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The Body is Present: A Conversation with Vito Acconci

Creative process seeks evolution. It is admirable when artists willfully respond and converse with the work they produce and let it lead the way. Surely, empirical decisions that a mind makes during this process cannot be sidestepped, though the pleasures that spontaneity brings and furthermore fuels the work can also not be ignored. It is through this spontaneity and active conversation with the work that artists build their careers like building blocks. As viewers, we often get so engrossed in the final outcome, may it be painting, sculpture, installation art, photography, video or even performance, we forget there is a process which is an essential part of the work as well. It is a blend of all of those moments which occur while the artist sits in the cornered walls of solitude, imaginably favorite tunes playing in the background, knee and elbow deep in the crevasses of thought. The thought is often an amalgamation of aha! moments, and often spells of calm contemplation. But the process of what the artist goes through while making the work is equally as important as the final outcome.
Magnanimously, when observed the process may also be called the artist’s journey, moments when he picks and chooses certain paths in his careers, while saying sayonara to the rest.
A multifaceted artist who in one lifetime has successfully managed to create a body of work in more than one discipline, Vito Acconci is a poet, performance/video artist, and an architect. Acconci has gone through a highly active evolutionary creative process. Primarily a poet, Acconci started his career playing with words and the way they move from one corner of the page to the other, using the space of the paper as canvas and words as medium. He later became one of the pioneers of performance art community in America in the 70s. Presently, his works are exhibited in performance art retrospectives and are extremely relevant when body as a medium in art is under discussion.
After a short-spanned career in performance art from 1969 till 1974, Acconci willfully shifted from engaging his body actively in his work to creating participatory installations where the viewer could physically engage with the sculptural forms. From making participatory installations he transitioned further towards architecture and later founded the architectural firm Acconci Studios in New York. At Acconci Studios, where a team of architects and artists works, Acconci, although not a trained architect, plays the role of an envision-er for the projects they take up as a team. With a healthy working environment filled with discussion, suggestions and debate, there is a dynamic ignition towards collaborative innovative design strategies.
It was a pleasure to have met Vito Acconci at Acconci Studios in Brooklyn, where we had an intimate conversation about the process of his work and his far-reaching, evolving career.
Natasha Jozi: You once said; “Art in the 60s and 70s was a non-field field”, where different people imported themselves from different disciplines like sociology, anthropology and had started to make art. What did you mean by art as a non-field field?
Vito Acconci: What I meant by art as a non-field field was that at the end of the 60s almost everything in the US was changing. It was a time when the first feminist writings got equipped, it was a time when gallery neighborhoods were starting to change, and things were in a flux. So everything that previously had some kind of a power (like male dominance for example), was starting to lose its power. A lot of new things had started to happen with regards to the kinds of art that was going on. The gallery neighborhood were also shifting where earlier it was uptown Madison Square & 57th Street, now moving to downtown, and Soho was becoming the place for galleries.
So gallery owners who were now moving to Soho were thinking they had to report something new. I don’t know if any one of us would have noticed this shift if it wasn’t for the fact that gallery neighborhoods were changing and gallery dealers were starting to re-think about art. We as artists also realized we had to show something we hadn’t shown before. Gallery owners like Ileana Sonnabend for example, who at one point was married to Leo Castelli and was probably one of the causes of the proliferation of art in New York, once told me later, that although she knew Abstract expressionism very well, she really didn’t know what was going on now. So it was a time as using Ileana Sonnabend and probably Leo Castelli as examples that they felt that since the art neighborhood was changing the art had to change.
NJ: What is art in your opinion? What do you think about art today?
VA: It’s too much of a self-enclosed thing. The reasons why most of my work became design- and architecture-based, was that for me people had to be in middle of things. And art puts people in front of things, I don’t mean that all art does so, but I totally lost interest in art after the 70s. I really felt I wanted to create things where people are participating, people are inside architecture.
NJ: Do you think design is art?
VA: I don’t want to think about it as value terms, and the reason is that I sometimes think just using the term art misleads people. People in general have learnt to use ‘art’ as a term. If they see something or someone that’s incredibly beautiful, they say, “Wow, what a work of art!” So what bothers me about art is that it already seems to be a term of approval, which is so different than any other category in life. If you say a building, then you have to decide, if it’s a good building or a bad building. But art, once you say something even without realizing you are approving something, and there should not be a pre-approval. The person should have the freedom that ok, now that I call this a shelf, is it a good shelf? Do I like this shelf? I would love people to be inventive.
NJ: Repeatedly, the body’s relationship to space has been essential throughout your practice; how has performance art been instrumental in this?
VA: Performance was a way for me to start things, but you see my work didn’t start from performance, it started from poetry. It started from how I moved and played with the words across a page; gradually I became more interested in making spaces that people could move through, which later evolved into installation. But installation was an in-between creative moment for me, later transforming into design and architecture.
When I was doing performance (I like to use the word activity more than performance, but I guess that is not the same because performance means that something is being done in front of others) I always tried framing it so, that it wasn’t about theatre seats; rather it was about setting up a space. A piece I did in Florence, where I installed a few white circular tables; people were to sit around the tables, there would be spotlights in the middle of each table, I would go from spotlight to spotlight, going towards each table. In other words I tried to avoid the notion of something like a stage. I felt I needed to find a way to connect with the audience, how can I approach the person who is suppose to be an audience but possibly becomes at least like a performer too.
NJ: How did the transition happen from doing performance-based work where you were actively part of the work to removing yourself from the work completely and constructing installations and later architecture?
VA: I hated the fact that whoever knew a piece of mine knew exactly how I looked like. I thought, am I doing a project or am I trying to build my persona and I hated that fact. I didn’t want a personality cult. I wanted the exact opposite of that; cult means a kind of an advertising gesture. Moreover, I wanted there to be interactivity. I don’t know if I ever did anything that turned this way out, because I figure the only way a person could be a part of the piece is if they changed the piece, and I don’t know if I happened to do that necessarily.
I feel that performance kind of made my career but also ruined it (laughs). Because people got so interested in that kind of stuff, but that stuff came out of that time and it can never be out of another time.
NJ: While you were doing performance-based work, you also did video performances; how do you think they are different, or similar?
VA: With the performances done in front of a video camera or film camera, I thought of it as making a film, where I was the subject matter as much as the doer. And I thought of screen size to be of an average film screen size. On the other hand, when I was doing a video, I thought of the size of the screen/monitor as the size of a person’s face. So when I was doing a video I concentrated on the face, whereas when I was doing a film I thought of it more as a landscape. But I stole this; I stole it form Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was once asked “Why do you never use a close up in your comedies”, and his answer was “Because there’s nothing funny about a face fifteen feet high” (laughs).
NJ: Lets talk more about video. In your video-based works, you never seem to have repeated yourself. Would you like to talk about the relationship between each work and your trajectory?
VA: In art I hated when artists would adopt a style. I could have a mode and everything I did would be because of that mode, I hoped it would change me. I didn’t want to live up to something. I wanted to make mistakes and perhaps hope that would lead to something else.
NJ: Did you make mistakes?
VA: I made mistakes all the time. When I did the film Conversions, the first part was where I would be burning the hair off my chest. It was after I had the film developed that I realized the entire film was out of focus, and I said to myself, “What do I do now?” So I tried some ridiculous things like putting some glue and attaching hair on my body, which almost set me aflame (laughs). So, I realized to do it again I would have to wait for four or five months for my hair to regrow. So I waited and re-did the whole thing. But when I did it the first time I was so intent to do the performance that surely I burnt myself a number of times, but that didn’t seem to matter. Now when I was redoing it I knew the act. Answering to your earlier question, I couldn’t do anything twice. I mean I had to re-do it because I had to, not because I wanted to.
NJ: It’s been almost forty years since you performed last, and your performance-based work is still very relevant and is avidly written about to date. Did you ever expect that this would happen?
VA: I don’t know if I know. For me it came so much out of the time that I don’t know when I did it I thought, would this stuff really last at all? Maybe it was because since a lot of stuff we were doing involved causing some kind of endurance. We wanted to attack ourselves and maybe in some way I wanted to give it a reason.
NJ: Do you have any regrets?
VA: I’ve thought of myself as doing architecture, certainly since the 80s. People don’t necessarily ask us to do solely architecture; they ask us to do art projects connected with architecture. We have done some projects that are pretty close to architecture but I don’t think many people think of us as architects and I think that must be my fault. I haven’t found a way for us to do stuff that really would be considered as architecture.
I wonder if I’ve ever known how to make us part of an architectural discourse, but I don’t really know how could I have done it differently. We have never made a place where people would live. Not that we don’t want to and we have proposed things but then again what is the percentage that we have successfully built – maybe 10% or something like that.
NJ: How would you like to be remembered?
VA: It’s hard now to think individually because everything I do is part of a group of people. I’d like to be remembered as the kind who refused to carry a project through when we realized that people who asked us to do something really are leading us in a certain direction. It’s not that I think our directions are better than anybody else but they certainly are better than people who do conventional architecture. So I hope we can at least be some kind of a buzzing fly in the ear.
Photo credit: Vito Acconci and Natasha Jozi, Acconci Studios, Brooklyn NY.
Natasha Jozi is a performance artist, poet and writer. With a Master’s in Studio Arts majoring in Performance Art from Montclair University, she currently resides and works in Islamabad.
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