publication of the International Sculpture Center
Conversation with Vito Acconci
by Anne Barclay Morgan
The recent touring
exhibition Acts of Architecture, curated by Dean Sobel and
Margaret Andera, focused on Vito Acconcis work since the 1980s,
in particular the public art projects of Acconci Studio. It also included
his sculptures, which function as furniture or architecture. These highly
eclectic pieces, such as Convertible Clam Shelter (1990), often
become complete interactive environments with audio components. The accompanying
catalogue features Acconcis public art proposals, as well as completed
projects for a broad array of public spaces.
Screens for a Walkway, Shibuya Station, Tokyo, 2000. Mirrored steel,
polycarbonate, and light,
15 x 15 x 60 meters.
While Acconci continues
to exhibit in galleries and museums, he has devoted most of his recent
career to re-envisioning public spaces. These proposals include Garbage
City (1999), a theoretical project for the Hiriya Garbage Dump in
Tel-Aviv that uses solar panels, crops, and gas-processing equipment,
in addition to the more usual concrete, steel, glass, light, and water.
Acconci also re-envisions interior spaces, as in the Design Shop for MAK,
the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, in which the store is organized by
a series of rings, each rotating in an opposite direction. Together with
his studio of architects, Acconci continues to ask questions and provide
highly innovative answers.
Anne Barclay Morgan:
What propelled your trajectory from video to furniture to public
art and architecture?
I never think about the start of it as video; it was writing. My background
was not in architecture or art, but in fiction and poetry. When I was
writing, what interested me was the space of a page, how you move from
left margin to right margin, how you turn from one page to the next. I
treated the page as a kind of field over which I, as writer, traveled,
just as you, the reader, traveled. Once I realized I was so interested
in movement, it seemed unnecessary to restrict that movement to an 8.5-by-11
piece of paper. There is a whole world out there or at least a street.
So stuff entered a so-called art context at the end of the
60s. Art seemed to have no inherent characteristics of its own,
except for the fact that it was called art. In other words,
art was a field into which you could import from psychology, sociology
and politics. I used to know what my ground wasthis piece of paper
in front of me. Now I didnt have that ground anymore; now I was
in real space.
Instant House, 1980. Flags, wood, springs, ropes, and pulleys, installation
I started by taking
a system that already existed in the world and tried to tie myself into
it: if there was a person walking on the street, I would follow that person.
Decisions of time and space were out of my hands; I became dragged along
by another person. It became obvious that if I was to go on using my own
person in pieces, the pieces had to be about person-ness, they had to
be about the self, the development of the self, the question of self,
or maybe the destruction of the self. The pieces started to become somewhat
circular: I start an action, I end this action. Many were done in film,
rather than video tape, because what interested in me in film was that
a camera could be set up in front of me, so I am the target of the camera.
In turn, I can do what the camera is doing, I can use myself as a target,
I can focus in on myself, I can concentrate on myself, I can do something
to myself, apply some physical stress to my body. The body can change
or adapt according to that stress, the notion of a person, the development
of the person, the changing of the person. That set up a self-reliance.
I only had myself to work with. I didnt need anything else. Maybe
I needed a match to burn myself, but apart from that I didnt need
much else. I didnt need other people, but that became a problem.
I thought that if I applied some stress to my body, if I made myself vulnerable,
maybe the viewer would have more of an approach toward me. But that didnt
happen at all, the opposite happened. If I start an action, that action
is in me, I am setting myself up in a closed circle. The viewer is outside.
I wanted some occasion
in which my space and the viewers space coincided. The performance
piece Claim (1971) made me think of art as an exchange, an occasion
of meeting, a place where the person in the role of artist comes face
to face with the person in the role of viewer. But it bothered me that
I was a still point, viewers had to come toward me. This confirmed an
art world hierarchy: viewers have to struggle in order to get to the art;
viewers had to struggle in order to get to me. It seemed that everything
I disliked about artart as religion, artwork as altar, artist as
priestwas enhanced or confirmed by my work. There had to be a way
out. My problem was one of focus: as soon as viewers entered a space the
focus was on me. What if I tried to disappear into the space? Rather than
being a point in the room, I could be a part of it. I could become part
of the architecture. Seedbed (1972) raised the question: If I am
not seen in a space, do I have to be there at all? I started to wonder
if my work was so involved in notions of self. It was no longer the 60s,
and I and a lot of people had very different notions of self. Self didnt
exist unless it was part of a social system, a cultural system, a political
Multi-Bed No. 4, 1991. Galvanized steel, nylon, Plexiglas, fluorescent
light, cable, mirrors, and winches, installation view.
By the mid-70s
I wasnt involved with pieces anymore, stuff became installations.
Now, installation probably means something else. Then, a lot
of us used it because we knew no other word. It meant something that was
not as definable as a sculpture. For me, it was trying to fit out the
already given exhibition space. My installations involved audio and some
kind of furnitureI dont know that I would have even used that
word at the time, but there were certainly places where people could come
in and sit down. In 76, 77, 78, I was using a gallery
or museum space as if it were a plaza or town square, a place where people
are together anyway. Now that they are here, could a piece be used to
form a community, bring a community together? I had this nagging doubt
about pretending a gallery or museum is a town square. It is not; it is
a gallery or a museum. If I really want a town square or a plaza so badly,
I cant pretend all my life. Sooner or later I better go there. I
didnt quite know how. So, after those installations or sound pieces,
I worried that my viewers werent doing much beyond sitting. I started
thinking that if I made my viewers listen to something, maybe I was also
making them neurotic in the sense that there was nothing they could take
their anger and frustration out onthey could only listen. I wanted
people to be more a part of the piece. In the beginning of the 80s,
a number of pieces were designed almost as self-erecting architecture:
a person sits in a swing, it turns into a house; a person sits on a bicycle,
it forms a kind of house. It started to occur to me that I didnt
like the field I was in.
Adjustable Wall Bra, 199091. Steel, lathe, plaster, cable, lights,
and audio, installation view.
VA: I started
doing art because I hated art. I started doing art because of a resentment
against the do not touch signs in museums, because it seems
that in every other field of life, when you come upon something for the
first time, you pick it up, you touch it, you taste it. In art, the viewer
stands here and the art is there. You are always in a position of desire
and hence a position of frustration. Why arent you supposed to touch
it? It is worth more money than youll ever know, it is more expensive
than you. With those pieces in the early 80s, the swing becomes
a house, it became clearer and clearer that I was trying to re-invent
the wheel, to re-invent architecture, to discover for myself what architecture
could be. Could human use, could human instrumentation make a building?
I was obsessed with the notion that four people standing in a square could
become the living columns of a roof, of a house. In the mid-80s,
there was some reaction against the self-erecting architecture, which
made demonstrations of building a house but didnt leave any remaining
space, a house to be in. By then, I was more interested in the space that
remained. Such a space shouldnt be in a gallery or museum, because
the gallery/museum is already a house. There is no reason to make another
inside. So if you want to make a house or something like a house, it should
be on the street or in the park.
By that time, I
realized that my stuff wasnt art anymore and didnt depend
on art conventions. It seemed to want function. I am not sure if art is
ever so happy with function. Also, art depends on the notion of the viewer:
a person enters a gallery/museum space and, in effect, announces him/herself
as an art viewer and, by extension, separates him/herself from all those
others out there who dont happen to be art viewers.
Courtyard in the Wind, 19972000. Pavement, grass, trees, benches,
steel, motors, and wind turbine, 13 x 95 x 105 meters.
I dont know
that I like the idea of a viewer. I think I prefer the idea of a passerby.
Someone who hasnt come specifically for art. You happen to be walking
on a street where many things are happening and for some reason you happen
to go through this one. It seemed that the passerby existed in a public
space and not in a gallery/museum space. If I was going to do something
in a public space, I had to come to terms with the fact that architecture
and landscape already dealt with public spaces. If I wanted stuff to be
in public spaces, I had to start working the way architects work. I needed
people to work with, because I didnt have any particular skills.
Cant draw, cant build. Luckily, the year before my stuff appeared,
words such as Conceptual Art were first being used. If it
wasnt for that, I would have had nothing to do. Suddenly, with conceptual
art, there was a place for me. The idea was only possible when the means
to carry out that idea were there. If you work on something private, it
ends private. If you want to work on something public, it has to begin
at least quasi-public.
needed a crowd.
Bicycle Parking Lot and Guardhouse, 2000. Steel, polycarbonate, and
light, 18 x 52 x 52 ft. Project created for The Hague.
VA: By the
end of the 80s I thought the work shouldnt come from Vito
Acconci anymore. It should come from a studio of people. Vito Acconci
Studio has been in existence since 1988, with a number of people, four
of them architects, plus me. We work very much on projects together. I
might start off a project with a general idea, a vague theory. I might
be asked to see a space. I come home with slides and vague thoughts, and
then we start to talk, or we work together. I dont think the projects
we have done over the years would have been the same if they had come
just from me. For me, the studio has worked best when it is has been a
mix of thinkers, when there is a mix of genders, nationalities, and ages
to mess things up. The studio has maybe two or three people who have been
there for four or five years, and then some newer people. Everybody who
works in the studio thinks of their own work as architecture, except for
one person with an art background who certainly thinks of his work as
art. I do too; I am not officially an architect. We mostly get so-called
public art projects, rather than architecture projects. You are asked
to do the piece in front of the architecture or to the side of the architecture.
Sometimes that position gives you an advantage because they dont
take your work as seriously as the architecture, so you can get away with
more. At the same time you are always doing something where the function
has already been dealt withyou add the extra.
yeah. We try to be semi-architectural, but often we cant give people
more than a place to sit down. I dont know if that is enough. You
have to get up sooner or later. Lately things are changing.
VA: We have
been asked to do some projects, mostly in Europe and Asia, that seem more
like real architecture projects. We are doing an island in Graz.
proposal called Island on the Mur as described in the catalogue
sounds like a wonderful idea. So you are actually making this?
As you know, until construction starts, you have to have some hesitancy.
Construction drawings are being done now. It is supposed to be built in
2003. It is meant to function as a theater, a café, and a playground.
We have also been asked to design the museum shop for the Museum of Applied
Art in Vienna. They are excited about doing it but dont have the
exhibition The City Inside Us in 1993 at the Museum of Applied
Art was quite extraordinary.
Light Beams for a Transfer Corridor, 2001. Light, acrylic, steel,
sheetrock, and telephones, 16 x 20 x 192 ft. Project created for the
San Francisco Airport.
project meant a lot for us. We started thinking in terms of not adding
too much in order to make the space. Maybe you can turn it inside out,
maybe you can turn it upside down. The only reason that project existed
was because of Peter Növer, the director of the museum. The museum
had been closed for renovation for three years. Peter has such an image
of himself as the bad boythe idea of re-opening with the museum
turned on its side was so perfect for him.
architectural interventions, would you pick predominantly historical sites
or modern spaces?
modern spaces, only because I feel I have a kinship with them. The spaces
I love to be in are modern. Not that I ignore the old spaces, but I always
feel like this is a different time. I need to be here, now. The place
remains, but the culture doesnt. I feel much more comfortable if
I am in a place where the culture and the place coincide. I am a city
person. I like to walk through cities, which few people do in the U.S.
You drive. Our first goal is to come up with some kind of idea or theory
of the space. If we get excited enough, maybe we can convince one other
person. We tend to work a long time on projects because we want each one
to have a logic of its own connected with the activity in the building,
the use of the building. These places are occasions for people, their
interactions and activitiessome shape, some form must exist that
presents the potential for some relation, some inter-relation that might
not have existed before.
Island on the Mur II, 2001. Steel, polycarbonate, water, and light,
5.5 x 75 x 75 meters. Proposed project for Graz.
I have no idea what
public space is or what public space should be at the beginning of the
21st century. With regard to public, well, the most I can say is that
increasingly it is a composite of privates. When Peter Schjeldahl wrote
for the Village Voice, he commented that I make spaces where large
groups of people gather to be totally alone. I dont think he was
so far off. Public space isnt a piazza anymore. I dont think
public activity exists. I was grounded in the 60s notion of public
spacewhere discussion occurs, argument occurs, and then the revolution
happens. I dont really believe that anymore. The revolution is sneakier
than that, and it probably happens with billions of people, each withdrawing
to a home computer and cell phone. I have a feeling that public
has become a mix of capsules, which is why there are a lot of cities such
as Miami and L.A. that I dont understand, even though they fascinate
me. Everyone says it is all about private spaces because everyone is in
their own car. But those millions of capsules are going to make public
space, though I am not sure exactly how.
bring humor to your workis humor a way to link the private and public
I think humor has been part of my work for a long time, because I hate
the kinds of things in which the viewer or experiencer is meant to be
drawn in and numbed by something, so that you have to believe. I dont
like spaces that make you feel awe. Going to Catholic schools from kindergarten
to college convinced me that I dont want awe anymore. Humor gives
me a chance to have second thoughts, to reconsider. You dont have
to be numbed by something, you can draw back. Laughing means youve
reconsidered. Humor allows subordinate clauses and parentheses, allows
you to see things in two or three different ways. Things are pretty difficult
now. Is there a public or private? There is a mix, a fluidity, a blending,
and the humor allows you to have both sides.
View of the MAK Design Shop, 2001. Steel, acrylic panels, light, and
motors, 20 x 36 x 80 ft. CAD project renderings.
thing is the question of flexibility versus control in your work; for
example, the Convertible Clam Shelter in six different configurations.
VA: It is
a supermarket freedom. People can put it in different positions, but there
may be only seven or eight. There is a limit. People should be making
these decisions themselves. Why are we even designing them? Is design
an inherently totalitarian thing? In some ways, you are saying sit
here or sit this way. I have a love/hate relationship
with that. I love the idea of finding different ways or different ideas
of use, but at the same time, we are imposing these ideas on the world.
We could put in as much changeability as possible, but we are still making
the rules of changeability. I suppose a person can always not observe
that by breaking or destroying it. There has got to be another way.
about the use of sound? Sound becomes its own architecture in many of
your furniture pieces.
VA: I used
sound in all my installations, but I have never found a way to use it
in a public project and I am not sure why. I think there are many more
possibilities now for having soundyou dont have to have so
much maintenance. For me, sound was much more of an inroad for architecture
than sculpture was, because both sound and architecture are structures
in a surrounding structure, ambient structures and environments, whereas
I dont really think sculpture can ever really be an environment.
Something has to differentiate sculpture and architecture or they wouldnt
be two different words. We tend to listen to music a lot in the studio.
Music has been really important to my work through the years. I always
thought vocal music was important, but now I think it demands too much
attention. I want music to be a surrounding: not so much to disappear,
but to be there while you do other things. I like sound that is wallpaper;
I want music to be insinuations. A space can be a surrounding, it doesnt
have to be a container. There is some place to break out, live through,
revise. I wish we could have spaces we could revise more. We have to assume
that cities change. So shouldnt this change too? You design something
and then five or six years later it is built. When we design something,
we can conjecture what might be right for this particular place for this
particular time. But what about six years later?
View of the MAK Design Shop, 2001. Steel, acrylic panels, light, and
motors, 20 x 36 x 80 ft. CAD project renderings.
do you expect public space and your own projects to evolve at the first
of the new millennium?
VA: We have
to stop doing public art and start doing architecture projects, because
we dont have enough to do in public art projects. We work best when
we have different kinds of programs, when we are asked to provide different
functions. Im thinking of entering one or two open architectural
competitions. But you were asking a broader question. In the 21st century,
there has to be a totally movable architecture. I dont think things
are going to stand still. There wont always be places you go to,
but rather places you take with you. It seems inevitable and enviable.
I love the idea of an architecture that can move. Movable architecture
and portable, movable people will continue what has already happened in
the 20th century, a blending of nationalities. Walking around Miami, it
is so clear. What race is a particular person? It is almost not a question
anymore. That has to be a sign of more movement, more portability, fewer
boundaries, whether of country or race, and architecture is following
that, becoming fluid, an architecture of clothing.
you tell young artists interested in the public sphere to study architecture?
VA: I would
love to tell them that, but so many people have been squelched by architecture
school. Of course, there are different architecture schoolstwo of
the people at the studio went to Columbia, and I dont think they
got squelched at all. Columbia, at least for now, sees architecture as
a form of thinking and not necessarily as a form of building. I would
strongly advise this person to wonder whether he/she should be doing something
in an art context. I sometimes wonder if art is something that lets you
get away with things that people in other fields cant. You can say
that it is not really architecture, but if it looks like architecture
it should act like architecture: if someone sits in this, it better not
Klein Bottle Playground, 2000. Molded polycarbonate, 4 x 4 x 6 meters.
CAD project rendering.
I sometimes think
that art gives you the luxury of acting like a spoiled child. I love the
idea of art as an activity or attitude. I wonder if it should remain a
separate career. Cant there be an art attitude whether you are doing
architecture, physics, or design? Does it really need to be a field unto
itself? Wouldnt it be better if it was an occasion? It would be
so much freer. Once art becomes a career in itself, it becomes a closed
system. Obviously all systems are closed, but art seems to be particularly
closed and self-protective. It has its own dealers, its own critics, its
own doers. Art is particularly disturbing because I cant think of
any other field whose name also glorifies it. Say something is architecture.
Now you have to decide whether it is good or bad architecture. Once you
say something is art, you are already saying it is good. Of course, some
in the art context would say that there is good art and bad art. But if
you call this a work of art, you already are ascribing value to it. Something
is dangerous about a profession that already has its own values inscribed.
You have to earn value. For my generation, it was very important for us
to try to talk about what we were doing. We wanted to think of art as
an activity, art as an organizational system. It cant be religion.
If you make an attempt to talk about every other human activity, you can
talk about art. People who go to architecture school are forced to defend
what they present. They are forced to give reasons, while artists are
given the luxury to say, I dont know. I only mean about
the artists intention. If I talk about my work I cant talk
about my work, and what it ultimately means, because the meaning changes
and another person has just as much privilege as I do. But in regard to
intentions, I probably know more than any other person knows, because
I have the intentions. Artists should be at least willing to talk about
their intentions. The notion of art has really bred a kind of spoiled
child. And arrogance.
Anne Barclay Morgan,
a frequent contributor to Sculpture, is a writer based in Florida.