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An Interview with Jenny Holzer

“I thought longing should be at 7 World Trade Center–hoping to understand, hoping to have more, wishing to have more time.”
“I thought longing should be at 7 World Trade Center–hoping to understand, hoping to have more, wishing to have more time. That’s why I made the writing slow and white and floating–that seemed right for wistfulness.” John Yau and Shelley Jackson talk with Jenny Holzer.
John Yau: It’s June 7, 2006. Shelley Jackson and John Yau are talking to Jenny Holzer. We’re going to talk to her about her work, particularly her project at 7 World Trade Center.

Jenny Holzer: Make sure you note that there’s another person, Henri Cole, lurking.

JY: There’s another person in the room, the poet Henri Cole, who may or may not intervene and try to save the day. One of the things I’m interested in is that you had to work with Larry Silverstein’s wife to make this project. Your piece addresses the fact that it is the first building built near the World Trade Center site. There’s also some question as to whether some texts were edited out, particularly a piece by the Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner . . .

JH: Szymborska.

JY: Yes, Wislawa Szymborska wrote a poem about September 11 [“Photograph from September 11”], and it was taken out. As an artist it is an interesting moment. I thought of Richard Serra and Tilted Arc, the controversial public sculpture that was eventually removed because of a public outcry, but you took a very different route. Do you have something to say about that? I think the issue of what’s public art and how you work within a situation and negotiate is interesting. I think it’s a lot about negotiation, a negotiation in which you have to stay true to what you want and at the same time understand the constituency involved, right?

Jenny Holzer. Photo by Carina Landau.
JH: I’m used to back-and-forth from years of working on public projects, starting with those in Germany, where it was especially instructive to listen to people about what they thought appropriate for the memorials or, more often, for the anti-memorials. Listening has become my habit because hopefully, by the end of the day, I can make the artwork more fitted. The interaction with Klara Silverstein was, on the whole, very good. Klara would go back and forth, and wouldn’t come down from on high and say yes or no. She did accept the greatest part of the submissions. I’m not surprised that she found some poems difficult, because I tend to gravitate to the most dreadful things—a good practice or a disability, I don’t know which.

JY: That seems to be going back to the Truisms. I remember reading those on the street, this anonymous graffiti in language that seemed emptied out. I think it had a sense of skepticism; I would not say pessimism, but a deep skepticism about what can be communicated and also how language has been abused.

JH: I am always sure that the sky is falling. The Silversteins are optimistic, so it was interesting for me to be around optimists. It’s not my habitat. I got something from it.

I think it was a very bold choice that Larry stayed with the WTC project when he could have easily, or maybe reasonably, exited. I heard stories about his being in Israel, and when rockets would come in he would go to the rooftops to watch. I felt that this is an unusual man and an optimist, and maybe I should pay more attention to his worldview.

JY: Well, he built that building, which people didn’t think that he could get done, and someone pointed out to me that architecturally the building has a blast wall at the bottom and is unlike any other building built.

JH: Even the artwork is a blast wall of sorts, so there were all kinds of considerations at 7 World that I normally wouldn’t have to think about, and that developers typically don’t have to factor in. Regardless, it was a good process and project, although I very much regret that the Szymborska poem isn’t in the collection, because it would have been a proper addition to what is a realistic description of life in New York. There are poems about how glorious and friendly the city can be, that say, “Now I am a writer, now I have peers,” and the Szymborska would have been one about tragedy, and a memorial. So while it was appropriate that Klara and I had discussions during which I received useful advice, it was a real loss not to have the Szymborska.

JY: You start to see the language of the piece through that lens of where it is. I believe there is a [Elizabeth] Bishop poem in it, with the line “Please come flying.” Though I knew where it came from, I still stepped back and thought about it in another context.

Shelly Jackson.
Shelley Jackson: These texts as a whole present a less ambivalent stance than a lot of your works. They are not exactly positive, but there isn’t quite the same undercurrent of unease and fear that there is something really unpleasant or inappropriate being said. I wondered whether that was the effect of compromises that you made because other people did not want that material in there, or whether you felt like the context of the memorial and the history of it provided a sort of baseline tragedy that gave the work a complexity that the texts on their own did not have.

JH: I’m always slow, so now, belatedly, I have a bit of an answer for John. Mrs. Silverstein routinely would have commonsense questions, such as what if a person only comes in once and the only thing she sees is the Szymborska poem, will she only think of the moment of tragedy in this place, rather than a more general impression of life in New York? Because I was thinking of balancing the program, I wanted the Szymborska, but Klara had the reasonable question about the one-time visitor who pictures a person suspended in the air, or a survivor or family member who arrives and imagines only this.

JY: I went a few times and thought it was interesting to sit and read the whole text, but what you get are fragments. You really see them in different ways. The part of me that is a writer tried to guess who wrote them. I would miss the name and thought it would be interesting to know, and that I had to go check it out later. Then you include a very large piece by E.B. White.

JH: We have his whole book in there, Here Is New York. That’s the cool thing about the electronics, the cool and hazardous thing: we can include a vast amount of material, but you could become lost in the Corbusier and the White. . . .

I inhabit a small sphere. I am always thinking about rape, murder, and torture, although I’ve gradually come to believe that’s not the whole world. I was influenced by being around Larry and Klara, who don’t routinely seem to think about murder, torture, and treachery. When I first was working on the piece, I only could focus on September 11. Then I realized that there will be an official memorial for that, and so that perhaps my work should represent life in New York before, during, and after 9/11. I remembered my own pleasure in leaving Ohio and coming to New York, for example, and I’m not alone in liking that sort of a happy exit and arrival. And you’re right that the proximity of the artwork to the pit colors the text selections.

SJ: It’s also true that people will look at it in the context, at least for the time being, of the tragedy, and relate it to that. It seems like a strength of it is the stretch between what the texts know, what the texts are saying, and some of the associations we’ll bring to those texts.

JH: I gravitate to works like Goya’s Black Paintings, and I stay in awe of Matisse’s The Joy of Life. I’ve spent more time in Goya territory, but I’ve always wanted at least to understand that Matisse and what was behind it. This text selection isn’t exactly the joy of life, but it’s something a little more in that direction than is typical for me. I thought it would be interesting to try to make a piece that is at least tending toward joy, and the pit is close enough by.

JY: I thought of it as an anthology about living in New York City.

SJ: I thought of it as a library.

John Yau. Photo by Eve Aschheim.
JY: It was really like an anthology of all these different people who lived in New York, or came to New York, and had these different senses of New York. It makes you realize the complexity of the city. Langston Hughes is writing about this. You get another sense of New York that you don’t necessarily know. I think New York is one of those interesting places where you can take a subway anywhere. It’s more open, say, than Los Angeles.

JH: I wanted the writing to be about the numberless New Yorks.

JY: I was touched by the choices that you made. There was a feeling of the before and after of what used to be New York. What happened to that world? That was gut-wrenching.

SJ: What is interesting is that a lot of the texts from an earlier time are nostalgic for an even earlier time. What was moving about that in the context of a memorial was this sense that loss and change is an inevitable part of this city. It is what New York is. It is not a failure of New Yorkness. It’s part of it.

JY: You have a Frank O’Hara piece in it. It made me think of Battery Park, where there is a Frank O’Hara quote on the railing. I always remember going down there and looking at it, thinking, “Oh, Frank. What would it have been like for him to have known this?” When I saw the O’Hara poem in your piece, I remembered the Frank O’Hara quote in Battery Park when the World Trade Center was standing, and thinking, that’s what’s so great about New York; it can acknowledge Frank O’Hara as one of the great poets of the city. What happens with your piece is that everyone brings to it a really particular set of associations. I don’t think anyone could know all of them.

SJ: Fragmentation is one of the most interesting questions for me about your piece. What becomes of a text that is necessarily going to be read in little pieces? How do you think about crafting the effect of a work that is going to be received piecemeal? It sounds as if initially you weren’t thinking so much about it. You were thinking about the whole and then, because of Clara’s comment, became more sensitive to the idea that little bits would be parceled out to different readers. What do you think about that?

JH: Fragmentation has been a live question ever since I started working with electronics in public, or even going back to the street posters. I realized that people often could and would give the works a tiny bit of attention at best. I have had to think about the text selection and the media that were appropriate for holding people, getting to people just for a minute, in the street. One way was only to present short sentences, but then the challenge was to make sure the little short things were good and complex enough, if they were the only bits noticed and read. I had to work that out with the earlier electronics pieces, and it’s a relevant question for this one too, not just in terms of balancing the tone of the whole, but in trying to ensure that if visitors only read 12 sentences, that they will get something generous and true.

SJ: In making up your mind, did you think about what this piece would look like taken out of context, or how this phrase or this sentence would look if you came in and just saw that bit? Did you feel that they were individually strong enough, that a small chunk somehow contained the whole, like DNA?

JH: The poems work beautifully because they’re compressed; almost any line of any of these poems offers a lot. The part of the program that’s a little slower—and I’m still deciding whether I want to edit it—includes the early prose texts. Those go on. They’re not as quick and full as the poetry.

JY: And yet you can’t ever read the whole piece, can you? How long is it?

JH: Oh, longer than a day.

SJ: You said eight hours at one point.

JH: It’s more than that. I think it’s 30-plus hours. It’s good that it’s an odd number of hours, because this means that people who come to work at the same time likely never will get the same text. A 24-hour cycle would be awful because people would come into the lobby and say, “Oh god, there’s that sentence again.”

SJ: Given that that’s how people are going to read it and that’s what you were planning, are John and I the worst readers because we’ve read the whole thing?

JH: You’ve read the whole thing, but you haven’t seen the whole thing, and hopefully how the text is embodied matters.

JY: The first time I went, I stood in the lobby and then got a coffee and sat outside and watched it from the park. Then the next time I came back, I did sort of the same thing. I realized I wasn’t going to see the whole thing. Your memory does really work differently; different bits hit you in different ways. If you know the text, it sends you on some stream of thought, and you drift off, not even really looking at the text. Then you come back into it. It is a kind of river going by that you step into, and out of, and into. If you’re sitting outside, there’s also the empty space of the World Trade Center to your left. You see that this is New York because it gets rebuilt. Something does happen. I didn’t think about it as a memorial.

JH: It’s not really a memorial.

JY: It felt elegiac only insofar that it acknowledges that every city changes and the changes are irreversible. That’s just a fact of life. That’s not a fact of 9/11. There are catastrophic events but there’s also a dailyness, which is acknowledged in the poems.

JH: This is more about life at large and life in the city in particular. The time of day or night and the weather matters, too.

SJ: Inside the lobby, there are so many reflections of your piece on the walls in the marble and in the turning, rotating doors—in the vanes of the door and their cylindrical shell. As you go in and out, the layers of glass slide over and under each other, and so do the reflected words.

JH: That’s why the physical part always matters so much, and why in an installation like this, you can’t know all the variables in advance.

SJ: I thought it was a nice addition that E.B. White said something about how New York is a poem. You can map the piece and New York onto each other in a lot of interesting ways. It’s about the poetics of New York and also the architecture of poetry. This piece is a sort of window on New York that is also contained in New York; it’s a sort of a complicated nest of boxes.

JH: When we had a chance to calm down after completing the work, we did finally generate a list of the poems and the authors, so people who want to know the whole program can. This is in addition to what you just described well, which is to carry little personal bits around.

JY: Has your relationship to language changed? From Truisms to this, it seems that you have a quite different understanding of language. You don’t seem to understand language in any straightforward, simple way, such as “Language is transparent. Therefore, it’s a window on reality,” or “Language is opaque. Therefore, there’s no window on reality,” which are the two extreme poles that are now being argued over.

JH: I subscribe to both. And a lot more.

JY: That’s what I mean. I felt that you don’t have a fixed or ideological position about language. That it’s really the situation, and what you’re trying to do within it, that gets you to think about what kind of language you will use. That it’s almost kind of pragmatic, but not simply pragmatic.

JH: I try to be a problem-solving ape and, when given an assignment like this one, see what makes sense for this place, this time, this audience. I’m also nuts, so that adds variety.

JY: I was thinking of a Vassar piece that seems to be done in parallel with this. You created these benches on which you engraved the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. It made me think about the materiality of it. In the Vassar piece, you literally carve language into a material and it’s permanent, and then in other pieces the language is made of light and it’s going by.

JH: Yeah, it slips away.

JY: It’s two very different understandings of language on a material level. The choices you make in both cases are also telling. It all connects in the Vassar piece. It’s Elizabeth Bishop, who went to Vassar, and you sit there and read the poem and think about it, and perhaps the poem affects the way you’re looking at whatever it is you’re looking at, or thinking about. And then in this piece, fragments go by and you may not know who it is from, and it’s going to affect you in a different way. After it’s gone by, you have to think, “Did I even remember it right?”

JH: At Vassar, and at other places where the letters are in stone, the language is there. You know where it is, and you can return to it. The meaning might change depending on your state of mind on a given day, but the words are absolutely available to you. In other situations, I like it when the text is racing, and you don’t know the source; I relied on this heavily with my own early work. I didn’t want it attributed. I wanted people to think about what it meant as they read it, and not say, “Oh, that’s writing by a woman, or a such-and-such poem,” or even a poem—they just had to deal with the content.

JY: Truisms seemed anonymous and public.

JH: And I wanted that, so that people would think of the subject matter, and not only give passing thought to whodunit.

SJ: After standing for a while in the lobby, watching your work for a while, and watching how it got eaten up at one end, and how my eye would try to run ahead and then get stuck and wait there at the other end for the new words to come in, I started feeling light-headed. And I don’t say this in an accusatory way. . . .

JH: Being farther away is better!

SJ: But I thought it was really interesting. It didn’t have to do with the content; it was just what the language was doing all by itself. Or, not the language itself, but . . .

JH: The medium.

SJ: Exactly. I think you must be aware that sometimes people react strongly to the bright lights and the moving text. Were you thinking about that at all, and how to make it work?

JH: One reason I’ve stayed with LEDs so long is that part of the experience is that the light and words hit the body. This might give you vertigo; it might represent that there’s always too much information and “how do I process it?” It could make you unsure of the floor; I try to use reflections to that end. Sometimes it’s about plain old reading, the way it would be if you were watching an electronic news bulletin, and other times I want the light to be a surround. The piece in Berlin at the Neue Nationalgalerie was one of those enveloping environments. At times there you could concentrate on the content, but more often than not the experience was about how you felt in that space, and what happened when the text passed through you and seemed to go into infinity, courtesy of the glass walls. That piece tripled itself and had people lie down.

JY: It gives us that weird, beautiful light. And the lobby that you’re inside is huge.

JH: The whole building is a lobby.

SJ: It made me reflect on something that seems obvious, but usually isn’t when I’m reading, which is that my eyes are part of my body. They’re a way in. There isn’t this sort of “Here I am, here’s this thing over here, and I can look at it, but I’m in my own space.”

JH: I’m almost completely divorced from my body, so these are exercises for myself. I don’t always know what will happen to other people in the installations. In Berlin, for example, a lot of people would go down on the floor to look, or lie down on the furniture.

SJ: Did you know they were going to?

JH: I thought they might do that. It was interesting for me to see what people did with their bodies, and also what I did with mine, in there. That’s increasingly part of the work. For the Venice Biennale in 1990, I made a highly polished stone floor, so that in the room with too many electronic signs, you not only were overwhelmed with what was on the walls, but you saw writing fall into the floor. You were unsure about where you were in relation to the words—and uncertain about what you would do with all the information and the multiple languages.

SJ: I had a sort of physical feeling of “Where has my body gone?” A sort of displaced feeling.

JY: You make language visceral, which is what writers want.

JH: I think that the effect of the light on the body can stand in for some of the consequences of the content. That’s another reason why I sometimes use aggressive light: it can represent what happens as a result of bad policy or bad faith or what have you.

SJ: I inscribed that feeling in my body with meaning, and I thought it was quite powerful, in a creepy way. I had an association between this bodily reaction and your Lustmord project, where you wrote on bodies. It also seemed related to my tattoo project [a story called Skin, which was published in tattoos on the skin of 2,095 volunteers], but in a different way. I sensed the close connection between language and the body. The body speaks and also reads, and there’s this in-and-out kind of movement. Can you speak to your sense of language as bodily? Is that something you’ve always had?

JH: With the Lustmord project, the body and language were unusually close for me. Rape as a tool of war is awful enough that it needs some kind of literal physical attention. I probably never will write on people again, but that activity seemed fitted to the subject. Courtesy of Lustmord, I became more attentive to the relationship between words, or lack of them, and flesh, and more aware of what I’ve done in my work. Now I know that involving the body repeatedly must be part of the work.

SJ: So, retrospectively, it seems like part of your working process.

JH: I have blind spots, and in some of these installations, I didn’t know much until I finished the projects because—and that’s an odd thing about my work—I often never get to see it until it’s up. I can’t preview site-specific works at home. Some things I can project and plan and predict. Other times, as at 7 World when I see the LED reflections have the ceiling start to come down, I think, “Oh. I’ve been given a gift.”

SJ: In some of your discussions of the reading you liked as a young person, you referred to wanting to write like you were insane, or in an ecstatic, raw way. You were an admirer of Beckett and Emily Brontë and so on. That seems related in some sense to this desire to find language that can get under the skin and mess with you a little bit.

JH: Yes, to mess every which way.

JY: Ecstatic writing, or writing of the insane, something like Artaud or Beckett, seems to come out of the body. The writing is bodily located, and that’s really interesting; that’s obviously something you’re thinking about. I don’t think that writing is necessarily thought of that way, unless you’re thinking of a particular group of writers, that the writing is really located in a physical, visceral sense.

JH: That sort of writing has always seemed most accurate, most true, and most complete. Because I have great limitations as a writer, I needed to turn to the physical and visual to represent what a real poet can do in his or her work. I had to call in the recruits—the visual, the spatial, and the physical—to approximate what some people are able to do on a page. But so be it.

SJ: I would argue that every book is making a physical appeal. There are writers who think about that, and try to make use of it, and then their work tends to take on the multidimensional quality of yours. Blake, for example. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer—you keep claiming that you’re not quite a poet—you could instead think of yourself as a writer who is putting more of your attention on what would normally be considered as the periphery of the text—attention that other writers have neglected to give. . . .

JH: Maybe. That’s very kind. I’m always staring at Blake, and perhaps something has rubbed off. What could be central is often at the edges; I want to think there can be happy blurring of visual art and writing.

JY: Quotation is part of what you do, or citation, and one could say that’s a whole tradition in the 20th century. One thinks of Ezra Pound. If you look at the Cantos, there’s a huge amount of citation in there. What’s interesting about your citation is that you leave it open-ended. In Pound there’s always . . .

JH: A conclusion.

JY: Yeah, there’s a kind of directed citation. There’s a French writer, Marcel Cohen, who has written his autobiography using only quotes of other people. This project hasn’t been translated into English. I thought was really interesting—to write a book that’s your autobiography, but it’s not anything that you yourself have written. As the texts you chose go by, the language is both public and private. That’s one of the things that happens when we look at it. The language is public, it exists in the world, and you’re making it exist in the world again in another form, and in that sense it’s public. In another sense, it’s private because each of us will see that language differently. But that’s what really happens with writing, which I think that theorists don’t quite get. Nobody reads exactly the same way, and no one comes to the exact same conclusions. That’s not acknowledged because there’s something that’s almost anarchistic about that, and it’s a little disturbing. Language is what holds us together, and you’re suggesting, “Well, yes and no.” And it’s that no that’s inside the yes that I think people find a little creepy in a way. Maybe language doesn’t hold us together and just shows us how far apart we are.

JH: Language is like everything else, wilder and more individual than credited, and I do think it possible to make personal selections, even autobiography, from others’ writing. I also like to offer almost the equivalent to encyclopedias, and that’s one reason why I’ve gone to writing by many others—so that I can provide more. What I started with—the Truisms—tried to represent “Look, here’s everything!” or a distillation of everything. I’ve tried to keep that approach going. For the piece at the Reichstag, I used nothing of mine because I couldn’t write to the history of Germany. I thought it would be interesting to sample what had been uttered in various German parliaments over the decades, over 100 years, and to assemble that, but not tilt it or come to any singular conclusion. Then I trusted the viewers to make something of it all. I wouldn’t say at the end, “Germany is this, Germany is that.” Germany is all of these things.

JY: It’s interesting because it’s the Reichstag, and you say, “I’m not the one who can speak to that.” It’s similar to what Adorno asks—what writing can take place after the Holocaust? It’s also like Charles Reznikoff going to court records to write the poems in Testimony. It’s not his testimony, but it’s the testimony of all these different people. He’s culling it down and focusing on it. That is writing as witness, but it doesn’t proclaim that I am the witness, or the privileged figure that witnessed it all. That’s a kind of modesty that is very telling. People don’t necessarily think that an artist who gets to make work in the public space might have an underlying modesty. Particularly since the poet as a figure is supposed to be the oracular figure in the old Romantic sense. That’s obviously been disputed in the last 40 years in a rather healthy way, I think. Can the poet be an oracular figure at this point, or is it a kind of ego privilege?

JH: I would rather have a poet [Holzer noted after the interview that she was not talking about herself but about a “real” poet] than the president making pronouncements and decisions. Wouldn’t that be handy? Maybe even make things safer?

JY: George Bush is finally regretting the use of language, is regretting the use of the phrase “Bring them on.” It took him only three and a half years. I mean, how slowly can you think?

JH: And that was only under duress. That wasn’t a real epiphany.

SJ: I had a question about time and memory. While I was there, I was thinking a lot about how this text is going away, and this text is coming in. I was thinking a lot about memory and anticipation, to the extent that at times it would distract me from what I was actually reading because I would be trying to remember what I had just read. And then I would realize that I had missed what was just before me. You said something about “Give it to me, give it to me” being one of the feelings that you are trying to arouse with these moving texts. I felt that, and more specifically, “Give it back.” A lot of the pieces were also about memory—but maybe that’s how people write about cities. Maybe that’s characteristic.

JH: There are various times present in the piece. There’s now; there are records of events and emotions through time—through the decades or, in this case, the centuries. And then there’s being lost.

SJ: And the time of the original writing, which was different from the event.

JY: And then there’s a shift in poetry that occurs. O’Hara writes in the present tense. That’s a big change, because Wordsworth is writing in recollection. Something has happened, and he’s remembering it. And that seemed to persist for a long time. In the 20th century, that changes. O’Hara and other poets such as William Carlos Williams write in the present tense.

JH: The selection goes back and forth in time. The early prose, the account of discovery, is “Behold!” And some of the poems are in the present tense, and other ones recall. I like that kind of flipping. Plus there’s the perceptual: you’re in front of the electronic wall; you maybe can remember and place what just went by, but you’re not sure.

JY: You remind everybody that we live in multiple times. We live in our own mortal time; we live in historical time that is imposed on us. And then there are different kinds of historical memories that we might or might not believe in. Part of your life requires that you try not to be aware of all those times. It’s how you negotiate the day. Suddenly you’re kind of aware of them: there’s this time, there’s World Trade Center time, there’s American historical time, there’s personal time, and there’s different kinds of collective time—the time of, say, “Oh, I love these poets.” We exist in all of them, yet we don’t want to and can’t acknowledge all of them at once.

SJ: The body doesn’t understand the past tense so well. In thinking about a lot of different aspects of the piece, I perform a similar mental operation: of thinking that there is something withheld, or something I can only partly see, or something I am aware of losing, like the text that is passed and now I can’t remember. And then there’s also this sense of history itself, in the texts, as something passing away, inaccessible, and disappearing. I feel on many different levels that one of the ways this piece works is paradoxical: it works by failing. Yet it’s a kind of success, as it refuses to allow certain access, or makes certain things frustrating, or gives one an anxious sense that one is not up to the presented occasion, a kind of melancholy feeling that it’s slipping away from you.

JH: I thought longing should be there—hoping to understand, hoping to have more, wishing to have more time. That’s why I made the writing slow and white and floating—that seemed right for wistfulness. Also, I do think that the body can understand the past tense.

JY: Yeah, I think there is a wistfulness, which even comes through the texts themselves. Some of the texts are wistful, and then also we’re wistful for the moment of the text, or we’re remembering the moment, or we’re thinking about that moment. It is the sense that there’s no position in which you can view all of New York. All we’re getting is a fragment. We can’t ever step back and view the whole thing. It’s like the Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, who never pulls the camera back from Buenos Aires in his film Happy Together. You see everything up close, and he won’t let you step back or out of the film. He never shows you the city as backdrop, as postcard. In your work the city becomes language, but we can’t step back and see the whole thing. We can’t get the whole story of anything, much less this event that everyone thinks they know something about, or witnessed, or have strong feelings about.

JH: You can assert that this one thing is true, and that much else is, too.

JY: I think all the texts have this moment of truth, even if you think that this moment of truth is not necessarily true now. You don’t dispute it at that level. There aren’t any lies in the text.

SJ: You talked about wanting to feed the piece, keep it alive, add new texts into it. I was interested by the implication that it was a living thing and something that needed to change. It also made me think about its current state, which is going to change. What you see to the left is this mess of netting and scaffolding and the hole beyond it. Your text is going toward that. But that will eventually change because there will be buildings there, and then the piece will have a different effect.

JH: Maybe Szymborska’s words can come back then. The situation will change, and that poem might be possible to bear in a few years.

SJ: There is an Auden poem that somebody talked about on a blog in relation to your work. Was there an Auden poem that you were thinking about adding?

JH: I had wanted to include the Auden poem, but the representative of the estate decided against it. He wrote that he finds moving lights coercive, and that Auden hated coercive art. I thought that was a great response.

SJ: It has that lovely line in it about ironic points of light.

JH: Maybe it was too easy to want “September 1, 1939” at 7 World, but I thought the poem would have been perfect there. I understand that Auden didn’t love the poem, and his guardian dislikes electronics, so the good shepherd said no. This has been a great education for me. I think that electronics invite or demand attention, and he thinks that’s not fair. A reason I first chose electronics is that people tend to look at them. I thought I should employ this fact to have people watch what they otherwise might not. I learned that Auden found coercive art immoral and ineffective—and driven by an artist’s desire to exercise power.

JY: I remember a poet being really jealous of that fact of your work, and complaining to me about it because he knew that I wrote about art. But I don’t think that’s really the issue. I said, “You could have done it, someone could have done it, you didn’t. You thought that language could only exist in this form, and she thought that language could exist in another form. Why can’t we get something out of that?” I think it’s true, because it challenges us to think about what form our writing occurs in, what we believe in, or whether we can change the nature of our presentation. That’s useful as a kind of dialogue about language.

JH: Will the poet forgive me, now that I’m projecting poetry? It has been such a boon to me to be able to draw from so many people’s writing and concentrate on what I have some confidence in—I can imagine how words might look in space and present them. It was wonderful to be able to pull from poems—from the Szymborska, Darwish, Cole, Amichai, and others—and, for example, to put these on Rockefeller Center. It’s been a delight.

SJ: Do you feel like you’re rewriting them by doing that? Because they’re changed in some sense.

JH: No. They’re re-presented, but not rewritten or fundamentally changed.

JY: In another way, you’re disseminating texts or language that people should read or know about. We are a culture that doesn’t read. I read in the Times that 46 percent of Americans have not read a single book in the course of a year. That’s depressing. What is it that they don’t read? What becomes of a culture that doesn’t read? It becomes a culture of amnesia.

JH: But people will read. When we projected poetry across from Penn Station, on Hotel Pennsylvania, the crowd coming out of the Jay-Z concert and the Knicks game looked up and stayed with Szymborska, including the poem “Torture.” About every 12th to 14th person looked; we sat and counted. That was interesting, because I always wonder if what I’m doing is useless, and just a nice and a pretty idea, or worse. But people will stop and read and talk.

SJ: I think that people are really excited by that idea. People are reading all the time; if you walk around New York, people are reading a million things, constantly. It’s just that most of them aren’t very interesting. One of the great effects of looking at your piece, even for a short while, is that when you go out into the city you start noticing all of the signs everywhere. I read “Equal and Exact Justice for All Men” on a building, and I think, “Whoa, that’s like a Jenny Holzer. It looks kind of ironic there.”

JH: Now I have company. Thanks. I’m alone too much. I’m glad that you’re in the crazy mode of going around and looking at all that writing.

SJ: The bank across the street from my house just added a really ugly, big new sign at the top of a beautiful old brick building. They added their “Chase” sign, and I thought, “Hmm, you could read that in a different way.” It’s a command. It was interesting to think of your piece as infiltrating and reactivating the texts that were in the city around it.

JY: You also remind us that language isn’t stable and fixed. Certain politicians have phrases that are like mantras. They’re said when they’re supposed to stir up something. When the president says, “My fellow Americans,” how many people in the room think, “Who’s he speaking to?” The way you present your language reminds us that it’s not stable. There’s a fluidity to it, literally going across. How it’s understood is fluid. We don’t have to think of it as a fixed thing. That gives us a certain possibility to examine how language is used.

JH: There’s good and bad in fluidity. Sometimes you can’t fix the meaning, and that’s a loss. Other times, the multiple voices and interpretations and the motion stand in for change and possibility.

SJ: I don’t think that loss is a negative thing, either.

JH: No, loss can be the real deal.

JY: The notion of language as fluid is important. Seeing these signs that are supposed to be read one way, when actually you can read “Chase” in a different way, the world suddenly opens up.

SJ: Your earlier works in electronic text seem to exploit the connotations of the form as conveying official information or breaking news. This piece seems different because the works are more clearly literary, and its size conveys the sense of an artwork. Does that reflect some change?

JH: Hopefully it reflects some fit with the situation.

SJ: So you aren’t meaning to invoke the contrast of form and content that you did in the earlier pieces?

JH: Correct, at least not always. I’m trying to cut to the chase now and make what is appropriate for particular places. For example, it was right to have lovely silver words rising for the light projections at Rockefeller Center and the New York Public Library. For the piece at 7 World Trade, I didn’t want strong associations with the stock market or the news; I wanted the LEDs to be relatively otherworldly. I hoped people would think about the language and have a sense memory of how it passed in front of them.

JY: It didn’t remind me of ticker tapes, yet when I read about it I thought it would. But the scale of it, and the timing of it, and the graphics of it made all those associations disappear.

JH: I wanted it to be about the text and about grace for the eyes.

JY: I think that really did work. From what I know of your work, I was thinking I was going to see one thing. I didn’t see what I thought I was going to see.

JH: Oh, good, I’m not dead!

An Interview with Jenny Holzer

“I thought longing should be at 7 World Trade Center–hoping to understand, hoping to have more, wishing to have more time.”

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