What are words for?

The Jenny Holzer exhibits: “Monument” and “For Chicago”


Prepared 2 December 2010 for Prof. Nik Luka (URBP617, McGill University).

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“Words are stupid, words are fun, words can put you on the run. It’s all talk — elephant talk. Are you talking to me, or are you just practising for one of those performances of yours? Words are trains for moving past what really has no name. All you do to me is talk talk.”

Jenny Holzer apparently wanted to remind me of these lyrics with her installations Monument and For Chicago. After leaving, all I could think of was this barrage of music from the 1980s, each bringing into question the meaning of words as text. It was Deconstructionism in the sense that Barthes or Derrida argued for the divorcing of words from universal contexts or authority. It was a semiotic battle which at the time meant little to me, because I was probably nine years old and far more interested in musical structures underneath their lyrics. Besides, how many kids are going to notice a philosophical war spoken with stilted tones?

I visited Holzer’s exhibit without any knowledge of her oeuvre (or what I had known was long forgotten). I maintained my oblivion until arrival, as if I had stumbled upon an installation of public art. When I arrived, I was not aware of her provenance or age. When I left, it felt like I had just been thrust back into the later ’80s, which led me to think she was clearly not of my time, but of baby boomers. I found myself deconstructing her Deconstructionism.

As a physical installation, I found her use and configuration of LEDs on structures to be genuinely mesmerizing, even novel, and this was probably deliberate. That people are drawn to atmospheres of light is not novel. On that merit, Holzer’s first task — of drawing attention — was a certainty. Had she used other media, such as a looping paper scroll, her audience might have been smaller.

Monument, sited in the “lavender room”, reminded me of Master Control Program in Tron. Content rolled and oscillated with standard LED typefaces. Its content, however, was a barrage of information — a kind of info-porn — delivered with little context or antecedent explanation. Some were pithy headlines, whilst others appeared to be pull-quotes from people, possibly U.S. soldiers.

At times, Monument’s content delivery resembled a dissemination of textual propaganda, like one might expect to see in agit-prop films from any particular decade between the ’40s and ’80s, or even now with FOX News. The overlapping of text over itself — variously in blue, red, and white LEDs, with mixtures of these from time to time, all moving at varying velocities, overlapping, and flashing — in a way conveyed one interpretation of what it feels like to have attention-deficit disorder, albeit in a crude sense that only my visual stimuli was being taxed.

While maybe a dozen other people visited the gallery while I was there, almost all stayed several metres away from Master Control Program Monument. A couple of women chose to sit on the floor. I stepped up to the column, mostly to view the LEDs so closely that words were inscrutable. That was when I realized the LED arrays were on both the outer and inner faces of Monument.

As with everywhere, my messenger bag included a camera loaded with Kodachrome film. The lighting was perfect for historical posterity. I chose the high road and asked the security agent whether photography was permitted. It was not, despite no signs in the austere gallery space indicating such. That a security agent — looking less like a rent-a-cop and more like someone going for microbrews on Ossington Street — sort of hovered between both rooms added to an uneasy sense of being confined by surveillance.

I left Monument and walked over to the “amber room” to view For Chicago. I was struck by how it reminded me of a Ryuichi Sakamoto performance from 1995 known as “D & L Live” — in which his stage at the Budokan was outfitted with long red LED arrays for scrolling strings of text. Sakamoto’s text was not of lyrics, but of email transcripts, narratives, and truisms.

Monument and For Chicago share the same media — LED arrays mounted on metal and sealed by plastic — but configured in different ways. For Chicago felt disorienting once inside the space, whose “vertical”-horizontal of rolling text evoked a sense that being stationary was actually an act of motion, as if on a moving walkway. It drew visitors mostly to the right side of the installation nearest the room’s entrance, while a few stood or squatted at the end (foot?) of the rightmost array.

My instinct was to move into the installation by walking over three rows and a couple of metres “up between” the rows. This way, I could explore what it felt like to be “wading” within this pool of light and text. Microbrew security guy saw this, promptly walked parallel to where I stood, and scolded how this was disallowed. I remarked how it was odd that no signage prohibiting this was posted anywhere. He politely ignored it. It was particularly vexing because the metre-wide gaps between each row invited spectators to walk in between and engage directly with both light and faux-motion. To be scolded like a kid put me off further from wanting to connect with her work.

So I briefly tried parsing the text — that is, the streams of words pouring from rear to front, not the medium itself — to assess how its content varied from Monument. Much appeared as if it was written or spoken by a woman in highly intimate, private, or even vulnerable moments. Some was particularly raw, others lighter-hearted. The trouble with this — for me, at least — is that I cannot memorize words easily, whether literal or vernacular. For Chicago was a flood of text, although rather than a cacophony like Monument, the sense of being overwhelmed stemmed from how it occupied most of the room and how its synchronized arrays evoked a disorienting sense of standing adjacent to a stream of snowmelt.

As with the other room, the LED rows simultaneously flickered the way a roadside marquee might, causing the room to momentarily go pitch dark during intervals. It was then when I realized the only illumination in the room was from the installation itself (the other room was also lit by a dusky overcast entering the windows). The flashing episode disrupted my sense of the moment and reminded me of my boredom with the content. After a final walk through both rooms, I left.

During the viewings and following, I wondered whether these installations could function as a form of public art, or if so, whether they should. Both are highly subjective statements, as much a physical medium as they are apparatuses for delivering textual media. To proceed, this question must first be broken into conditional parts.

As for physicality, Holzer delivered a dazzling barrage of hue, luminosity, and dynamism. As lit objects, they were engaging regardless of one’s cultural origin; to an individual with sight impairment, however, it would matter quite little since the text is not coupled with haptic or sonic content. As a means of transmitting literal texts, Holzer’s works are exclusionary to anyone without a command of English, making the content an inscrutable cypher. While this does not attenuate the physical display’s aesthetics, whatever intentions Holzer planned for viewers to passively read those messages would be moot. It is on this merit that gives Holzer’s installations a place in a contemporary art gallery and not in a public space: the medium-as- message is provocative only because of what the medium can do and how it was programmed; the weight of those programmed words, if left untouched for generations, would either lose context or would be so well known by the public as to have little profundity.

The problem with such an installation in public space is at two-fold: it is susceptible to damage and deterioration, and it is vulnerable to hackers with an interest to alter its content. To assume a public role rests upon two assumptions: one, that the installations are intended as permanent fixtures — hence Monument — and two, that messages selected by Holzer were not chosen for specific reasons known only to her. In the sense of public art being either democratic (consensus) or belonging to all (commons), Holzer achieves neither of these: her messages offer limited latitude for interpretive meaning and seem to embody one worldview: her own.

This then raises questions of interpretive interaction with her work: aside from the light spectacle, what value might it serve to flash messages that at times are provocative, squeamish, contradictory, exhibitionistic, and discomforting? It is unquestionably an expression of art, because it manages to provoke and evoke synergistic emotions for selected audiences. There is certainly no sense of universality or grand narrative which one would expect from the structuralist or modernist.

This returns to her use of words as objects, divorcing them from their semiotic context and leaving viewers to their own devices. While general themes are discernible in both works, Holzer’s artistic legacy, as I later learnt, is driven by words. How she uses them in these works returns to the deconstruction of Lévi-Strauss’s universal meaning — be it the Barthesian “death of the author” (we know not the authors of her selected passages, nor do they seem to “own” their words) or the Derridean challenge of ambiguity in subjective meaning. These post-structuralist topics were at a philosophical forefront in the ’80s and were approached with some of the more avant garde pop music of the day. From Paddy McAloon to Tina Weymouth and Laurie Anderson — notably the last two — semiotics was a problematic which each confronted with music.

So it came as no shock to learn that Holzer and Weymouth — founder of the Tom Tom Club, writer of “Wordy Rappinghood” (1981), and member of Talking Heads — were RISD alumni from around the same period: the deconstructionist subject matter is remarkably similar, except that with Holzer’s pieces, they feel dated in the 21st century, even retro. Her installations would be at home with Anderson’s Home of the Brave. While I hold strong affinities for music made then, those lyrics now seem nonsensical and naïve.

As such, I found her installations appealing perhaps to a subset of philosophers and baby boomer literati, but not much more. For most people, it would be perplexing and fail to speak to the locality where such works might be displayed in public spacing. Holzer’s home is the gallery, not the street.