The Artist and the Radical Archive
In the first instance archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To
this end they elaborate on the found image, object, and text,
...in a way that underscores the nature of all archival
materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.1
- Hal Foster, An Archival Impulse
Contemporary artists have been working with archives for almost two decades and the popularity of archival art installation is steadily increasing. Through the archive, unseen traces of the past become visible, revealing stories that are personal and profoundly political. What makes archives radical are their ability to disrupt and contest hierarchies of power to make a more complex and accurate reading of the past and present possible. With this in mind, I launched a public art intervention in 2016 called The Red Line Archive Project focused on the history of the 1938 Depression era Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation Red Line Maps, and the experiences of my family in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
To “redline” a neighborhood is to starve an area of economic investment based on the race or ethnicity of people who live there. After World War II, Red Line Maps were used to exclude people of color, usually black people, from the greatest source of wealth creation in America – home ownership. This insidious history played out invisibly over time, erased by the dominant story of “bootstrap” individualism embedded in the “American Dream”. Yet the effects of redlining are still evident today in myriad forms of economic discrimination in housing, education, policing, and poverty. The vast political, cultural and social divisions in the US can, in part, be traced to the segregated geography the policy promoted.
The Red Line Archive is a mobile public art project that engages Brooklyn residents in a conversation about race and the history of Red Line Maps that created the segregated urban landscapes of the New York and 238 cities across America. This “cabinet of curiosities” is wheeled along Brooklyn streets, inviting residents and passersby to freely associate about official maps and documents, and personal artifacts from my family. The work includes ephemera collected during four artist walks along the perimeter of formerly redlined neighborhoods in north and Central Brooklyn—areas that once provided affordable homes to working class black people and immigrants—now, ironically, the epicenter of the most expensive and aggressively gentrified real estate in the city.
Red Line Labyrinth is the latest iteration of the project. It is a contemplative public walk enacted in neighborhoods at the forefront of gentrification and displacement: Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and East New York. As participants walk the labyrinth they enact and document a shared community conversation about historical memory and their experience of redlining today. Together we are creating a new collective narrative of the politics and poetics of place and home, property and citizenship, to reclaim our right to the city that the racist legacy of Red Line Maps so brutally denied.
Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse.” October no. 110. Fall (2004): 3-22. ↩