Four monumental, hand– drawn musical scores, each accompanied by audio and video, make up Charles Gaines’ piece Manifestos 2 in the Institute of Contemporary Art’s The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, a new show that opened Wednesday, September 14. Each musical score corresponds to a document of the civil rights struggle: Malcolm X’s last public speech; Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (1999) by Canadian Mohawk scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred, Indocumentalismo Manifesto—an Emerging Socio– Political Ideological Identity (2010) by Raúl Alcaraz and Daniel Carrillo and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) by French activist Olympe De Gouges. For the piece, the text of each document was meticulously transformed into music, with each letter becoming a note or silent musical rest. A chamber orchestra then performed and recorded the resulting scores. Manifestos 2 is about synthesis. It brings together different works of literature from different movements and different time periods. It manipulates form by inextricably linking the musical with the literary and the visual.
Manifestos 2 is an apt representation of The Freedom Principle as a whole. The show, which spans both floors of the museum, is about the boundaries between the visual and the musical, the political and the aesthetic. Based in the history of jazz, it takes its center around two African American collectives founded on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA). Featuring the work of over 35 artists, the exhibition follows how these two collectives have influenced art since their formations and continue to influence contemporary work. It presents AfriCOBRA and the AACM as organizations of art for social change, as organizations very much attuned to the critique of social and political structures and as part of the cultural force that launched the greater movement for African American equality.
The first room of the show is a small one, dominated by a screen suspended in the center projected with a video of jazz musicians in the midst of a performance. The work, Hors–champs by Stan Douglas, does well to introduce the visitor to the show. It’s an immersive work of sound and video and features two AACM members performing. Beyond this first room, the galleries open up into much larger, connected spaces. Paintings by various artists line the walls. Display cases filled with literature connected to the AACP and AfriCOBRA are scattered throughout.
Among the many works, one that immediately stands out is Catherine Sullivan’s Afterword via Fantasia. Enclosed in its own small room, the piece takes the form of a performance. Visitors enter and sit on a bench facing a screen where they can watch scenes from an opera by AACM member George Lewis. The experience is intensely sensual— the room is lit ultraviolet, creating a sort of living darkness that allows stage designs rendered in white chalk on the walls to glow. At the back of the room, across from the screen, is a thick bed of artificial flowers interspersed with microphones.
Other works in The Freedom Principle not to miss are Douglas Ewart, George Lewis and Douglas Repetto’s Rio Negro II, an interactive and monumental installation in the first floor high space; Terry Adkin’s Native Son (Circus), a piece that synthesizes the musical and the visual very succinctly and very loudly and Pope.L’s Another Kind of Love: John Cage’s Silence, By Hand. There is so much to see that the show can feel overwhelming, with the links between the pieces sometimes being difficult to understand. Despite this, the musical and visual experience that it leaves you with is something that sits deep inside of you.
For as long as The Freedom Principle is at the ICA, Glenn Ligon’s Give us a Poem will be on display. The large piece of neon features two words: Me and We, each alternately lighting up with a white glow. Approaching the museum from campus, walking down 36th Street, you can see the words beaming through the glass windows of the museum. The piece acts as a beacon, expressing ideas of the individual and community. Like Give us a Poem, the Institute of Contemporary Art is about individual experience as a part of something greater, something more beautiful. It’s about understanding your proximity to other people and events and movements, and what they mean in a greater context. The Freedom Principle and all of the various pieces that encompass it continue to support this mission.
Note: Visitors to the museum can also look forward to Endless Shout, a multi–artist performance project that will occur in tandem with The Freedom Principle. Endless Shout will explore the impact of collectivity and improvisation on contemporary performance.
The art: Muhal Richard Abrams (b. 1930 in Chicago; lives in New York) View From Within, 1985. Collage and acrylic on canvas, 17 ¾ x 25 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist.