Click to skip to site content

Martine Syms and Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines, “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, Set #5″ (detail, 1980-81)

Charles Gaines, “Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, Set #5″ (detail, 1980-81)

A conversation between artists Martine Syms and Charles Gaines that took place in Gaines' studio in Los Angeles, 2015.

Martine Syms: I wanted to start with the recent show [Librettos: Manuel de Falla / Stokely Carmichael] at Art + Practice [in Leimert Park]. They’re kicking off the program with you.  And while the exhibition opened in conjunction with Gridworks [at the Hammer], I also think that the content of the work at Art + Practice, the message of the Stokely Carmichael speech, speaks to some of the politics of the place. Obviously you’re using the text within your system, but it also speaks to things that are going on within the community still and resonates on that level as well.

Charles Gaines: It does. But that aspect of it has been a part of my project. For me, it was a great opportunity because most of the time I am dealing with these political texts in mainstream galleries and museums. Unfortunately, those texts exist as the discourse of the other in those kinds of spaces. As a consequence of that, it’s speaking about a subject that is being observed by the terms of the exhibition. In other words, no matter what that political subject is, it is still the subject of observation, but it isn’t the actual material core and building blocks of that site. So a text like Stokely’s text in Leimert Park is not speaking about something that is simply a subject, but it is talking about something privileged to the site itself. It is a material part of its history. I thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have the work situated in that location.

MS: You’ve used text in your work since the beginning. How do you go about selecting the texts that you’re going to use?

CG: My work is research based. It’s a combination of making myself available to information content, reading and so forth and, at the same time, being involved in a practice, which has set up a set of terms by which these subjects are undertaken. It’s sort of through an alchemical mixture of those two processes that things happen.    

For example, there’s a longstanding interest in my work with the problems of representation. I was particularly interested in the role of representation in furthering the dichotomy between the real and the fictional or the real and the unreal. At a certain point in my practice, I decided to concentrate on political texts in terms of investigating this issue.

In a way there are two things going on. One is this theoretical and critical investigation of language, and at the same time there is this political critique, which I say are one and the same. It’s about raising theoretical and critical questions as a way of comprehending our understanding of the world. How does a political idea operate out of a philosophical or theoretical construct? I was told the story that when I was kid, I would ask my mother, when I died could I come back as a bird? And this question is really a consequence of me growing up in the Jim Crow South. You could be from Hawaii or Scandinavia and ask the question, and the theoretical framework of the question would be the same. The question of ontology is a philosophical category. But to me, the context makes the question meaningful. The context for me was that as a three or four year old I recognized that the rules for white people were different than the rules for black people. Of course, the question is a question about not being able to understand. Why was it that I just happened to be born this way? Why was I not born somebody else? What drives that question is the deep sense of unfairness that some people were born with less, and some people were born with more. Or some people were born with privilege and some people born without privilege. Of course, as a three year old I didn’t articulate it this way, but I think I had a deep sense of the unfairness and the arbitrariness, which I was trying to think through in terms of the arbitrariness of coming into the world. So coming back as a bird can also be seen of as a metaphor for a way of emancipating oneself from the terms and conditions that you’re born under. For me the philosophical question and the social/political context are merged. And I have the same attitude about the way my work operates, how I investigate philosophical issues through political texts.

MS: I use a lot of text in my work, though sometimes there is a dichotomy between the word and the image. By using language as the material that conjures or becomes the image, I’m interested at what point it collapses.

CG: Collapses as in coming together?

MS: Yeah. Which I think is another thing that happens [in your work]. I’m thinking of Skybox 1, which you had at Paula Cooper.

CG: A part of what drives me is the received truths about art making. And one of them is the idea of art as a special language. So what you’re saying about the issue of image and text is typical of that, because, unless you declare yourself a poet, language as a tool is generally thought to be a tool of the rational, where the image is thought to be the product of the now or the present. Somehow you can have a relationship with an image which is entirely separate from language. And I think that’s absolutely impossible. What people are calling the phenomenological space of the present with respect to the image, rather than this being something that is produced by some reality that is disconnected from intellect, is also a linguistic construction.

What you really have are two moments: moments when we have socially or culturally agreed on a meaning, and moments when we haven’t. To say that the moments when we haven’t are being governed by a larger force would be mythmaking.  A certain discourse in art would have you believe that there is a poetry to that other moment that is missing in this [moment of culturally agreed upon meaning], which makes that a higher moment. But the issue is that, even that other moment is linguistic, because the one thing you can say about it is no, we haven’t agreed upon a meaning with regard to image. But how are you aware of it if you don’t know what something means? What are the conditions of awareness? In terms of language, that’s an easy thing to answer. It is not based upon a metonymic link like it would be for us; it is based upon a metaphoric association.

MS: Naima [Keith], in the catalogue [for Gridworks, characterizes the work as] part of a history that hadn’t been talked about, a moment in conceptual art and a moment in black art. Are there other reasons why you think now this work is having a new resonance.

CG: I haven’t the slightest idea.

MS: [laughs]

CG: The work has been seen over the years. Why this set of circumstances or why in this particular case the response was different, I haven’t the slightest idea. I think that I benefitted from a broader scrutiny of the work because of the Studio Museum. I’ve benefited from Naima’s persistence, but also from the recent history of the Studio Museum, and what the Studio Museum has been doing in terms of advancing the work of a various minority artists. When I was younger, the Studio Museum was happy about existing in a marginalized space, separate from the mainstream art world—which, I have to say, that was not an illogical position. The mainstream art world was completely uninterested in the critical and aesthetic interests of black people, so of course the Studio Museum felt that it was in its interests to try to mark out the space of black history and black cultural production. But what happened was that it anticipated and helped create a bifurcated world, where the idea of whether there was black art or universal art was the debate. The power structure was on the side of universal art and it relegated the discourse around minority representation to the margin. There was no theoretical way to address or undermine that binary at the time.         

The work that I was doing in the seventies raises interesting questions, different questions but no less mysterious than the question you asked about why do people seem to be paying attention now. The question is: why weren’t people paying attention then, given what was happening in my career in the mainstream art space. Among the black community and also in the mainstream art community, my work was not being addressed. The galleries were giving me shows, and I was getting exposure among collectors and so forth, but the press wasn’t paying attention and curators weren’t paying attention. So I said, either the work really stinks or they’re regarding my work as just a continuation of conceptual art. And by 1979, the mainstream art world was trying feverishly to bring back painting and bring back expressive art. On the one hand, you could say that I was caught there. On the other hand, I wasn’t getting into shows that other black artists were getting into within the black community. I couldn’t help but think that it was the dominance of the Black Power Movement and its influence on the Black Arts Movement, and since I was making these conceptually based works there was no way of addressing [my work] in terms of that.

Those two worlds that existed in the seventies that I seemed to exist between—and this is a statement with a lot of caveats and exceptions—the absolute binary difference between them has disappeared. I think that a lot of it started in the eighties with the advent of postmodern critique and the acceptance of a cultural critique in the consideration of representation, so that a second generation of conceptual artists was able to use conceptual practices to explore political ideas. Artists like Fred [Wilson], Carrie Mae [Weems], and David Hammons were responsible for helping see a role for an intellectual or theoretical model for art production that would still have relevance to the idea black cultural production. And that expanded the ability of the white art world to deal with black representation. That was the beginning of it, but like I said, there are lots of caveats and exceptions. It didn’t mean racism had stopped. There came a point where there was a certain rejection of that kind of discourse under terms like political correctness. It became highly polarized politically, and the white art world found another way to reject black artists.      

MS: They were tired of “identity politics.”

CG: Right. But the horse was out of the barn, or whatever you say. Even with the onslaught of this yelling about identity politics, the issue of representation nevertheless continued to pique people’s imagination. So you’d gotten to a point where you couldn’t say—nor really was there a discourse that was trying to establish—what black art is, like there had been during the Black Arts Movement.

MS: Something I’ve been thinking about is how artists my age are reclaiming this idea of black art and what that means. But then I wonder if it’s just a circle. Sometimes it just feels like an old conversation, the question of what is black art.

CG: It’s still a legitimate question. The problem before with the identification of any kind of art of the margin was that the solutions being sought were rooted in essentialism. So whatever black art is, it has to be tied to something essential and core. If you just remove the essentialist models, you can ask the question legitimately. And you’ve got a lot better critical tools today to do that.

MS: I read the other day about the bundle of sticks theory, which is being promoted more: [identity is] a collection of cultural experiences.

CG: And because of the politics certain cultural experiences are shared.

MS: Right. To completely shift gears, what are you working on for Venice?

CG: I’m working on two projects. One is the continuation of the Libretto Series, but the format is different. This is a triptych with three large panels rather than, for example, what you saw [at Art + Practice], which was a diptych. Each diptych had two pages of the de Falla librettos and the Carmichael text behind it. It’s the same thing [for Venice], but there are three large panels which contain eighteen pages and a different Carmichael speech.

The other is a work I’m calling a sound text, which is really a combination of the Manifestos Series and the series I call Notes on Social Justice. In this series I have four triptychs. Each triptych has as its subject a found musical document. In Notes on Social justice I picked particularly political songs from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. [For this new body of work I have chosen two more] political songs—but the politics that the songs would advance could be different, some liberal and some are very conservative—but also have two Negro spiritual manuscripts that I’m working with. I took the manuscripts of the songs and, like I did in Social Justice, I removed the actual lyrics and replaced them with political texts. Two of them are Fredrick Douglas texts. One of them from Confucius, talking about the nature of ruling. And one is an Ida B. Wells text on women’s suffrage. I wrote a piano score where I copied the melody from the actual score, but the harmony was created by translating the letters from the text into musical notation, in this case chord patterns according to a system. The relationship you would anticipate being very atonal and inharmonic. The strategy of production [is to] bring together two unrelated things and [I’m interested in] where their relationships become compelling and the way they’re experienced by the viewer.  The first two [panels] are the piano music that I wrote, and Sean [Griffin], who has worked with me on other projects, scored a string quartet plus piano, and that will be on a video monitor. That’s the third element of the triptych: while the music is playing the text scrolls. There is also a vocal arrangement so people will be singing the text at the performance venue [at the Venice Biennale] that Okwui’s developed. 

This dialogue was originally published in Flash Art International Issue 302 May – June 2015 and edited by Eli Diner.