Lower Manhattan Sign Project, 1992–1993
Locations throughout Lower Manhattan

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

REPOhistory was an artist collective including more than 100 participants over the course of its decade-long existence. The collective designed signs, performances, and installations as interventions into the public sphere. REPOhistory’s collective statement best summarizes their wide-ranging aspirations, stating, “REPOhistory is a collective of visual and media artists, writers, performers and educators of diverse backgrounds. Our name comes from the notion of ‘repossessing history.’ We work to reclaim the past and re-present it as a multilayered, living narrative that includes the untold stories of those who have been marginalized or disenfranchised because of their class, race, gender or sexuality.”* Utilizing the platform of public art, REPOhistory’s site-specific, collaborative projects shone a light on locations that had escaped the historical record, reclaiming their untold histories for contemporary considerations.

Lower Manhattan’s layered histories made it one of the central locations for REPOhistory’s artistic interventions. One of REPOhistory’s most involved endeavors was the Lower Manhattan Sign Project, sponsored in part by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The project consisted of 39 thin aluminum signs that measured 18 by 24 inches and presented alternative histories throughout the area. REPOhistory successfully navigated the municipal departments of New York City, particularly the Department of Transportation and the NYC Parks Department, to receive permission to display the signs for a year, from June 27, 1992 to June 30, 1993. The signs used the guise of standard street markers, but through graphic imagery and pointed phrasing, they upended the typical directives of urban signage and detailed little-known information about the area’s complex past. Signs insightfully described the original pre-colonial coastline of Lower Manhattan on Pearl Street when the island was inhabited by the Lenape people (sign by Sabra Moore); the problematic speculation of J.P. Morgan during the Civil War, displayed in front of J.P. Morgan’s firm Drexel & Morgan (sign by Greg Sholette); the site of an alleged slave rebellion near Wall Street in 1741 (sign by Mark O’Brien and Willie Birch); the history of Maiden Lane, as a site where women used to wash clothing until it became a male-owned and operated jewelry district (sign by Hilary Kliros and Beauty Beaumont); the first slave market on Wall Street in 1746 (sign by O’Brien and Tess Timoney); and many other often overlooked histories of Lower Manhattan.

REPOhistory described the catalyst for their project as a corrective rejoinder to the master narratives of historical reckoning. They said, “Histories are written by specific individuals who represent a particular class, ethnic group or political interest. REPOhistory seeks to question how history is constructed, to demystify the official versions, and insert the stories, peoples and events which have been omitted. Our intent is not to substitute ‘our version’ for ‘their version’ but to provoke critical and multiple readings.”** Rhetorical questions such as, “How do you know the past? Whose history is remembered? Do other stories go untold? Is history progress or power? What does this place mean to you? Can memory be colonized? Who makes use of history?” read prominently across many of the signs, prompting thought and debate within and about the urban environment. In an essay on the Lower Manhattan Sign Project, Lucy Lippard wrote, “They (the signs) can suggest for a moment the bones, the middens, the villages, the farmhouses, the theaters, and the gallows lying beneath the pavement.”*** Indeed, the project laid bare the historical past, unearthing its reverberations in the contemporary consciousness, through the straightforward, seemingly bureaucratic, gesture of mounting signposts throughout the streets.

Additional Lower Manhattan-based projects by REPOhistory included the 1993 March to the African Burial Ground, a parade and performance marking Lower Manhattan’s ancestral past, as well as the 1994 Queer Spaces project, which highlighted historic sites for the LGBT community with pink triangular street signs. REPOhistory’s extensive archives, including many of the collective’s signs, are now archived in the NYU Fales Library Downtown Collection.

 

Artists, Writers, Performers, and Educators that created signs for the Lower Manhattan Sign Project are:

Todd Ayoung, Stephanie Basch, Betty Beaumont, Curt Belshe, Sam Binkley, Willie Birch, Neill Bogan, Josely Carvalho, Keith Christensen, Jim Ciment, Jim Costanzo, Stephen Duncombe, Ed Eisenberg, Epoxy Art Group, Brian Goldfarb, Marina Gutierrez, Betti-Sue Hert, Curlee Holton, Tom Klem, Hilary Kliros, Lisa Maya Knauer, Janet Koenig, Carin Kuoni, Irene Ledwith, Cynthia Anderson Liesenfeld, Nanette Yannuzzi Macias, Debra Mesa-Pelly, Gerald Meyer, Alan Michelson, Sabra Moore, Anita Morse, Andy Musilli, Mark O’Brien, Laurie Ourlicht, Jayne Pagnucco, Lise Prown, Leela Ramotar, Greg Sholette, Gustavo Silva, Jeff Skoller, George Spencer, Tess Timoney, Tchin, Darin Wacs, Dan Wiley, Jody Wright

REPOhistory Collective Steering Committee – circa 1996

Neill Bogan, Jim Costanzo, Tom Klem, Mark O’Brien, Lisa Maya Knauer, Cynthia Liesenfeld

REPOhistory Collective

Ayishe Abraham,Todd Ayoung, Stephanie Basch, Neill Bogan, Jim Costanzo, Ed Eisenberg, Betti-Sue Hertz, Tom Klem, Janet Koenig, Lisa Maya Knauer, Carin Kuoni, Cynthia Liesenfeld, Kara Lynch, Alan Michelson, Chris Neville, Mark O’Brien, Jayne Pagnucco, Lise Prown, Megan Pugh, Leela Ramotar, Greg Sholette, George Spencer, Tess Timoney, Dan Wiley, Jody Wright

– Alex Fialho

 

*REPOHISTORY. The Lower Manhattan Sign Project, p. 4.
**Ibid.
***LIppard, Lucy, “Anti-Amnesia,” Ibid, p. 7

 

Epoxy Group (Ming Fay) for REPOhistory
Sign #20 First Chinese Community in NYC, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Yekk Muzik performing a song he wrote for the parade
Opening day parade Lower Manhattan Sign Project, 6/92
Street Performance
Photo Credit: Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Jim Costanzo for REPOhistory
Sign #14 Stock Market Crash 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Curlee Holton for REPOhistory
Sign #9 Nelson Mandela’s visit to NYC, 6/92 held by Ed Eisenberg, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Installation shot of Ed Eisenberg’s sign by Ed Eisenberg and Tom Klem
Sign # 15 False Democracy: Inequality of the U.S. Senate, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Installation of Curlee Holton’s sign by Ed Eisenberg and Tom Klem
Sign #9 Nelson Mandela’s visit to NYC, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Ed Eisenberg for REPOhistory – Ed holding his sign
Sign #15 False Democracy: Inequality of the U.S. Senate, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Tom Klem for REPOhistory
NYC Police and community leader checking NYCDOT permit
Installation Photograph
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Preparing Sign #19 Rose Scheiderman: Union Activist, 5/92
Installation photograph
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Lise Prown & Curt Beishe for REPOhistory – Tom Klem installing
Sign #26 Gotham City, 6/92
Silkscreened metal sign for the street
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Installing sign #32 at the NYC Municipal Building, 6/92
Installation photograph
Photo Credit: Greg Sholette for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory

Tom Klem for REPOhistory
Press event sign installation
Installation photo
Adam Decrouix for REPOhistory
Courtesy of REPOhistory