Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Slogans High and Low

The text-based art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer has trickled down into the mainstream. But has that made pop culture richer?

It’s been a good ten years for text fanatics. Those of us who hanker for a world in which visual art contains not merely pictures but words have had our dreams come true, or at least a glimmer of dreams coming true. Through their work, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer showed that words and images, or words alone, could be taken seriously as art. What these artists may not have expected is that their work would quickly become part of the everyday graphical landscape – the same landscape Kruger and Holzer were playing with, and satirizing, from the outset.

”I liked her better before she sold out”

Let’s zoom back a decade or so and reminisce about how radical it was to find Jenny Holzer’s “truisms,” phrases like ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE and PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT, “spontaneously” appearing on airport luggage carousels, on signs outside Cæsar’s Palace, or in Times Square. Of course, there was nothing spontaneous about them at all. It wasn’t just the anti-authoritarian message of the slogans that made them art, and it wasn’t just the fact that these “serious” words were interspersed bathetically between advertising campaigns which, conventional wisdom has it, are a debased form of communication. The extensive planning and arm-twisting (remember, these are privately-owned signs she worked with) that Holzer put into her truisms removed any doubt that they might be sign-programming “mistakes.” (Of course, that might not be apparent from unexpectedly running across a set of truisms.) The content of her truisms, their novel and sometimes startling juxtapositions, and their sheer deliberateness helped elevate Holzer’s truisms to that exalted category, Art.

Then there was Barbara Kruger. Building on her experience in producing advertising photo layouts, Kruger slapped Futura Bold Italic slogans on top of old photographs of the sort a smart modern viewer would find ironic or kitschy. (My fave is a close-up of a ventriloquist’s dummy with the message When I hear the word culture, I take out my checkbook.) Kruger’s pictures looked something like advertising and, in their content, actively worked against what Kruger saw as the sexist paradigms of advertising, but what’s just as important is the way they staked out a graphical territory of their own: With simple photos, with no blurbs, ad copy, explanatory text, or copyright lines, and above all with a consistent typography, you could spot a Krugerism a mile away.

If you happened to be the kind of person who thrived on the ironies of modern life, and if you had at least an inkling of awareness of gender relations and who controls what in the real world (call it “politics” if you like), the work of Holzer and Kruger spoke to you. It spoke even more loudly if you thought even the crude dot-matrix typography of LEDs held graphic-design potential that few people were actively using.

But Holzer and Kruger might not have banked on what, in hindsight, should have been a logical outcome their work: Far from considering advertising as a near-Orwellian big-business intrusion, a lot of people rather like advertising. Technology has brought the subtleties of typography into the hands of the masses. And over the last couple of years, those facts have conspired to gut Holzer’s truism’s and Kruger’s pictures of most of the meaning and impact they used to have. In Kruger’s case, that turned out OK, because other artists have followed in her social-commentary footsteps; in Holzer’s case, the outcome was not as benign.

Trickle-down theory

Let’s start with the infiltration of Barbara Kruger-like word/image pairings into day-to-day life. Kruger isn’t an elitist. Her work was exhibited in galleries and fetched the usual high prices that gallery art does, and that’s fine; everyone has to make a living. But Kruger has taken deliberate steps to popularize her work. Kate Linker’s oversized Kruger hagiography Love for Sale (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990) shows canvas shopping bags emblazoned with Kruger’s single most famous slogan, I shop therefore I am. “I’m not just a consumer,” these bags exclaim, “I know I am, and I like it!”

Or consider Kruger’s famous poster for the 1989 March on Washington for reproductive rights. Your body is a battleground, the poster screamed in white type on red bars laid over a black-and-white woman’s face, half of it solarized. Plastered all over New York and clearly playing to an audience that recognized Kruger’s work, the poster was something of a departure for her in that it promoted an identifiable event, offered body copy at the bottom of the poster, and even sported a discreet little byline (still in Futura Italic, natch) in the upper-left corner. The poster goes to show that you can take the artist out of advertising, but you can’t always take the advertising out of the artist.

Or look at Kruger’s cover for a 1993 Newsweek issue illustrating a story on “family values” (screaming cover headline: Whose family? Whose values?). Actively commissioned by Newsweek and actively designed by Kruger, the cover was undercut to a certain extent by the layout of the story it referred to, a pastiche of Kruger typography, executed by Newsweek layout minions, which a tiny credit described as being “in the style of Barbara Kruger.” (She later commented that Newsweek didn’t ask permission to engage in these graphic shenanigans, but that she didn’t mind much anyway.)

Newsweek’s emulation of “the style of Barbara Kruger” was merely the most blatant example of a then-emerging trend: Desktop publishing, not to mention the availability of every imaginable variant of Futura and nearly any other font you could hanker for, now makes it possible to duplicate Kruger's style. (I did it in a music column I wrote for a local Toronto paper: I headlined a section of capsule record reviews with Buy me, I'll change your life! – an actual Krugerism – in reversed-out Futura Extra Bold Italic.) You don’t even need fancy equipment, since at 72 point or larger, even an el-cheapo 300-dpi laser printer will produce results good enough for anything but a Kate Linker book.

DTP also brought Kruger-like text to music video to a notable extent. Using page-layout software, it was easy to typeset words in-house which you could then matte into a televised frame. And the ubiquity of PostScript fonts for conventional printing also expanded the repertoire of fonts available for TV character generators. It’s par for the course these days to find character-generator manufacturers on the list of ITC licensees, for example, and most of the old-standby fonts, including Futura, are available.

So guess what happened? Directors started using text in their videos more and more – and in ways that directly descend, for good or ill, from Kruger’s sensibility. Consider typographic videos of the pre-Kruger era like R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” and Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers.” Both used type as part of the narrative – not quite captioning the lyrics, but representing and playing with the words themselves. In contrast, watch Vanessa Williams’ 1991 video “Work to Do” and you’ll find a runway-model setting overlaid with titles saying Don’t threaten me with love, Equal pay for equal work, Busy waiting, and (coincidence?) Your body is a battleground. Guess which font they’re in? And guess what colours?

This video doesn’t exactly offer the most trenchant social commentary by any means (a glamourous, if dethroned, Miss America complaining that “I got work to do”? Equal pay for equal work, indeed!), but it’s evidence of the wholesale consumption of Kruger’s slogans by popular culture. If they work in videos, they work anywhere.

But presumably Kruger’s approach of using pithy ad-like maxims can withstand some tinkering, in the way that drag queens so often do a better Joan Rivers or Aretha Franklin than the original. I’d say there are two primo examples of upping the slogan ante: Information Society’s zippy and clever “Peace & Love Inc.” and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s languid and clever “Television, the Drug of the Nation.” Both songs deal with consumerism and refuge from the real world (quoth Information Society: “If you want to believe in something, believe in us ‘cause we make it easy”), and both videos, directed by onscreen-text lover Mark Pellington, use TV and product stand-ins to make the point.

“Peace & Love Inc.” manages to use silver lamé and overexposure cleverly in themselves, but those effects really stand out in contrast with the sequences interspersed in the video that show, on the one hand, simple white signs with Futura type (Bold Condensed this time) and, on the other hand, beauty shots of fake products straight out of a Procter & Gamble commercial. “YOU are a PRODUCT,” “the REVOLUTION will be taped,” “BE real,” “ACQUIRE real,” “WE’LL PROTECT you from LONELINESS” – these are more Krugery than Kruger herself (though some do contain Holzery overtones).

I’d be more than happy to buy the featured Shame toothpaste, Guilt soap, Envy sneakers, and especially Family Values toilet paper at the local supermarket – and I’d tote them home in my I shop therefore I am reusable canvas shopping bag. The product references themselves (you’ll find more of the same in George Michael’s 1993 video “Killer [Papa Was a Rolling Stone]”) play off expectations of what the products will do for us and the paradigms of TV advertising, but the slogans themselves hoe the row Kruger sewed.

It’s more of the same with “Television, the Drug of the Nation,” though in that video there are way more channels (so to speak) of information coming your way. The main graphic action consists of TV snippets, pills with names like sex and addict, closeups of vocalist Michael Franti and musician Rono Tse, and handmade let’s-etch-some-lines-into-the-film-stock special effects. The text stream comes from interspersed slogans, obviously typeset or even Letraset on paper (oh, the nostalgia!) and set in a very ‘70s loose Helvetica style, saying “television is the new GOD,” “my mind is being massaged,” “I WANT THE TRUTH/I WATCH THE LIES,” “junkie,” “drug,” “sleep.” You can also see those slogans on monitors behind Franti and Tse, so wherever you look, it’s a barrage.

Maybe I’m hyper-aware of these multiple parallel streams of information (a real “multichannel universe”), but that’s what I for one want from television. I want it to be nonlinear and multitrack. I want acting and relevant sound and visual effects and audio and text, and I want text especially to be magnified beyond its typical usage. Show me a Barbara Kruger poster or magazine cover or “artwork” and I’ll understand it well enough. I’ll probably even like it and stick it up on my wall. But it’s not going to engage me as much as, say, a music video with parallel audio and video and adjunct textual information.

I’m not calling for Masterpiece Theatre and The Simpsons to incorporate Krugerisms into the narrative, and I don’t want the only available media to be textual music videos with social commentary; I like books, magazines, newspapers, records, films, and computer software too. But considering how many people watch music videos, many of whom do so with their minds switched off (or, in the case of programming on U.S. MTV, switched off for them), throwing more tracks of information at viewers can only benefit them, giving them all the more grist for the media mill that churns away in the modern mind.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, or at least optimistic. Maybe it’s only people with quite low and quite high levels of literacy – the ends of the bell curve – who would benefit from that kind of visual parallelism, though admittedly for different reasons (literacy in the former group, linguistic thrills in the latter). The broad middle ground of viewers may end up resenting what some might deem a visual cacophony. And the fact that another massively promoted massively parallel artwork, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, played to a few art-film acolytes and almost no one else does not fill me with hope.

But even for that broad middle ground, the more commentary to which viewers are exposed – even if the commentary deals with “unimportant” topics like consumer products and television viewing – the more they are apt to get used to seeing it and to thinking of events and media beyond their face value. Show someone with half a brain a “commercial” that “advertises” a deodorant called Morality and that person will be apt to question real deodorants, and ad campaigns for them, from that point onward. This questioning may not lead to an out-and-out rejection of consumer lifestyles (or lead to that consumer’s avoidance of whatever latter-day ill you may wish to pin on deodorants and deodorant ads), but that’s more than you can reasonably expect anyway. What it will do is cause that person to think; exactly what they think is, at root, none of our business.

The kind of analysis multitrack videos offer is still very new and is second nature only to a rarefied group of intellectuals like Emigre readers (ahem), but over time throwaway cultural products like sloganeering music videos might just enhance people’s ability to think critically.

Meanwhile, back at the Pixelboard

Jenny Holzer’s truisms have not trickled down to Joe and Jane Citizen the way Kruger’s slogans have. You can chalk that up to the fact that Holzer’s truisms tend to be free-standing; they don’t rely on a linkage with some product or photo. Since there are so many opportunities these days to hijack photos of products and slap a “subversive” slogan on them (photos and DTP type are easy to come by), Kruger’s approach has a practical advantage.

Besides, Holzer has branched out herself in the last few years to cut her truisms into stone benches and marble floors; having played, to use the show-biz terminology, most every form of electronic sign on earth the way Wayne Newton has played every lounge in Vegas, it made sense for Holzer to move on to something else. Moreover, Holzer’s electronic medium itself had become coin of the realm. These days LED and other programmable displays are so cheap that Chinese-food delivery cars carry them on the roof.

But in a couple of cases, Holzer’s use of electronic signs to articulate the unexpected has been heisted by popular culture. In one case, Steve Martin’s film L.A. Story, the results were subtle and intelligent; in the other, U2’s ZooTV tour, the effect was craven and derivative. And unlike the percolation of Kruger’s modus operandi into general consciousness, popularizing Holzer’s approach hasn’t led to better art, more clever commentary, or an expansion in the conception of the way information is communicated.

In L.A. Story, mild-mannered TV weatherperson Steve Martin finds himself out on one of Los Angeles’s endless freeways when his car breaks down. Parked by the side of the road in the shadow of a huge electronic sign used to warn drivers of traffic conditions, road closures, and the like, Martin fumbles under the hood and mumbles to himself about his failing marriage and his tenuously-held job. Then he notices the sign is (silently) talking to him, displaying words that could only relate to him and answering Martin’s spoken questions, albeit with riddles.

And that’s the endearing part of L.A. Story’s text metaphor: Martin has to come back to the sign over and over again to decode its riddles, which foreshadow the happiness he’ll eventually find. The sign even speaks in anagrams at one point, and uses cool typographic effects – showering pixels, fonts and sizes, flashing type, animation – to get its point across. If you blink as you drive by you’ll miss it, and the sign will look like any other electronic display (i.e., it will have function but not meaning). This discrepancy is fundamental to Holzer’s sign-based work: It’s interesting that a utilitarian electronic sign suddenly declares ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE because it’s not supposed to say that. L.A. Story builds on that technique of juxtaposition with grace, affection, and charm.

Quite the opposite was true of U2’s 1992 ZooTV tour, which featured not only large video screens on-stage (where Bono, wielding a remote control, dialled up cable and satellite channels and once jacked into a live two-way feed from war-torn Sarajevo) but a bevy of electronic displays too. One such display was even attached to the side of a Trabant – those kooky, outdated, quintessentially East German cars – that had been hoisted into the air. Throughout the concert these displays scrolled, popped up, or otherwise showed a range of truism-like phrases cooked up by metteur-en-scène Brian Eno, and no doubt also by that lexical luminary Bono. (Some truisms also made their way to the video screens, and some of those were close-ups of electronic displays!)

Not only were these pseudo-truisms thuddingly banal (WEAR A CONDOM; AMBITION BITES THE NAILS OF SUCCESS; WATCH MORE TV), there was no mention of their direct antecedent, Jenny Holzer. Of course, Mark Pellington didn’t explicitly credit Barbara Kruger in his own videos either. But in ZooTV the contribution of AIDS activist/artist/writer David Wojnarowicz was explicitly credited. Just as Holzer didn’t directly work on ZooTV, Wojnarowicz didn’t do so either; his contribution was a video for U2’s AIDS parable “One,” shown at ZooTV concerts. But while Wojnarowicz got credited at the end of the show for his work and influence, Holzer didn’t.

I’m keen on truisms when they stand apart from something, even if that something only the background. But in ZooTV, truisms were simply another sort of kindling tossed onto the semiotic fire, all of which ended up burned to a crisp anyway irrespective of the form they’d taken at the outset. Compare ZooTV’s treatment of TV and truisms: U2 randomly zapped through available TV signals (so much for any message actually relating to the content, an opposition the far smarter “Television, the Drug of the Nation” set up by using violent imagery and spoken and typographic commentary), and likewise U2 randomly cycled through pseudo-truisms without substantive meaning, apparently using the technique for its “cutting-edge, arty” feel and failing to thank the originator.

Maybe I’m just cranky because the trend toward appropriating Kruger’s and Holzer’s respective styles seems to have fizzled out. In 1993 I saw a new pseudo-Krugerism about once a month; in 1994 I haven’t seen any. Pseudo-Holzerisms were always harder to come by and also seem to have disappeared from sight altogether in the last year. So the Kruger/Holzer trend may well be dead. What can we look forward to in its place? Perhaps the democratizing effects of desktop publishing and the broader cultural presence of typography will lead to entirely (or subtly) different forms of parallel typography and social commentary. You can already see some innovation in the genre of typographic music videos, which the trend toward closed-captioning of music videos (see sidebar) makes all the more trenchant. And it’s not as though the culture as a whole won’t be ready for whatever its artists, graphic designers, and directors come up with; all we need to do is keep our eyes open.

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Slogans High and Low

Originally published in Emigre, 1996 | Updated 2002.09.11

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