Jenny Holzer and PEN America illuminate Rockefeller Center to cast light on freedom of expression

Lit and Literary

Jenny Holzer and PEN America illuminate Rockefeller Center to cast light on freedom of expression

SPEECH ITSELF, 2022, Rockefeller Center, New York. (Freedom to Write Index, © 2021 by PEN America. Used with permission of PEN America. © 2022 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ Photo: Filip Wolak)

To coincide with the commemoration of its 100th anniversary PEN America has commissioned American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer to illuminate the facade of three buildings in Rockefeller Center. Entitled SPEECH ITSELF, the nightly light show projects quotes on free speech and free expression by notable writers and artists.

PEN America is a human rights–oriented nonprofit dedicated to defending the freedom of expression in literature, journalism, education, and more. Each year, it produces the Freedom to Write Index, a database of reports on individuals and instances in which freedom of speech and expression is jeopardized. The organization has worked with writers including Salman Rushdie, a former president of PEN America who was recently attacked at a public event. The organization continues to speak out against the banning of books in schools and the extinguishing of journalists and news outlets. (Notably, the week of September 18–24, 2022 is Banned Books Week, an annual, nationwide event that highlights literary censorship.)

Kicking off its centennial, PEN America held a gala in May and auctioned off a fireproof edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Holzer’s installation is the latest component in the year-long observance and coincides with an exhibition PEN America at 100, on view at the New-York Historical Society until October 9. The show details the advocacy group’s history from its humble beginnings as a social club started by a group of New York writers into the global institution that it is today.

Holzer’s SPEECH ITSELF projects quotes from 60 famous literary figures, whose genres span from science fiction and fantasy to history, including Atwood, Toni Morrison, Ayad Akhtar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ron Chernow, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joy Harjo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yoon Ha Lee, and Alejandro Zambra. The passages all echo themes laid out in the First Amendment and are project in bold white lettering across the facades of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and 610 and 620 Fifth Avenue.

“Because her work reifies and celebrates words, there could not be an artist more fitting to celebrate PEN America’s centenary than the legendary Jenny Holzer,” Suzanne Nossel, author and CEO of PEN America said in a statement. “Her vision of elevating the ideas and stories unique to PEN America and making them accessible to a wider public has been transformational for our organization. To watch her keen eye pore through the annals of free speech and our history as an organization to choose messages, statements and questions that demand attention has been riveting.

Among the quotes on view are:

“We have no richer capacity than the ability to formulate and express ideas.”
—Andrew Solomon

“In a world where independent voices are increasingly stifled, PEN is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
—Margaret Atwood

“Free speech has long been a potent weapon for disenfranchised groups, used to expose repression and prevent the powerful from silencing dissent.”
—Suzanne Nossel

This is not Hoosick, New York–based Holzer’s first foray into work related to freedom of expression. The politically and socially-minded artist has presented a number of multimedia installations in other public facing venues, as well as at the Venice Biennale, the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her work is also currently the subject of the exhibition Demented Words, on view now at Hauser & Wirth New York in Manhattan. A highlight of the show is WTF, a suspended digital sign that continuously scrolls through tweets published by former President Donald Trump and other posts penned by the person (or entity) behind the QAnon conspiracies.

“PEN America’s extraordinary commitment to the written and spoken word, and to standing for open expression worldwide, inspires,” the artist said in a statement. “PEN’s work to protect ‘some rawness’ – to borrow from Colm Tóibín – supports the purpose of language in public spaces. I am delighted and honored to collaborate with PEN on an installation that lights its significant century-long dedication to the freedoms to think, to write, and to speak.”

SPEECH ITSELF will be on view at Rockefeller Center nightly from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. through September 18. More information on the text-based installation can be found here.