UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Messages to the public : Krzysztof Wodiczko and Jenny Holzer vs. the Reagan revolution Sorenson, Vanessa Nicole


In the week preceding the 1984 United States presidential election, Jenny Holzer and Krzysztof Wodiczko presented ephemeral works of art in public spaces in Manhattan that addressed the election and were highly critical of President Ronald Reagan. Previous considerations of Wodiczko’s AT&T projection, Holzer’s Sign on a Truck and the larger public art movement of that time have emphasized a post-structuralist interpretation, neglecting the applied political aspects in favour of their theoretical underpinnings. With a move towards the practical aspects of the works, this thesis examines the conditions that led to the presentation of these two works and considers what they can teach us about the larger practice of political public art during that period in New York. Chapter 1 considers the political, economic and artistic context of the United States—and New York in particular—in the early to mid 1980s. The Chapter 2 offers an analysis of Wodiczko’s AT&T projection, a night-time projection of the image of President Reagan’s French-cuffed hand onto the side of the AT&T Long Lines building, posed for a recognizable American ritual, the Pledge of Allegiance. Chapter 3 closely considers Sign on a Truck, for which Jenny Holzer deployed a giant screen, mounted on the side of an 18-wheeler truck, to display pre-recorded videos created by collaborating artists interspersed with “man-on-the-street” interviews commenting on the looming presidential election. By shedding the insightful yet constraining post-structural lens that has traditionally coloured the art historical understanding of these works, their essential educative aspects are revealed and a broader understanding is made possible, not only of these two artists and their respective projects, but also of the defense that was mounted by New York's public artists against the “Reagan Revolution.”

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