Home COMMON PROBLEMS UNEX Sign No. 2, Jenny Holzer

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


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


UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series") by American artist Jenny Holzer, was selected as a case study because the work featured an electronic sign displayed to the spectator. As such, it put on display historically dated technology. At the start of the study, the sign was in a state of deterioration, rendering exhibition of the work impossible.


The work, created between 1983 and 1984 and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1985, consists of an electronic sign displaying a series of short sentences from the artist’s textual work (The Survival Series), sometimes translated from English into French, sometimes accompanied by an image. The display system for the sign was uncommonly rare: an electromechanical device would scan the width of the screen and in doing so displace electromagnetic disks that would allow or block light through coloured dots. Each dot constituted a “point” in the image.


First problem: the instability of the technology in a museum environment

The work’s display system was not designed for museum exhibition conditions (operating continuously for many hours per day, almost every day). Not long after the work was acquired, the legibility of the messages became compromised through wear and tear of the display mechanism. Repair and replacement options for certain parts were examined but then abandoned, as equipment maintenance did not solve the problem of its instability, and, at the time, the replacement of certain components with those more updated would have been too costly for the museum.


Second problem: illegibility of the program and lack of documentation

During their research, the team was dismayed to find that the medium on which the program had been saved (since 1991, the program had been on a diskette) was unreadable. Moreover, no detailed program documentation was available.


The research team called on technologist Matthew Biederman, who was able to display a portion of the program on the sign. This allowed for the documentation of the display characteristics (scanning time, display time, message cycle, etc.). Through documentary research, it became possible to reconstitute on paper most of the program’s content and sequence.


Jenny  Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2
Jenny Holzer, UNEX Sign No. 2 (selections from "The Survival Series"), 1984, The National Gallery of Canada. Partial operating of the sign, NGC Restoration and Conservation Laboratory. Photo © 2006, DOCAM.


The restoration method was selected in concert with the artist, and it was decided that the work should be emulated. [1] Consultation with the artist is critical in this process; the restorer defined with Holzer what constituted the integral aspects of the work. Conceptually essential, she said, was the advertising character of the sign and the content of the messages. A contemporary sign would replace the original one, and the program would be entirely rewritten by the artist, who would draw on her archives and DOCAM’s research to ensure the new program remained as faithful as possible to the original.


Ethical problems

Authenticity and integrity

Because the restored work no longer contained any of the original materials, its authenticity and historical positioning had been greatly compromised. However, the loss of authenticity was offset by the preservation of the work’s integrity. The restored work maintained a number of the volumetric and visual elements of the original sign; above all, it reproduced the way in which the messages were displayed. As such, a certain consistency with the original version was achieved in terms of physical characteristics, historical markings and content.


Historical positioning

During the restoration process, a revision of the textual content was discussed with the NGC (possibility of adding a message from The Survival Series and revision of the translations). Although the original translation would change slightly, its textual content would essentially remain the same. According to Richard Gagnier, the restorer leading the case study, it is virtually a given that artists will want to re-examine their works after a number of years have passed, and their wishes must be respected. However, the professional stance of restorers favours maintaining the essential content of the text and its translation, because it is historically positioned, meaning it reflects a specific moment in the evolution of the artist’s approach.


[1] To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look of the piece by completely different means.

Alain Depocas, Jon Ippolito and Caitlin Jones, “Variable Media Glossary” (2003), https://www.variablemedia.net/pdf/Glossary_ENG.pdf.