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An Infinity of Traces: An Interview with Evan Bissell


Last spring I accompanied a friend to Oakland for the opening of Evan Bissell's project, "The Knotted Line." I had little information about the event other than the assurance that I "had to see this work." Arranged in a non-chronological timeline throughout the exhibition space were over 50 paintings created by Bissell. As I moved slowly along the walls, crouching and squinting to take in the miniature paintings, an overwhelmingly painful history of the United States was revealed. Among the many themes depicted was the history of colonization, Christian hegemony, slavery, the birth and growth of the prison system, criminalization and immigration. Beneath each painting were lists of historical facts, evidence of Bissell's research that described both acts of oppression, for example, the imprisonment of 19 Hopi men on Alcatraz in 1895 for refusing to send their children to boarding school and resistance, the occupation of Alcatraz by over fifty Native American tribes over seventy years later. By the time I reached the last painting, I felt buried beneath the weight of these images and their ability to communicate the complexity of histories so often kept hidden.

Bissell describes "The Knotted Line" as an interactive, multi-disciplinary project exploring the historical relationship between freedom and confinement. However, The Knotted Line is not a redemptive history. It is not an attempt to justify or even create order from the history of the United States. Instead, it paints into visibility an elaborate web of events and actions that connect seemingly disparate moments through the central question: how freedom is measured?1 Bissell 1895 Hopi on Alcatraz 300ppi

To answer this question, Bissell relies on both traditional research and the collective knowledge of his participants. While the paintings were displayed for one-night only (and have been exhibited since), "The Knotted Line" exists primarily as an online, interactive website and educational guide in which participants are invited to contribute their own experiences through prompts such as, "How have changes in law granted or taken away freedom from you?"

This is an excavation of history, one, which not only implicates us, but also speaks back to the concept of history itself and the vocabulary of power in which it is written. Bissell reminds us that our histories are more than the sum of our oppressions, more than what has been written about us.

"The Knotted Line" is not an exceptional project for Bissell. Over the past six years, Bissell has collaborated with various communities to create politically weighted work in which the collaborative process is emphasized as much, if not more, than the final product. What is unique about Bissell's art practice is its foundation upon the tenets of grassroots organizing: political education, research, self-reflection, relationship building and community empowerment. This is an absolute contrast to the individualist and capitalist goals of the Western art world. It strikes at the core of my unrelenting questions and demands of cultural work: how can art function not as a passive form but an active agent for liberatory political practice? What is possible when we reject the distinction between artist, organizer, and community member?


2 Bissell Print versionThe interview:

Adrienne Skye Roberts: How did you come to do the work you do? Was there one catalyzing moment or specific experience that bridged your political work and art-making?

EB: From a very young age, I felt that the world was very unequal: some people were getting a lot more; some people were getting a lot less. Growing up in an isolated place of privilege [Mill Valley], there was a disconnect between all the stuff I had access to and realizing the rest of the world wasn't really like that. I didn't fully understand it but I could feel it and I could see it amongst my friends too as the demographics of my neighborhood changed.

I decided not to go to art school because I thought there was no way I was going to make art relate to my social justice interests. But when I went to college, I was always getting drawn back to art classes and making things. I got involved in the anti-war movement right after 9/11 and would always end up making visuals. As I stayed active in college, I was thinking about protest a lot in a visual or performative way.

In 2005, I met the artist, Brett Cook, who has been my mentor for a number of years. He opened my mind to thinking about social collaboration and integrating art, radical pedagogy, and political work. I remember thinking, "Oh, I don't have to make art that ends up in a box!"3 Bissell 20070109 0025-1

ASR: You mean you were attached to the artwork having a specific place in society, in galleries or museums or for collectors?

EB: Yeah, I was more attached to the effect of the object than the quality or process of the effect. But I started thinking about my work in a Frierian framework. Is it like banking education where the viewer (student) is the receptacle of the art (teacher)? Or can it be a framework for reflection, action and dialogue? That was kind of the spark for thinking I could bring my art, education and activism work together.

ASR: Can you talk about the "22 Bus Project," which I know was your first experiment in working this way in the Bay Area?

EB: When I first moved back in 2005 I was still making paintings that were polemic and very overtly political. They were a lot about whiteness and masculinity. I made them by myself in my studio and they ended up really only being for myself. I was simultaneously reading different thinkers on radical change, and love kept surfacing as central to their writings. I knew I wanted to find ways to interact with people and develop relationships, so I just took some of what I was reading out to the streets. I rode the 22 Fillmore bus line which goes through almost every type of neighborhood in San Francisco and would just ask people about love. I then would ask them for a quote from our conversation, take a photo and paint a portrait from the photo they chose. The paintings (28 in total) were then installed back along the bus line in the site of their choosing. It was my first time using art as the medium for developing this public, social connection as a way to envision what we (collectively or as individuals in the project) want to see in the world.

5 Bissell MG 7491-E-1.Bissell-WCTBAASR: I used to take the 22 Fillmore from the Mission District to the Marina for work and I would see your portraits along the way. This was before I knew your work or the process behind it. So, rather than focusing on the object, in this case, the portrait, as the end result, the process and your collaboration with groups or individuals is the most important aspect to your practice. I'm curious how would you describe your role within these collaborations?

EB: It shifts depending on where the project comes from. A lot of my work comes from a personal inquiry into a broader theme or idea. I create a structure for dialogue that has loose outcomes and process. I then invite people into that space, and whoever wants to, becomes an integral part of shaping that project.

The idea for the project "What Cannot Be Taken Away" (WCBTA) came from my work as an educator. I was thinking about two things: one, the similarity of the discipline system in schools to the penal system and two, the way the discipline system affected the students I worked with and their communities at large. I was working in other teacher's classrooms where the discipline consisted of first ignoring students, and then kicking them out of class, then suspension and then expelling the student. There was no positive community in the class, no culture of learning. It made me think more deeply about how we punish people and how that is embedded in our society as a whole. The race and class dynamics of the school I was working in – majority African American and Latino students and white teachers – made me think about the historical relationship of "free" and "unfree" people and what systems enforce that over time. School is one of those systems, along with the prison system.

ASR: In WCBTA you collaborated with teenagers who had an incarcerated parent and fathers currently locked up. This is the first project you did about incarceration. Will you describe the process of this piece?

EB: WCBTA was meant to be an educational space where we could use experiences with incarceration as the content of connection, but also – if only temporarily and primarily conceptually – transcend the walls. It was an attempt to use this oppressive structure and the violence it contains to imagine a new world and build positive relationships. When we were working on WCBTA, it was important to balance the social-historical context with the opportunities for personal connection, exploration and growth. The first week I brought in mandarin oranges to the fathers and we did a meditation exercise where we reflected on everything that the fruit contained. Then we wrote letters to ancestors on mirrored paper as a way to look at the ways the past intersect with the present on a personal level.  The next week we looked at a very selective timeline of the expansion of the prison system and the decline of education and economic opportunity in the last 30 years.  I pulled out some key juxtapositions from Jeff Chang’s "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation" and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s "Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California" and some other pieces and then asked each of the two groups to add to the timeline with their own moments of contact with the system. Similar to the orange exercise where we were able to say this orange also contains the farmworker and the bud and the tree and the sun and the rain, we were able to say, the year after you were first incarcerated, California started spending more on prisons than on higher education. It was a way to disentangle some of the traces and talk about the interconnected nature of society and self.6 Bissell Timeline workshop

ASR: And what was the final result of this process?

EB: The opportunity to make connections among the participants was one result. They asked questions they wouldn’t or couldn’t ask their own father or child, made things together and were creating a healing process (as they expressed it). After four months we started looking through everything we created and they drew black and white “maps” that expressed their experience with incarceration. I then worked with each of them and I painted eight-foot portraits using the composition and body language they had decided on in their drawings. When installed, the portraits are accompanied by interactive drawings, meditation spaces and documentation of the entire process. I also expanded the timeline (1495-2025) for the first exhibition of the portraits because it was important to broaden the historical context of these very intimate and personal stories. I wanted people to think - why does he include Columbus’ practice of cutting off Taino-Arawak’s hands when they don’t find enough gold - in this exhibition about the modern prison system? But I also included a future section that imagined where we could go based on the work that is already being done today – because at the core, our dialogue was about the very real possibility that we can create a different world.

7 Bissell 1954 Deleware and Brown v Board 72ppi-1ASR: The focus on the intersection of policies, politics and historical moments with our personal experience or contact with the prison system is also the premise for “The Knotted Line.” What’s the bridge connecting the two projects? How does “The Knotted Line” expand what you started in “What Cannot Be Taken Away”?

EB: That expanded timeline for the initial “What Cannot Be Taken Away” exhibit eventually became “The Knotted Line”. It’s kind of a flip of WCBTA. The idea was to use the social context as the structure and then people add to that. The result is a meant to be a mosaic like history that includes hundreds of perspectives created through educational dialogues using the site.

When I think about the 1980s or Reagan, I don’t think about that as the soil that I was born into necessarily. I just think about it as an abstract concept. But that was the whole basis of my childhood years! That time and context affected what my parents were doing, why my neighborhood changed, all those kinds of things. The timeline allows us to think more deeply about what is embedded in the soil of this country. There’s an Antoni Gramsci quote I kept in mind during the project. He says:

“The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is and is knowing thyself as the product of a historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.”8 Bissell 1994 3 Strikes 300ppi

…so, it’s the idea that there are all of these pieces that are embedded in our lives and our cultures that we don’t necessarily have an inventory of. The timeline of “The Knotted Line” starts to create an inventory of all this history and help us understand how we incarcerate over 2 million people—that doesn’t just happen, there is an infinity of traces that build up to that. At the same time, there are freedom struggles in this country that also give us certain amounts of freedom to do certain things. Those forces together create where we are today.

ASR: “The Knotted Line” describes all these moments of resistance, too: the suffragists who went on hunger strike in 1917 after being jailed or all the organizing that has happened against California’s three strikes law since it was instated in the 1990s. It’s harder to learn about these facts historically or even as they are happening.

EB: Yeah, a lot of these victories don’t get counted as victories. You know, the Black Panther Party didn’t win the presidency, but at the same time, there are all these lasting effects that flood out into society in really impactful ways. It’s important to trace those elements and see how they live in the world. For me, cataloguing all these traces allows me to better understand where I come from; what has given me privilege, helped me claim my humanity and who are these other people who have been interested in equality and freedom because that is as much a part of our history as is the oppression.

ASR: I had such an emotional response to “The Knotted Line.” As someone who organizes with and is in community with people in jails, prisons and folks who have survived the system, I am cognitively aware of the ways the system of punishment is in the soil of this country. I understand its pervasiveness and invisibility. But the experience of walking through the exhibition of the “The Knotted Line”—taking in all those images and historical factswas much more visceral and really struck at the core of both what is so painful and the hopeful about this reality. I was in tears by the end of the show. What is the emotional quality of this project for you?

9 Bissell knottedline4EB: Well, sorry I made you cry! But crying is good too, though! There’s a lot of heaviness to it for me. The visuals are almost all oppression moments and there were times when I’d start a painting and I’d realize I didn’t really want to paint it. A lot of the images I try to put out into the world are about imagining a different world; “The Knotted Line” was different than that. That was very hard. There were a lot of images that I thought of that I didn’t actually paint. We have such literacy or fluency in thinking of messed up images.

ASR: There were two images that really stuck with me. “Rise of the Suburb/Ghetto” that shows a very happy, “picturesque” white family in a car juxtaposed with the scene of black people waiting in line for maybe a shelter or the unemployment office or something. The other was “Delaware and Brown vs. Board of Education,” where two arms are connected at the elbow: one is raising a gavel as though in a courtroom and the other is cracking a whip. You are really asking the viewer to consider the connection between aspects of history that are not thought of as connected—or in some cases, are intentionally kept separate.

EB: I was watching this Art 21 video with William Kentridge the other day and he was saying that when you spend time with an image, drawing or painting it, there’s some kind of empathy or growth that builds between you and the image. Painting these events were a kind of extended meditation. There’s a certain degree of respect that develops for me in knowing this image is actually a real thing that people dealt with and pushed through or fought against. The flip side of the heaviness is that people continue through those things, people moved through this oppression.

In the moments where I’m painting a picture of primarily white people who are acting out oppressive acts, it’s a way of reckoning with that history. There is also a degree of developing a kind of empathy, like, why are you really doing this? How can you express these ideals over here, and then do that to somebody over there? How can we still do that to people? There is a degree of really trying to understand that perspective because I think it provides a blueprint for change.

ASR: I guess that is part of the ethos of love, too, and non-violence—the challenge of developing empathy for your enemies, which is not to excuse one’s actions but rather, to acknowledge that to hurt someone else, one must be hurting themself. This reckoning is an important part of being a white person involved in these movements as we are so often confronted with other white people who have chosen to actively perpetuate racism. I guess I’m thinking of my work inside jails here.

EB: Yeah, we’re on the same but very different sides of history somehow.10 Bissell knottedline3

There’s a degree of heaviness, respect, empathy and amazement for what people went through not even to be free but to claim one’s humanity – which on one level is the same thing. There’s a really powerful story about this guy named Sandy Cornish. He was a free black man who had come back to Florida to be with his wife because she was still enslaved. He was working to buy her out of enslavement and while he was there the slave catchers came and were going to take him to New Orleans the next day. So he went out to the town center and called everyone near him and he cut his tendons on one wrist and his Achilles and messed up his thigh with a knife. It meant that they couldn’t take him to New Orleans, so he could stay with his wife and self-determine his existence. He went on to be this important person in the church and town. That just blew my mind. The depth of that clarity, knowing that one is human even in the midst of so much violence—that is really inspiring.

ASR: Why did you choose not to paint the story of Sandy Cornish?

EB: I didn't know how to paint that story without making it sensational. It's important to me that the images are slight slippages on reality—much in the sense that if you blink at the right time you would never know that this country incarcerates more people than any country in the world. When an image allows for a little inquisitiveness, a little discovery the more you spend with it, then I think it pulls you in, which is how “The Knotted Line” is designed—you grab one piece and quickly you're in a much bigger web.


ASR: When I saw “The Knotted Line” it was both in exhibition form with the paintings and text installed along the wall of the space and it was online. It exists primarily as an interactive website though, right? Can you describe how it intended to be used?

EB: “The Knotted Line” will ideally find its sustained use in classrooms and in organizing spaces, using the curriculum and print version that already exist, or in developing new ways to use it. It will continue to grow as people create new media and add perspectives to it, so that it becomes a collaborative history in a sense. I'm always open to creative thinking on how it might adapt to new situations.

For individuals, I think of it as a new type of multi-media book or documentary that is like a choose-your-own-adventure story. I encourage people to not try to force one direction too much, but follow it where your interest is. It can also be used as a tool to support research through looking at the “Additional Resources” or following the “Historical Themes” links on the website.

ASR: I want to know what you have learned about being an artist by working collaboratively and in this political content.

EB: For me, the most important part of being an artist is the renewing aspect of making art. I don’t make art for the objects. I make art for the process of making stuff together and through that relationships are built, communities are made and trust is grown and perspectives are shared. That’s the core of how a more loving culture is built – especially when there is an expressed framework of self-determination. Art provides room to do that when we let it be something that is not about the object necessarily. Which is not to say that I don’t think that it’s important to try and make the process as skillful or disciplined as possible so that your objects are nice and you continue to learn skills.11 Bissell knottedline5

ASR: Right, because that is another entry point for people who are captivated by the image or the object itself. That is how a lot of people, maybe those more traditionally trained in art or trained through the academy will get into the work.

EB: That part is important and I don’t want to discount that. But, to pull from Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands, there is some art done for spirit and soul and there is some stuff done for power. This doesn’t mean that one is less skillfully done or beautiful as object. But art as I’ve learned about it in Western historical context, gives prestige or power to wealth, to summarize Declan McGonagle. So, if you can hire, or force, Michelangelo to paint your ceiling, not only do you have a tight ceiling but also it gives this prestige to what you have, who you are, which for the Vatican, is something that remains important to this day. For me, it’s more about how do I meet this family that I’ve never met before and work with them for 6 months and develop a relationship and then do a project together that is about our exchange. That’s the main thing I think I’ve learned: I love making art with people because it’s about relationships with people. Creating collaboratively is a tangible reminder that creating is a core aspect of humanity.


ASR: In addition to Brett Cook, who are your mentors—people you know or folks you read or research?

EB: Gina Ulysse was a professor of mine whose work brings critical insight to reflexive ethnography. She really pushed me early on to think about how I was working with people and the stories I was working with. How can we relate to each other authentically as “artist” or “researcher” or “facilitator” or “subject” and understand the power dynamics.

I have a lot of conceptual mentors. People I read who I then identify as mentors. The core of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s approaches to spiritual activism is crucial to why I think art makes sense in the first place. Art has the possibility to make us be more loving in the moment, which I think is the key to a more liberated world.

Mindfulness and meditation have been incredible mentors. bell hooks is another mentor in terms of love and pedagogy—Paolo Freire, too…many of my friends, my partner. Lately, I’ve been really inspired by Grace Lee Boggs and the work that is happening in Detroit, especially the Allied Media Conference. It is about working with what you have and the long-term commitment to thinking about freedom and liberation.12 Bissell IMG 0731

ASR: There are very few, if any, visual artists in that list, which I find really refreshing!

EB: Yeah, you know, I don’t kick it with that many artists who are really in the art world. The places my work is embedded is in education, in storytelling, in organizing. That is where I draw my inspiration.

People sometimes ask if my work is art therapy and I think that’s cool. If our world had more of a mental health focus, we’d be in a better place. I don’t take that as an insult, whereas I think there’s a conception that a characterization like that cheapens it or makes it less “art”. I’m not afraid of that.

I’ve never wanted to make work that asks how ironically or witty I can say that the prison system is messed up. I’d rather ask, what are we going to do about it together?

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