Renowned artist Jenny Holzer to debut project at UChicago using augmented reality

YOU BE MY ALLY to display texts from Core curriculum on campus buildings, LED trucks

The University of Chicago will debut a new public art commission by world-renowned artist and alumna Jenny Holzer (EX’74), YOU BE MY ALLY, premiering Oct. 5 on the UChicago campus and worldwide through a web-based augmented reality app. The text-based artwork is Holzer’s first augmented reality (AR) project using virtual projections in the United States and her first work created in collaboration with a university’s students and faculty.

A pioneer of art as social intervention, Holzer received UChicago’s Rosenberger Medal in 2019 in recognition of her wide-reaching impact on public art. Running through Nov. 22, her artwork will project academic discourse into the public sphere, drawing on texts from UChicago’s Core curriculum—the distinctive multidisciplinary curriculum that serves as the common academic foundation for all College students.

YOU BE MY ALLY will feature 29 excerpts from historically significant readings from the Core curriculum, selected in collaboration with UChicago students and faculty, including works by distinguished writers W. E. B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. The title of the project itself is an excerpt from If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, a translation by classicist Anne Carson that is among the Core readings. Starting Oct. 5, viewers can access a free, web-based AR app to virtually project and animate these texts on the facades of architecturally significant UChicago buildings. In addition, app users will be able to project the title quote onto their surroundings anywhere in the world. On Oct. 30, additional quotations will become available to project anywhere.

“We are thrilled to host this innovative new work from artist and alum Jenny Holzer,” said David Levin, senior advisor to the Provost for Arts and the Addie Clark Harding Professor in Germanic Studies, Cinema and Media Studies, and Theater and Performance Studies. “The project not only explores and expands the possibilities of virtual projection, but it also makes innovative and imaginative use of texts that are foundational to the UChicago education—putting significant authors in conversation with the public and the present in a new way.”

Text selections from the Core Curriculum also will be featured on LED trucks driving throughout the UChicago campus, South Side and downtown communities on Oct. 5-6, bringing the experience to a diverse public audience in an unexpected manner.

Another component of Holzer’s work will incorporate original texts in support of nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts. These texts, selected by Holzer from various sources including submissions by UChicago students, will be displayed on LED trucks driven throughout the city on Oct. 24 and Oct. 30.

YOU BE MY ALLY operates at the edge of arts and technology, responding to the challenges of participation in the arts during a pandemic. It enables a broad audience to engage these historic texts, and to consider the impact of public speech in a democracy in the weeks and days leading up to the 2020 election.

“Ever since her early (1995!) creation of an interactive internet artwork, I have admired Jenny Holzer’s resolute mobilization of viewer participation and unexpected media, now including AR app technology,” said Christine Mehring, the Mary L. Block Professor in the Department of Art History and an adjunct curator at the Smart Museum of Art. “Jenny is known for the fiercely critical interventions in public space that lead her to seize those media, but hers is a profoundly generous art all the same: inviting our students to submit content, welcoming the full campus community and general public to engage in the kind of close reading we teach at UChicago, opening the boundaries of academic discourse and a liberal arts education, providing a safe and meaningful experience of art amidst the converging contexts of the pandemic, calls for social justice, and the election season.”

Student participation has been a key component of this work from its inception. Over the course of the last academic year, students and faculty submitted excerpts from their Core class readings, from which the artist selected 29 quotes. The artist also invited all UChicago students to submit their own nonpartisan get-out-the-vote phrases for possible inclusion on the second round of LED trucks. A total of 10 graduate and undergraduate students, specializing in fields ranging from art history and English to computer science and social work, have worked for the past year on various aspects of the commission, including testing code and developing a related K-12 curriculum for Chicago schools.

“The Core curriculum has always been conceived as a foundation for fiercely creative and independent thinking. It has been so impactful and resilient, because it continually renews itself by interrogating its very premises and practices,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History. “Jenny Holzer’s engagement with some of its foundational texts is emblematic of such self-interrogation and captures the intellectual and aesthetic power of the Core for subsequent work in the arts and every other discipline.”

AR experiences for YOU BE MY ALLY will be hosted on the web platform 8th Wall and can be activated by users at specific points outside buildings on the UChicago campus: Cobb Lecture Hall (designed by Henry Ives Cobb), D’Angelo Law Library (Eero Saarinen), Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (Tod Williams and Billie Tsien), Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (Helmut Jahn), School of Social Service Administration (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), Cummings Life Science Center (I. W. Colburn) and Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue). Off campus, viewers can experience the work by accessing the app on 8th Wall.

Holzer’s projects have long been inextricably linked to the built environment of their setting. YOU BE MY ALLY will invite viewers to interact with their surroundings and forge new cultural and architectural meanings from the juxtapositions of historic texts and lived urban environments.

For more than 40 years, Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the delivery of her work. Starting in the 1970s with the New York City posters and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor, kindness and courage.

Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, the U.S. State Department’s International Medal of Arts in 2017, and the University of Chicago’s Rosenberger Medal in 2019. She studied at the University of Chicago in 1970–71 and holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.