A red line drawn on a map can be as effective a boundary as mountains,
rivers, and other natural features of geography. Humans have constructed
artificial boundaries to define borders where no such natural barriers
such borders have served to divide people, according to Novi sculptor
David Barr, "working on a borders project brings people together."
And he should know. Barr is responsible for several art projects linking
populations separated by geography and the drawn lines of men. His largest
work, (in fact the largest sculpture ever made) the Four Corners Project,
consisted of four small tetrahedrons each located in a remote corner
of the globe creating an earth-sized tetrahedron, thus conceptually
linking these disparate locales. He also constructed pieces spanning
the Bering Strait between the United States and Russia, as well as another
piece spanning the US and Canadian border. (Most recently he teamed
with relief sculptor Sergio De Giusti to create the Labor Monument "Transcending"
in Hart Plaza.)
time out Barr has set his sights on something a lot closer to home -
the Michigan base line, an East-West line established to survey the
entire state. The base line is known as 8 Mile Road in these parts.
8 Mile has stood as a divisive barrier for metro Detroiters, as the
official border between the city and many of its suburban neighbors.
In places along 8 Mile, in fact, "Berlin-esque" walls once
separated black and white neighborhoods. People to the north viewed
south of 8 Mile as a no man's land not to be crossed. Former Mayor Coleman
Young's much misinterpreted inaugural address in 1974 added fuel to
the fears when he warned criminals to get out of Dodge, or as he put
it, "Hit 8 Mile." Parts of 8 Mile have become a haven for
strip clubs and prostitution, and recently gained a different sort of
attention as the birthplace of Eminem with the release of the movie
named after the road.
Barr's 8 Mile/Base Line Road project began when he was approached by
Ken Naigus of the Northville Arts Council about doing a sculpture for
the town. Barr was interested, but wanted to do something more than
just donate one of the pieces from his yard. (For the record, Barr's
yard is a veritable sculpture park inhabited solely by his own creations.)
He envisioned a project that linked Northville and Michigan history
in some fashion.
artist immersed himself in research about the history of surveying this
country and Michigan's important role in that task. Before the inception
of the United States there were several existing models of property
ownership including: the Native American model, in which the land couldn't
be owned; the European aristocratic model, in which the King owned everything;
and the colonial model in which people could use the land but had to
pay rent on it. The means of dividing the land were also dubious and
based on transient markers like rivers and trees.
founding of the United States was accompanied by a new idea of ownership
founded on democratic and egalitarian principles. Thomas Jefferson was
a strong advocate of a system where the state would be divided into
a grid. People could then own equal and equitably apportioned plots
of land. In order to accomplish this, a base line and a meridian line
had to be marked off from which to base all the other measurements upon.
Essentially this created an X and Y axis in which every point of the
land could now have its own Cartesian coordinate. As the original colonies
were already divided up (though not by this method) Jefferson's method
was put into place in the newer states. Ohio was the first test site,
but was fraught with trouble. The first state to get the job done right
In 1815 surveyors set off across the state to establish a base line.
They started out at the boundary of the already established French "Ribbon"
Farms (including Grosse Pointe) on the east towards South Haven on the
west coast of the state. The surveyors risked harsh winter conditions
and understandably hostile native populations in order to complete their
task. With the exception of a minor jog near Jackson, the base line
was completely marked off straight across the state in 1851and was soon
followed by the meridian line up the center of the state. Today that
line is known is some places as Base Line Road, while in others like
Detroit it is 8 Mile Road.
sculpture Barr made for the Northville site is a ten foot tall obelisk
made of alternating black and white granite blocks echoing the markings
on a surveyor's pole. The obelisk is engraved with information and images
of local and historical mathematical importance. They are meant to be
read like hieroglyphics for visitors to decode and learn about the region,
art, and mathematics. Local school children were involved in coming
up with the quotes and information on the sculpture. This includes some
local history about Edward Hines, the man responsible for the invention
of the white line on roads. The obelisk stands at the intersection of
Center Street and 8 Mile Road in Northville and was officially dedicated
at a ceremony on Sunday, December 14, 2003.
Barr envisions the Northville piece serving as the test model for a
statewide project. With the first one in place, he hopes other communities
along the base line will look to it and see the potential for getting
involved. The educational benefits are an essential component of the
project. Barr would like to construct the first few sites such as the
outposts on the east and west sides of the state, the jog in Jackson,
and the existing piece in Northville, but then hopes that other artists
will continue the project. (Maybe Eminem will get involved in backing
something along his stretch of the base line?) Perhaps someday those
who want to "Coast the Base Line" will be able to travel the
width of the state and encounter a different piece of art and history
along the way.
The base line was originally intended to divide up the land, and with
the case of 8 Mile in Detroit the border has kept people apart completely.
With this project perhaps this longstanding barrier can become a uniting
bridge of understanding.
To learn more, contact the Northville Arts Commission
at 248-449-9950 during business hours or Ken Naigus at 248-349-1565.
Find them on the web here.
- Nick Sousanis (Sousanis is serving as a writer for the
"Coasting the Baseline" Project.)