Nicholas Zurbrugg: Perhaps I could begin by asking you how you began to work with language. Do you happily accept the idea of being called a 'language artist'?
Jenny Holzer: It's a good partial description. Usually if I have to come up with a short title, I say 'public artist' to be a little more encompassing.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What do you understand by 'public artist'?
Jenny Holzer: That title just reflects what I like to do, which is to put sentences in public places, where people take them at face value.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What was it that led you to work with language rather than with painting?
Jenny Holzer: When I was a painter, I was an abstract painter, because that's what I loved. But then, I found that I wanted to be outspoken about things, and I didn't want to be a social realist painter, so I turned to language, as a way of being—when I needed to—quite explicit about things. Nicholas Zurbrugg: What was the first content of your language?
Jenny Holzer: The first series that I wrote was the Truisms. They were one-liners, meant to sound like real clichés, on almost every topic. I wanted to do a survey of the issues that people were concerned about, in a form that would be short enough to be displayed in public places where people can absorb only a small amount of information. Before I started writing the Truisms, I had tried to do public pieces—abstract Pieces—that I wasn't satisfied with because people only were puzzled by them. Which is something! It's not a bad thing to puzzle people, but it wasn't all that I wanted because I wanted to talk about large topics.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Were these abstract pieces the paintings which you left for people to find on the beach?
Jenny Holzer: Yes, I tried that. I was able to stop people. People noticed the work. But what I wasn't able to do was to tell those people what I wanted to say, or have them think about what I wanted them to consider. That's what those pieces didn't do, and that's one reason I turned to language. I had the desire to do public pieces, but I hadn't found a way to be effective.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: How pleased were you with your readers' general response to these pieces?
Jenny Holzer: I think they went reasonably well. I could tell people read them, because they would write things back to me on the posters. I could see that people would go down an entire list of sentences, and check things off that they liked or that they loathed. So I knew that people were reading them and thinking about them. That was something—to get somebody to freeze in a public place, and consider these matters. The one criticism that I took to heart about the Truisms was that because they were about every possible subject, and because they were written from every point of view—be it left, right, middle, common sense, or extremist—they were disappointing for people looking for solutions to pressing problems. I put before people all the ways of thinking about things, and I outlined every problem, but I didn't necessarily show a way out. I thought that was a legitimate critique, because there are pressing problems that need immediate solutions.
What redeemed the Truisms though, and what I was doing deliberately by presenting all the different points of view, was that for once, it was not a didactic presentation, or even a dialectical one. It's not just 'A' and it's not just 'A' versus 'B', and it's not the sum of 'A' and 'B', it's a universe of equally weighted opinions. And so one trusts the reader to come up with the correct answer, once he or she has considered and tolerated all these viewpoints.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What happened next, after the Truisms street posters?
Jenny Holzer: I did another series of posters entitled Inflammatory Essays where, in attempting to answer some of the criticism about the Truisms—that each sentence cancelled out the other—I upped the ante by making the Inflammatory Essays hotter. Again, they represented many points of view, but each one was either an urgent call for action, or was such a despicable thing that it demanded that you do something after reading it.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What sort of statements were these?
Jenny Holzer: Oh, everything from personal manifestos, that start out, 'Don't talk down to me'... or ... 'I'll cut the smile off your face', which I thought was a good all—purpose 'get off my back' one—it could be used by women or the ' underclass'—to ones by sex-crazed maniacs, to texts that were written very much like political manifestos.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: When did you first use electronic signs?
Jenny Holzer: I had a chance to do the sign at Times Square, that's now dead—may it rest in peace! After using the underground medium of the poster, I thought it would be interesting to put unusual content in an official medium—the official medium being the electronic sign that normally has advertising or the occasional public service announcement. My piece in Times Square had a number of texts—'PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME'—maybe was the best one. My piece was up for two weeks every twenty minutes or so.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: So this again was a deliberately subversive piece?
Jenny Holzer: I was hoping so, who knows? Rather than getting the expected content—an ad for a Broadway show or spaghetti or whatever, you would have something about private property. I had some daffy ones too—'EXPIRING FOR LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL BUT STUPID'—but then some serious ones, such as 'TORTURE IS BARBARIC', all mixed in with the ad copy.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: When did you start doing installations in a gallery situation-either in a commercial gallery or a museum situation?
Jenny Holzer: Probably a year or two after moving to New York, I did some things in alternative spaces that consisted of the Truisms blown up on large photostats, and placed in windows facing the street. I did one in Franklin Furnace, at the Printed Matter bookstore, and at Fashion Moda, the storefront museum in the Bronx. These were accompanied by audio tapes. The Truisms were blasted on the street, so that you could hear them and read them.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: How were the audiotapes done? Did you make them with your own voice?
Jenny Holzer: No, I had a number of voices. I tried to find clichéd voices to match the material—very normal men and women—more men than women, because sadly, it's still more typical to hear male voices telling you what's what.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Does this mean that you were adding a sort of ironic tone to the piece?
Jenny Holzer: No, actually, it was to make it sound real. It's ridiculous that the male voice is considered the normal one, but I wasn't using men to snigger. I was doing it so that people would take the work seriously, because you're supposed to believe what men say.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: There wasn't a subliminal humorous intent?
Jenny Holzer: Well, somewhat, sure. I only am reacting against what you said about irony, because I don't like that to be the dominant thing in the work. It's fine if there's a dose of irony, but things that are tongue-in-cheek remain only that. I want the work to be effective. But I thought it was funny, having the man droning on, saying, 'ROMANTIC LOVE WAS INVENTED TO MANIPULATE WOMEN'.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Have you done any other pieces using audiotape or voices?
Jenny Holzer: The only other time I've used a voice is in the pieces I did for television—spots that have computer—animated sentences flying by, or doing something extravagant. They are accompanied by a voiceover. Someone says the text as it flips around the screen. I think the presentation I chose was close enough to what normally appears on television to be credible. Both the way I did it, and the fact that it's on television, make it convincing. But again, the content supplies the shock.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Have you ever been interested in using T.V.—or sound—in a more visual or purely hedonistic way, in terms of just the look of T.V.?
Jenny Holzer: I think that's always a part of it. It's necessary that things are attractive enough so people watch. I want people to stare at them, and I want people to consider them. It's the law of the jungle that people look at things that are dazzling.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: But the dazzle isn't your prime concern?
Jenny Holzer: No. I like some dazzle, but I don't want to rely on that. Dazzle in the service of content! I wanted to make some alternative pronouncements. Maybe the model for the posters as well as the television is not advertising, but political posters and broadcasts. Who cares about advertising? There are more interesting fields.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Do the same sort of precedents inform your gallery installations? It seems to me that it might be the case that when you're working with a gallery installation, with say, electric signs and texts carved on pieces of granite, you're perhaps exploring something that doesn't have an obvious model.
Jenny Holzer: With gallery installations you have more of a chance to concentrate on the visual. In a gallery situation it can enhance the presentation rather than distract. In public, your work has to be juicy enough to stop somebody, but obviously you don't want too many embellishments and flourishes. You're not trying so much to intoxicate or to set a mood, as you're trying to communicate something, and run. I am interested in purely visual stuff, and I like the effect that it has on the viewer—the kind of tone you can set, the frame of mind you can put people in, be it sombre, euphoric, sick. When you do have the time in a controlled environment, a museum or a gallery, it's interesting to add all the special effects.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: I think you wrote that in your Venice Biennale installations there were going to be a number of colours interacting in such a way that when the viewer went in he or she could lose a certain sense of space and solidity. There's also an account of an earlier piece that you did at the Rhode Island School of Design, where you painted everything in your studio white and then added a blue wash in order to create the same sort of sense of spatial ambiguity. I wonder if some of your later gallery pieces using electronic sign-boards are partially re-exploring those atmospheric effects?
Jenny Holzer: That's probably fair. I like to turn people upside down two or three times to get their attention and to make them look at things with fresh eyes. The blue room that you mention, from graduate school, was an attempt to make people re-orient themselves. In the room in Venice I was trying to do a version of hell. I took the floor away from people-the floor seemed to be a sheet of glass, there was infinite depth, and you couldn't be sure where your feet were. I wanted it to be visual hell, where your sense of space was destroyed. It also was information-overload hell, with aggressive sense and nonsense on the multi-language signs. I thought that it was a reasonable representation of some part of modern life.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What parts of modern life?
Jenny Holzer: The hellish parts of modern life!
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Which parts of the installations did you like best at Venice?
Jenny Holzer: The galleries were completely different. If you compare the two electronic rooms that the stone antechambers set up, the mother room was absolutely sincere, sad, and sober. As electronics go, it was quite subdued, because the pace was slow and words were rising from the ground and moving quietly in sync. The tone and the content of this piece were very different from the hell room. There were a dozen elongated vertical signs on the end wall of the mother room, showing a longer version of the floor text. The text on the floor gave people a chance to read something that held still. The first paragraph was a thesis paragraph, and then the signs showed the longer text. The mother room probably was my favourite.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: So to state the obvious, both of those variants of that text seem to require or invite the reader to spend more time?
Jenny Holzer: Yes. I was hoping that people would linger to read the text in the mother room, and I was hoping people would get bent in the hell room. Get bent, somehow or other- read enough to break. It was the kind of room to fry a rat.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What was the text about in the mother room?
Jenny Holzer: It is a text about what happens to you when you have a child, when all of a sudden the threats that have always been there—which you've become inured to, because you're older or more decayed or more blase, or less hopeful, or whatever it is that lets you tolerate horrible things- become new again and unbearable because you are spending every second of the day trying to protect the child. All the troubles that are around you suddenly seem real. This probably was the only reason I was brave enough to write on a subject like motherhood. I thought that it did tie into the work that I've done all along, which is—'God, what are we going to do about A, B, C, D, and how will we survive?'
Nicholas Zurbrugg: So it's an affirmation of individual response to these things, rather than a discussion of them in more general terms?
Jenny Holzer: Yes. I felt them more acutely than I had since I was about nineteen, when I woke up to the fact that there were grisly things around, and that maybe I should do something.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: If you had a second chance to work on this installation would you want to make any changes?
Jenny Holzer: You always Wait to do things better, everything from writing better to installing better. But I think the mother text was effective. I was waylaid by crying people. They'd lost a child, or their daughter had lost a child, or they had had these same fears.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: So once again, this is asserting what apocalyptic postmodern theory denies—but what everybody knows—that one can communicate personal grief or such experiences, irrespective of the fact that we're living in the age of mass media?
Jenny Holzer: I hope that you can communicate grief, and I did make a few people sick in the hell room.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: If you wanted the extremely elaborate system of electronic sign-boards in the hell room to leave people feeling sick or with a sense of vertigo, did you also want the signs in the mother room to produce a sense of modest vertigo?
Jenny Holzer: Yes. I wanted it to seem a little difficult, but I needed people to stay and to be able to read. I wanted it to be somewhat tough because the subject was, and also I just plain like the way it feels when the text rises from the floor and takes you with it.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Have you plans for further installations exploring new kinds of technology? I believe that you're interested in environments employing artificial and virtual reality.
Jenny Holzer: I'm interested in virtual reality, but I don't know enough. I want to try to talk to some of the companies that are researching this, to see if there's anything I can use. There's a long history of illusionism in art, and so this would seem to fit in, and I also enjoy the idea of a show where there's nothing really there!
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Do you have any more detailed ideas of what this sort of show might contain, or be trying to present?
Jenny Holzer: If I find anything that I can use, I suspect I will present the usual themes, the survival themes. I can' t quite imagine what it will look like, since I haven't seen enough of virtual reality, except the bad movie versions! But I sense that there's something there. I want to go to California, where most of it lives, and see what I can find.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: I take it that your project is not primarily concerned with indulging in illusionism or abandoning the project of understanding reality? Are you still thinking in terms of practical solutions and survival techniques?
Jenny Holzer: I would hope that by using it, you would get a look at everyone's either occasional or perpetual desire to be someplace else when things are terrible—that's what motivates our space programme I think. And I want to use virtual reality to highlight some issues, to try to make the problems that actually are here seem real to people, all over again. I'd also like to build a virtual reality utopia.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: Finally then, how does this leave you in terms of the questions or notions of avant-garde practices? Do you consider yourself to be an avant-garde or experimental artist? Or would it be fairer to say that you feel yourself to be simply working with what's there? Or do you have some other general concept of what you're up to?
Jenny Holzer: I don't worry about the term avant-garde. I guess there's an honourable tradition, when people really did make breakthroughs, stopped painting academic nudes, and went on to something better. But I think the term has fallen into disrepute recently. Don't you feel that 'avant-garde' usually means completely beside the point to most people? So I wouldn't want to be avant-garde by that definition. But for my practice, I think it's important, since we live in an age where there are so many technological marvels and horrors, to use technology when appropriate. If high tech gets the message across, it would be stupid to turn your back on it.