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I'm going to kick his butt. As it happens it's a very nice butt, as prime ministers go. -- Bono, on Canada's Paul Martin, 2005

U2 Connections

Jenny Holzer

by Angela Pancella

Jenny Holzer installation

Imagine walking in Times Square, looking up at a prominent electronic billboard, and seeing "MONEY CREATES TASTE" displayed in its lights. Or visiting Las Vegas and finding "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT" written on an LED sign underneath a neon Caesars Palace marquee. 

Many people did see such things, all because of Jenny Holzer, a conceptual artist based in New York. Holzer wrote a series of statements she dubbed "truisms" -- "Abuse of power should come as no surprise." "Murder has its sexual side." "Stupid people shouldn't breed." She displayed her "Truisms" everywhere imaginable. Some were printed on T-shirts, others tacked up in flyer form on bulletin boards. Grant money funded their display on billboards or sides of buildings. They even appeared on baggage carousels in a Las Vegas airport, on the side of a train in Hamburg, and on the JumboTron in Candlestick Park. All this exposure in high-traffic areas may mean her art has been seen by more members of the general public than the work of any other living artist.

Holzer's work is not restricted to her "Truisms," though they are what made her reputation. Other projects have included "The Living Series," ruminations on daily life ("Some days you wake and immediately start to worry. Nothing in particular is wrong, it's just the suspicion that forces are aligning quietly and there will be trouble.") placed on bronze or enamel plaques; "The Survival Series," similar to "Truisms" with provocative sayings on electric signs ("What urge will save us now that sex won't?"); and "Laments," messages written both on LED screens and chiseled into sarcophagi. Most of her artistic output has three characteristics in common with "Truisms": it involves words rather than images; it is shown in venues not normally associated with art; and it appears in the guise of something else recognizable to the culture. For instance, a JumboTron screen in Candlestick Park has a clearly defined meaning -- this is a place for sports scores and promotional slogans. When the words "YOU MUST HAVE ONE GRAND PASSION" appear there instead, it is as if the artist has launched a sneak attack on the larger world using the larger world's own weapons.

Around the time of ZooTV, Bono talked often of "judo" as a metaphor for what U2 was trying to accomplish by hauling giant TV screens around the world and appropriating the style of sleazy rock'n'rollers. In judo you use your enemy's strength to launch your attack. Like Holzer, U2 used objects with a specific meaning to the culture -- TVs, telephones -- and invested them with new meanings, via satellite linkups with Sarajevo or prank calls to the White House.

But there is a closer connection between Holzer and U2. This is where things get uncomfortable. Brainstorming ideas for visuals for the tour, Bono namedrops Jenny Holzer to U2 at the End of the World author Bill Flanagan: "Bono points out that the song 'The Fly' is full of new truisms ('A liar won't believe anyone else') and when they play that song live he wants the screens to flash all sorts of epigrams, messages, and buzz words, from Call your mother to Guilt is not of God to Pussy." And, indeed, this is what U2 does -- to Holzer's consternation. An Entertainment Weekly article from 1992 says that when Holzer first saw the video to "The Fly" she thought they were using her pieces. In the video phrases similar to the ones Holzer wrote (Holzer truisms: "The Future is Stupid," "Ambition is Just as Dangerous As Complacency"; U2 truisms: "The Future Is a Fantasy," "Ambition Bites the Nails of Success") are presented in a way akin to how she exhibited her work -- the phrase "WATCH MORE TV" runs across an LED signboard like her "CLASS STRUCTURE IS AS ARTIFICIAL AS PLASTIC" ran across one at the Palladium in New York. The article points out one of the directors of the video, Jon Klein, co-produced a piece on Holzer that aired on MTV in 1990. The other producer of the MTV Holzer piece, Mark Pellington, worked on the ZooTV tour itself. 

Ned O'Hanlon (who, as part of Dreamchaser, produced the "Fly" video and "ZooTV Live In Sydney," among many other of U2's filmed exploits) explained in a web chat in 1996, "Words were always a part of ZooTV...In the video, Jon Klein came up with some of the slogans, Bono with others, ourselves with others. The show was Mark Pellington. Pellington took the word idea and went mad. We all sat in an edit suite and thought up all the words we could....Jenny Holzer was certainly an influence. She wasn't the first person to use words as 'Art' and neither were we."
But by using scrolling LED signs for the slogans in "The Fly" -- and making some of the messages sound like truisms -- were Klein, Pellington et al. coming too close to Jenny Holzer's style? A news release on a recent Holzer exhibition says "she contributed text and images to pop group U2's Zoo Station world tour." So confusion was created. It's not a simple case of copyright violation, but it can lead to bad blood between U2 and members of the artistic community.

Perhaps the saddest part of this debate is that it may not have had to take place at all. When U2 were launching ZooTV they recruited visual artists to help them with the show design, introducing such names as David Wojnarowicz (the man behind the buffalo images in "The Fly") and the Emergency Broadcast Network (who made the Bush-chants-"We Will Rock You" tape played at the start of US shows) to a mass audience. When they thought of adopting the "Truisms" style in "The Fly," did they contact Holzer? With her interest in art that appears in unexpected places, she may have embraced the opportunity to have her "Truisms" flash on the ZooTV screens. Imagine the pairing of her aesthetic with U2's. Imagine attending a concert and seeing "MONEY CREATES TASTE" morph into "TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART."