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Systems & StructuresCharles Gaines

December 14, 2022

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Investigating the production of knowledge and culture, artist Charles Gaines uses rule-based systems to create paintings, drawings, musical compositions, and sculptures. Culminating in the completion of Moving Chains (2022), a 100-foot-long public sculpture on Governors Island in New York City, this film traces the connections Gaines makes between our lived experiences and the systems that shape them.

Gaines’ works are crafted to reveal the process of their own creation, making visible the “rules” that dictate their final forms. In Walnut Tree Orchard (1975-2014), Gaines uses a numerical system to turn photographs of 26 walnut trees into silhouette drawings, which are then shown individually and layered atop one another. In his work with music, the artist employs another system of translation, turning written text into musical notation. Using the text of the Dred Scott v Sandford decision made by the United States Supreme Court in 1857, along with a letter written by Frederick Douglass in response, Gaines composed Manifestos 4 (2021). In the summer of 2022, the piece was performed at Times Square alongside the public sculpture Roots (2022), a series of seven Sweetgum trees planted upside down in the middle of New York City’s busiest neighborhood. 

These works are the first chapter in a three-part work called The American Manifest, presented by Creative Time, Governors Island Arts, and  Times Square Arts, which includes Moving Chains as well as a 2023 performance along the Ohio River. In Moving Chains, Gaines constructs a massive metal and wooden structure resembling the hull of a ship along the shoreline of New York’s Hudson River. As viewers walk through the structure, nine large chains rotate above in relation to the speed of the river currents, clanging loudly against the metal and wood supports. Exploring the long history of enslavement and its aftermath in the United States, Moving Chains and The American Manifest make clear the structural entanglement of capitalism, enslavement, and the injustices we witness today. 

“How do we improve the world? How do we improve life for everybody? Well, I don’t know if that’s possible.” says Gaines, “But when the bad things happen, we’ve got to complain about them in order to reduce them.”

More information and credits


Extended Play Series Producer: Ian Forster. Director: Sue Ding, Ian Forster. Editor: Alexandra Brown. Camera: Sean Hanley, Sebastián Lasaosa Rogers, Doug Potts. Sound: V Lopez, Fivel Rothberg. Assistant Camera: Jules Rico. Production Assistant: Adam Varca. Colorist: Doug Potts. Sound Mix: Collin Blendell. Assistant Editor: Michelle Hanks. Music: Blue Dot Sessions, Dew of Light, Epidemic Sound, Joel Pickard, Cora Zea. Artwork Courtesy: Charles Gaines, Hauser & Wirth. Special thanks: Charles Gaines Studio, Creative Time, Governors Island Arts, Scholes Street Studio, Times Square Arts, Tolo Architecture, Torsilieri. “Manifestos 4: The Dred and Harriet Scott Decision”: Composed by Charles Gaines. Arrangements by Charles Gaines and John Eagle. Vocals: Darian Clonts, Piano: David Friend. Flute: Gina Izzo. Oboe: Mekhi Gladden. Clarinet: Ian Tyson. Bassoon: Joy Guidry. French Horn: Jeff Scott. Music Director: John Eagle. Producer: Madeline Falcone.

Extended Play is supported by Henry Nias Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; and, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the Art21 Contemporary Council; and by individual contributors.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Charles Gaines

Charles Gaines was born in 1944 in Charleston, South Carolina. The artist received his BA from Jersey State College in 1966 and his MFA from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1967. A conceptual artist, Gaines’ work investigates the ways in which society produces distinctions and categories. Examining the underlying structures of social and political life, the artist calls attention to the systems that organize our daily lives and the inequities and injustices they produce.