In 1992, artist collective REPOhistory installed 39 aluminum signs in Lower Manhattan that highlighted the overlooked history of New York City. The event was timed to contrast with the festivities of the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in North America. Among the stories of the Lower Manhattan Sign Project were the city’s first Chinese community at the South Street Seaport, the origin of the name “Maiden Lane” in the male-dominated financial district, the landfill that stretched the shoreline after the Great Fire of 1835, and more recent and quieter tragedies like three homeless people who froze to death at Stone and Whitehall streets on a frigid night in 1991. Now 17 of these signs are on view at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) on Governors island in (Counter) Public Art, Intervention & Performance in Lower Manhattan from 1978–1993.
REPOhistory — a portmanteau of “repossessing history” — was a rotating collective of around 100 artists, historians, writers, and other collaborators who over a decade focused on public art that exhumed buried history. Later projects included a 1993 March to the African Burial Ground, which was rediscovered in 1991, and the 1994 Queer Spaces that also involved street signs but focused on the city’s LGBTQ history. Some of their signs and archives are housed at New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections.
The selected signs at LMCC are arranged on poles, so you look up at them much as viewers in 1992 had done. The signs were sponsored by LMCC during their run from June 27, 1992 to June 30, 1993, which was accompanied by a guide (a digitized version is online at Dark Matter Archives). What’s surprising about the signs is not just that the essential history they relate, but that over two decades later, much of it still remains largely forgotten. For example, a sign by Tess Timoney and Mark O’Brien remembers the colonial slave market at the corner of Wall and Water streets, a place that only this past June received an official historic marker.
On a sign emblazoned with a photograph of Hart Island — New York’s potter’s field — Jayne Pagnucco recalled the 1904 story of an immigrant known as Rose, who was “unjustly detained and subsequently died at Ellis Island.” On another, Stephen Duncombe researched the 1689 uprising of the local militia led by Jacob Leisler, which resulted in two years of a popular government controlling the colony. After it was overthrown, “no carpenter would furnish a ladder for the gallows” for Leisler’s execution.
Greg Sholette’s sign highlights how J. P. Morgan (yes, that one) paid for someone to fight for him in the Civil War while he amassed more wealth — which some have suggested was created by speculating on the war’s outcome. Brian Goldfarb connected the 1849 cholera epidemic to the ongoing AIDS epidemic with a sign positioned right by Beekman Hospital, showing how in both cases space was limited for treatment and the sick were often ostracized.
Recent and past, whether Jim Costanzo exposing the myth of stockbrokers jumping from windows in the 1929 crash, or Sam Binkley memorializing two people killed in a 1990 fire on a subway train headed towards Wall Street, each sign asks questions like: “What does this place mean to you?”; “Is this an historic site?”; “Are you a part of this history?”; “Whose history is remembered?”
On the project’s unveiling, participant Lisa Maya Knauer told the New York Times that REPOhistory “wanted to take the issues in the debate and put them where everybody who walks through the streets of New York City can be confronted or provoked or challenged by the information.” In her essay on the project, which was included in the original guide, Lucy Lippard wrote that there was “a chance the signs will be permanently maintained.” It’s unfortunate they were not, because these stories are still too often missing from the city’s narrative. Rather than a gallery, these signs should be reinstated out on the streets.
(Counter) Public Art, Intervention & Performance in Lower Manhattan from 1978–1993 continues at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (Building 110 near Soissons Landing) on Governors Island through September 27.
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Where’s REPOhistory artist Alan Michelson in this article? 1992 was the Columbus anniversary, after all, and Michelson brought up the suppression of genocide in the year’s memorial activities and NYC public space. If anyone wants to learn about this, see Michelson’s artist website or my essay dealing with the issues raised by the Sign Project here: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/26583
Thanks for bringing your article to my attention. I based this writeup on the project as presented at LMCC, but the aspect of the Columbus anniversary is interesting and I’ll look into it.
Thanks for covering this topic, Allison. The Sign Project should be better known and you’ve helped bring much popular attention to it.
Thank you for this piece Allison. A couple of notes if you don’t mind. REPOhistory’s name also has another derivation along with “repossessing history,” which is a sly reference to Alex Cox’s punk-era “indy” film Repo Man. And yes, as Dr. Watson suggests, the first REPOhistory project in 1992 was part of a city-wide series of counter-Columbus events. Alan Michelson contributed a graphic piece about John Jacob Astor and his colonialist relations with native americans. We installed it at Astro Place. All of the signs were in fact site-specific in this way. There were a few signs by, or about, native americans in our project, which consisted of 36 in all. REPOhistory’s component of this broader, five-borough public art program was, as you point out, installed in downtown Manhattan and sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. But the entire project was intended as a critique of the Columbus Quincentenary “celebration” of European conquest. And it was in part an attempt to find a way of representing this counter-narrative that initially drew REPOhistory together in 1989. Later, artist and magician Tom Klem, whose sign about homeless people is illustrated above, transformed what was going to be a guerrilla street art project into a permitted one. REPOhistory’s archives are stored in the Fales collection at NYU, though one can see samples of the 1992 street project, including Alan’s piece, plus later REPOhistory projects, as well as download a small catalog with an essay by Lucy R. Lippard by clicking here and scrolling down: http://www.gregorysholette.com/?page_id=71). – all the best, greg s.
Thanks so much for the details, Greg. That makes sense about the context of 1992 and I will update the article with a note and link to your site.
that would be great Allison, I know its a lot of extra trouble, but if also it would be possible to credit artists as well then:
the first sign shown on the foundation of Battery Park was created by Daniel Wiley (he also did a sign about the African Burial Ground long before it was officially recognized),
the second one down “Who Owns Your LIfe” is by Carin Kuoni (now the director of the Vera List Center btw),
on cholera and aids it is Michael Goldfarb,
under that is Tom Klem as I mentioned before,
under tom is the Chinese-American art collective that called itself EPOXY,
the falling man that announced the arrival of “neoliberalism” long before it was labeled as such is by Jim Costanzo (more recently known as the “Aaron Burr Society”),
Dan Wiley is under Jim,
Jayne Pagnucco with the Hart Island piece,
and the general index beneath that (designed however by Hilary Kliros who also did the Maiden Lane sign in collaboration with Betty Beaumont).
Got it, thanks Greg, I will update. And if you have any more edits you’re definitely welcome to shoot me an email: allison [at] hyperallergic [dot] com
Alison and Greg I am glad you were able to a dialogue about this great collective project by Repohistory. Thank you for enhancing your review, I have been working with LMCC and the Fales Collection after they contacted me with thoughts of including Repo in this show. LMCC selected all the work. I provided them Repo text and images which I still have. I was the archivist of Repo and the Fales Collection has a massive amount of Repo materials. There has been a new development in the show as it will be extended. LMCC”s Melissa Levin contacted Marvin Taylor of the NYU Fales Collection and myself stating the Nathan Cummings Foundation will fund the extension. Marvin Taylor graciously allowed the extension of the loaned artwork. In November the show will move to the Foundation”s gallery until April.
My sign in this project was about the invisibility of the Homeless. As your review states these issues are as current as they were when we presented the public art project. Unlike this exhibition they stood streets apart from each other. I created mine to be mistaken for an actual brass landmark sign and repeated the text on the back in spanish. The language of those who spent that cold night in 1991 on Stone Street.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tom. I’d love to hear more about the extension. Do you have any links to details so I could add it in the piece?
I have contacted LMCC and they will respond with details of the extension of the show. I thought that best for all concerned. Repohistory was a true collective. Certainly Greg and I are due credit for its success but we had 9 more individually focused on major tasks. We all worked together. I do wish Alan Michelson was in the show or Donna Kessenger or James Malone but LMCC selected a good slice of what this project was. Thank you for writing about it and bringing these issues to the public again.
Great, and feel free to share with LMCC my email address that’s in the comment to Greg above.
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