The artist Jenny Holzer created For SAAM, a column of light and text, for the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)
What first inspired you to project your text onto public spaces?
I wanted to find a successor to the electronic billboards that I'd inhabited, an additional way to show writing. I like presenting text to the public, to general audiences, in hopes its of interest and use. I thought the quality of the projection different from that of electronics that make you think of Wall Street and news. The projections are more mysterious.
Without getting too technical, can you explain how the projections work?
The projections use large computer-controlled machines to throw text on rivers, oceans, trees, mountains and buildings. Typically I'll be invited to project from one night to indefinitely, and I'll show a selection of my text or choices of poems or quotations by many people. The most recent projection was at the Kennedy Center where we presented text by JFK and Teddy Roosevelt on the Potomac River and Roosevelt Island. Those quotations had to do with the necessity to tell the truth about the president and citizens' responsibilities in the wide and scary world. For the Smithsonian installation, I'm making an LED array. What will be indoors there hopefully will resemble sculpture.
You've projected text onto Rome's Spanish Steps, the Reichstag and a beach in Rio de Janeiro. What has been your favorite medium?
I like water. Very recently we projected on the Pacific Ocean. We had poems there about war and peace—and those seemed timely. And, courtesy of the loveliness of the sea, the poems were especially moving.
Your most challenging project?
Probably in Liverpool, where the fog rolled in. Apart from a brief moment, when the text appeared in the sky and looked miraculous, the fog killed the projections for awhile. Other sites have been challenging courtesy of their tough histories, and some have been daunting because the places are so beautiful that we have to measure up. So there is a big range of challenges.
In this work, why was it important for you to use your own words, as opposed to other people's quotes?
I make different text selections for different moments and places. I hadn't used my own writing for so long that I became curious about it again.
This is your first full-cylinder column of text viewable from 360 degrees. What are some of the technical challenges?
This is a new configuration. It's a relatively dematerialized piece, in that it consists of very thin, tall strips. And about the technical challenges: may I confess that we're not finished, so I hope that the problems will show themselves very soon so we can dispatch them.
Well, what could go wrong?
This piece will need to hang straight for the text to look as good as possible, so we're trying to find right amount of weight to place at the bottom. That's one consideration. We believe that we've picked diodes that are bright enough, but not too bright. And it goes on from there.
By varying the style of the text, the cylinder appears to be in motion. Why did you want this effect?
I don't know whether that will be possible, so I can't quite make that claim. We always discover something when we make an installation like this one; because it isn't the sort of piece you can build in your basement and experiment with. How it ultimately will appear will be revealed to me, as well as everybody else, when it goes up. I am guessing though that when the text spirals up the cylinder, either the artwork or the room might seem to move.
Do you feel the urge to use more provocative text when working in Washington?
If anything, it makes me a bit cautious because I think gratuitous provocation is stupid. That said, there's always plenty going on in Washington that is somewhere between exciting and maddening [laughs]. I think the text is diverse, democratic enough that there will be something for everyone. And I hope that sincerity will come through—a glimpse of my wanting things to turn out well, which I trust is alive and well in Washington.
So many factors, like weather and natural disasters, have affected your work. How do you make do?
Sometimes we're lucky. For example, a dust storm in Mexico let us see the letters in the air as they moved from the projectors. We were able to see letters from the back and that's rare. Other times the weather just makes the audience and us feel wet and miserable, as we're being rained on [laughs].
What kind of feedback are you hoping this installation will produce?
I think, well hope, that the physical characteristics of the piece will be a little surprising. I don't believe that anybody will have seen anything quite like it, although I was in Las Vegas recently and to my horror I saw a lighting fixture rather too similar [laughs]. But it didn't have content! What will distinguish this piece from that lighting fixture is the text that will swirl. I will do a fair amount with the programming so I want to believe that the content as well as its presentation will be worth staying with.
Is there anything that makes For SAAM Smithsonian-specific?
I wanted the piece to fit and to reflect the space. Because [SAAM's] Lincoln Gallery is tall and white, I made something that is attenuated, light and barely there. I wanted the content to be broad and balanced but on a number of tough topics. I thought that right somehow.
How did you decide what text to use?
I wanted to present a survey, as well as an ample amount of text, because this is a permanent piece. I want there to be a good chance, even for people who come often, to see something different each time. I chose the very first series I wrote, The Truisms, because it functions almost as an index of what's to come next. And these first sentences, the one-liners, are written from many points of view on any number of topics. Then I went on to more recent series that are more personal. The text never is purely autobiographical, but it is open.
What do you consider the truest of your Truisms?
"Abuse of power comes as no surprise."