It was only looking through James’s books on Jenny Holzer, after we’d been to see her installation Running Words at Telenor’s new building, that I realised that she reuses her words all the time. “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE”, for instance, is part of her Survival series, written in 1983-85. It’s been displayed at a cinema instead of the title of a film (and photographed with Kurt Cobain in front of it), and printed on individually packed condoms, while other slogans from the series have been displayed on a pixelboard in Toronto, printed on stickers posted on parking metres in Philadelphia in 1983, displayed on indoor LED signs in art galleries, enamelled on aluminium signs, engraved into stones in a Swedish park in 2002 and park benches in Poland, and printed on pencils for sale in innumerable art galleries. And I still haven’t got past the top ten or fifteen hits on Google for “holzer survival” I suppose each new installation of these same words is akin to a republication, but in a different form. The words aren’t site specific at all, they’re not even time specific, they’re the same words as Holzer’s been using for twenty years. Why then, are we (OK, some of us, me included) thrilled at the thought of “getting to see a real Holzer”?

Holzer’s reuse of words is very different to Shelley Jackson’s Skin, which also involves words inscribed in unconventional places. In Skin, each word of a story is tattooed on a volunteer’s skin:

Writer Shelley Jackson invites participants in a new work entitled “Skin.” Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body. The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium. The full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another. In the event that insufficiant participants come forward to complete the first and only edition of the story, the incomplete version will be considered definitive. If no participants come forward, this call itself is the work.

The entire premiss of Skin is that it only exists in this single round of publication. The author “contracts not to devalue the original work with subsequent editions, transcripts, or synopses”, and even more wonderfully:

From this time on, participants will be known as “words”. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

This is poetry in itself, even without a single tattoo, though the news on Shelley Jackson’s site informs us that over 500 people have already volunteered to become words in Skin. I don’t think I’ll be getting a tattoo myself but I love the idea of this story, and of words that have become flesh. I even love the fact that I’ll never read the story, though perhaps one day I might meet one of the words.

I was disappointed to realise that the only new words in Running Words are its title, and that it in fact is merely one of an almost ridiculous number of remediations of Holzer’s first works. And yet I still like that we have “a Holzer” in Norway. I liked sitting watching the words flow past, and I would have loved to have an office where I could glance out and catch a glimpse of a Truism or an Inflammatory Essay while pondering my work. And of course, Jenny Holzer never said she was an author. She’s an artist. Fine line, there.

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