Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail
(David Zwirner Books, 2017)
Vito Acconci is one of the founders of contemporary art as we know it. His writings, performances, and installations have inspired and opened doors for countless artists. In recent years, his career has shifted to running a studio of architects trying to find a "fluid space." We spoke with him in his studio in Brooklyn.
Rail: In the past two decades your work underwent great changes; let’s begin there.
Acconci: Since the end of the eighties, the work no longer comes from one person; it comes from a studio of people. The more the work started to deal with public space, the more it seemed essential that, if it was supposed to result in public, it couldn’t begin as private. I started thinking of phrases like, "If a person lives by the sword, they die by the sword." Therefore if you did something private, it ends private. So once I realized, gradually, that the work needed or belonged to public spaces more than it fit into an enclosed museum or gallery space, I realized I needed to work the way an architect works. I had to work with a group of people. In 1988 the Acconci Studio started and continues. We don’t think of the work as art, but design—we think of it as landscape architecture, industrial design. Most of the five people, aside from the studio manager/office person, are architects; they went to architectural school and worked in architectural offices.
Rail: It is a collaborative?
Acconci: It is at least a quasi-collaborative. It probably can never be a complete collaborative because like it or not, I pay them, they don’t pay me, so there’s a power imbalance. Also I am twenty years older than the oldest person in the studio, I have some kind of reputation, they haven’t had time to have a reputation, so it’s a quasi-collaborative, a semi-collaborative.
Rail: How do you work on pieces?
Acconci: The way we work is I start something off with a general idea, a vague idea. I have realized over the years that the thing I do best is to have vague ideas. I don’t know if I know how to embody them that well. Then we talk and talk and use various methods— more and more we are using computer methods and that wasn’t always the case. We play off each other. Maybe I start something off with a general idea, but that idea changes a lot as we talk, as we develop.
Rail: What is your latest project?
Acconci: We just designed a skateboard park for San Juan in Puerto Rico. That seems like it will be built—you never can be sure.
Rail: You are an artist with a rich history, a legacy. You talk about your work as landscape architecture and industrial design almost negating your history as an artist.
Acconci: I’m not negating, but changing. I never liked art, I never felt very comfortable in art. My background wasn’t art, it was writing. I came to art at a time when I thought some stuff of mine shifted from writing to art, in 1968-69. What attracted me—and I think a lot of people to art at that time—is that art seemed to be a non-field field. Art seemed to be a field that had no inherent characteristics of its own, except the fact that it was called art. So art was a field into with which you could import from other fields. You can import from psychology, from sociology, from history, from news. Years later I began to think maybe the direction was wrong. Instead of bringing the world into art, maybe the more convincing move would have been to bring art into the world. Gradually I think I realized that I just wasn’t interested in an art viewer. A person who, in the act of entering a gallery or museum is in effect saying, "I am an art viewer and by extension I am separating myself from all others who are not art viewers." I gradually realized I was more interested in the casual passer-by in the city. The person who stops at something not because it is labeled as art, but for some reason or another it connects with this person’s life. Another way of putting it is that I gradually realized I was more interested in applied art than pure art. I realized I was more interested in a spoon, a glass, a table, a chair than I was in stuff supposedly called art.
Rail: Your presence becomes more anonymous because people are coming to that skateboard park not because it was designed by Vito Acconci Studio, but because they want to skate.
Rail: It’s so much more social than how you began.
Acconci: Yes, in some ways, looking at the beginnings of my work, I was the most unlikely person to have gone through this kind of development. But after the early work, there was a period in the mid seventies when I wasn’t doing live stuff anymore; I was doing installations in a museum or gallery space. I would set up a space where people who came to the gallery space would be. I would set up things that resembled tables and chairs, places where people could group, where people could be together. And I think then I had this nagging doubt. I was treating the gallery or museum as if it was a town square or a plaza. But I was lying to myself. A gallery or museum was never going to be a plaza. If I really wanted a plaza or a town square, then I had to find a way to get there. It took awhile for me. I had to find a way that architecture was connected to person, connected to body, so beginning in the early eighties for a few years there were pieces that consisted of some kind of instrument like a swing or a bicycle that could be used by a gallery visitor. The use of that vehicle by a gallery visitor would create some kind of shelter, some kind of architecture; it was a way to connect—to find a way the body could make architecture, the body could make a shelter around a person. In retrospect I would say, there were so many instances in early work that could have been architecture, but I didn’t have any idea…
Rail: Such as?
Acconci: "Seedbed," for example. Empty gallery room, floor becomes a ramp, I am under the floor masturbating using viewers as help, in the sense that I hear viewers footsteps on top of me and I can build sexual fantasies on the footsteps, the sexual fantasies keep my masturbating going, keep my activity going. It was an important part of that piece for me that I was to do that piece for several days from opening to closing time. Why? Because I wanted to be part of the architecture of the room, I wanted to be part of the floor. I didn’t want there to be a situation where someone comes in anytime and I am not part of the floor.
Rail: What about performance anxiety?
Acconci: Most performance for me was based on stage fright, was based on the notion of a stand-up comedian. The lights come on, and you have to do something. How could I meet those circumstances? That was the exciting thing about performance, it was separate from theatre, it wasn’t about rehearsal. That was why "Seedbed" was done for a number of days over an extended period. But it can never be done again for me, because then the first time would be a rehearsal and the next time it wouldn’t count anymore.
Rail: How do you masturbate all day?
Acconci: You keep trying. After the first or second time maybe it was more difficult. But I tried all the time.
Rail: Is the skateboard park complete?
Acconci: I don’t know how successful we were. At this point the project is approved; now we have to talk to more skateboarders. We tried to make use of the site, going over the ocean, but I’m not sure if we got it right, it was one of the hardest projects we’ve ever had to do. We worked on a skateboard park earlier in Avignon that never happened for two reasons: they didn’t have the money to do it, and we never came up with a plan that we really liked, and that surprised us. So much of the stuff we do looks like it could be a skateboard park, but when we were asked to do a specific skate park, we couldn’t do it! We either made a potentially interesting space, but not of much use to skateboarders, or we made a space that’s very useful for skateboarders, but we had to ask ourselves, why are we doing this, why not just make it out of a kit of skateboarding parts? We never found that in-between space, how to reinvent a space and make it skateboardable. I think we came closer this time.
Rail: There is an immediate performance need by the skateboarder.
Acconci: There are certain kinds of angles and rules that you must follow. We were terrified when working on the Avignon skatepark, because we were talking to one skateboarder who said, " Yes, a person could probably do this, but you must remember that skateboarders are crazy, and someone will try who can’t do it and will probably die!"
Rail: It’s a bit like creating theatre. The skateboarders are watched, and they are performing for those eyes.
Acconci: They are performers. They don’t all want to be watched, but many want to be photographed.
Rail: Does that relate to your early interest in performance?
Acconci: I can’t say. The project came to us. But in general, maybe the idea to do a project doesn’t start with us, but at the same time we think of architecture as performance spaces for people. We are interested in the forms making events for people, passages, to make occasions where a person might coincidentally meet another person: a democratic space that can account for people who want to be alone as well. Perhaps you want a place to go into to withdraw. I remember at the end of the eighties a writer said rather derogatorily about our work that we "make spaces where large groups of people can gather in order for each of them to be totally alone." Not necessarily untrue! I think we, like others, are trying to figure out what public space means now, especially in a computer-oriented world. When I first encountered the computer I thought it was a throwback to reading, and also a totally visual space. But it’s more than that, it is some strange mix of private and public at the same time. Gradually, I got so involved I began realizing architecture is the art of everyday life, in the sense that everyone knows architecture whether they realize it or not, because everyone has used it, everyone has gone up a stairway or through a doorway. It is tangible to their bodies. On the other hand the thing that terrifies me about architecture is that it is a totalitarian space; that is, you are ultimately designing people’s behavior in that space. It’s a terrifying thing. You want to give choices, but what if someone finds a different use for your space that isn’t built in? Probably the ideal user in one of our spaces is the person who subverts the space somehow.
Rail: Can you account for that?
Acconci: We’ve tried, but I don’t know if you can. We set up a number of choices, but the real user finds one that isn’t there, that we haven’t set up. I was always interested in plazas where there are benches set up but some people prefer to sit on the steps. It seems like the first act of rebellion. The chair is an order to sit down, but if you sit on the step you are possibly getting in someone’s way, you are doing something you are not supposed to. We would love it if people could rebuild and revise our space. We haven’t found a way to do that.
Rail: What about the space you designed, The Storefront for Art and Architecture, where the walls are hinged?
Acconci: But what if someone wants to move something in a place where it isn’t hinged already? I would love to be able to do that.
Rail: How can that be done?
Acconci: Like most designers we have been tending more and more towards fluid spaces where there isn’t so much a distinction between inside and outside, but you are still setting up an order for people so it isn’t that fluid. We would love our architecture to be fluid so that it is always changing. Like a person walks up to it and it starts to move according to the way the person moves. And there are probably going to be ways to do that. There are a lot of people working on these kinds of ideas. Ideally, we make places people go to; ideally, we want to make places that people take with. We are thinking more about clothing. I think our hero is the turtle—it carries it’s own house. It never has to go home, you’re always there. The idea of some kind of clothing.
Rail: But that’s such a singular and independent idea as opposed to public space.
Acconci: Yes, we really are of two minds. On one hand, public space in the twenty-first century is some strange mix of public and private. Maybe public space after 9/11 is a series of private capsules drifting around that occasionally come together. The computer contributed to that, a sense of concentration, a sense of safety, a sense that people don’t need to separate public and private; they are not so ironbound as they used to be, in a city where people sleep on the streets. It’s hard to separate public and private. Topology is on a lot of people’s minds now, fluid spaces, warping spaces, a space that can become different things at different times. None of us knows how to do it yet.
Rail: The homeless are the perfect example of people subverting the space everywhere.
Acconci: Skateboarders and the homeless have that in common, they are both using the space of the city that wasn’t for them, and using it in their own way.
Rail: How does the proposal process work for you?
Acconci: We try to use our first proposal to see how much we can get away with. We are like visitors from another planet to another planet, we don’t really know the customs yet. But at the same time, being a visitor from another planet may give you an advantage; you may notice something that people who are inhabitants of that planet may not have noticed because they have gotten too used to it. The second or third proposal is usually the best. I have this notion that you do it like a guerrilla fighter, you get to know the terrain then try to shift the terrain.
Rail: A rebellious space?
Acconci: We want a space that can nudge into an authoritarian culture. Maybe you can’t do it directly. In a gallery or museum you can impose yourself on people, but in public space there is a form of politeness. I don’t know if you have the right to attack a person, you must do it in a more fluid way so that the person can find a way for themselves.
Rail: What about home?
Acconci: I’ve always had an urge to leave home, and public space is probably leaving home. Probably the easiest way to leave home is for sex. You leave in order to leave the family, and you leave the family by having sex with others. And so sex with others is the beginning of public space.
Rail: That makes sense! So, as in sexuality, you want to be sensitive to their needs…
Acconci: You want a conversation, you don’t want too impose too many rules, and you want to learn from them too.
Rail: In that case, an orgasm or mutual experience is the goal. But can you be turned on by a space?
Acconci: Maybe a small series of orgasms.
Rail: The orgasm scene in When Harry met Sally is a private experience in a public space. Live performance also has these qualities…
Acconci: One of the reasons I started to wonder about live performance. I started to wonder if you could have a live interrelation in the space of a gallery or museum, or in a public space where it is being watched. It was as if my performances were asking for or starting a relationship, but no relationship really started.
Rail: Was there a particular performance?
Acconci: The last performance I ever did was at a gallery in Florence. The gallery was set up like a dance club. I was walking and dancing from spotlight to spotlight. There is an audiotape in the background; on one track I am humming Al Jolson’s "Anniversary Song," on the other track is voice, and the voice is addressed to two people I have been involved with. Every once in awhile I would leave the circle of spotlight and approach the audience at one of the tables, and I’d say, "neither Cathy or Nancy really understand me, but you understand me," sort of asking to be touched. One person started to hug me and I thought what am I going to do? So obviously we should extend this hug, and we should fuck. I said this to the person who then laid down on the floor, and I realized I couldn’t do it. So I went back to my closed circle and realized I am doing pieces that ask for a relationship, but I don’t know how to go past the asking. I don’t know how to get it.
Rail: What is happening now, where are we?
Acconci: It’s easy to see it in terms of architecture. I would like to know what separates our work from a lot of architects that we pay attention to. We are all interested in topological spaces, fluid spaces that have their own biological systems which we can only simulate. That notion of fluidity is on people’s minds now and is part of the times. Boundaries are changing. If boundaries are fluid, maybe there is a type of nomad to come, a turtle.
Acconci: I keep resorting to this idea of Nomads, capsules. It is not so much finding the self as in the sixties. Now I think self is more like a system of feelers. A nomad feels out the self, navigates, and takes what he needs from the surroundings—maybe there’s nothing inside. Skateboarding again, how do you find your way around the terrain? Maybe you take some risks in falling, maybe you can glide a bit, let the slope take you and you don’t have to control it all the time. I would love to do architecture like that! But I don’t know exactly what that it is.
Rail: Any projects related directly to fluidity?
Acconci: We did a clothing store in Tokyo for young designers called United Bamboo. We tried to make a store that was like the clothing it sold, we wanted a place where you could touch the store as well as the product. A store that was as soft as skin. The store was made of PVC material, the kind used for rear screen projection. So the ceiling comes down and makes a wall, and is pulled to make shelves and pushed back. The whole thing is soft, and since it is PVC material, it is all lit from behind, so the light and surface is the same thing. But it doesn’t change, though it seems like it should; skin isn’t just soft, it moves, and the house doesn’t move.
Rail: It is almost utopian. How do you make a space that continues to change? It seems that our minds can’t completely…
Acconci: But we are getting used to some things. Like the car, we can open it by pressing a button as we step near. It is something that changes according to you, your presence. There are things that seem to be precursors. A friend of mine visits her family in Colorado and went into a supermarket where there were no sales people. You scan the food yourself and ring it up yourself, give the money…
Acconci: These things always happen outside of New York. Supermarkets outside of New York are like vast landscapes. A lot of things are happening where consumers become producers. I don’t know if consumer society is as bad as everyone thought.
Rail: Do you think talking about work is important?
Acconci: In my generation we wanted to talk about work almost as much as do work. There was such mystification in art, you wanted to demystify as much as possible. It doesn’t take away mystery, it should still hold after revealing the process. The way I’ve tended to work is—I did something, now what went wrong here, what is next, always looking at what came before. In some ways I think I have the mentality of a clerk in a Dickens novel. I don’t know that I make wild jabs. I go from what I’ve done and maybe inch toward something else. I’m not sure if I know how to leap and that bothers me, but I seem only to know how to do it step by step. There were so many instances where stuff could have become architecture, but I went step by step. Like the stuff I am saying about fluid space, I don’t know how to leap there. I don’t know how to leap to that space that grows.
Rail: It almost feels like we are living in the wrong dimension.
Acconci: Some combination of virtual and physical space at the same time, but I don’t know how to grasp that. I don’t think I want to get rid of the physical, but I want virtual to exist at the same time; I want a space that is experienced by the body, but I don’t know if that’s enough. The body might be an old world sensibility, because the body can be extended so much now, you can change the body much more than we thought we could, change genders…
Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey are Praxis, an art collaborative whose projects have been shown in P.S.1/MOMA and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. They are also writing a book and directing a cinema vertité feature film. Their ongoing project, The New Economy, has ambitions to abolish order as we know it. Their projects and texts can be seen online at www.twobodies.com