‘You Be My Ally’: virtual artwork available on University of Chicago campus

UChicago Arts

“You Be My Ally” is supposed to promote viewers to “consider ways in which humanistic thought can animate public life, urban space and the built environment,” according to its website.

Viewers peer through their phone screens to see words appear to scroll over tall stone buildings on the University of Chicago campus. Letters bend over the ridges of the chosen architecturally significant buildings, making the live video on the phones show a vastly different picture than the physical world seen beyond the phone screen. The newest art project from Jenny Holzer, “You Be My Ally,” utilizes augmented reality to project text art onto buildings on the University of Chicago campus or onto any background through a public access filter.

The project is supposed to promote viewers to “consider ways in which humanistic thought can animate public life, urban space and the built environment,” according to the “You Be My Ally” website. The project debuted Oct. 5 and runs through Nov. 22.

The “You Be My Ally” project is viewed through a phone or any other mobile device using a link from the “You Be My Ally” website. The application will direct viewers through a walking tour that stops at seven different historical buildings on the university campus.

 Each involved building has a scannable code on the ground that triggers an augmented reality filter on the device that scanned the code. The filter shows a sliding text overlay on the selected buildings that interacts with real-time video coming from the device.

If prospective viewers can’t go to the buildings, the project is accessible in a simplified form anywhere. When the augmented reality filter is triggered away from the specified buildings, the text art will not interact with the background but will still display the words.

The “You Be My Ally” installation can be viewed in person, using augmented reality technology, or fully virtual. The interactive sites are scattered around the University of Chicago campus.

The project was Jenny Holzer’s first collaboration with university’s students and faculty and features 29 excerpts from historically significant texts found in the University of Chicago’s core curriculum. The excerpts interact with the specified buildings and seemingly slide along the surface of the buildings. While the text is scrolling, viewers can take a picture of their background with the overlay. 

Laboratory Schools fine arts teacher Gina Alicea has been encouraging students to interact with the “You Be My Ally” project and send photos to create a virtual gallery. 

“Jenny Holzers’s work is enlightening and a great encouragement to get outside and keep your mind working while we’re all at home,” Ms. Alicea said.

Some U-High sophomores and advisers visited a few of the project’s locations during the class retreat on Oct. 28.

“I think it was really impactful,” sophomore adviser Frances Spaltro said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to process the project, but I’m going to talk to the students more about our experience with the  “You Be My Ally” piece. I’ve definitely been thinking about it since I saw it, it really gets your mind going.”

I’ve definitely been thinking about it since I saw it, it really gets your mind going.”

— Frances Spaltro

Jenny Holzer is an acclaimed artist who studied art at the University of Chicago from 1970-71.  She specializes in art through text, saying on her website that “[h]er medium, whether formulated as a T-shirt, a plaque, or an LED sign, is writing.”

Jenny Holzer’s art also relies on a public element. She describes her art as depending on a public element to bring viewers into the right state of mind to properly appreciate and understand her art.

 While the “You Be My Ally” project follows Holzer’s history of art through text, this is the first time Holzer has worked with augmented reality. The augmented reality allows the project to use, what Holzer describes as, “architecturally significant UChicago buildings” without physically altering the buildings.

Aside from the augmented reality text, the project includes side projects specific to the University of Chicago campus. Trucks with words or phrases written in LED lights drove through the campus. Some of these trucks featured nonpartisan “get-out-the-vote messages” according to the “You Be My Ally” website.

The excerpts used by the project are also featured on the University of Chicago website and accessible on the “You Be My Ally” website.