Portraits of Artists 13

Conversation with Vito Acconci

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: I'd appreciate it if you would, for a start, talk about the period around 1968.

Vito Acconci: Well, my background wasn't a visual arts background, my background was a writing background. Until 1968, 1969, my work was in a context of writing, context of poetry. Towards the end of the time I was writing, the things that interested me about writing were notions of the page as a space to move over. In other words, towards the end of the time I was writing I became concerned, maybe overly concerned, with questions like: "What makes me move from left margin of the page to right margin? What makes me turn from one page to the next page?" So in other words, I was thinking of the page, the book, almost as a field for me, as writer, to travel over. Then, in turn, this page would be a field for you, as reader, to move over, to travel over. So towards the end of the time I was writing because I was so interested in the literalness of the page, eventually, the choice of words became a problem. In other words, it started to become, it started to seem impossible to use on the page a word like "tree", a word like "chair", because this referred to another space, a space off the page. Whereas I could use on the page words like "there", "then", "at that time", "in that place" – in other words: words that referred to my activity on the page, my act of writing on the page. So, in fact, towards the end of the time I was writing I was driving myself into a kind of corner, into a kind of dead end, where in order to preserve the literalness of the page the only thing I could use on the page were commas, periods, punctuation points. So I've gotten into this kind of dead end block.

HUO: So which then was kind of transcending the page?

VA: Well, then, once you got into that block, all you could do was in some way try to make a leap out of the corner. So, for me, the leap out of the corner was off the page and into actual space, into real space.

HUO: And so, at the end of the sixties – you said round 1969 – when you first entered the art context, what was the kind of point of reference or the point of.?

VA: Well, for me the biggest point of reference was up until that time I had assumed I was a writer. Because I had assumed I was a writer, I assumed that I knew what my ground was: my ground was this piece of paper in front of me. Now I had got to that point where there wasn't that piece of paper anymore. So, for me, the starting point was now that I'm in real space, now that I'm in actual space, what makes me move there, what gives me a reason to move. The work began with trying to find reasons for action. So, for example, I would decide on a scheme of. following a person. Once I had decided on that scheme, decisions of time and space were out of my hands. I gave myself a reason to move – I could move as long as I could follow the person. So, my work began, I think, very, very literally. Of course there were things in the background. Things that interested me at that time were basically psychological texts, sociological texts. Psychology, sociology, writers like Irving Goffman who had books like "The Presentations of Self in Everyday Life". At that time, I was interested in things like system theory. So, therefore, the way I thought of my work is: I would find some kind of system that already existed in the real world, I'd find some way to tie myself into that system, I'd become part of that system. So, there's a system of "people walking in the street" . I'd find some way to tie myself into that system. Or maybe, the first piece of mine that was done in a museum . the Museum of Modern Art in New York had a show called "Software", in 1970.

HUO: It was the "Service Area"?

VA: Yes. For me, you know, the idea of doing something in a museum., I thought at that time that my work was about a kind of everyday life, street space. So the idea of doing something in a museum seemed very problematic to me. The only way I could deal with it was try to make museum space part of my everyday life space. So my space in the museum became used as my mailbox. So that mail would be forwarded by the post office to the museum, and anytime I wanted mail, or needed mail, I would have to go up to the museum to get it. In other words, it seems like early work for me was about sort of how to cause more trouble than necessary for me. I mean, it would have been easy to pick up mail here but in order to find that theory I had to find a more complicated way to get mail.

HUO: Was there, at that time, any contact with Robert Morris who during those years was looking for ways to charge the minimalist vocabulary with a psycho-sexual dimension?

VA: For some reason., I mean, I became very interested in Morris' work, but I wonder if it wasn't a little bit later and I'm not exactly sure why. But, at that time. certainly, I saw my stuff as related to Minimalism. For me, Minimal Art was almost a kind of "father art". This was the art that probably meant most to me in the mid-sixties, towards the end of the sixties. Because probably until Minimal Art I had been taught or I had taught myself, when I looked at art, to look at what was within the frame and to ignore what was outside. In the presence of Minimal Art that became no longer possible. Suddenly, in the presence of Minimal Art, I had to recognize the room, I had to recognize people in the room. So, for me, Minimal Art was a big kind of breakthrough: that was the art that was most important for me. At the same time – probably in order to do something myself – I had to try almost desperately to find something wrong with Minimal Art. Because if there was nothing wrong with it there would be no reason for me to do anything. In other words, if Minimal Art was the "father art" for me I had to find some way to kill the father. So, for me, it seemed like the one possible flaw I could find with Minimal Art was that Minimal Art appeared as if no one had put it there, as if it was there as if from all time. It was a little bit like the black monolith in 2001: Suddenly this object appears. The problem with that is once that object appears all you can do is bow down in front of it, all you can do is treat it as a kind of religion. Because if this object appears and you don't know where it came from the possibility is it has possibly more power than you so you'd better try to respect it, just in case. So, seeing that as maybe a possible flaw in Minimal Art, probably it made me decide: OK, whatever I did then, I wanted to make its source clear. So, probably for me, Minimal Art made me start to develop a way of thinking that whatever I did, the doer, the agent was going to be apparent.

HUO: So, the consequence of production, and the conditions of production .

VA: Yes, the conditions of production but also the agent of production. So that if I appeared as part of a work ., OK, you might have objections to it, you could hate it, but at least I made it clear who's responsible.
I mean, I've always had problems., for me, maybe because I began as a writer, I sort of developed this way of thinking that I could sort of find the context, I could find the way to put myself into different contexts. The interesting thing for me is, when I started doing stuff in an art context it was clear to me that there was really nothing that I knew how to do. So, I didn't know the rules of the art context, I didn't have any particular skills. And in some ways that gave me a kind of advantage because if I didn't know the rules then I could find some way to fit myself into that context, without knowing the rules. And I think that way of thinking has persisted; I mean, everything I've done I really don't know how to do. I've no idea how to build, for example, now, but I probably know how to find the people who can build. So, I've always been in this position where I don't know how to do anything, so I can use the Yellow Pages of the telephone book and I can find the people who can build. So it's always put me into the position of almost a kind of movie director. I can be behind the scenes, I can bring in the person who can do such and such a thing, bring in the person who can do another kind of thing. Whereas I have the luxury of having sort of vague ideas, I can then bring in other people who may help me start clarify those ideas.
It was 1968, it was the time when universities were starting not so much to have particular departments but rather they would have interdisciplinary departments. So it was the time of blending of disciplines. I mean, at another time, probably, it would have been much harder for me to say: now I'm in a writing context, now I'm doing something that allows me to be in an art context, because the boundaries would have possibly been more rigid. But at that particular time there was such a melting of boundaries that I never had to think this was a kind of traumatic decision. And it wasn't. I mean, it wasn't so much I thought: "Now I'm a writer" – "Now I'm." .whatever. It was more that the work started to drift, the work started to drift into another field. Anyway, it was the time of interdisciplinary studies. . Or, maybe, a more precise way of saying that is that it was, possibly, a time of interdisciplinary studies because it was the time of the Vietnam War. It was the time, in the United States, of demonstrations against the Vietnam War. It was the time when. you know, when I grew up, in the forties, it was assumed that America meant something. It was assumed that the United States was the "power". In 1968, that power started to break. I mean, all of us started to question that. So, it was the time when the notion of "nation" was breaking, the notion of "father" was breaking, the notion of "male" was breaking. So all those power categories were dissolving, the categories didn't seem as rigid anymore. And I think maybe that's what interested me and, I think, a lot of people in my generation in an art context. I think, what a lot of us thought at the beginning was that we were going to completely change the art context – we were going to make the art context impossible to exist. A lot of us, at that time, thought that the work we were doing – because it didn't involve something that was saleable, and since an art gallery and an art system is dependent on sales – that our work was going to change the art system. We didn't do that, we did exactly the opposite. I think, we made the art system more powerful than it ever was before. Because, I think, the problem was that a lot of our work certainly didn't sell but it caused a lot of attention. So, whether we were aware of it or not, we really fulfilled a business function, we provided publicity for a gallery, we provided window dressing for a gallery. So, a lot of us, I think, at that time – I know I was, so maybe I should just say "I", rather than "a lot of us" – at least I at that time was, I think, so naive about what a business context was.
One impetus for my generation was a reaction against, for example, the abstract expressionist attitude. That when an abstract expressionist painter was asked about work of theirs, the kind of typical response was: "I don't know where it came from". But the implication was: "It came to this person, it didn't come to others". So, that person was set aside as this specialised receiver of a gift. And I think, for my generation there was such a resentment against that. I mean, we wanted to see art as a. you know, there is nothing special about art, there's just the decision to do it. It's not about a particular gift, a particular skill, certainly not about a particular vision, it's about a decision of a way of doing, a way of producing. So, I think, for a lot of us the urge was always to come down to earth.
I always had a mixed relation do Duchamp. I mean, obviously, my stuff and the work of people in my generation was influenced by Duchamp. But, on the other hand, I saw Duchamp as this kind of mystifying dandy, and I hated that part of Duchamp: the artist who, you know, keeps secrets. I didn't want to keep any secrets. I mean, at least, I might not know everything about my stuff, but when I know I want other people to know. Because that notion of that kind of secret seems so., that seems to be this kind of "let's retain power by secrecy", and that's a kind of religion trick, in a lot of ways. You know, Duchamp., I mean, I see most art as detestable. No, I just hate the idea of art. And, I think, a lot of it has to do with that notion of observer. Because an art context is a context of observers. In every other field of life, when you come upon something for the first time, you know, just out of normal circumstance, you pick it up, you touch it, you possibly smell it, you taste it. But in art the tradition is you stand aside and look. And there's probably an economic reason for that. If you stand aside and look, then you're always in the position of desire, you can never have. So you're always in the position of being lower than the art. Museums have, you know, no windows; so that when you go into the museum you become suffocated by art. I think for my generation, we started to ask: "Is art so fragile that a museum has to keep it so separate from other things in life?". And I think the answer is, yes, art is so fragile, it only exists because an art world agrees that it exists, because that art world agrees that certain things have a certain value. But show these things to normal people and most of these things don't have any value. I mean, the art world is the kind of world that's sort of complete in itself. It has its agents, the artists, it has its receivers, the collectors, it has its distribution system, magazines. So it has everything, everything it needs to keep itself going, but it keeps itself going as a closed world. Once that stuff is taken out of the art world and brought into some other world it probably sort of totally dissipates. In other words, probably, the things that have value in an art world, when taken out of that and brought into an everyday world made up of people who never have any reason to go into museums, once it's brought into that world, it probably makes no sense at all. And for me, those people outside of the art world maybe can judge this more precisely and more correctly than people who are in the art world because they have to judge these things. In other words, if art doesn't exist what else can they do? If art doesn't exist, they have no longer any kind of reason to exist. I mean, this obviously applies to me too; to save that I say this. Because at the same time that I say all this, I wouldn't have any existence if it wasn't for an art world. Sure, I claim now that I'm much more interested in, you know, public space, public context, but nobody would ask me to do any public projects if I didn't have an art world existence. You know, I don't exist without that gallery/museum world.
All the places that my pieces are specific to are always institutionalised places. I'm doing something particular for a gallery, I'm doing something for a museum, I'm adapting to the space of a gallery, to the space of a museum. After a while I have to ask myself: Am I only adapting myself to the space or am I adapting myself to an institutionalised frame of mind? In other words – OK, I started showing in galleries in, whatever, 1970, 1971 – after a few years I start to think, you know, it's not so precise to say: "I'm doing art". Rather, I'm doing gallery and museum art, this is really the context for my work. So therefore, I'm obviously developing the frame of mind of a gallery or a museum. I mean, usually a gallery or a museum doesn't have to censor you because you have already censored yourself. Because once you are working in that context, you have now learned the rules. So, you learned to know what gallery art is and what museum art is. I think in the mid-seventies I was starting to wonder: Is my position doing art in a gallery, is my position something like being a kind of interior decorator for a gallery? Because when a gallery gives you a show, it's as if, for that three week period, your job ., or, at least, my job at that time was to camouflage the gallery's existence as a store. If I provide an installation in a gallery, this is a kind of subterfuge. This is hiding the fact that the gallery really is a kind of selling place. I mean, again, I could raise these questions, I didn't quite know how to answer them, necessarily.
In the United States, most things that are public, that are so-called public spaces are plazas that are owned by corporations. The only reason that public space exists is because the corporation is allowed to build a building ten stories higher if they provide public space. But the problem with that public space is, yeah, it's public as long as you obey the rules of the corporation. If you decide to use this public space to sleep on a bench or, you know, piss on the street, now it's no longer public because you haven't obeyed the corporation rules. Something about the very words "public space": If certain places in the city are called public spaces, the implication is the rest of the city doesn't belong to you. The implication is that the rest of the city is obviously not your territory. So it is as if public places are places which you are allowed – almost like children – to use, you have a kind of kindergarten place to play.

HUO: You are putting this very categorically. But aren't the transitions more fluid? What is your position on the separation of public and private space?

VA: I think it started to blend. Like in New York, for example, it is very difficult to say what's public space and what's private place when there are people sleeping on the subways. It's very difficult to define, I think, what public and private is. which is causing me a lot of difficulties, because of my proposing stuff about public places. I'm not even sure what public place means now. I mean, at the end of the twentieth century public place is probably television and telephone, it's not a plaza. And it makes me wonder about work I'm doing lately. Because if I'm making this kind of space, this is an electronic age, where space might not even be necessary anymore.
Now, maybe, if I was doing public stuff in the late sixties, I would have had my answers to why you would do public stuff, that is: it's supposed to cause a revolution. I'd still love to say that now but I don't know if it's quite as simple as that, or maybe it has to be done a little bit differently, or a little sneakier. Or maybe, in the late sixties, there was a solution because of things like demonstrations against the Vietnam War, there was a solution that there was a kind of community that could group. I'm not quite sure what that community would be now, so that I'm not quite sure if a public space should be a grouping space. Or that in a world in which politics occur more by means of telephone, television, and computer, maybe there has to be a redefinition of privacy. Because, maybe, in those private moments is when a person becomes political. Which, for me, is very jarring . I always thought of politics as the gathering of people in a plaza, but it probably isn't that, anymore.

HUO: So, is this the point of departure for the "Virtual Pleasure Mask" which was shown here in Vienna, in a certain way?

VA: Yes. I mean, . it seems like space in the late twentieth century – if it's true that an electronic age de-emphasises space – is space on the run, space on the move. So that there've been some recent pieces that seem to deal with kinds of toys, devices, things you could take with you as you go. There have been a number of pieces that involve sex dolls that also function as radios, so you could sort of pick it up and take it with you. You can have entertainment and sex on the run. So, there have been a number of pieces., I know, I keep focusing lately on words like "devices", "instruments", "toys", maybe as an alternative to place. If place is something you go to, then device and instrument is something that you take with you.
You know, probably, I've always had this nostalgia for wanting to believe that the artist works as a kind of guerrilla fighter. You go to a certain terrain, you examine that terrain, you learn where to plant the bomb in that terrain, then you go to another terrain. But you always need a terrain. A bomb doesn't make sense without a terrain to put the bomb in. But, lately, I know there has been some wondering on my part if there is some other way of working.

(Wien, March 1993)