A Conversation with Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci’s multi-talented career started off in the Bronx, where, as a seven year old aspiring author, he wrote stories about sports and cowboys.

His writing in his Catholic college’s magazine was deemed too risqué, leading to it being banned for three issues.

After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he returned to New York in the early ’60s, during which time he began writing poems.

These poems were not narrative and did not express emotions, instead they acted as prompts for the reader to interact with.

They were not representational, but more of a presentation, giving the reader words and sentences to navigate around.

The aim was to encourage the reader to participate in the poem, rather than describe the actions of a fictional character.

Soon, a page was not enough to contain all of Acconci’s movements; poetry readings enabled him to extend words into three dimensions.

During one of these, he scattered letters of the alphabet on tables to trigger readings as he moved through the space. For his Following Piece, he left the page behind, allowing strangers to guide him around the city.

He then directed his attention to his own body, performing physical acts such as biting and burning himself, and most famously, Seedbed, where he masturbated beneath a wooden ramp in the Sonnabend gallery, speaking his fantasies through a loudspeaker.

Language still had a role to play, as it both exposed his activity, which would otherwise have been concealed, and made the viewers complicit in it.

Open Book is a close-up video of his wide-open mouth as he tries to invite the viewer without ever closing his lips; the mouth then becomes a book, yet it can’t speak because it is left open.

In later installations, verbal recordings merged with proto-structures, thus bringing words into closer proximity to physical space, objects, and an audience.

Acconci’s formerly singular focus on what readers did when they read, alone, had evolved into an interest in what they did when they were together in a single room.

For instance, by occupying a swing or a bicycle, people could raise the walls of a small house; however, it still remained confined in a gallery.

Over time, Acconci’s projects began to take shape outside of exhibition spaces, into more public areas. In 1988, he established Acconci Studio with a group of architects and commenced designing flexible, multipurpose public buildings.

Even these are related to writing, according to Acconci, as every project is launched with written words.

From the vantage point of his Mur Island structure in Graz, Austria, which serves as a bridge, theater, cafe, and playground, the early poems of Acconci may appear as peculiar landforms with columns and passageways for readers to explore.

Mur Island itself may be seen as a poem. As somebody who is used to words leaving the page, I often ask why writing is so limited in scope.

What new literature might be written if we could gain the skill to use elements such as physical objects, places, buildings, and bodies in the same way Acconci did when he created architecture out of words on a page?

–Shelley Jackson stated

When it comes to Shelley Jackson’s career, she started out as a writer, transitioned to performance art, and then ended up in architecture.

To better understand her journey, I’m interested in tracing her writing throughout her career and exploring if her late work might be seen as an extreme materialistic practice of writing. What inspired her to write in the first place?

Acconci wanted to create a parallel world of his own.

He believed that one did not need to travel around the globe to explore different cultures – it was possible to create these worlds in the confines of one’s own home.

He was not sure why he was so driven to do this, however.

SJ: Could it be that you were dissatisfied with the way the world was?

VA: Even though I was somewhat introverted, I was still a dedicated student. I figured that if I worked hard, I should be able to show the results of my efforts in some form.

Writing was my way of making the most of this and I never thought to keep a diary. I was inspired by certain works I had come across and I wanted to be able to do the same for others.

An autobiography was never part of the equation for me; I didn’t even consider it an option.

What authors had an impact on you?

When I was a teenager, I was enamored of Mallarme, and the book Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau.

During my graduate studies, I was particularly interested in Robbe-Grillet, but I was also fond of John Hawkes.

Though I admired the kind of writing featured in the New Yorker, I was aware that I could never write in that style, and would feel envy when I read it. Writing was always a laborious task for me, and I put effort into making my words awkward on purpose.

For example, it was difficult for me to even write the simple sentence, “He went to the store.” I wanted to include every possible system of cause and effect in the parameters of the sentence, rather than just a summary.

I did not want a summary, I wanted to go through all the steps.

SJ: You pursue your passion for fiction writing by attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did you transition from creating a fantasy world to the kind of writing that–

When I returned to New York from Iowa at the end of 1964, I was presented with a Jasper Johns painting for the first time, and I had the thought that I wanted to create something similar.

The idea for SJ was taken from a different style or type of work.

VA commented that they were not interested in painting, but writing in the same vein as Jasper Johns. It was the importance of starting with a convention that struck them.

It made them think of the New Criticism – where the poem or writing stands alone – and Kenneth Burke’s book, A Rhetoric of Motives, which talks about a different approach – one where the reader matters.

My Jesuit schooling introduced me to the concept of rhetoric and persuasion, and when I encountered the works of Jasper Johns, this further crystallized my idea that one must begin with something that is universally known.

In this way, I am able to introduce abstract expressionist strokes into my work, as the reader now has a base on which to interpret it.

This concept of working with conventions initially felt more suited to poetry than fiction, as I felt it was difficult to create something meaningful on a page that was 450 pages long.

SJ: John’s artwork nearly eliminates the divide between the depicted and the depicted object, since a painting of a number is also that number–

VA: Indeed, a numerical value is only brought into existence when it is written down. And that is what he has done.

SJ: –and it seems that your earliest compositions had a common objective: to manipulate language.

VA: Absolutely. My goal was for it to be material.

SJ determined that the notion of a depicted reality was no longer feasible.

The VA experienced a sudden jolt that made it impossible for them to continue writing fiction.

The word and the page both became tangible, SJ noted.

VA: Definitely. After discovering Johns’ canvas, I started to think that the page was quite crucial.

I ran into this phrase from Jean-Luc Godard about how making a movie is filled with fear of the blank screen, the projection, and all the other components.

I’m not sure if I was feeling the same about the page, or if I was wanting it…

SJ: Is there a fear of the page?

VA: I was both scared and fascinated by the whiteness of the page. Mallarme wanted to make the page look empty. But instead of just being nothing, he saw it as something else.

He wanted to make the page into a physical object. I wanted to transform the page into a tangible thing.

It is difficult to consider a blank page as a piece of work until something has been done to it; SJ affirms that fact.

VA: It’s like having to compose the page with words, and then meticulously delete them.

In 1969, Vito Acconci and Shelley Jackson created an artwork entitled “Drop (On the Side/Over the Side) The 5”.

SJ articulated that a different angle to view the composition was to include only the outside of the thesaurus, creating an alignment of letters on the page.

This modifies the focus from the text to the page itself, yet still leaving a remnant of words.

VA: On the one hand, I was focusing on the page, on the other, I was becoming increasingly desperate.

Despite my insistence that I was not writing about something–except for when I was penning fiction; my change from fiction to poetry was that in the former I was writing about something, but in the latter I was writing something–I was beginning to understand the corner I had put myself in: all writing could do was point to things already written.

I was feeling the excitement but, at the same time, fear of this realization that I had confined myself to the realm of books. This is a land of the written before, and maybe I did not need to add to it, maybe all I could do was take its measure.

SJ: As a result, you started to consider that your work involved the reader and their body, and necessarily took place in a world– you began to expand the scope of your work to include the entire context that you had created by writing.

In one piece, you directly address the reader, asking them to observe their physical position and the clothing they are wearing and what color their eyes are.

Additionally, you recognize that the readers’ eyes are actively moving between the words, creating a weaving pattern along the lines of type.

On a small scale, it was almost like an architectural process, where you used words to divide the space and construct paths which the reader could travel on.

VA: It was quite clear that the words I was using on the page were similar to that of a physical model. Though I did not have the intention to pursue architecture at the time, I wanted to move into actual space.

It’s likely the same as expressing a desire to enter the realm of architecture, however it wasn’t how I defined real space back then.

SJ: Your readings evolved from being a regular reading to being more like a performance as the transition into a real space was beginning.

VA: The beginning of my work was to make words part of the space, or to use words to move through the space, instead of moving through the page.

I recall a poetry reading at the Longview Country Club. My piece involved walking from one end of the area to the other, and with every step I read a word.

Moving in one direction, each word was an adverb. When I returned, each step was a prepositional phrase, like a way to either explode words in the space or to navigate the space through words. I think there was a duality.

On the one hand, I could sense the need to move away from the page and put words into the space, but at the same time I was probably apprehensive and could only go through the space by utilizing words.

Creating a written page can also be seen as a method of assigning language to physical space, such as an 8 1/2 by 11 page. This way, language can be laid out in a spatial format, even though it is read in a temporal fashion.

I have always found diagramming sentences to be an interesting topic. It allows one to explore and delve into the depths of language.

SJ questions the attraction to converting language into a physical space; they too share this same interest.

VA: Is it spatially oriented? That’s too basic. It’s a language as a type of structural organization. Representing a sentence in a diagram almost looks like a design of a building.

I’m not sure how to express it correctly, but I’d like to attempt it. What is the root of this captivation?

SJ: Working in electronic media has always attracted me because it allows creation of something that feels more like a physical space than a linear progression.

This interest has its roots in my childhood when I wanted to build an alternate universe that was composed of words yet had the same sense of reality.

Can one evade linearity while using the internet?

SJ states that although you can’t actually read multiple things simultaneously, you are able to recognize that there are different options available to you. This creates a feeling of openness in contrast to a clearly defined route.

VA: When I was no longer a writer, I became more interested in plot. It was when I got involved in art and started to put together installations that my writing returned to fiction.

Before this, I didn’t feel I had anything to write about, and I was only concerned with the words on the page. But when I had a physical presence in space, I was able to write fictionally.

Now, I could make my words work with, and yet also contradict, what was around me.

This was the first time I’d felt the freedom to write since I’d written short stories. Writing is different from simply occupying the page with words.

SJ: During your earlier events, you still had a focus on the physical qualities of language, although you had moved away from written text.

I’m thinking of that occasion in which someone was tapping away at their keyboard rather than reading out loud. It was almost like a musical performance.

By going around to the back of the typist, it was possible to read the material that had to do with hearing. The sound that could be heard was the noise coming from the typewriter. This was one that was not electric and thus, it was quite loud.

SJ was describing how they were bridging the divide between the words they had written and the story which was unfolding; the narrative being told was about the actual experience being had.

At that juncture, I was so focused on what was happening in front of me I never imagined it could lead to something else.

SJ noted that writing offers an escape, even if the reader is eventually brought back to reality. Despite their shunning of narrative, it still was present as an option or a potential.

VA: When the poetry events began, the work moved away from just the page and into real space. It became more than just words on paper – you could hear the words, there was the sound of a typewriter, and a person to bring the words to life.

It started to break away from the restraints of the page.

An image is depicted with a figure of a person, standing in the center of a circle made up of symbols and words. Surrounding the figure, the words “love”, “hope”, “peace” and “harmony” can be seen, as well as the sign of an eye and a heart.

The overall impression is one of a search for a universal understanding.

From the “Street Works IV” series of the Architectural League of New York, an activity took place throughout the 23 days from October 3rd to 25th, 1969, in various locations in NYC at varying times each day.

SJ: Over time, you stopped writing on the page altogether.

You have mentioned that when you began tracking people, you felt the need to be nobody and let them dictate. Was that a repudiation of being a writer?

VA: Whenever I did something, I was required to make decisions regarding both time and space. I desired to have no say in the matter.

I could be transported by another person, I could be an observer, and I could be the one in control of the entire plan, yet I did not want to be the one doing the actual deed.

I could decide that my space was to be altered, yet I had no clue where I was going.

SJ: You were making yourself invisible, but suddenly your body became the focus of everyone around you. What was the cause of this?

VA: I sometimes muse on whether that was a misstep, and if it hadn’t happened, then my work might have been routed to architecture faster. I considered pieces such as Following Piece in this way: There is a city, and I am part of it.

I need to figure out how to connect with the city. I can choose people to follow in the city, and my space in the Museum of Modern Art can be my “mailbox”.

Whenever I want to access my mail, I have to traverse the city. In my projects, I am using myself, but I am trying to transform my character into someone without will or volition, who is subject to a strategy that I created.

I realized that if I continued to split up my identity, I had to focus more on the individual. Rather than looking outward to the external world, I needed to look inward to myself.

This process unexpectedly caused me to become more introspective and autobiographical. I consider now that this may have diverted my attention away from architecture to an extent, but it also made me appreciate architecture in a new way.

It opened my eyes to the fact that architecture is a platform for people, for their complicated mix of anxieties and apprehensions.

In September 1970, Bill Beckley photographed activities and ink prints, items that were trademarked.

At an earlier point, SJ had created Trademark which depicted themselves as a printing press. This was achieved by biting their own skin and then smearing the wounds with printer’s ink before pushing it onto a surface. What was the surface they used to print on?

VA: Anything is possible. I could create prints of them on standard paper, I could display them on the wall, I could even reproduce them on another person’s body…

SJ remarked that they had been the author, the printing machine, in addition to the page.

VA: Was I the page? I attempted to take a bite of myself, yet I failed to make a mark. Instead, I used the bite to make an impression on something else.

I imagined the bite as a mark left on your body, as if it were a written message on paper.

VA: This was a pre-Gutenberg Bible print, however, it couldn’t be distributed until printer’s ink was applied to it.

When SJ initially was exposed to the concept of this venture, they were unaware that prints were being made.

They believed the process involved biting themselves and creating marks in that manner.

As the mouth is the origin of language, SJ perceived the project as an incredibly self-referential writing cycle, with their early enthusiasm for making writing refer to itself taken to its maximum potential. Yet, simultaneously…

VA: There was a simultaneous desire to make the privacy public – to publish it, even though I craved the confidentiality.

SJ: You once described the bite mark as a kind of wound, yet one that you wanted to spread to others.

That’s a powerful metaphor for writing. It’s complicated, as it contains a certain element of self-inflicted harm, or maybe it is sexual in nature, hard to tell. Perhaps it is motivated by hunger.

VA: Could it be that the feeling of loneliness is so strong that it leaves one with nothing else to resort to? That artwork appears to be an indication of a desire to consume something orally.

It’s not about the urge to physically touch oneself, but to take something in.

SJ: At the time, you considered your actions to be calculated, but upon reflection, they seem to have been driven by psychological motives.

At the time, psychological terms had faded from the art world, so I was unaware of how to approach the concept. I was creating a version of minimal art, but with the addition of my body.

This distinction made a significant difference. At the end of 1970, I did a performance with Kathy Dillon, who I was living with then, and Dennis Oppenheim, a close friend.

I was topless, as was Dennis. Kathy covered my chest with lipstick kisses, and then I transferred them onto Dennis by rubbing my body against his back while he faced the wall.

Afterwards, he was surprised by the direction of the work, as we had assumed it was about color transfer. However, it was not.

SJ exclaimed that the printing press was a very attractive one.

I never considered this a form of art, and I even tried to push the thought out of my head; this concept wasn’t a popularly accepted form of art back then.

SJ: You had refused to vocalize your emotions and thoughts in your written works, so why would you choose to present them in art?

VA: That’s right. As I was writing about those pieces, I was using the terminology of systems theory in order to try and categorize the body, which is an unpredictable thing, and restrain it – though I’m not quite clear if that was my goal.

What was intriguing was the fact that it was impossible to control. After a while, I had to recognize that a person is not just a body, but rather a being with thoughts, feelings, apprehension, worries, uneasiness, and fear.

In January 1972, Sonnabend Gallery in New York was the site of an installation/performance that lasted nine days and eight hours over the course of three weeks.

The wood ramp was two feet by 22 feet by 30 feet.

SJ: Let’s discuss Seedbed. What was it about Roget’s Thesaurus that got you in the mood for self-pleasure?

For my performances, I didn’t want to be the focal point of the space. I wanted to find somewhere I could blend in.

Being above the ceiling would have made me too distant from the people, and behind the wall would only work for those close to it. That’s when I realized that being under the floor would be best, as I could move there and be relatively near the spectators’ feet.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make a false floor in the gallery beneath Sonnabend, so I had to construct a ramp instead. Even then, I was unsure of how I could make a connection with the viewers as I was under the floor.

So I’m at a loss here, and Roget’s Thesaurus can help me out a bit since it can take me from one word to another that I may not have been aware of. It’s not really a system for structuring ideas, but more for loosening them up.

For example, when I looked up at the floor, I got words like structure, land and undercurrent. It then directed me to a seedbed. Aha, it became clear that I could make a bed of seed under the floor.

How? By masturbating. It was important that the viewers had to recognize what I was doing, even if they weren’t aware of it.

Masturbating while under the floor is an intimate activity. Moving around while people are walking, focusing on the footsteps and using them as a source of sexual fantasy, which transforms the private into public.

I’m counting on you to be walking so I can fantasize about you.

SJ: Was it arousing to you?

VA: It was more of a show. It was as if it was a requirement, something I needed to accomplish.

SJ pondered if they were a peculiar person for pleasuring themselves beneath the floor.

The first time I tried it, I was scared to continue. However, after a while, I started to have fantasies and when I was pleasuring myself and climaxing, I thought to myself that I had gone too far to turn back.

SJ asked the frequency with which the task was done.

The duration of the show was three weeks, with a total of nine days, each day lasting from ten in the morning to six in the evening.

This was an important factor as the gallery had to be opened and closed during these times.

SJ: From ten o’clock until six o’clock, were you pleasuring yourself the whole time?

VA: I attempted to make a point of creating a fantasy in my mind every minute. At first, I brought some porn-like magazines, but then I realized I couldn’t see anything clearly, so I abandoned the plan.

SJ enquiries if it is a stretch to view the ramp as something like a page, or perhaps more accurately, a slanted school desk, in which the observer is not present as an entity, only the environment is perceived.

VA: Absolutely. I didn’t wish to stay in the spotlight, I wanted to be in the background. That was a factor that necessitated my frequent movement.

If this was a meadow, I would have needed to wander through it.

SJ: Traditionally, male sexuality is portrayed as a focused and concentrated force, yet you have configured yourself into a productive region, which is–

VA: –the idea of what a woman should be. It was important, a lot of this being expressed during the first feminist writings I was exposed to. In one way I was attempting to portray a caricature of the male, but in a manner that would challenge it.

I was submerged, not on top.

SJ was uncertain if the person was a victimizer or a victim.

The artist is the active party, but could they also be a receiver? This is likely one of the motivations for creating works such as Following Piece. I desired to explore the opposite side.

SJ: Do you consider the crowd to become the figure when the Seedbed is the groundwork, or do you think they stay in the position of the observer?

VA: It was increasingly evident to me that rather than just a viewer, I desired a participant, or at least an interactive agent. I wanted to establish a connection between me and the spectator.

Nevertheless, the thing that enabled the project to be feasible, the fact that I was under the floor, also rendered the interactive activity unfeasible. I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t observe me, they did not have a precise awareness of where I was situated, and I was unaware as well…

SJ: Is that when you began your journey into creating artwork for public display?

VA: At the start, Seedbed was a launchpad for architecture, although I hadn’t grasped that at the time, so to me it was the beginning of building installations.

In my view, these would be places for people, like a big table around which folks could sit, and I’d be heard on audio talking to people, seeing the gallery/museum as if it was a town square or a public area.

However, by the mid-1970s, I was sure that the stuff should no longer be called art. I was attempting to pretend the gallery/museum was a public space, but it’s not.

I had to find a way to get to public space.

A screenshot of 2007 from culture.org is depicted in the image. It demonstrates the presence of an article from the same year.

In 2003, Mur Island in Graz, Austria, was composed of steel, glass, rubber, asphalt, water, and light, with a total area of 10,310 sq. ft.

The project was completed by Acconci Studio, composed of Vito Acconci, Dario Nunez, Stephen Roe, Peter Dorsey, Thomas Siegl, and Gia Wolff. The engineers were Zentner & Handl, while Kurt Kratzer was the contractor and SFL was responsible for the construction.

SJ: When you shifted to architecture, you were able to come up with a simpler solution to the challenge of erasing yourself as the main figure.

Some may not agree with this concept, including yourself, however it is fascinating to me to think about one of your constructions like it is a piece of writing. It is evident that the material dimension, which is always present in whatever is written, has overpowered the textual aspect.

VA: I am not sure if I am able to turn it down. I start my projects with words, not a drawing. Even though they may be unclear, they give me the motivation to get going.

After that, there is a lot of collaboration, however the people I work with usually use more visuals than I do. I do make sketches, but they are incomprehensible without words.

This is how I set my spot in the project – through words. I don’t have a selection.

In my opinion, it seems like you regard the finished project as being composed of components that resemble a written work, such as having sections.

VA: Writing electronically and on a page could be quite distinct.

For instance, instead of a traditional linear structure with one paragraph followed by the next, electronic writing might feature simultaneous or nested paragraphs.

In terms of design, perhaps we can view the space as a very large page, where the reader can move from the first sentence up high to a diagonal line down below. Personally, I think in terms of writing, though I’m not sure I’d consider myself a writer.

The issue I have is that I wonder if all I’m doing is illustrating a piece of writing.

SJ suggested that showing or demonstrating something was too simple. The author’s texts, according to SJ, continuously question themselves and provide alternative perspectives.

Establishing a writing-based structure is a very unstable base.

VA: It’s true that writing is a very fluid concept. It may appear to be clear-cut, yet it’s often unclear.

SJ: Many of your architectural designs appear to be hovering or suspended in the air, similar to a flying carpet.

VA: But why expend energy when you can easily consider more options while writing than when something is tangible?

Does this real-world existence signify that it is a reality, whereas writing is full of potential? You can explain facts, however, everyone will interpret them differently.

On the other hand, when they witness it in reality, it is set in stone.

SJ commented that even in physical space, the way people interpret things can be unpredictable.

He noted that since people have the freedom to read into those constructions however they want, the results can be difficult to anticipate.

VA: My goal is to give audiences options. Not merely one way to view something. Offshoots are worth noting.

They are similar to parenthetical statements. It looks like the main sentence, but then there are parentheses… I think this was first evident to me in my writing. This is why Faulkner’s works were so beloved to me.

There’s always a turn in the sentence, something that prevents it from being concluded with a period.

SJ proposed that the alternate world one desires to create could be envisioned as a separate reality within our current world.

VA: Yes, when we take on a project, it is like we create a parenthesis within the world that still goes on.

It is possible that sometimes the parenthesis is commenced, but then left unfinished, leading the clause to become part of the actual reality.

SJ inquired if the person was still creating parallel universes.

VA: Certainly, the idea of a future space is difficult to comprehend, but we attempt to go beyond what is known and design something that would not have been possible to build or even imagine prior to the twenty-first century.

Although we have yet to achieve this, I believe that this is the only option for architecture; it should offer a glimpse into what is to come.

Could be of Interest

The use of technology in the classroom has been embraced by many educators, as it has the potential to enhance the teaching and learning process.

Numerous teachers now incorporate different forms of technology into their classes, recognizing the benefits of providing students with access to up-to-date information and resources.

Many educators have welcomed the use of technology in their classrooms, recognizing the potential benefits it can bring to the teaching and learning experience.

By enabling students to access current information and resources, teachers have begun to incorporate a variety of technological tools into their lessons.


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