The Liberty of Empire

January 7 – February 12, 2011. 1708 Gallery. Richmond VA.

In 2010 the Texas Board of Education passed legislation to remove Thomas Jefferson from history textbooks. Soon after, the board voted to strike the word “democratic” from references to the U.S. government.

The Liberty of Empire is an inversion of the phrase The Empire of Liberty that Thomas Jefferson used to describe America’s opposition to imperialism in 1780. This phrase has been deployed in a number of different contexts; it was used to support the colonialist Monroe doctrine and George W. Bush’s unilateral decision to invade Iraq. The Texas Board of Education’s resolution to eliminate Thomas Jefferson, as well as aspects of labor history, the civil rights and the Vietnam War from high school textbooks raises important questions about how we practice history.

The Liberty of Empire took the form of an experimental history classroom and training ground for participatory democracy. The first stage of this project involved interviewing local citizens as to what they think is relevant to the practice of history. History, as we have seen, is a highly contested space. I propose a dialog about this subject and I welcome your participation. Please submit your response via the online questionnaire.

The information was collected and fed into a specially designed computer program that interprets the future and past tense as a set of fractal attractors/resistors and creates a series of vector diagrams. These diagrams were printed onto sheets of velum and after consulting a randomly oscillating magnetic pulse generator, they were be placed onto a corresponding section of a site specific mural based on based on Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic plantation. During the course of the exhibition, drawings slowly accumulate, obscuring the historical image of Monticello, replacing it with new maps of potentiality. Participants were invited to  operate an antique printing press similar to one that Jefferson developed to print replica two-dollar bills. These counterfeit bills were distributed around the city and contained a web address that offered people that chance to input their comments about history via the internet. Society often practices history as a way of domesticating time; I am interested in reactivating the past, with all of its ruptures, contrasts and absences as the site of an experimental community.

It is with the most sincere appreciation and gratitude that I thank the following collaborators on this project:

  • 1708 Gallery
  • Monticello
  • Emily Smith, 1708 Executive Director
  • Erika Koch, 1708 Gallery Coordinator
  • Linnea Grim, Hunter J. Smith Director of Education and Visitor Programs at Monticello
  • David Ronka, Manager of Special Programs at Monticello
  • Robin R. Ashworth
  • Rob McAdams, Coordinator, Partners in the Arts University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies
  • UR Downtown
  • Cory
  • Matt Lively
  • Erin
  • Christine Gray
  • Kendra Wadsworth
  • Foust
  • Jolene Giandomenico
  • Kathryn Henry-Choisser
  • Kristen McHugh
  • Jon Phillip-Sheridan
  • Kevin Murphy
  • Norman Friday

This project would not have been possible without the generous financial support of an Ohio University’s Research grant and professional development funds from the State University of New York at New Paltz

Links of interest:

The History Engine: an educational tool that gives students the opportunity to learn history by doing the work researching, writing, and publishing of an historian. The result is an ever-growing collection of historical articles or “episodes” that paint a wide-ranging portrait of life in the United States throughout its history, available in our online database to scholars, teachers, and the general public.