On ViewGovernors Island
October 15, 2022–June 2023
“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?” This question lies at the heart of the majority opinion written by the US Chief Justice Taney in the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling on the Dred Scott v. Sandford Case. And on the shores of Governor’s Island Charles Gaines asks this question again.
Measuring 110 feet long and 17 feet tall, Gaines’s installation Moving Chains is a counter-monument: it stands directly in the sightline of the Statue of Liberty and minutes from fortresses that tell of Governors Island’s history as an outpost for the US Military and Coast Guard. Moving Chains is the second part of a multichapter public project called The American Manifest, which takes the Dred Scott decision as its point of departure to examine American history and unsettle presumptions about it. While Moving Chains bears no obvious reference to Dred Scott or the court decision that he has become famously associated with, it unmistakably directs our attention to the historical facts that this decision was born out of and which have shaped this country: the shipping of people and goods.
The installation gets its title from nine chains which grind overhead, forming a canopy of heavy, toiling machinery. Eight of these steel chains are set at the same pace as the currents of the adjacent New York Harbor. But they are outpaced by a single chain in the middle that moves faster and represents the tempo of a vessel at sea, echoing the accelerated pace of life under capitalism. These histories of commerce and shipping are made legible in the very materiality of Gaines’s installation: made from sapele, a tree found in West Africa, the sculpture is a monument that testifies to the expropriations made possible by technologies of movement and transportation.
It is tempting to point to Gaines’s installation and call it a ship. True, its shape is meant to evoke that of a hull, but the installation is much more than a mimetic configuration of a boat. In fact, the sculpture is dislodged from the functional premise of ships, which are of course designed to be in motion and to move things. As the stillness of the sculpture meets the movement of the chains, things are stuck in place. The ensuing loop is a disruption of the very systems of commerce and capital that Gaines is putting pressure on, which depend on relentless progression, expansion, conquest, and production. The chains move but we don’t go anywhere with them: rather we find ourselves immersed—trapped even—in their rhythm. No, it is not simply a ship—it is a mechanic system that requires us to dwell in all that it bespeaks.
The sound of the chains in motion is its own kind of force. Gaines has worked with sound for decades and has become best known for his series of “Manifestos,” which transform the written text of political documents into musical scores that are then performed and recorded. Here, the discursive and historical is made into something that is heard and yet concealed by the notes. Likewise, Moving Chains activates a kind of hearing that is not only sonic, but also infrasonic. As we listen to the chains, they prompt us to ask what lies below their audible register: the histories of subjugation, extraction, and theft which are all represented by nautical chains and those chains which were used to shackle people together in the holds of ships.
I arrived at the installation just before an interval of pause: the chains are scheduled to come to a halt every few minutes so that they can catch their breath, lest they overwork themselves. I initially found myself craving for the wrenching totality of sound that had first greeted me upon arrival. But after watching several cycles of starting and stopping, I left the exhibition wanting to attend as much to those moments of pause as much as the churning motion itself. For it is the suspension of movement—and the quiet that ensues during these moments—that gives us something against which to define that devastating sound and speed. In the pause, we also see and hear the echoes of this movement. We are compelled to ask: what is left in the wake of that which is signified in the motion of the chains?
After a pause of several minutes, the chains resumed their motion. As I watched them grind back into that driving momentum, it seemed as if they too were doing their own kind of work.