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?
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?
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!”
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.
ASR: 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.
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.
ASR: 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.”
…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; w