Call and Response (on Charles Gaines)

September 2012

In The Shadow of Numbers

Charles Gaines: Selected Works from 1975-2012

Pomona College Museum of Art / Pitzer College



Dear Charles,

When I first set eyes on the checklist for your exhibition at Pomona and Pitzer, for whatever reason I was immediately drawn to the few works I had never seen before—the two examples from the 1980 Shadows series and the 2008 video Black Ghost Blues Redux. The Shadows works, as far as I could tell from the pixilated thumbnail images, had an immediate relation to other series in which you’ve systematically translated photographic data into drawings plotted on hand-drawn graph paper—work from the 1979 series Faces: Men and Women and the 1981 series Motion: Trisha Brown Dance were already familiar to me, and these seem to bracket the Shadows pieces quite neatly. As eager as I was to see the Shadows works, I have to admit I was most curious about the work on the checklist for which there was no thumbnail—a video, titled after a Lightnin’ Hopkins song no less.

Black Ghost Blues Redux was made in collaboration with the artist Hoyun Son, who also appears in the video. The video was made for a thematic group exhibition at Project Row Houses appealingly titled “Thunderbolt Special: The Great Electric Show and Dance (after Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins).” It might be an outlier in your body of work, but perhaps all the more telling for that reason. The set-up of the video is incredibly simple. Hoyun Son is framed in medium close-up against a “blank” backdrop (pinkish-white to my eyes), and smokes a cigarette as the eponymous Lightnin’ Hopkins song plays. “Black ghost, black ghost, will you please stay away from my door,” implores Hopkins. “Yeah you know you worry po’ Lightnin’ so now, I just can’t sleep no more”… She listens, smokes, bobs to the music. When the recorded version of the song ends, she sings it a capella. Compared to Hopkins’s assured, even relaxed delivery (somewhat belying the anxiety of his lyrics) structured by the insistent rhythm of his guitar, Son’s unaccompanied version is notably urgent, raw—and surely this is part of the point: A female, Korean voice embodying (if that’s the right word) the lyrics of an African-American blues musician is bound to point to difference. And as you recently told me in your studio, there has often been tension between Black and Korean communities, yet both cultures recall a complex history of colonialism, slavery, and enculturation. In light of this, Son’s singing of Hopkins’s lyrics suggests an impossible, or at least, paradoxical embodiment.

While thinking about the video, and re-watching it, I’ve come to understand the structure as one of “call-and-response,” which is frequently found in the blues and gospel music, and traced to oral communication in sub-Saharan Africa. In the video, the call is Hopkins; the response is Son. I first encountered the idea of call-and-response around twenty years ago when I read LeRoi Jones’s Blues People for a remarkable and formative undergraduate class titled “Black Music in America.” Like many examples of the blues utilizing a call-and-response form, the Hopkins song makes considerable use of doubling in repeating lines. But, doubling takes place within the lyrics, too:


Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too

Whoa black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too


I was particularly struck—I’m tempted to write “haunted”—by these lyrics, the play of doubling and complex chain of representation they set in motion with the idea of “black ghost as a picture, and as a shadow too.” It’s a chain of signification that paradoxically summons the invisible, the intangible, using one system of representation (language) to point at the unresolved complications of another (the visible).

Of course I was also struck by the unexpected proximity of these lyrics to the Shadows works you made nearly three decades before the video. Shadows XI, Set I comprises four panels: A photograph of a houseplant, a photograph of the plant’s shadow, a drawing plotting the shape (of the silhouette) of the plant in tiny numbers on a hand-drawn graph, and a drawing plotting its shadow. For each of three subsequent sets, the plant is rotated in increments of 90-degrees, photographed along with the resulting shadow, and plotted, with each turn producing an increasingly dense palimpsest of indexical representation. Bluntly factual and methodical, the drawings eventually reveal the system in play. What we—meaning the viewer—are to make of this system, once “understood,” is more difficult to ascertain.

“I am not interested nor do I have any intention whatsoever to whatever connection you make between an idea and a feeling,” you once wrote. “There is nothing in my approach that tries to determine from my own interest what type of feeling you have.”[i] Likewise, you told me that you were “interested in how remarkably meaningful things could be produced in situations that didn’t use the apparatus of subjectivity.”[ii] Indeed, the Shadows works—seemingly aloof and quasi-scientific—seem to reflect this.

This leads me back to music, and I’m not just thinking about Lightnin’ Hopkins but also your abiding interest in the field as a fan and as a musician. You’ve frequently framed John Cage’s notion of indeterminacy as a major influence on your approach to art making, and of course indeterminacy is generally understood as an important generative tactic that removes or dismantles the composer’s subjectivity—creating a “firewall” (as you’ve called it) between the production of music and its reception, the feelings the music generates, which as you argue, are a product of learned experience rather than something divine or innate. Your Manifestos work, in which scores generated from four political manifestos are structured according to the alphabetic content of the given texts, clearly follows from Cage’s systematic approach, and particularly his 1979 composition Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake.

But, I have to wonder, is Cage your guide when playing piano or the drums, improvising with your friend Terry Adkins, as you often do? Is it possible to quarantine “expressive intent” when you make music as you claim to do in your production of art? Or, setting aside your own participation, is it possible to separate ideology and feeling in, say, the music of Ornette Coleman, who so definitively tied the affect of speech—its emotive qualities, not its words—to the sounds he produced with his plastic alto sax? (And who, moreover, seemingly tied this affect to a larger—by which I mean political and not just personal—notion of liberation?)

What I’m thinking about is the way in which the affect of music so quickly destabilizes those differences. Incidentally, I listened to Nina Simone today. Is it possible to listen to her music and not be moved? Is it possible to listen to music (whether Nina Simone, or Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Gustav Mahler) and not be moved? Maybe so, but most music induces feeling so readily and so suddenly, often overwhelming us before we even register what we’re listening to consciously. Music—even Cage—taps into the irrational, the unquantifiable; it eludes capture. If indeed our feelings are determined by conditioning—nurture, not nature—surely it is not always possible to put a finger on what those conditions might be. What exactly, in my own conditioning or ideology or lived experience, allows Nina Simone to move me? I’m not sure I know, or could ever know.

Now, I do understand you have no desire to deny the viewer’s (or listener’s) subjectivity, only your own role in controlling that individual subjectivity. You’ve staked out a position—and I think it’s an incredibly thoughtful and important one, if idiosyncratic and occasionally perverse—that attempts to overturn hundreds of years of artists attempting to represent subjectivity, generally their own, generally through the use of metaphor. As I understand your argument, metaphor is limited because it is difficult (or impossible) to use it critically. You believe metaphor based on analogy is open to interpretation, and no interpretation can be inherently wrong. Therefore, it lacks critical agency. Metonymy, on the other hand, is determined by communities, not individuals, and therefore offers the promise of critical agency.

But, I think there is often a misperception—even among your admirers—that you don’t use metaphor. This is, in part, what makes the Black Ghost video so intriguing to me: the Lightnin’ Hopkins song is rife with metaphor (“Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too”—“picture,” “shadow,” and even “ghost” seem to be metaphors here; they must be), yet your use of the song, with the oblique, poetic lyrics of Hopkins impossibly embodied by a Korean woman, suggests a cohabitation of metaphor and metonym, with both as destabilizing agents. And destabilization is your secret weapon, always. “The presence of a subject is essential for the implementation of political power,” you noted in 1993. “Race destabilizes mainstream subjectivity, but in so doing it does not make politics irrelevant, for the destabilization is itself an act of politics.”[iii] Black Ghost Blues Redux, in its relatively straightforward manner, seems to enact this complex process, even as it lets loose certain spirits (metaphors, again) that threaten to escape containment and systemization. Then again, ghosts and politics are old acquaintances.

I’m still hung up on something you wrote over thirty years ago: “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.”[iv] This seems to be a candid moment, a big revelation—albeit one about remaining elusive. But it hints at multiple, overlapping subjectivities, which is, needless to say, entirely different than zero subjectivity. Does the statement still ring true for you today?

I don’t mean to put you on the spot. My curiosity about your work—the objects, of course, but also the discourse around them—is genuine and arrives with admiration. I was intrigued the first time I encountered your work a dozen years ago, and my interest has only increased in the intervening years—especially in recent years since becoming your colleague at CalArts, where your rigorous and intensive critique class “Reconsiderations” (“Recon” to the initiates) serves as a right of passage for so many aspiring artists. I often wonder if Charles the teacher stakes out a slightly different or adjacent ideological position—a somewhat more narrowly defined, more rigid position, for the sake of maintaining an important ideological position—than that of Charles the artist. In particular, I’m thinking about Charles the artist who, on occasion, documents alibis, evokes ghosts, and even plays the blues.

You don’t have to answer right away. But please know that if I’m right, it can remain our secret.

Respectfully yours,






[i] Unpublished letter by Gaines, 2010.

[ii] Conversation with the author, January 10, 2011.

[iii] Charles Gaines, Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism, exh. cat. (Irvine: University of California, Irvine, 1993).

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