed with three images of constellations visible in the years when the texts were written (Ursa Major could be seen on two occasions). These “discrete” skies adjoin one another so that they appear continuous, with the texts wrapping across three panels. Connected to a rheostat fixture, Skybox controls the gallery lights, which fade gradually over the course of a few minutes from dim to bright and back again. The texts are visible when the gallery lights are on but are rendered illegible when the night sky comes to the fore, when the stars shimmer through behind a metal screen dotted with pinholes. Any attempt to read the texts in anything other than piecemeal fashion is frustrated by the emergence of the night sky. Like so many of Gaines’s juxtapositions, Skybox lures viewers in but never resolves into focus—instead providing orchestrated instability, with new possibilities flickering into and out of sight.

1. Charles Gaines, conversation with the author, January 10, 2011.

2. Untitled statement in No Title: The Collection of Sol LeWitt (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Art Gallery, 1981).

3. Franklin Sirmans, “Charles Gaines: Lurid Stories,” in Lurid Stories: Charles Gaines, Projects from 1995–2001, exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Institute, 2001), 17.

4. Charles Gaines, Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism, exh. cat. (Irvine: University of California, Irvine, 1993), pp. 13–20.

5. Gaines, conversation with the author, January 10, 2011.