For his first major public art commission, artist Charles Gaines presents a new series of monumentally-scaled works that contend with ongoing legacies of colonialism and slavery in the United States of America. The works take root in the landmark Supreme Court ruling of the Dred and Harriet Scott case.
One-hundred-sixty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Scott v. Sanford, a case brought by Dred and Harriet Scott against their enslaver’s estate, of which they were considered property. That ruling, which would come to be known simply as “the Dred Scott decision,” established that no person of African descent, enslaved or free, was eligible for U.S. citizenship and had no right to sue for their freedom. The precedent would not be overturned until the 14th Amendment, and has endured as one of the starkest examples of American duplicity—a “land of the free” built and maintained on violent domination—with which we continue to grapple in today’s movement for racial justice.
“THE AMERICAN MANIFEST IS INTENDED TO TAKE US THROUGH THE SLIPPERY CONTRADICTIONS THAT MAKE UP THE AMERICAN NARRATIVE.” — CHARLES GAINES
Spanning three sites in New York City and Cincinnati, Ohio over two years, The American Manifest offers a multifaceted engagement with history, implicating northern “free” states in their dual roles of both maintaining and abolishing slavery. Through large-scale sonic and sculptural works, the project grapples with the entangled systems of property, citizenship, and freedom that enable and further white supremacy in the United States of America. The American Manifest demands the viewer contend with the legacies and afterlives of chattel slavery, Manifest Destiny, and colonial subjugation that inform the the racialized systems, myths, and logics that underpin the nation’s foundations and persist today.
Sited within two historically influential American cities, and tracing these significant waterways and ports of the northeast, The American Manifest unfolds in three chapters.
Times Square, New York | July 13 – September 23, 2022
The project originates in Duffy Square at the heart of Times Square with a performance based installation, Manifestos 4: The Dred and Harriet Scott Decision, and sculptural installation, Roots.
For his long-standing Manifestos series, Gaines transforms historic speeches and texts into musical scores by assigning musical notes to letters of the alphabet. With the creation of a new vocal arrangement for Manifestos 4, using the original text of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred and Harriet Scott decision, Gaines grounds the opening of The American Manifest in this consequential moment in American history. Featuring a woodwind quintet, piano and tenor, the 5-part performance based installation will be staged on July 13 and July 14 in America’s modern-day commercial crossroads, Times Square.
Roots, on view from July 13 through September 23, 2022, consists of a series of seven American Sweetgum trees presented with the root systems upside down. The trees, which were indigenous to the eastern United States and grew in Times Square, a forested area and beaver pond prior to colonization, are known for their impressive root systems that require vast open spaces to grow. After hundreds of years of settler colonialism, Gaines reintroduces the American Sweetgum to Times Square to a surreal and dystopic effect.
Tickets to access the registered seating area for performances on Wednesday, July 13 and Thursday, July 14 are available here – once sold out a waitlist will become available. There is also ample standing room near throughout Duffy Square and on the Red Steps that does not require advance registration. Find out more information about COVID protocols, access and weather advisory from our partners Times Square Arts here. Roots will also be on view in Duffy Square at this time until September 23 and does not require advance registration.
Governors Island, New York | October 2022 – June 2023
Charles Gaines, Moving Chains (2022). Rendering courtesy of TOLO Architecture.
Moving Chains, a 100 foot-long immersive, kinetic sculpture, sits at the base of Outlook Hill on Governors Island with views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Lower Manhattan. Visitors may enter the sculpture evoking the hull of a ship, reverberating with the low rumble of nine colossal chains churning overhead. Eight of the chains move along at the pace of New York Harbor’s currents, while a central ninth chain moves noticeably faster, at the speed of the ships and barges that have traveled the city’s waterways over centuries. Complicating narratives of slavery that easily demarcate northern virtue and southern sin, Moving Chains illuminates the exchange of people, capital, and goods cycling between the north and south that made up the slave trade. In the totality of the experience, from the sonic to its scale and weight, Moving Chains calls attention to the political, judicial, and economic systems that underpin the nation’s foundation and continue to shape the lives of Americans today.
The project will be accompanied by a series of public programs that re-consider legal and cultural definitions of freedom and the unfinished project of abolition. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of thinkers, the accompanying programs will ask, how can liberation be defined outside of the confines of slavery and racial capitalism? What does freedom look like? What tactics are necessary to get there? Who is leading us in this work?
Cincinnati, Ohio | Summer 2023
Opening in multiple locations throughout Cincinnati in Summer 2023, The American Manifest will travel to the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati’s John G. and Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park, accompanied by an additional site-specific commissioned work to deepen the geographic nuances of settler-colonial expansion. The Ohio River has historically represented both a route to liberation, as the one-time gateway between slave and “free soil” states, as well as a historic route used to transport enslaved persons to the infamous port of New Orleans. The project’s journey to this location from New York makes a final connection between the plantation logic of people as property, federally recognized in the case of Dred and Harriet Scott, and the era of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, which established the American West landscape as the rightful property of the United States government.
Charles Gaines: The American Manifest is made possible in New York and Cincinnati by the visionary support of the Ford Foundation, Lambent Foundation, VIA Art Fund, FotoFocus, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Charina Endowment Fund, Donald A. Pells Charitable Trust, the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation, Morgan Stanley, Wave Pool, and mediaThe Foundation, inc.
Major support is provided by Hauser & Wirth, Deborah Beckmann and Jacob Kotzubei, Bob and Renee Parsons, Sanjeev Rathi, Christopher Walker, Debi and Steven Wisch, and additional anonymous supporters.
We are also grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Arts; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.