An Interactive Look at the Heavy Price of American Freedom

An ambitious new timeline traces the brutal relationship between freedom and confinement in the United States.

By Jamilah King Apr 25, 2012

The United States is a country that was founded on binaries. From our rigid black-white constructions of race to how we’ve defined gender, what’s been celebrated and sanctioned in our history has been defined exactly by what it’s not.

In a new project called "The Knotted Line", artist Evan Bissell sought to show that the same framework applies to how we do–and don’t–experience freedom. Bissell, who’s trained as a painter and teaches high school students in the Bay Area, created an interactive timeline that looks at over 500 years of American confinement. The idea, he says, it to show how inseparable confinement and freedom have been, and that the line separating the two is often narrow and constantly shifting.

The goal of the project is to help students make those historical connections. And like any good digging, the Knotted Line isn’t easy work. By design, it forces participants to interact, to find a rhythm and follow it until it reveals a story. 

Here’s what Bissell told about the project.

Where did the idea to create this come from?

On one level, The Knotted Line started as a personal exploration; how is it that in a society where freedom is the central political rhetoric, we have constantly confined large portions of our population? That discrepancy was something I couldn’t understand from a pretty young age, and it was definitely a spark of my politicization.

On a more direct level, the timeline started as a hand-drawn, workshop tool for another project I was facilitating with fathers in the San Francisco Jail and with youth with incarcerated parents. Using pastels, they added their own stories to the timeline and it served as a springboard for discussion about personal experience and accountability in a shared social context. That timeline was only from 1971 until the present and had fewer items. When I exhibited the project I decided to use it as an opportunity to expand the timeline from 1495-2025. We created little photocopied booklets and distributed those as well. The response was so strong that it was clear it needed to go to another level, and of course, I wanted to keep researching as well.

The Knotted Line is an ambitious project. It’s an interactive timeline of key historical moments that spans about 530 years. Describe the process of making the timeline: how long did it take? And how decide which historical moments were important enough to include?

The initial timeline was made in the fall of 2009, and since then it’s been a kind of constant process of research and collecting resources. It was influenced by a number of key writers early on: Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Jeff Chang, Howard Zinn and Loic Wacquant in particular. Tanya Orellana, Lisa Nowlain and I did the research and Josh Begley pushed for it in digital form.

I knew early on that incarceration alone was too narrow, and I really wanted to stay away from creating a mono-dimensional history of an issue. The breadth of time gave it the space to become a philosophical inquiry about the shifting uses of freedom and confinement to maintain concentrations of resources, power and oppressive hierarchies. Once that became clear, moments were chosen that showed how it formed and reformed — like pairing the internment of Japanese Americans with the use of prisoners to make military goods and the Bracero program.

The timeline ends in 2025, and obviously we haven’t gotten there yet. Why was it important to look into the future?

The information can be pretty heavy stuff – I mean, it’s easy to gloss over graphs and statistics, but really spending time with the information, painting and simultaneously working in facilities and public schools, the reality of the deep impact of mass incarceration and its underlying pathology is entirely present.

I was working with a group of young men of color all year last year and we wouldn’t even have to reference statistics – these three got expelled, this one back in juvie, that guy’s friend just got shot (which means his shooter is getting locked up…). But at the same time we’re making art and there is humor and love, so that future is there, it just gets ignored or shut down a lot of the time for the more "important" stuff.

So for me, it was really necessary to take all these things that are happening already and just imagine them growing into their capacity. That was fun. And I think too, it’s really a way to theorize about our movements, and not in a way that is impossible. There’s the famous Arundhati Roy quote, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." It’s easy to get caught up in the shouting and yelling, but it’s really important to pay attention to the breathing too, that’s the real source of energy.

Interactive timelines are, in many ways, pretty new technology. Why did you choose this medium? What about it allowed you do thing that, say, a video wouldn’t?

The short answer is that I’m primarily a painter and was really influenced by the Codex Espangliensis – but I wanted something that could be manipulated and was more accessible than a print book.

But more importantly, it’s about how it’s interacted with, that it won’t reveal itself to you, that you have to dig a bit. One student shared that she liked how you had to work to uncover the information because that’s how history is, and if you only look at the surface you won’t really understand it. There are a lot of powerful and thought-provoking videos and movies out there, but ultimately, from an experiential standpoint, they are static. This lets the user lead, and in that way it’s a process of discovery and play — which are crucial elements of learning.

There’s a lot of modern-day rage over America’s massive prison population, but one thing that The Knotted Line does is show how that confinement has a very long and entrenched history in the U.S. What’s been people’s reaction to the project so far?

I’ve been piloting the project in different high school classes and there is always surprise at Proposition 21 and how it made it possible to classify three minors together as a gang – which passed in 2000 when I was a junior in high school. Not to sound like I’m getting old, but it made me realize; the present gets ancient quick. And so what this means to me is that the relevance of history isn’t necessarily about how long ago something was, but the way it can be related to the present.

In the timeline, Prop 21 is linked up with a New York City slave code from 1731 that banned 3 enslaved persons from gathering on Sundays. So even though the one law is much more recent they both come alive in that moment of linking – which allows for the follow up question; why would there be a law banning confined people from gathering? The question is really about power – and how violence (in its many forms) has been used to maintain power. 

Where did the name "The Knotted Line" come from?

On the surface it relates to the contrasting uses of a knotted line – something that might be climbed to freedom or followed out of the Labyrinth – or something that could be used to confine and capture or kill.

We had one foundation person really come down hard on the name of the project because it felt too 18th century and not current enough. But again, that’s kind of the point, seeing that connection. So even though there is a line of history that can be traced, it doesn’t just flow easily and smoothly – there are thousands of strands, there are breaks tied back together, there are other lines tied in at various points that stray away or come back, but regardless, and whether we like it or not, all the threads are gathered together in this present moment. Or as Gramsci put it, "’knowing thyself’ as a product of the 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." And for me, this inventory makes it really clear that all our lines are tied together–you can’t incarcerate, and deport this many people and have a society based in freedom.