Sticky Situations

Vito Acconci, The Red Tapes, 1977, video, black-and-white, sound, 141 minutes. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

OH THAT VOICE, that hoarse, insinuating whisper, which simultaneously sucks you in and spits you out. It was Vito Acconci’s stock-in-trade during the first two decades of his career, when he was what he later described as “a situation maker.” Acconci began as a poet, and language was central to his video and performance work. He began making moving-image pieces, first in Super 8 film, then in video, toward the end of the 1960s, when Minimalism had hit a wall but survived by embedding itself in Conceptualism, performance, body art, film, and video. Between 1968 and 1977, Acconci made close to a hundred motion pictures, ranging from three and a half minutes (the length of one Super 8 cassette) to a hundred and forty-one. The longest, The Red Tapes (1977), was a summation and one of the great works of American avant-garde cinema, a bare but epic history of the self and of America, indebted to Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1925), Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), film noir, and Jean-Luc Godard. Afterward, Acconci turned away from the moving image and from what had been his primary expressive instrument—his corporeal presence, whether directly available to the viewer or mediated by the camera.

Given the resistance of the twentieth-century art world to placing any kind of value on underground movies (if any cinema deserves that appellation, it is Acconci’s), it is not surprising that his claim to fame during the 1970s rested not on a film or a videotape but on a scandalous live performance that incorporated a Minimalist sculptural component. In Seedbed, 1972, Acconci secreted himself in a narrow trench dug beneath the floor of the Sonnabend Gallery and covered with a low ramp, angled just enough so that visitors might realize that something was happening right at their feet. Although the perpetrator was never seen, his disembodied voice emanated from audio speakers, whispering an improvised monologue that was all about you, or rather his fantasy of you, concocted from the sound of your footsteps, the choreography of your movements, the rustle of your clothing. And he was employing this fantasy of you as a masturbatory aid. I have no idea whether Acconci masturbated all day, every day, in his “seedbed,” or if his heavy breathing and his repeated groaning “I’m coming” were just an act. What there was no doubt about is that he brought into the open the erotic aspect of the transaction between artist and viewer, seller and buyer. The supposed intimacy between the viewer and the art that is central to the gallery transaction—the question of whether this is a work you want to, or at least wish you could, live with—is foregrounded by rendering it perverse. For who would want to live with Seedbed? In terms of the primary investment of art galleries (selling art), Seedbed was a spectacular failure, although its notoriety contributed to the collectability of less blatantly confrontational works by the artist.

Acconci built failure into Seedbed as he did into almost all his moving-image and live performance work. In retrospect, it’s fitting that Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, which attempted to market movies by Acconci and other artists associated with the two galleries, was also a failure. Since its closure, Acconci’s videos have been distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) and Video Data Bank. Some of his Super 8 films were transferred to video and are also available from these sources. Over the past few years, Anthology Film Archives’ preservation project has restored and transferred to 16 mm twenty-seven of Acconci’s Super 8 films. They are showing through September 15 with a group of videos selected by EAI. The filmed pieces are all silent, although some use printed text as well as still images, including, most significantly, My Word (1973–74.) A few of the Super 8s are simple studies of how the body in motion transforms filmed space. But others are as confrontational as any of Acconci’s videos or live performances.

Take—or, perhaps, don’t—Rubbings (1970), in which the artist, lying on the floor with the camera close above him, captures roaches as they run across his bare torso, crushes them, and rubs their remains into his abundant chest hair. Gross, yes, although bugs invading one’s bed is a fairly common nightmare, and taking control of the situation by crushing them and incorporating them into one’s own flesh could be an empowering action, rather than an abject one. And what if the “bugs” are also metaphors for barely hidden instruments of surveillance placed by the state in your bedroom or your cameras? In all of his 1970s work, Acconci presented himself as a subversive, an enemy of the state and of the normative in the construction of the self and the relationship between self and other. The Acconci persona is obsessive, intrusive, clinging, demanding, unkempt, harassing, threatening, hysterical, and without any sense of boundaries. In such videos as Command Performance (1974) and Theme Song (1973), Acconci wheedles and whines for us to enter the on-screen space, to wrap ourselves around him or to replace him entirely in the picture, knowing that he is demanding the impossible—he’s an image, we’re flesh and blood—and that the more he abjects himself by begging, the less likely it is that we will entertain his request, even in fantasy. It’s not as if he’s Brad Pitt, after all—and that’s precisely the point. Acconci wields the first-person direct address to the camera to show us how much power we cede to entertainers, politicians, and every other authority figure who looks straight into the camera and takes our assent for granted, because without it, the show could not go on. It would break down, the way Acconci’s videos can glitch and abruptly go black.

The Red Tapes doesn’t quite break down. Made, like all of Acconci’s 1970s work, during the political turmoil of the war in Vietnam and its aftermath, the continuing civil-rights struggles, and the growing aggression of the surveillance state, it ends with advice for how to cope with what was not paranoia but justifiable fear and anger. “Sniff the air” were Acconci’s last words. The Red Tapes and all the moving-image works that preceded it could not have been more attuned to their time and prophetic of the failure at which we have now arrived.

Restored films and videos by Vito Acconci will screen at Anthology Film Archives until September 15. “VITO ACCONCI FAULT-LINE-ON-5,” an accompanying multimedia exhibition of Acconci’s work, will run at Pace Gallery in London through September 14.