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(SPAM Cuts) ‘Light the Fight’ by Jenny Holzer

In this SPAM Cut, Tom Bailey considers the performative interventions of Jenny Holzer’s recent #LightTheFight project in Manhattan, which explores the representational histories of the AIDS epidemic in art, poetry and activism. 


> Street poetry. Conceptual art. Political activism. All of the above. Jenny Holzer’s textual interventions have been variously defined, inviting analysis from various formal perspectives. One of her most recent works, Light the Fight (December 2018), lends itself particularly to literary analysis. On World AIDS Day 2018, Holzer sent five trucks around New York with huge LED-sides exhibiting extracts from ‘lovely, furious, multivalent poems and prose’ (Holzer) about the fight against AIDS. These excerpts and quotations are heavy with feeling: as Holzer put it, ‘We will have tenderness as well as grief.’


> I think what is most powerful about these poetic interventions is their context. Paraded through the streets of New York city, these intimate messages speak emphatically to the here-and-now-ness of the AIDS crisis – this issue is not to be buried in the historical moment of the 1980s. Hence the title, Light the Fight: Holzer’s work sheds light on the fact that this ‘fight’ is, for many, still ongoing – particularly the fight against the stigma surrounding AIDS. As Holzer puts it, this work can both ‘comfort those affected by AIDs and reignite fires in bellies to end AIDS forever.’


> So context matters. Putting poetry in unusual places can be a powerfully political act in itself. Such poignantly confessional quotations (‘REALLY I JUST DON’T WANT TO FUCKING DIE’, or ‘I DO NOT WORRY ABOUT BEING A MAN’, or ‘I HAD SOMEONE ONCE’), placed on the side of a truck where you would normally expect a company’s logo or an advertising slogan, are profoundly disruptive. Poetry, here, becomes a very visible sort of social protest, co-opting and undermining neoliberal consumerist culture in the process. And what’s so powerful about these specific examples is their confessional intimacy, the fearful ‘REALLY I JUST DON’T WANT TO FUCKING DIE’ acting as the utmost contrast to formulaic commercial catchphrases. In these examples, performative courage falters and we are confronted with the intimacy of acknowledged weakness.


> What’s perhaps most powerful about these particular quotations is the simplicity of their language. There is a pathos in such straightforward and understated utterances, reminiscent of the meta-poetic opening of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: ‘When you are alone and too tired to turn on any of your devices’. Poetic devices fail. Even elevated ‘literary’ language cannot adequately express such grief. That being said, many of the quotations on Holzer’s trucks are highly lyrical: ‘AND SMACK AGAINST THEM LIKE A HEART’, one reads, almost self-referential in the fact that these poetic interventions are profoundly ‘heart-felt’ and always shock, or ‘smack against’, the viewer. These quotations are always de-contextualized, with this example presumably taken from a full-length poem. But that is part of their effect – taken out of context, they re-orientate the viewer and force them to engage in new conversations, unsettling as this may be.


> In the end, these works make people pause. The city streamlines us into consumers, its architecture channeling us into the flow of people. As Jules Boycoff puts it, ‘Urban infrastructure – such as walkways, roads, subways, escalators and elevators – encourages mobility’. Holzer’s poetic interventions catch our eye and make us catch our breath – we are made, however temporarily, to step back from capitalism’s constant demand for productivity and movement. This is what Boycoff means when she refers to ‘off-the-page poetic practices’ as ‘slicing against the social construction of frictionless space that solely serves rampant commercialism’. Where ads would normally encourage us toward individualist consumption, Holzer’s work urges us to unite as a community and fight together for a better society.


> ‘Stop looking at us, start listening to us,’ read an ACT UP flyer, distributed in 1988, in response to a MoMA photo exhibition depicting those suffering from AIDS. Using quotations from those affected by AIDS, this is exactly what Holzer’s Light the Fight does – she makes us listen to voices we may not otherwise have heard. As one reads: ‘LET THE WHOLE EARTH HEAR US NOW’. I don’t want to claim definitely that these quotations and extracts are all poems in themselves – that’s for you to decide. Either way, Holzer’s work is intensely important, with serious potential for changing discourse and undoing stigma. In Holzer’s praxis, the personal really is political. 


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Text: Tom Bailey

Image: Steve Speranza