Vito Acconci with Biba Bell
It was Father’s Day in 2013 when I visited the artist and architect Vito Acconci at Acconci Studio in DUMBO to talk to him about his Street Situations from 1969, curious as to whether he thought about these works in relation to dance and if they inflected his architectural practice. A graduate student in Performance Studies at New York University, at the time I’d intended for these works to make an appearance in my dissertation. This didn’t come to pass and so I’ve been left with this rich interview that has yet to find its place. Detroit Research is perhaps a perfect context, as Acconci was especially inspired by the experimental arts related journals of the 1960s and 70s, perhaps early forebearers to Detroit Research’s own ethos and methodology. Additionally, Detroit was on Acconci’s radar, its post-industrial possibility not unlike DUMBO’s more recent past, he held an honorary degree from College for Creative Studies and even, at one point, Acconci off-handedly mentions there’d been talk around the studio about moving to Detroit.
Acconci’s Street Situations were largely created for Street Works, an art and performance series. Acconci’s Following Piece is the most discussed of his street situations. Presented as part of Street Works IV, it lasted for a total of 23 successive days, October 3-25, 1969. The directions are clearly stated:
Each day I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street.
I follow a different person everyday; I keep following until that person enters a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can’t get in.1Vito Acconci, Diary of a Body: 1969 - 1973 (New York: Charta, 2004), 76.
Acconci defines the street as a “promising line of development,” a “channeling of effort.”2Acconci, Diary of a Body, 77. Power relations, desire, sexuality and pursuit persist through Acconci’s performance-based, or activity-based, oeuvre, wrestling with his own body, presence and subjectivity. In 1972 the art journal Avalanche, published by Willoughby Sharp, was devoted to Acconci’s performance work and a selection of notes associated with each of the Street Situation pieces was chronicled. Most striking is a series of lists titled “Reasons to move,” including phrases such as “split myself in two,” “show myself to myself—show myself through myself—show myself outside,” and “turn in on myself3Vito Acconci, Avalanche (Number 6, Fall 1972): 8-25. in order to turn away from myself.” Movement entailed somatic and theatrical processes of dissection and unfolding, reflection and projection.
The Street Situations marked Acconci’s transition from writing4Vito Acconci’s monograph of poetry, Language to Cover the Page (2006), approaches the page as a field for movement and kineticism. He discusses … into a new phase of artistic output that came to include body art and performance, photography, video, and architecture. This also established his divestment or disinterest in the discrete object d’art5Vito Acconci, Interview with the artist, June 17, 2012.. Acconci’s site-specific choreographic structures could be thought as enabling restraints, determined not by language, writes art historian Elise Archais, but by “need, impulse, and desire.” While Acconci created clear and didactic documents for the Street Situation pieces, this documentation cannot substitute for the actions themselves. During our interview, Acconci mentions that two highly circulated photographs indexing Following Piece in the archive, that show his back in the foreground, walking on the street, with another unidentified individual in the background, also facing away from the camera, are in fact not documentation of the actual Following Piece events. They are simply photographs of him walking down the street. I ask if they’re staged. Not staged, he counters, “You’re always following somebody.”
It was Sunday and the offices were empty. It was sunny with crisp air and the neighborhood was quiet. Before I arrived, Acconci went to the corner store and returned with a tray of three large cups of black coffee - one for me, one for him, and one to share if those ran out. The morning moved into afternoon and we spoke about many things. He was particularly forthcoming about his interests in dance during the late ’60s, willing to speak to the connections that I was most interested in. Acconci’s discussion is filled with surprising anecdotes. He was very candid. He discussed craving dance, and the profound influence that dance had on his work, minimal art, all the art he knew at the time. “It started with ordinary, everyday movement… as dance.”6Vito Acconci [Essay by Vito Acconci], Design Quarterly, No. 122, “Site: The Meaning of Place in Art and Architecture” (1983): 4. He sought, in his own words, to become a “passive receiver of the space and time around him, the passive receiver of the space and time of another.”7Vito Acconci, Vito Acconci (Prato, Italy: Museo d’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, 1991), 138. I came to him with questions regarding choreographic practice - if it could offer cues for adhering to or resisting existing social systems.
A practicing architect at the time of this posthumously published interview, Acconci’s Street Situations are prescient - early investigations into how public art might intervene within the urban architectural milieu. He writes that “the vertical is allotted to architecture, the horizontal to landscape architecture, and the network of lines between and through them to engineering.” The function of what he calls public art is to “fit under and fall over what already exists in the city […] It adds to the vertical, subtracts from the horizontal, multiplies and divides the network on in-between lines.”8Vito Acconci attended University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1962-64. Acconci spoke of a (then) recent project in Perm, Russia, A Museum That Takes The Fall (2008). The built structure, perched above a sloped river bank, is imagined to have a mind of its own that exceeds the hegemonic stability of architecture’s (and specifically the museum’s) historical forces. In Acconci’s design it is thought to move with abandon towards “the call of the wild,” sliding away from foundations down the slope of the landscape to meet (and submerge into?) the moving water below. The wild, for critical theorists Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, might signify the experience to “be beside oneself, to be internally incoherent, to be driven by forces seen and unseen.” Driven by forces, Acconci’s early experiments in performance investigate alienation and desire, and an urge to deconstruct his subjectivity within the everyday activities housed and roused in public space. He sought to be moved by someone or something else. As ordinary as the experience of the sudden awareness of a stranger passing who quickly becomes lost in the crowd after twenty-one… twenty-two… twenty-three short seconds, Acconci reminds us, “We are always following somebody.”
Published here is a portion of our conversation, within which Acconci discusses the process of devising and completing his Street Situations, early perspectives on dance, affiliate artists and the scene of the late 1960s, his dislike of the term “performance,” artistic failure, and the events precipitated his final performance.
You probably know I come from a writer’s background. So, everything I did then, and still everything I do now, is in some ways based in writing. The only way I know how to think is to play with words. Now the work is very different. It’s design and architecture. It’s a group of people. And it’s important to me that be done with a group of people because I didn’t want that to come from one person alone. I thought it had to come from more than one person, thinking together, possibly colliding, maybe even more than agree. I want the public to start from at least semi-public, which was very different from what I was thinking then. When people in the studio and I talk or start to begin talking about a project, I probably start with words… with word play. Quick example - this is from a few years ago, maybe two or three years ago. We were asked to enter this invited competition for a museum in Perm, in Russia. When we saw material for the project the site was on a kind of flat plane, but very quickly it was noticeable that next to the flat plane where the museum was supposed to be, next to that flat plane was a slope down to a river. So, I said, okay, let’s use as a starting point that the museum is supposed to be here on the flat plane. But let’s assume, kind of a stupid assumption, but let’s assume for the time being that the museum has a mind. The museum is supposed to be on the plane but the slope is too strong to resist. So, let’s assume the slope is this call of the wild. The museum can’t resist the slope. Let’s start thinking: Can the museum be on the slope? Can the museum go to the river, into the river? That’s kind of typical of the way we start. That might be a starting point that obviously, eventually other people talk too, not just me. But now I want stuff to come from a collision of people. I want the projects to have loose ends.
But that was very different from then. I don’t think I could ever say that they started for me. I always wanted stuff to be public. That was true about writing. I never kept diaries. I kept notes, but I wanted the notes to be public because I thought if people wanted a way in to the stuff I was doing or we are doing, I want those notes to be available. I want nothing to be secret. The last thing I wanted was hidden meanings. I’ve gone to a lot of talks where people say no they can’t talk about this work. I want to talk about everything. Am I lying to myself? I could be. [laughs] I’m not sure. I want something to still mean something to people if I’ve revealed everything I know about it. That’s going way off of your starting point.
I needed a way for it to be over. I thought, for me, at least then, and when I say that I don’t know if I would have changed my mind now, I thought I could only follow a person until… I could follow a person into a store possibly, but I felt I couldn’t follow a person into an apartment. And I’m not sure if front doors were locked in 1969. I don’t know if front doors were locked as much as they are now. Probably not. But then I thought I was starting to be an intruder. I didn’t want to be an aggressor or some agent that interfered with this person’s space. I thought of it as more about me. I wanted to do something, at least theoretically, that would take me where I didn’t plan on going. I thought maybe somebody would get into a car and I would have to try to quickly find a taxi. I don’t remember if that really ever happened. It’s not that I didn’t follow women, but I made a point of following men more than women and following older women more than… Ah, I’m not sure about that one. In other words, I really didn’t want to be noticed. This really comes from the piece, but it comes from my doing the piece at that particular time. The occasion.
There were three or four events called Street Works that were organized by the same people. John Perreault sometime soon after, a year or two or three after, became the art critic for the Village Voice. But at that point he was a New York poet. A person named Scott Burton who at that time was more of a theater writer but then later became an artist, that was maybe one of the first people in an art context to deal with furniture. A person from South America - and I can’t remember where - named Eduardo Costa, another writer poet. It was very writing-oriented in retrospect. A woman named Hannah Weiner. They organized the Street Works. They were all informal. The last one was sponsored by an organization called the Architectural League of New York. That became the most publicized one. At that time, from ’67 to ’69, a poet named Bernadette Mayer and I put together a magazine called 0 to 9 and I think the last issue of the magazine, number 6, had Street Works occurrences. But it was before the last Street Works, because I don’t think I had Following Piece in there.
I encountered some writing about your work from that time in Avalanche.[…]
One of the things that it evokes for me is this affective mapping of places specifically, and relationships too and events that occur.
This is all, there are probably different pages torn out.[Looking through magazine]
In retrospect this was so much an issue of a magazine that was done by a writer. I think almost the writing about the stuff was probably more interesting than the actual stuff. [laughs]
No. He did keep me from doing it. Some photos clearly show that he … that one more step I might have been gone. But that was important to me even though I didn’t really do it very much. Because I really wanted, at least at the beginning of doing activities, one of the reasons to do it was I wanted it to change me. I didn’t want art or art doing or whatever it was to be aside or apart from me. I think the urge came from music.
I remember a Van Morrison song called Ballerina that was maybe seven minutes long, nine minutes long. Maybe at about minute five or six he says “well it’s getting late now.” Yeah it’s getting late - it’s a long song! I think I wanted that kind of coincidence. I don’t think I ever got it. This was one attempt. I made Seedbed, Claim - they were attempts but I never knew what they were to my everyday life. They made me do another piece. They made me do the next piece and maybe the piece was different than the piece before but I don’t know. I wonder if doing pieces like this made me want to… when I give talks, for example, unless somebody is asking a specifically and very pointedly, nasty question, but for the most part I want to take seriously what this person is asking and try to answer. I wonder if a lot of that came from early stuff of mine. Here, for example, I wanted there to be no difference between me as doing a performance and me as, well, I as me. I thought I would separate myself into subject and object. Now, did I say that first and then do it? I’m not quite sure. I as an agent; me is passive. It’s separating myself into active and passive. Maybe the passive then could be made active.
Ah. Some of the last performance stuff I did in the beginning 1970. And by this time I had already started to do some installations but I still thought live activity made some sense but I realize that because the music was changing… There’s a big difference between Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison and the New York Dolls or the Velvet Underground. The funny thing about that single-person music, this is an amazing over statement, but it was almost all kind of like country music. And I remember the first time I heard the Velvet Underground it was that. This is music about the city. This is music about density, about things being too close. And it was clear that something had changed. And I don’t know if single-person was so important anymore.
It was significant that some of the last performances were done in Europe. By that time there was a lot of words being used and voice. I thought at that time it would be difficult or be hard to to have somebody simultaneously translating. So I would pre-record some text that would then be translated. I started to feel that this is a clue to me that I’m going through the motions. I’m making a text… and it’s not that I didn’t improvise too, but that was a kind of clue that I think I’ve been doing this too long. I’m setting up a score for me, and that was a clue that something’s wrong. I could set up a situation but I wouldn’t necessarily know how I would react.
There was a very specific moment in a piece done in 1973. It was done in Florence. It was a piece called Ballroom. It was done for three nights in this gallery in Florence. There were these white circuclar tables that the gallery had - tables and chairs. They were arranged in a kind of oval around a center point with three spot lights making spots on the floor. I was in the middle, the audience would be sitting at the tables or around the tables. In the background was me humming, recorded humming Al Jolson’s anniversary song. And then me talking on tape, on audio, saying something like “I’m dancing with you Nancy. Now Kathy’s cutting in. Now I’m dancing with you Kathy.” Then every once in a while going to the tables and saying, “Look, neither Kathy nor Nancy really understands me. But you understand me, so I throw myself at you.” And at one point this woman got up and started hugging me and I realized I don’t have the slightest idea what to do. I said, Okay, as soon as she hugs me I thought, Well, you have to take what Kathy and Nancy possibly took. I started slapping her. She hugged me even more. And I said Okay, if you are accepting this, then I guess we should fuck. And she laid down on the floor. I went back to my closed circle and I realized… That was the last performance I ever did. I realized I can’t do this. I’m doing something that I can’t carry through. There’s not that much of a difference between public and private, but I knew I didn’t want to fuck anybody in the middle of an audience. It was so clear that it had to end.
|↑1||Vito Acconci, Diary of a Body: 1969 - 1973 (New York: Charta, 2004), 76.|
|↑2||Acconci, Diary of a Body, 77.|
|↑3||Vito Acconci, Avalanche (Number 6, Fall 1972): 8-25.|
|↑4||Vito Acconci’s monograph of poetry, Language to Cover the Page (2006), approaches the page as a field for movement and kineticism. He discusses this approach to writing’s own materiality as a fundamental element that escorted a smooth transition from the page to the street in these early performance-based works: “I would try to write poems that wrote themselves, you know. I would start with the phrase, ‘Let it go.’ Then I would go to the word “go” in a dictionary and write down each word after “go” until I reached the bottom of the page. Or one of the last pieces of mine that I thought of as a piece of poetry was a book that consisted - a poem that consisted of a page from a book on reading speed, how to improve reading speed. And the title given to the poem was ‘The Time Taken for Me to Walk from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to 14th Street and Fifth Avenue’—so an attempt to make reading time equivalent to writing time. By the time I got there, I thought, ‘Uh-oh. I’m on the street.’ And also, I realized that, you know - I mean, I wanted to go on the street. I wanted to go to the street. And maybe I didn’t know how to say that. But I started to think, if I’m so interested in moving over a space, why am I limiting the space to an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper? There’s a floor. There’s a floor out there. There’s a street out there. There’s a ground out there. So in the back of my mind was, I got to move in real space. I don’t know how yet.” Vito Acconci, “Oral History Interview with Vito Acconci, 2008, June 21-28,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art, www.aaa.si.edu.|
|↑5||Vito Acconci, Interview with the artist, June 17, 2012.|
|↑6||Vito Acconci [Essay by Vito Acconci], Design Quarterly, No. 122, “Site: The Meaning of Place in Art and Architecture” (1983): 4.|
|↑7||Vito Acconci, Vito Acconci (Prato, Italy: Museo d’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, 1991), 138.|
|↑8||Vito Acconci attended University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1962-64.|
|↑9||Lucinda Childs’ Street Dance (1964), choreographed during Robert Dunn’s seminal, Cagean influenced composition workshop, also involved the audience perspective looking out the windows while in a loft to encounter the performance on the street below. The notes for the performance are not unlike some for Acconci’s own situations, which incorporate text, movement, and the body to produce a kind of active reading and scripting of the city street-scape, where anonymity and agency are conjoined within these choreographic acts of inscription.|
|↑10||It was years after this interview that I encountered another hint about this captivating performance, while chatting with Oona Mosna, director of Media City Film Festival (Windsor, ON), who recalled a similar sounding performance described to her by film maker Michael Snow. This performance was choreographed by Simone Forti. And from there I scoured Forti’s work, including the many scores from this period published in her personal and illuminating text Handbook in Motion (published 1974). Here, I located Fallers (1968): “The concert took place in a seventeenth-floor penthouse. The terrace of the penthouse was illuminated. The audience was indoors, the lights out. Past the windows fell the performers, dropping twelve feet from penthouse roof to penthouse terrace, providing a glimpse of free-fall.” Simone Forti, Handbook in Motion (Northampton: Contact Editions, 1974), 86. Italics added.|