(NEW YORK)⁠—On five nights in September, the renowned artist Jenny Holzer will celebrate 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 will illuminate 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 will be 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, will include quotes from more than 60 authors in a visual tribute to the cherished freedoms to write, read, and speak. Among those whose words will be projected are Ayad Akhtar, Salman Rushdie, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Margaret Atwood, Ron Chernow, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joy Harjo, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yoon Ha Lee, Toni Morrison, 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, comes 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.

For a century, PEN America has defended imperiled writers such as Salman Rushdie, a former PEN America president, who was savagely attacked in August after living for more than three decades under a fatwa issued by theocrats in Iran calling for his murder.

According to PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index, rising authoritarianism worldwide is targeting a growing number of writers and intellectuals for persecution and imprisonment (277 imprisoned in 2021 according to the 2021 PEN America Freedom to Write Index). At home, PEN America is tracking proliferating threats including book bans, educational gag orders, disinformation, and self-censorship. The litany of attacks is chilling: more than 1,500 book titles banned in U.S. schools; educational gag orders censoring topics from race to LGBTQ issues in classrooms; the undermining of protest rights; online harassment of journalists to silence them; the stifling of out-of-step voices on campuses, and the disappearance of local news outlets. All of this makes PEN America’s mission of the last 100 years to defend and celebrate free expression more urgent than ever.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said: “Because her work reifies and celebrates words, there could not be an artist more fitting to celebrate PEN America’s centenary than the legendary Jenny Holzer. Her vision of elevating the ideas and stories unique to PEN America and making them accessible to a wider public has been transformational for our organization. To watch her keen eye pore through the annals of free speech and our history as an organization to choose messages, statements and questions that demand attention has been riveting. We are thrilled that the people of New York City will be able to join in this visually arresting, intellectually challenging homage to words, ideas, writers and voices that embody the ongoing, urgent battle in defense of free speech.”

Holzer stated: “PEN America’s extraordinary commitment to the written and spoken word, and to standing for open expression worldwide, inspires. PEN’s work to protect ‘some rawness’ – to borrow from Colm Tóibín – supports the purpose of language in public spaces. I am delighted and honored to collaborate with PEN on an installation that lights its significant century-long dedication to the freedoms to think, to write, and to speak.”

Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether a T-shirt, plaque, or LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to the work. Starting in the 1970s with her New York City street posters and continuing through light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor and kindness.

“Jenny Holzer’s monumental tribute to freedom of expression demonstrates the immense power of public art and is a poignant reminder of PEN America’s vital impact over the past century,” said EB Kelly, Head of Rockefeller Center and Managing Director at Tishman Speyer. “The stirring messages that will be illuminated across Rockefeller Center’s historic buildings each evening will invite visitors to pause and reflect on the urgent need to protect free expression.”

PEN America’s yearlong centenary celebration includes PEN America at 100, an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society through Oct. 9, highlighting the concerns that have engaged PEN America’s writers in activism and community through the decades. PEN America at 100 traces the organization’s evolution from a dining club formed by well-known New York writers in 1922 into a force for literary and human rights that unites writers and readers across the U.S. and world in defense of the fundamental freedoms to write, read, and speak. Spotlighting consequential debates and dramatic moments in history that continue to reverberate today, PEN America at 100 shines a light on free speech, inclusion and diversity, censorship, government intrusions in the free flow of information, digital and press freedom, and the exclusion, silencing, and persecution of writers and journalists.

The centenary began with the 2022 PEN America Literary Gala last May 23 in New York, which was highlighted by the unveiling of a fireproof edition of Margaret Atwood’s best seller The Handmaid’s Tale (sold by Sotheby’s for $130,000 to benefit PEN’s work) and continues through the 2023 gala next May. Also included in the commemoration is a daylong public symposium called Words on Fire in New York City, with a scheduled lineup of literary stars including Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Dave Eggers, among others; as well as Flashpoints, a series of talks on free speech and civil rights in cities nationwide that continues through 2023. 

Quotes to be 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

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057