Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mike Sell, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Ken Sherwood, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Tom Slater, Ph.D.


"Beyond Visible Cities" investigates instances of 20th/21st century activist interventions in language, focusing on a group of activists that derive a particular force from the intersection of visual and verbal structures. I refer to this set of compositions as "materialized words," or "materialized language," which I define as a convergence of visual manipulation and language function that consciously interrupts the viewer's processes of signification. Materialized language, as opposed to ordinary advertising, conjures a critical consciousness with linguistic structures by invoking meaning from the material and contextual tensions of language, space, design, and media. This dissertation investigates how language not only becomes "materialized," but the ways in which materialized words have the potential to alter how people interact with urban spaces because of how these visual/verbal words effects a critical consciousness in the spectator. I illustrate this premise with works from graffiti writers of 1970s New York City, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Banksy, and Shepherd Fairey. I have assembled this narrow group for their use of publicly displayed language based compositions, which they use to criticize the society of the spectacle, as well as forces of capital and power in their respective cities. I approach this set of text from the perspective of critical vanguard studies, the historic avant-garde, and "forcework," a concept I borrow from Krzysztof Ziarek's The Force of Art. Ziarek defines forcework as "art's nonaesthetic dimension, a field that operates beyond the aesthetic features of the social and subjective inscriptions of artistic objects" (34). This function of art does not depend on aesthetic reception (shock), but how the art works to create a transformative rupture, ultimately redirecting the viewer, within a physical and rhetorical location. With this approach, I illuminate how language-based art has the ability to cause the ideological interruption of social, political, economic, and cultural relations.