To Whom It May Concern
To Whom It May Concern
Jenny Holzer has been wrenching language off the pageand into the world since the ’70s, when she first garneredattention for her text-based work Truisms (1977–79), aseries of one-liners such as “Money creates taste.” Whetherwheat-pasted or projected, Holzer’s works reveal, in thewords of Wislawa Szymborska (whose poems have beenappropriated by the artist), that there are “letters up to nogood” and “clutches of clauses so subordinate they’ll neverlet her get away.” But the absence of language can beequally chilling, and lately Holzer has turned her attentionto the suppression of words. Her recent “RedactionPaintings” reproduce memos released to the public practicallywith tongs, much of their information blocked out bycensors. At her first major US exhibition in 18 years, at theMuseum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, viewers havethe chance to absorb Holzer’s commitment to social justice,unwavering throughout her 30-some years of making art.For behind her cerebral approach, the artist’s primaryconcern is human welfare. As Benjamin Buchloh pointsout in his interview with Holzer in the following pages,“No linguistic articulation could claim to be exempt fromits participation in ideological interests.” This is largelytrue, Holzer agrees, but adds: “I think that screaming cancome straight from the body. The person screaming mighthave been hit courtesy of an ideology.” —Claire Barliant
Benjamin Buchloh: If my memory is correct, you started out as apainter at some point?
Jenny Holzer: I began with a little bit of everything includingprintmaking, conceptual work, assemblage, video, bad sculpture,inscrutable public pieces, and painting. I did try to become a painterproper at RISD.
BB: Would it be correct to suggest that it wasn’t language at thattime, but rather the shift into public architectural space that was atthe forefront of your reflections on how to challenge painting andtranscend its traditional parameters?
JH: When I was unable to paint well enough, language returned asa way for me to continue working. I’m not sure that I wanted tochallenge painting as much as I just wanted to make something decentfor people. I wanted a lot simultaneously: to leave art outside for thepublic, to be a painter of mysterious yet ordered works, to be explicitbut not didactic, to find the right subjects, to transform spaces, todisorient and transfix people, to offer up beauty, to be funny and neverlie. I needed to offer something to be able to tolerate myself and tojustify trying to become an artist. After some time in New York City,I focused on what traditional painting couldn’t do in public spaces andused language to carry the greater part of my content. Eventually,though, I tried to bring part of what appears in, say, a Rothko painting,into architecture and out to the public. I went some distance toward thatwith the warm amber LED installation in the Neue Nationalgalerie inBerlin in 2001, and with light projections in a number of cities. Textwas there along with the light and the light’s effect on people.
BB: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you participated in theactivities of a number of art collectives in New York, some of whichwere cofounded by you, such as the Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer,Nadin, Prince, and Winters. Collectives such as Group Material andColab followed your example slightly later.
JH: I’d like to take credit for being early, but Colab existed before Ijoined. I was a founder of the short-lived Offices, which was heavier onconcept and absurdity than action. We had business cards and did oneshow in LA where Peter Fend surprised Frank Gehry, but I’m not surewhat else we achieved.
BB: In hindsight, how do you view the extraordinarily utopian andoptimistic character of the collectives with which you were involved?
JH: I know the most about Colab, so I’ll talk about that. Colab wasutopian, optimistic, occasionally squabbling, sincere, and practical.Working en masse or in small units let us realize complicated showsthat none of us could have managed alone, when no one else wasoffer-ing to support this sort of activity. Because we organized theexhibitions—often in spaces no one wanted—we didn’t need to becautious about content. Because most members liked to make andpresent work with outside-world versus art-referential subjects, it wasrelatively straightforward to imagine and stage big exhibitions aboutdifficult subjects in public zones. I liked working with other artistsbecause so much of my practice was solitary.
It’s hard to measure how socially and politically useful the activitywas, but “The Manifesto Show” that Colen Fitzgibbon and I organizedwas an exercise of free speech and supplied a survey of classic politicaland art manifestos, as well as fresh visual and written shouts by over100 people, plus a number of utopian propositions.
BB: One of the most fascinating challenges for me when reading/seeing your work has always been the attempt to situate your languagepractices within, or rather in differentiation from, the more traditionalconventions of language production (poetry, literature, journalism).While you use, in the more recent work, extensive quotations frompoetry, literature, or public speech, one would never want to see yourwork declared as belonging to any of these conventions. Rather, onewould want to insist on its affiliation with sculptural practices as amaterial intervention in public space. In that sense, your writingseems to occupy a similarly complex linguistic space to that of the workof Lawrence Weiner, whom I personally perceive to be yourpredecessor in a manner analogous to the way that Jasper Johns, forexample, was a predecessor to Andy Warhol.
JH: I’m thrilled to be considered a follower of Lawrence Weiner.I am a longtime student and fan. His writing is almost impossible toclassify or describe. Sometimes I get it, and I benefit when I don’t.
BB: Like Weiner, who has always insisted on having his workunderstood as “sculpture,” your use of language is not easily identifiableas to its place in the universe of linguistic utterances. Nevertheless,unlike Weiner’s work or that of Conceptual art at large, your linguisticinterventions have, from the very beginning, claimed language asone of the prime sites where ideology is reproduced in the subject, orrather, where language as ideology produces the subject.
JH: I think that’s correct, or at least I believe that language canproduce and describe the subjects.
BB: I see your language practices deliberately scrambling anddiffusing any identifiable message or activist intervention on behalf ofa particular political position so that the reader/spectator actually hasto perform the work of critique, discernment, and identificationherself in the process of reading. Is this a fair assessment?
JH: There can be a deliberate scrambling, or at least a heaping ofmany messages. Sometimes the messages are conflicting, and other timesthe language and the messages will be blunt and to the point. I routinelyinvite the reader to sort through the offerings and complete the thoughts,and to echo, amplify, or shrink from the feelings the work elicits.I tie the language to the visuals as an assist, and as a take-away gift.
BB: I had always assumed that your motivation to construct thesetexts (or at least some of them) in the manner of the citation had beendetermined in a number of different ways. First, that you follow amodel of language that is similar to what Louis Althusser defined asan ideological apparatus, i.e., the conviction that there is literally not asingle form of knowledge or of linguistic articulation that could claimto be exempt from its participation in ideological interests.
JH: I imagine that’s true of much, but I think that screaming cancome straight from the body. The person screaming might have beenhit courtesy of an ideology.
BB: This next question concerns the problem of the “distributionform” of your work. Obviously, as had been the case with conceptualart, your decision to engage language as your primary medium ofartistic communication in the mid to late 1970s entailed a transformationof the actual carriers of the messages that your work attemptedto disseminate. Thus, you invented a whole new array of devices thatserved to distribute your textual production.
JH: Maybe it’s that I found various things that were right for text?More often than not I chose everyday objects that would look normaluntil you read the writing.
BB: Initially, these were programmatically modest, such asinexpensively produced stickers and posters, pamphlets and books,and cheaply manufactured metal plaques, among others. Thesemultiplications of textual signs in unlimited editions would aim at amuch broader audience than even the Conceptual artists hadaddressed. Furthermore, all these devices seemed to be defined by thedesire to produce objects that could be displayed in any place andposition that you or your readers would choose. These strategies thusaffected both the aesthetic and economic status and the discursiveand institutional location of the object, continuing the Conceptualists’critique of the commodity status of the work of art as much assubverting the restrictions within which the institutional frame hadtraditionally contained the object.
JH: I liked following the Conceptualist critique, plus I simplydistributed the writing in practical, friendly, cheap ways. I neededthese sentences to be in daily life on regular stuff available to manypeople who don’t frequent museums.
BB: In a second phase, your work shifted to textual disseminationvia electronic devices such as LED signs and complex, often monumentallysized projections. What do you think are the motivations andramifications of this rather dramatic expansion of means andtechnologies from the 1970s to the 1980s and on to today?
JH: Initially, it was cheaper and easier to put writing on electronicsigns, ones that were already installed in public places, than it was toproduce and paste the posters. All that was required was advance artworry and a little programming time. (It was hard work not to becaught in the middle of the night with an armload of posters and abucket of paste.) Often there was dead space on the big outdoor signs,so I didn’t have to pay to exhibit because the operators welcomedcontent. With those outdoor signs, I was able to work without usingany art materials, and the first little LED boards I bought werehumble objects. When I began to install site-specific electronics inmuseums such as Wright’s Guggenheim, Gehry’s Guggenheim,Foster’s Bundestag, and Mies van der Rohes Neue Nationalgalerieand had to reply to the superb and even competitive architecture, myfabrication complexity and material costs went up. Same expensivestory when I wanted to make sculpture with LED arrays that weremore intricate and visual. The move to electronic technology had to dowith my needing to be where people look. I thought I should presentmany hard germane subjects as well, as large, and as loud as what’sdone for celebrity gossip, concerts, products, and the sometimes too-cautiousreporting of the news.
In the mid-1990s, it was good to find the projection equipmentthat could be rented, that didn’t have to be purchased. And I verymuch like that the projected works are immaterial—light only. Theprojections are a way to deliver feeling and writing by a number ofgreat poets, as well as a means to highlight the natural world and tocreate sculpture from architecture. Plus, many of the buildings chosenas projection screens have occupants and histories worth highlighting,and projections can invite benign gatherings of people at night.
BB: On that topic, you recently have returned to painting as a process,as a technique of display, and as a distribution form (a singular objecton canvas in the most conventional manner). Does this departurefrom the increasingly complex apparatus of technology that you haddeveloped for the dissemination and display of your work signal achange of attitude on your side, perhaps a certain degree of skepticismwith regard to the media optimism of the 1970s?
JH: No, I continue to work with electronics because people turntoward flashing light. Maybe because I am familiar with LEDs, Ifinally have made something like sculpture from this technology. AndLED arrays work especially well for installations in and on architecture.I use electronics to display transcribed declassified documentsbecause so much of this material can be stored in the signs’ controllers,and I need the active programming that’s possible on electronics so that thecontent is hard to miss and leave.
BB: Is working with painting a decision that recognizes the necessity for amore expressive, if not expressionist, form and format to articulate messagesof political protest and opposition at a moment of a seemingly endless warand the erosion of elementary civil liberties in the United States?
JH: Choosing painting had to do with an appreciation of the qualities ofpaint, and an odd thought that hand-rendered oil grounds were appropriatefor silk-screened documents about the Middle East. I was looking at Warhol’s“Death and Disaster” works while I was collecting the declassified andother sensitive pages. For the first paintings, I tried flat, somewhat tough andloud colors for the grounds. These were all right, but then I wanted moreemotional substrates for first-person accounts—the pages in which a detaineeor a soldier says “I was hit” or “I struck.” I collected books on Goyas BlackPaintings, looked at the colors and layering, and then sampled portions ofthe skies and landscapes. Later, I took pastel skies from Renaissance worksto indicate hope. I also screened many documents in black on white paintto emphasize that the documents are real.
BB: How would you describe your positions in political terms, and whoare the writers that you would claim as having provided you with atheoretical foundation for your work?
JH: I don’t talk much about my politics because I don’t like people toconfuse my work and me, and I am old enough that it’s not possible for meto reconstruct which readings affected me in different times of my life. Ican offer that I think the war in Iraq is a mistake and that the secrecy inadvance and after the invasion was and continues to be dangerous andreprehensible. The works with declassified material are from my sometimesfrantic (witness the number of paintings) worrying about the war and theattendant changes in American society. There is an unusually closeconnection between this artwork and my private politics, as there was withthe “Lustmord” pieces [about genocidal rape in the former Yugoslavia],for example.
BB: The same complexity, if not even a more difficult set of questions,emerges when one attempts to identify your position with regard to sexualpolitics. Clearly, your writings articulate a feminist position, but it is one thatis far from the purist doxa of the feminist theoreticians and activists ofthe 1970s. That would be evident, for example, in your writings in whichthe phenomena of sexual and corporeal violence are addressed in terms ofthe bewildering ambiguities that are so essential to your work.
JH: Perhaps these are accurate, if bewildering? Or, more precisely, there’sthe concurrent presence of conflicting, or at least wildly varying, beliefs,motivations, and actions in the work—as there is in the world.
BB: Clearly these writings recognize power relations as a historicalformation (of the sexuality of the subject and of social relations at large) whoserealities cannot be simply overcome by a feminist emancipatory doxa.
JH: So far, nothing has stopped the abuse of women—men won’t give itup—and the failure is not that of feminism or art. No sort of artwork isimmediately going to change men who abuse and kill their pregnant wives,rape and torture women in war, diminish and sandbag their lovers, assaulttheir girl children or other girls they can catch, refuse to change theirsheets, and pay peanuts.
BB: The ambiguities in your work give it at times a pessimistic dimensionthat would clearly be at odds with any of the radical feminist critiques, ifnot with any of the political activist projects with which one would otherwisewant to associate you.
JH: I don’t believe that my artwork is pessimistic. It is realistic, and perhapsthe fact of it is encouraging to some women and men. And I wouldn’t go toart to stop a man in his tracks.
"To Whom It May Concern" originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' November 2008 Table of Contents.