Thursday, April 17, 2008

Art Space Talk: Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci has developed a diverse body of work through the decades and has been tagged with just as many labels by art critics-- 'Pioneer of Performance', 'Godfather of Transgression', and 'Master of Conceptualism'... just to name a few. Vito has explored poetry, performance, film and video, sound, sculpture, photography, and architecture.

The Brooklyn-based artist is currently focused on architecture and landscape design that integrates public and private space. He is the founder of Acconci Studio, a group of architects who design projects for public spaces-streets and plazas, gardens and parks, transportation centers, and building lobbies. The architectural practice is based in Brooklyn, New York.

Vito studied at Holy Cross College and the University of Iowa. He has taught at numerous institutions, among them the California Institute of the Arts, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, San Francisco Art Institute, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, School of Visual Arts in New York, Parsons School of Design, and Yale University.

Through the years Vito has participated in numerous exhibitions-- including exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Liverpool, and the Guggenheim Museum. His work can be found in public and private collections throughout the world.

Diary of a Body 1969-1973, installation-- Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Brian Sherwin: Vito, I've read that your father took you to museums and opera houses when you were a child. Can you recall these early artistic influences? How did these childhood experiences help you find your path as an adult?

Vito Acconci: He took me to the Metropolitan Museum and the metropolitan Opera the way you would go to any other place; they were part of everyday life. My father read me Dante in Italian (I didn’t know Italian) but he also read me Faulkner; he played me Verdi, but also Cole Porter. Because of my father I didn’t have to find my path; that path was already set – in order to rebel I would have had to have become a doctor or a lawyer. But I didn’t have to rebel, because my father made that path fun. My father’s language was a dictionary of puns: ‘What’s honeymoon salad? Lettuce alone. Don’t look now, Mayonnaise is dressing…’ Words made the world fall apart: it was like living in a Marx Brothers movie.

Fan City, convertible architectural unit, 1981

BS: Vito, you have been called many things during your career-- the 'Pioneer of Performance', 'Godfather of Transgression', and 'Master of Conceptualism' come to mind. What do you think about labels like this? When people try to place you in a group, so to speak? Would you rather they simply focus on your work?

VA: Everybody uses labels: they give you a handle on things – an over-simplified handle, sure, but without labels, without ads, without words, the world would be an indistinguishable mass, a blur. You can hope, maybe, that people ascribe so many labels to you that none wins out…

BS: Vito, I've read that you do not consider yourself an artist. You view yourself as a designer. Can you go into further detail about that? Have you always viewed it that way? Also, can you explain others ways that your philosophy has changed-- evolved-- through the years? Or was it really an issue of just finding yourself?

VA: In 1969, when I realized the stuff wasn’t poetry anymore, wasn’t writing, I wanted desperately to be called an ‘artist.’ In the mid-70’s, when I couldn’t do performances anymore, when the stuff became installations, I desperately wanted the work to be called ‘sculpture.’ In the beginning of the 80’s, when my stuff was meant for people to use – in the mid-80’s, when the stuff was usable as furniture – at the end of the 80’s, when I stopped working as a single agent and formed Acconci Studio – then I wanted, and I still want, the work to be called ‘design,’ ‘architecture’.
It matters what people call you because what they call you shapes how they see you, it shapes what they expect of you, what they ask you to do, no matter what it is that you actually do. As long as I’m called an artist, our work won’t be taken seriously as architecture: the ‘art-part,’ whatever that is, will come first, and use is secondary, whereas for us the two are inextricable together – we want use whose plot is thickened.

Back to your question about change of philosophy: art has viewers, and I was never comfortable with users – gradually, I accepted the fact that my work needed participants, inhabitants, users – and that’s what design has, that’s what architecture has.

Back to names again: yes, it mattered to me at the end of the 60’s that other people called me an artist, but I never called myself an artist; I was an ‘art-doer,’ an ‘art-agent,’ a ‘situation-maker’ – I wanted to be something, do something, that could be factually proven.

BS: Vito, you started out as a poet, editing 0 To 9 with Bernadette Mayer in the late 1960s. It was at this time that you started to do performance and video art-- using your own body as a subject. Can you recall why you decided to venture into that form of expression?

VA: I didn’t think of my body as a subject; I thought of it as a means, as an instrument – my body walked, did exercises, turned in on itself and turned on itself, interacted with another body. I did what the time was doing, I did what everybody was doing at the time, maybe in a slightly more concentrated way: it was a time when the common language was ‘finding yourself,’ as if the self was something you could separated from the rest of the person, as if the self was something to be contemplated, as if the self was a precious jewel. I did what Neil Young was doing, what Van Morrison was doing…

Seedbed, installation/performance, january 1972 (at the Sonnabend Gallery).

BS: Vito, in the 1970s you expanded your process by utilizing audio-visual installations. During that period you created Seedbed. In Seedbed you lay hidden underneath a gallery-wide ramp that was installed at the Sonnabend Gallery. As visitors entered you vocalized-- into a loudspeaker-- about your sexual fantasies. I've read that you did this while masturbating. This piece was considered controversial for the time. Can you recall your motives behind it? What were you attempting to convey?

VA: It wasn’t about ‘conveying’; it wasn’t that there was a theme, a meaning, that you could phrase in some other way – in writing, say, in talking – and then you demonstrated it in some situation, in some activity. The aim was in the opposite direction: you set up a situation, you performed an action, so that you – and others, the receivers – could see what complex, what mix of meaning and themes might possibly be stirring inside.
In the case of Seedbed: I didn’t want to be a point, a target, a focal-point in front of visitors to the gallery – so I would disappear into the architecture of the room, I would become part of the floor – therefore a ramp was built, so that I could be under the floor, under the space where visitors walked – I crawled around this space, it’s highest point was two, two and a half feet high, I crawled around under visitors’ feet -- once I had titled the piece Seedbed (a synonym for floor, under current, sub-structure), I knew what my goal had to be: I had to produce seed, the space I was in should become a bed of seed, a field of seed – in order to produce seed, I had to masturbate – in order to masturbate, I had to excite myself.
I could hear visitors’ footsteps on top of me, I could build sexual fantasies on those footsteps, those sexual fantasies could keep my activity going, keep my masturbation going – but the visitors had to know what I was doing, so, just as I heard visitors’ footsteps on top of me, they had to hear me under them – so I spoke my fantasies aloud: I came, a visitor might think I was doing it just for her, just for him – my goal of producing seed led to my interaction with visitors and their interaction, like it or not, with me…
TELE-FURNI-SYSTEM, multichannel video installation with monitors, speakers, and steel and pipe armature, Dimensions, videos, and number of components variable, 1997

BS: Vito, your work has often allowed viewer participation. May I ask why you like viewers to be involved with your work? Do you view it as permitting them to take part in the overall creation of the work-- or do you see those who participate as a part of the piece itself? In other words, do you view the onlookers as materials, so to speak?

VA: The condition of art is: the viewer is here and the art is there – so the viewer is in a position of desire, there are ‘Do not touch’ signs, the viewer frustrated, those ‘Do not touch’ signs are reminders that art is more expensive than people… I wanted something different than the passive viewer… Yes, I know, the viewer is in a state of contemplation, but maybe I don’t understand contemplation, I don’t know how to prove thinking, I wanted a viewer to be active, to be doing something.
Once I started doing installation in the mid-70’s, there were two conditions I started with: the site – a gallery or museum space – and its (temporary) inhabitants -- I couldn’t start thinking about a piece until I had a place: once a place was given to me, for a three-week show, for a three-month show, then I could start to think -- I could find the specific quirks of this space, I could try to do something here that, ideally, I could do nowhere else, ideally the installation couldn’t be repeated somewhere else (if it were repeated, it would have no meaning, or it would have a completely different meeting)… Once I was thinking about the place, I was thinking about its people: a piece in New York had to be different from a piece in Los Angeles-- had to be different from a piece in Milan – what would people do here? how could I pressure them? how might they fight back?...
housing project in Beaumont, 2006

BS: Vito, your recent installations have focused on the architecture and landscape design that integrates public and private space. Can you go into further detail about this interest? Why did you decide to concentrate on that interest?

VA: What drew me to design was: something can be done, designed, re-done, for all, for any of the possible occasions of everyday life – yes, we can design a building, but we can also design a glass, a spoon…Clothing is the first architecture: skin and bones are inside clothing – then the body-inside-clothing is inside an arm-chair – then the body-inside-clothing-inside-armchair is inside a room – then the room is inside a building, and the building in inside a street, and the street is inside a city…
Seoul Performing Arts Center, 2005 winning project.

BS: Vito, due to your interest in architecture you founded 'Acconci Studio', a group of architects who design projects for public spaces-streets and plazas, gardens and parks, building lobbies and transportation centers. The architectural practice is based in Brooklyn , New York . Why did you decide to do this? Also, what projects are being worked on at this time? Can you tell us more about the studio and the architects who work there?

VA: Reason #1: I wanted to do architecture, but I didn’t know how, I had to work with people who did know how. Reason #2 might be, ultimately, more important: I became afraid that, if you begin something alone, from only one person, if you begin something private, then it can end only private, it can never come out of itself – so, if you want something to be public, you have to start at least semi-public, at least quasi-public: public starts with the number 3 – 1 is a solo, 2 is a couple or a mirror-image, 3 starts an argument, and that’s when public begins…

We’re fishing up a perimeter for an apartment-complex in Toronto : the slats of a fence twist and warp and braid to become wind-screens, seats for passer-by. We’re in the middle of a design for a bridge

that doubles as a restaurant: the bridge is over a lock, when a shop comes in the bridge has to retract, people stay in the restaurant as it coils up like a snake. We’re beginning a prototype for pre-fab housing, it doesn’t have to be modular anymore, it can be para-modular, custom-modular, a video-game between designer and buyer…

The way the Studio doesn’t work is: I have an idea and everybody carries it out. The way the Studio does work is: sometimes – not always – I start a project with a general method: that’s what I do best, general ideas, overall structures, I’m not so good at details – then we talk a lot, discuss and argue, compare hand-sketches, scrawled notes, computer models, rough physical models, and all the ideas change so that nobody knows anymore which is whose, and nobody cares…

The Studio is a mix of math & science (their world) and language & poetry (for better or worse, my world). The Studio is a mix of scripts, directives: computer-scripting, codes (their world) and narratives, wild-theory (again, like it or not, my world).

United Bamboo store in Daikanyama, Tokyo, 2003. steel mesh, steel pipe, faceted glass, PVC projection material, fluorescent lights, photo-booth camera, computer screen, video projection, i-pods & headphones.
interior of United Bamboo store

BS: Vito, do you hand-pick the architects who work in your studio? What advice would you have for a young architect who wishes to work with you?

VA: I always interview a prospect with at least one other person in the Studio. Sure, I hand-pick the people who work here; but nothing’s private here -- everybody else in the Studio has a hand, someway or other, in hand-picking them, too.

A person who works here now has to know 3-D computer programs, computer-scripting, like second languages; the person has to be a generalist – totally committed to architecture but at the same time in love with music, movies…

BS: Vito, I've read that you see a direct connection between the music of the moment and the visual art that is being produced. What music do you tend to listen to while working? Would you say that music and the many aspects of visual art walk hand-in-hand?

VA: No, no connection between visual art and music. And no connection between sculpture and architecture. But an intimate, inherent connection between architecture and music: both music and architecture make a surrounding, an ambience -- you can do other things while listening to music, while in the middle of architecture – architecture and music both nurture multi-focus, the adaptable behavior of the 21st century…

Installation view at Kenny Schachter ROVE-- 2005

BS: Vito, You have taught at many institutions-- including, Yale University , School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Parsons School of Design. What is your teaching philosophy? Also, how did you find balance between teaching and creating your art? Many have noted that their is often a conflict and that one ends up overtaking the other. Did you experience this problem?

VA: I always, everyday, have problems with the work I’m doing, the work the Studio is doing – it’s hard, then, to push my own problems aside and concentrate on a student’s problems…But, at the same time, that’s probably what makes teaching possible for me: I can admit to my own problems, and use them as a reference when I talk with students…

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

VA: Sometimes I can’t distinguish the Studio’s work from the work of architects we pay attention to; everybody’s using the same methods, and doing the same project. Maybe nobody’s made the right, fertile mistake yet; certainly we haven’t. Yes, I love the idea of a sign of the times – like the Nouvelle Vague of the early 60’s -- but I hate the fact of the generic.
You can learn more about Vito Acconci by visiting the following website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


boblloyd said...

So, why are you talking to Vito on an Art Space site if he is not an artist? If he is not an artist, well, what is he? What has he done that is of use to art? Perhaps it is the fact that any action that does not fit into any other category of "doing" now has a comfortable home in "Art", even if the doer does not wish to hold that classification.
What then allows someone to make a career of doing things that do not fit well into any other profession? Choosing art helps, but there are many artists doing other things in order to just be artists. It helps to also gain celebrity under the auspices of art. Celebrity provides perpetuity to the ability of doing whatever you please that does not fit well into the traditional pigeon holes allowed by any other profession.
Vito has an interesting accumulation of what seems to be a common thread of Post Modern 'celebrity' and 'doing'. Not really art, but art; not really poetry but poetry; not really architecture, but architecture; not really theater but performance; not really design but design.... An accumulation of celebrity-gaining well-publicized public events via the art world: well-publicized masturbation, well-publicized pulling hair out of ones navel, etc. provide a springboard to the evolution of other 'doings.' The doings, as they evolve into more traditionally pragmatic areas, are possible not so much because of a reputation earned in those professional areas but because of celebrity. Everybody jerks off but it would not be what gains entry for someone to hire you to design a building. You need to know how to jerk off for success in order to cultivate celebrity. To be a celebrity and jerk off is not helpful - ask PeeWee Herman.
In the end, what Vito might ultimately be called is a master of public relations as he has been so successful and highly regarded for simply doing whatever, whenever, wherever, for a lifetime. And I guess that's art?

Balhatain said...

Thanks for your opinion Bob. So do you mean to suggest that art is only art if the person who creates it or performs it states that he or she is an artist? Must we wear name tags that address this title, label, what have you? I'm a painter. I actually prefer to be called a painter rather than an artist-- does that mean that my paintings are not art? Does that mean people can't call me an artist if they want (I've been called worse)? Would you consider Vito's work art if he had taken those ideas to canvas instead of using his body as he did in Seedbed (and remember that Seedbed is only one example of Vito's creations)? Would you accept it as art if Seedbed had been a painting-- regardless of how Vito views himself? I only ask because It seems that you are defining art on your own terms-- as in what you like and accept as art and the conditions that you feel must be met in order for art to be art. I can only assume that you consider your own work art or the work that you admire art. Correct? Why?

Anonymous said...

Certain aspects of Mr. Acconci's practice have a tumultuous effect on people's thoughts. But Mr. A. does not trouble with these effects -- no time to run around in circles. To practice under the rubric of art, he must concentrate on the thing to do, or on doing some thing, not too much on what it's called. This is required of certain types of artist who wish to succeed. The question of what these things are called was settled some tine ago. You can call anyting art, and you don't have to call anything art -- what matters is that whatever it is, it is accepted as art by an art public. The art public has developed a taste for stuff called art that meets two particular criteria, one, it must appear to reject every standard for traditional art, and two, it must be a spectacle. Mr. A. clearly meets both criteria. More than Mr. A, what is interesting is exploring the reasons for this taste. What is really disturbing, here, is that Mr. A. can actually compare himself to Neil Young, or Van Morrison.


Anonymous said...

An artist is NOT a collector of titles, trying to be many small different things, but to create a reflection of reality, of truth, the world we ALL live in. Not just the art world, which is inbred and myopic. Art has been sliced into so many tiny slivers it has beocme meaningless, as art that is great has many layers, that interact, as do the organs and musicle and skelton of the body. It has a mind, a soul. Life. Not sterilized petri dishes of completely identical cells.

There is no art here, but games, miniscule ideas magnified into true irrelevance, except to the tiny bored and detached world of artistes. Of the art schools, galleries, and self interested collectors.

Art Collegia delenda Est