On five nights in September, the renowned artist Jenny Holzer celebrated PEN America’s century-long defense of the written word and the fundamental rights that make free expression possible with a powerful new series of light projections that illuminated three buildings in Manhattan’s iconic Rockefeller Center.
Starting after sunset at 8 pm on Wednesday, Sept. 14, and continuing until 10 pm each evening through Sunday, Sept. 18, the facades of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and 610 and 620 Fifth Avenue were lit with selected passages from gifted writers and artists who have supported PEN America’s vital work to protect free expression.
The outdoor installation, titled SPEECH ITSELF, included quotes from more than 60 authors in a visual tribute to the cherished freedoms to write, read, and speak. Among those whose words were projected are Ayad Akhtar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Margaret Atwood, Ron Chernow, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joy Harjo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yoon Ha Lee, Toni Morrison, Andrew Solomon, Alejandro Zambra, and Nadya Tolokonnikova of the performance art group Pussy Riot.
The collaboration between the 100-year-old organization of writers defending free expression for all and the “impresario of language who makes words into visual spectaculars,” as the New York Times called Holzer, came amid rising threats worldwide to the rights of writers, journalists, scholars, artists and people from all walks of life to read, speak, teach, and learn freely.
Quotes displayed on the facades of Rockefeller Center buildings as part of SPEECH ITSELF include:
We have no richer capacity than the ability to formulate and express ideas. — Andrew Solomon
Life in which you are denied expression is a life in which you can’t be fully who you are. — Kwame Anthony Appiah
In a world where independent voices are increasingly stifled, PEN is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. — Margaret Atwood
Free speech has long been a potent weapon for disenfranchised groups, used to expose repression and prevent the powerful from silencing dissent. — Suzanne Nossel
The biggest threat is apathy. Without the will to do something, however small, the tyrants win. — Yoon Ha Lee