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Jenny Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series") 1983-1984


Jenny  Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2


UNEX electronic signboard, tape cassette player, tape cassette, laptop computer and a floppy disk, 77,5 x 299,3 x 30,5 cm


National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) Collection, 28793
Jenny Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series"), 1984, National Gallery of Canada. Photo © 1992, NGC.


Part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series") 1983-1984 is an work by American artist Jenny Holzer, born in Gallipolis (Ohio, United States) in 1950. Developed between 1983 and 1984, the work includes the following equipment: Unex electronic signboard, tape cassette player, tape cassette, laptop computer and a floppy disk.


The work is an electronic display signboard, composed of light and coloured points (red, green and blue). Installed on the wall, it dominates over the visitors and displays in a loop a sequence of messages, sometimes in English and sometimes in French. The signboard is composed of a number of sockets arranged at regular intervals and covered in red, blue or green transparent plastic. Behind each socket, a magnetic disk is made to open or close in order to let through a light source generated by fluorescent tubes. A vertical, mechanical arm in the signboard carries out a sweeping action from left to right and opens selected disks in order to transmit an image or text such as “When someone beats you with a flashlight you make light shine in all directions” and “Go where people sleep and see if they’re safe”. When the arm comes back to its initial position (reverse sweeping), the disks close again, and the sign becomes black. The sequence of messages (text, images or a combination of both, sweeping and pause timing) was programmed according to the artist’s instructions. 41 messages are transmitted and each one is displayed for one minute and 23 seconds.


Since its acquisition in 1985, UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from “The Survival Series”) 1983-1984 has undergone a number of major modifications with the aim of ensuring its continued presentation and preservation. In 1991, the first migration led to a replacement of the tape cassette player, which used to transmit message sequences, by a laptop computer. The transfer of the digital magnetic tapes (cassette type) which made the sequence of messages possible (text and images) to a floppy disk 3 ½ A was completed by the signboard manufacturer. It should be noted that the current state of the work no longer allows it to be exhibited since the signboard and its electromechanical mechanism are showing signs of wear and deterioration, affecting the readability of the text and images. The laptop computer that was used to counter the obsolescence of the tape cassette player is now outdated compared to the latest technologies available. The following conservation approaches were considered but not executed. For example, the duplication of the work was dismissed due to the difficulty of obtaining an identical or similar screen; in addition, the reconstruction, which involved the replacement of capsules of coloured plastic and fluorescent tubes by electroluminescent diodes (LED) was also dismissed.


In 2006, the possibility of emulating UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series") 1983-1984 was yet again put forth. An emulation of the sign with an electronic LED display signboard, of Daktronics brand, was undertaken in tandem with the artist and the Jenny Holzer studio. The Daktronics signboard would constitute a product of emulation of the first version of the work, an electronic display signboard, characteristic of advertising, composed of control software including the message sequence programmed by the artist, and light and colour points generated by LED, 32 pixels in height and 128 pixels in length, where each pixel comprises three LEDs: red, green and blue. Beyond important technological transformations, it is essential that the work conserve its physical and conceptual integrity while respecting the artist’s intention (preservation of the advertising aspect of the signboard and comparable dimensions, maintenance of the sweeping and pause timing between messages). This new version should be entitled UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series") 1983-1984 (reconstructed 2010).


In terms of cataloguing, the NGC foresees the assignment of a unique accession number to the Daktronics signboard in order to distinguish effectively between the emulated version and the original sign. The new accession number will reflect the respective histories of the two versions (title, descriptions, components, exhibitions, etc.) and the new content added to the database will not obscure the previous data. The work’s certificate of authenticity of origin will be destroyed, and the artist will issue a new one for the emulated version. The original work will be conserved for research purposes. Information about the work should also give an account of the modifications made to the list of sentences in the message sequence since two sentences have been replaced at the request of the artist.


Descriptive table of Jenny Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2