Can a Lobby Be Subversive? Jenny Holzer’s Comcast Capitulation

Jenny Holzer with "For Philadelphia", 2018, in the lobby of the Comcast Technology Center. Courtesy dandelion + burdock.
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At 60 stories and 1,121 feet, the new Comcast Technology Center is the tallest building in Philadelphia, a glaringly optimistic slice of the city’s rapidly evolving skyline. The Norman Foster-designed glass tower is home to futuristic office spaces for its eponymous tenant, a Four Seasons hotel, and corporate lobby art that, unusually for the genre, demands and rewards sustained attention.

The lobby’s centerpiece is Conrad Shawcross’s Exploded Paradigm (2018), a hypermasculine, geometric iron-and-steel sculpture that does the thing lobby art is supposed to do – it breaks up the visual field, taking up a lot of vertical physical space without taking up too much intellectual space. Comcast seems to see the piece as a potent metaphor for the company’s tumescence, calling it “an ascending totem to endeavor itself,” but the sculpture is generic, inoffensive, and basically unremarkable.

Of real interest, however, is Jenny Holzer’s For Philadelphia (2018), comprised of nine LED screens mounted on the ceiling of the lobby atrium. Traveling at precisely the speed of a person standing on the escalators below them, these displays mimic a series of scrolling tickers, with nine ribbons of vertical text creating a continuous cascade spanning a full city block, the footprint of the building. Because of their placement in this portal to the headquarters of a telecommunications company that controls, among other media entities, NBC, Holzer’s tickers perform a neat trompe l’oeil trick for the digital era – we expect to be able to look up and glean an update on stymied Brexit negotiations, the latest legal challenge to President Trump’s latest unconstitutional executive action, or the most up-to-the-minute commodities futures quotes. Instead, we find the words of children and poets, utterances that are direct without necessarily being logical, and spare without being efficient.

Jenny Holzer, “For Philadelphia,” and Conrad Shawcross, “Expanded Paradign,” both 2018. Installation view of Comcast Center’s lobby.

In fact efficiency is the opposite of what Holzer is after. In both content and form, the scrolling texts prod the ethos of their site, an architectural wonder intent on setting the curve for everything – speed, connectivity, luxury, even sustainability. Comcast workers will reportedly never have to stop working because of something as twentieth-century-mundane as an elevator ride; the Technology Center’s elevators are equipped with invincible Wi-Fi and cell service backed by the “fastest broadband humanly possible,” according to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. The texts Holzer chose, by contrast, have a distinctly unplugged spirit. “I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars,” runs an excerpt of one of her selections, Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities,” “I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being.”

To read this much text, however, takes some doing, which is where the piece’s subversive power lies. Where a traditional, horizontally-running ticker is intuitively easy to read from a range of angles, Holzer’s vertical ones require either that the viewer be standing in a particular spot or that she twist her neck and lift her gaze just so in order for all the letters to appear legible and right-side up. The fact that all nine displays carry identical text helps, but you need to break stride to catch more than a word or two at a time, an unpopular choice among the frenetic bustle of besuited commuters entering and exiting the building. In this environment, asking the viewer to pause and consider local schoolchildren’s responses to the prompts “It’s great to live in Philadelphia because …” and “When I imagine my life five years from now …” feels, if not exactly radical, at least like an invitation to a temporarily awareness-altering shift in scale and affect. Whether written by a Nobel Laureate or a kid who loves pizza, for most viewers, the texts Holzer chose will be experienced as evocative fragments, overheard whispers of the thrumming collective consciousness of the city and the world.

It is a pity that, as represented here, this collective consciousness seems to be artificially anesthetized with hope. Holzer stopped writing her own texts in 2001, finding that she “couldn’t say enough adequately.” Her new practice involves curating the voices of others, and other voices lack Holzer’s astonishing ability to distil an entire age of anxiety into self-undermining slogans like “Any surplus is immoral,” “Protect me from what I want,” or “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” Provocative statements like these inculcated a healthy skepticism vis-à-vis both language and the images it displaced in the conceptual art era. Beginning in the late ‘70s, Holzer created series of such sharp, one-line texts to be displayed in public spaces, initially using wheat paste, flyers, and other cheap, impermanent media. She printed “Men don’t protect you anymore” on condom wrappers and “If You’re Considered Useless No One Will Feed You Anymore” on Styrofoam cups. Texts were soon displayed on marquees, billboards, and, when the technology became available, LED displays. By contrast, the For Philadelphia texts are thin on skepticism, or even ambivalence about the assured brightness of our shared future. Absent is the smoldering dread one imagines we would hear if we could somehow listen in on humanity’s actual collective consciousness in 2019.

Jenny Holzer, “Protect Me From What I Want,” 1982.

But Holzer is now a star who works on a grand and permanent scale, which comes with compromise. When she was preparing a scrolling LED lobby installation for 7 World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, in 2006, she clashed with the building’s developer, who wanted her to choose texts that reflected only “positive stuff,” nothing that would remind viewers of “the miseries of 9/11.” Holzer relented. With For Philadelphia, one wonders if she even put up a fight. After all, no one wants to meet a client for lunch under a canopy of doom.

Once the most anti-establishment of artists, Holzer’s absorption by corporate America raises old conversations about patronage and corruption, but this particular work prompts a relatively new question: can there be such a thing as an art of capitulation? When resistance has proven futile, when the revolution has fizzled out, when we have been forced to admit that neoliberalism has triumphed and that our art can never so much as rain on that parade – if art doesn’t stop (and it never does), does the nature and purpose of art change?

For Philadelphia suggests that it both does and doesn’t. And if Holzer’s piece is any indication, we have reason to be disturbed, but not entirely without hope. For Philadelphia is tricked out with bells and whistles: rippling and dissolving effects and color accents that come and go, and threaten to render the piece decorative. But alive in some of the text is the naked impulse to call into existence a thing without a function, a creation that reserves space and time for no purpose at all, a zone of pure, glorious waste in a world where everything conspires to enhance and exalt our productivity: “So you’re saying it’s useless,” asks a Charles Bernstein poem in dialogue Holzer chose to include. “Yes,” comes the reply. “Then it must be art.”

 

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