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Slavery, Prisons, and State Violence: Evan Bissell’s The Knotted Line

The Knotted Line (screenshot)

The Knotted Line, created by artist and educator Evan Bissell, explores incarceration in the United States. The historical sweep is broad–1492 to 2025–and the audience ranges from, according to the website, middle school to college to community groups. The project asks, “how is freedom measured:”

“The Knotted Line is an interactive, tactile laboratory for exploring the historical relationship between freedom and confinement in the geographic area of the United States. With miniature paintings of over 50 historical moments from 1495-2025, The Knotted Line asks: how is freedom measured? Just as importantly, The Knotted Line imagines a new world through the work of grassroots movements for self-determination.”

The Knotted Line is a Scalar project and uses “paths” to direct users through multiple and contingent histories of confinement and activism. In his historical narrative, Bissell intertwines histories of state violence against black, Latin@, and Native people, and centers grassroots organizations like Incite, Young Women’s Empowerment Project, and the Interrupters.

The project has been live for some time. Anyone planning courses on histories of slavery, prison industrial complex, or state violence should take another look. In 2012 a review at the Vectors Blog, Tara McPherson writes:

“Each painting of The Knotted Line is annotated with brief glosses which introduce the historical event it depicts, and then link to an expanded treatment of the event in Scalar’s native reading interface, featuring embedded videos, images, and resources for educators. The complete timeline, which focuses on the geographical area of the United States, covers over 500 years of history, including some hopeful speculation about future events.”

I find the aesthetics of the interface interesting; the decision to use black and white silhouettes reminds me of Kara Walker’s work. And that the timeline must be “pushed, pulled, and opened” to reveal Bissell’s colorful paintings beneath puts a practice of consent, access, power, and admission in the hands of the user.

If anyone has stories to share about how the Knotted Line is being used, please pass them along.

Read more: The Knotted Line

Image Credit: The Knotted Line, screenshot, taken 4-14-2013