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[Originally published 1992 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

As the fabled U2 ZooTV tour wends its way out of Canada and onward to such bastions of culture as Columbia, South Carolina, I'm just wondering who the heck told the band they were multimedia artists?

U2's musical performance was truly fine (all those years together are fully evident in the tightness of the band's playing), but the show is more than a rock concert. Fans are entertained, or distracted, by a backdrop of projection TVs and video walls featuring, at different moments, the band; random images plucked off satellite dishes in real time; and dizzying animated typography masterminded by Brian Eno. Three Trabants, those wacky little cars from the former East Germany, are suspended in the air, one with a sort of silver lamé finish (Liberace's Trabant?), another festooned with scrolling LED panels. Offstage are two other, far bigger LED panels – and that's where the real action happens.

U2 has mercilessly plundered the style of American artist Jenny Holzer, who rose to stardom by infiltrating electronic signs (on airport luggage carousels, at Cæsar's Palace, in Times Square) with what she called "truisms" – pithy, often troubling maxims like PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT and ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. There you are happily reading an ad for Wayne Newton's upcoming show and on comes this jarring little slogan. Holzer, who represented the U.S. at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1990, later moved on to stone benches inlaid with lapidary truisms and works combining text in both "concrete" and LED forms. Her "Child Room" installation from Venice, which begins I AM INDIFFERENT TO MYSELF BUT NOT TO MY CHILD and explores the conflicting feelings of entrapment and duty that motherhood can bring, features the same text carved into marble floor tile and displayed on a dozen vertical LED panels. You stand on the marble and watch the electronic text scroll by; once it's over, you're left in darkness until the scrolling resumes, perhaps in a different colour or staggered from one panel to the next.

In (emotionally and kinetically) moving pieces like this, Holzer makes you wonder if information is any less significant due to the form in which it's delivered. LED signs are supposed to be tacky and commercial; inlaid stone is "classy." But since both are saying the same thing, which carries more weight? Which is more real? It's a lesson in the power of typography to colour a message. On the other hand, it seems that U2 uses scrolling LED panels because they have a sort of high-art reputation (thanks to Holzer). They're hijacking Holzer's technique without any substance to back it up.

U2 uses trusims for their cutting-edge, "arty" feel, but they end up looking like advertising, which is what Holzer was mickeying with in the first place. The concert's much-discussed AIDS awareness boiled down to the truism WEAR A CONDOM presented for a few seconds and some paintings, shown but not explained, by the late artist David Wojnarowicz – the same paintings used on the cover of the AIDS-benefit single "One." Where were the U2 private-label condoms I'd heard so much about?

Maybe this didn't occur to U2, but whenever the hundreds of thousands of people who saw the ZooTV show run across textual art – from Holzer, from Barbara Kruger, from anyone else – the effect will be like a beer commercial that hijacks a good song (e.g., "Ballroom Blitz"). After you've seen the commercial a zillion times, you think of beer whenever you hear it in some other context. Now whenever people see a Jenny Holzer work or even one of those ubiquitous electronic displays, they'll think of U2 and stadium tours and sparkly Trabants hoisted up on cranes. Thanks a lot, guys.
[See also my article on the influence of Jenny Holzer- and Babs Kruger-esque slogans on modern culture. A hard-to-parse collection of Holzer truisms also exists.]

Suzanne Vega enters the '90s!

I never used to pay much attention to Suzanne Vega, though DNA's dance remix of "Tom's Diner" sure was fab. But when I heard Vega's breathy processed vocals in "Blood Makes Noise," a single off her new album 99.9 F[degrees], I was impressed enough almost to excuse its execrable video. I wouldn't think twice if a song like this came from Front 242 or equivalent, but from Vega it's a treat. Though slightly ambiguous, I'm sure the song is about being tortured, or at least psychoanalyzed against one's will. Is this an Amnesty International anthem in the making? Or will it simply lead to the biggest cognitive dissonance since "Dancing in the Dark" as kids gyrate to a song of torture on dancefloors worldwide?