Twitter isn’t much of a place for art, but it should be. Since art so often thrives on setting down ideas within a set of limitations, Twitter seems just the challenge. And while it is largely made up of people saying very little in its 140-character limit, there have been a few loose attempts to use it for art. The most obvious is, of course, as a platform for announcing artworks or photography displayed elsewhere on the web. Less obvious are hashtags such as #twitterart, where users send Twitterized versions of ASCII art, and a few seem to take it quite seriously.
But while poking through the “following” list of a favourite author, I stumbled across something unexpected: the Twitter account for American conceptual artist Jennifer Holzer.
Holzer’s work is almost entirely concerned with text, whether it is being scrolled across an LED board, painted on a canvas, or projected onto a landmark. She takes phrases and passages, almost always unfamiliar, and renders them in ways that feel like public service announcements.
“It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender,” reads a movie theatre marquee in one work. “You are my own” appears in large letters on a riverside in another.
So, expecting the site to be an attempt by Holzer’s PR department to bring more audiences into galleries, I was surprised — and then just as quickly unsurprised, and delighted — to find that the entire account was another artwork of sorts.
Holzer’s Twitter stream consists entirely of quoted phrases — all of them printed in all-caps, which would normally be the signifier for Internet shouting, but in Holzer’s case is simply the default form.
“YOU ARE A VICTIM OF THE RULES YOU LIVE BY”
“THERE’S NOTHING REDEEMING IN TOIL”
“A SINGLE EVENT CAN HAVE INFINITELY MANY INTERPRETATIONS”
They are posted on different days. There is no commentary, no clue as to sources or even whether she makes them up (which she has been known to do). There are no replies, no what-Jenny-is-up-to-today tweets, no upcoming shows, no re-tweets, hashtags or mentions; only brief phrases flying out to the 17,000 people following her. Holzer’s “following” count remaining stubbornly at zero.
What makes this more effective on a social-media site like Twitter than any other form of artwork is not only that Holzer’s past works are well suited to it, but that it squarely counters one of the scourges of the social-media world: the quotation. No longer relegated to inspirational quote-of-the-day calendars, clever turns of phrase are a pernicious part of the social-media landscape from Facebook to Flickr. When there is little else to say, why not put up a clever truism that everyone can agree with, right?
Reading Holzer’s words puts a torch to the all-too-simple wisdoms of the famous quote. Her words feel familiar, and yet are not. You are tempted to agree with them, and then realize that their truths are not so self-evident and that you may not know exactly what it is you are agreeing with. They are vague and without context, and challenge us to consider where they might come from. Who they might come from. In the process, we end up viewing “real” quotations in a new, and hopefully more critical light.
Next time you’re tempted to retweet that clever turn of phrase — consider turning to Holzer instead.