PRINT April 1977

In Pursuit of Acconci

LISTENING TO A LECTURE or engaging in conversation with Vito Acconci is an experience. In most relationships of this sort the distance between the two parties remains very distinct. But Acconci overcomes these distances. When he lectures or talks to you about his work he allows you to participate in his thinking, as well as to watch his mind and sensibilities at work. The result of his “performance” is a slow but inexorable dissolution of the separation between the artist and yourself as you gradually immerse yourself. Acconci’s actual works parallel this experience. They break down the limits of the self. Thus, even his early work explores the erotic (either overtly or covertly) as a means of breaking down this separation.

Since Acconci’s work is concerned with distancing and contact, it is an exploration of “hidden dimensions” which, as Edward T. Hall has pointed out, are not only the result of personal psychology, but of social and cultural mores.1 The creation of intimate spaces or areas for communication is an ongoing process which helps to establish the kind and degree of relationships we maintain in our world. Because Acconci’s performances are themselves explorations of the fields connecting the artist and the spectator (involving intimacy versus distance), conventional notions of audience and performer are brought into serious question. These notions are expanded and turned upside down by Acconci.2

It is one of the ironies of Acconci’s work that the critical emphasis placed on his use of the body has led to a neglect of his investigation of the nature of performance. The notion of performance conjures up analogies with the theatre with its more or less distinct boundary between the space of the performance and that of the viewer. This “dissociation of sensibility” is fairly well fixed in most theatrical productions, as well as in the art that is displayed in galleries and museums, but the subversion of this separation is central to Acconci’s investigations. His performances are concerned with the personal and social factors that establish the distance between the artist and the “audience.” His art is constantly involved in the exploration of such relationships and the psychological and metaphorical situations inherent in them.

In Following Piece of 1969 and Performance Piece of the same year Acconci established the parameters that he explored, in one way or another, for the next six years. In Following Piece the artist picked out a person to follow until that person entered a private place, that is, until his activity ceased to take place in the public’s space. Thus Acconci appealed to ordinary everyday experience in allowing others to determine the spatial and temporal extent of his piece. This is a dependent relationship in which the artist surrenders control. His own personal activity is dependent upon the person being followed. Acconci does not intrude upon the other’s private zone, and his own sense of intimacy dissolves, along with his personal sense of time. Yet the work creates an erotic ambience in the secret intimacy between the artist and the person followed. In Performance Test, 1969, at the YMHA the situation was structured in a more traditionally theatrical manner. Acconci sat on the stage while he stared consecutively at each member of the audience for 30 seconds. Here the public and private territories are clearly marked off, both formally and psychologically. However, Acconci crosses this frontier between himself and his audience through the psychological relationship developed in the act of staring. This relationship (or lack of it) depends on the psychological feelings stimulated by eye contact and on the interaction of attitudes toward the self on the part of both audience and performer.

The space of the performance is much more like that of a gallery than in Following Piece. The work is more conventional in this sense, since the environment sets up an esthetic context for the audience. In other words, unlike Following Piece, the setting has an established esthetic structure in which what happens takes place. The space is already, in a certain sense, esthetically charged. In Acconci’s Proximity Piece the relationships are much more complex. This work took place in the Jewish Museum, where the artist spent an entire day in the exhibition area. He chose to stand in close proximity to various people attending one of the exhibitions in the museum. Such an incursion into the personal boundaries of the viewer’s zone provokes various psychological and physiological reactions on the part of the individuals “contacted” by the artist. For example, the intrusion of the artist into the personal zone can make one feel uneasy, defensive or uncomfortable. We may feel it as an act of aggression or intimidation. The artist engages in an act of confrontation as he breaks down the frontiers between himself and his audience: art and life are brought in close contact both morphologically and psychically. Unlike Following Piece, the performer now makes the decisions, determining to some extent the parameters of the piece, although here the spatial structure is again conditioned by the setting. At the Jewish Museum the esthetic space of the gallery proper is already somewhat separated from the “non-esthetic” as defined exhibition area, so that Acconci does not have his own personal arena. Hence, within the gallery, he does not create a distance between himself, as performer, and the person in the gallery, as he did in the work at the “Y.” The viewer’s territory is intruded upon by the artist much as any work of art may intrude upon one’s arena of experience. The boundaries between the private Acconci and the public one are not clearly demarcated. He is less a performer in Proximity Piece than a participant, and the audience is as much a performer as the artist. The psychological and physiological distance present before has been narrowed; consequently, the relationship between the public and private arenas has been altered. Acconci did a series of pieces where he intruded upon the boundaries of the spectator such as Scene Steal, 1970, and Container, 1970. In Steal, a super-eight film, the artist hinders the viewer’s perception by blocking his view of a naked girl. In Container he tries to use his naked body to contain a cat and cut it off from our view. In both cases the artist used his body to limit another’s scope of activity. Acconci interferes with and limits the individual’s surrounding space and the spectator’s spatial perception through a type of enclosure and frustration.

Acconci’s attack on the idea of a purely esthetic space is clear in Service Area, a work he did at the Museum of Modern Art for the “Information” exhibition in 1970, where he had his mail delivered to the museum. Here he converts the esthetic space of the gallery into his private space, transforming the esthetically isolated space and making it function as his own everyday life-space. The viewer is not interrupted during the esthetic experience (as in the Performance Piece at the Jewish Museum), but he does become aware that the esthetic space is arbitrary and can be made to serve other functions. In this the artist metamorphoses space through his work in a manner similar to more traditional notions of sculpture. Acconci has shown how this can be done by using performance as a functional, space-defining activity. Like traditional sculpture, Acconci’s art clearly alters the spatial context for the viewer in both its formal and its psychological aspects.

In these earlier pieces Acconci felt himself to be marginally present; he thought that the self was generalized and neutralized.3 The ambiguity of the desire not to abolish utterly a separation between the public and private boundaries reinforces this view of his relationship to the pieces. Acconci proceeded to change this relationship between himself and the audience by reorienting our conception of distance and separation. His body became a place and he began to move in on himself as the target. For example, in Rubbing Piece, performed at Max’s Kansas City in 1970, he situated himself in a booth and rubbed his arm for an hour, producing a sore. The sore becomes an index of the activity, and the body the space in which it happens. But by performing this work in a restaurant, Acconci changes the public area into an esthetic “arena,” much as the body itself now becomes a place where an art event takes place. As in Service Area Acconci shows how intention and the psychology of perception are linked. In Conversions, 1971, and Openings, 1970, the artist attempts to metamorphose his own sexual characteristics, to change his personal topology and space—that is, his personal sexual boundaries—through burning or pulling the hair on his chest or around his navel. The concept of personal boundaries is tied to that of physical identity in these performance pieces. And juxtaposition of these two concepts clearly demonstrates Acconci’s intuitive awareness of the relationship between the ideas of sexuality and social identity. By merging subject and object, the metamorphosis of sexuality becomes metaphorically related in Acconci’s desire to span the distances we establish between ourselves.

In these “bodyworks” the territory that is explored is a personal one. As Acconci, in a sense, turns in on himself, the pieces are consequently self-reflexive. Paradoxically, the work becomes more overtly metaphorical than earlier, even though the artist is concerned with his own image and the personal self. In effect, by his concern with his own boundaries—those of his body—Acconci draws a sharper distinction between his arena of activity and that of the viewer. This separation is in part a reaction against his own earlier work. But again Acconci moves toward a new exploration of the interaction between himself and his audience, his own boundaries and the boundary between him and the audience or public.

The key piece for this new turn in his art is Seedbed, 1972. In this work Acconci was able to combine an exploration of his (masturbation) fantasies, and thus of his own psychological space, with further consideration of a union with the audience. Concealed beneath a wooden ramp in the gallery, he was able to be “in” the piece while not being visible or obtruding into the public area of the spectator. For all its sexuality, Seedbed is one of the starkest and most sculptural of his works and one of the most completely realized pieces. Its erotic element looks back to Acconci’s earlier efforts toward union, as in Following Piece.

The artist’s space underneath the ramp is enclosed and separated from the public area. The artist—like Flaubert—is removed from the scene, yet he is as fully present as any writer in his novel. The interaction of the artist and the people in the gallery is accomplished much as the staring created a dialectic in Performance Test. The viewer hears the sound of Acconci’s voice as he fantasizes; the fantasies, in turn, are stimulated by the audible presence of the viewer in the gallery. The emptiness of the gallery space, with its slightly inclined ramp, establishes an austerity which forces the spectator to concentrate on the sounds being amplified into the environment, which are actually those of the artist’s activity. Although the artist seems to be separated from the audience, the lines between private and public are now more vague and shifting. Acconci has been able to structure the work to allow for his presence as well as his absence. He is at once the actor who is the center of attention and the author who is off the stage.

Even the enclosure of the ramp itself provides a strong metaphor for the nature of the activity; Acconci is literally underneath—out of sight, yet present. This very separation belies the intimate communication that takes place between the artist and his audience, even between the private and public moralities. Notions of inside and outside, pornography and sexuality, visibility and invisibility, are explored with a Joycean ambiguity and wit. The interior monologue becomes a public event, inner experience becomes shared communication. Acconci has succeeded in exploring and externalizing his own fantasies while involving the audience in his own private world by structuring the environment so that the individual must confront both himself and the artist at a most instinctual level. Thanks to the ramp, the gallery space is transformed into a stage without actors—except to the extent in which the audience/“viewer” becomes a participant in the event.

Acconci was able to achieve the type of audience interchange that many “theatrical” performances have only attempted. The structure of most theatrical performances precludes the participation needed for interchange. As in Performance Piece, at the “Y,” Acconci spans the distance between himself and the public by using the psychological tensions of the situation. At the same time, the concern for the relationship of his own space to that of the viewer is central:

. . . I wanted myself as a presence that would be more than at one point—I wanted myself to be part of the space in which the viewer was. . . . So though the general structure might have been determined by the situation of the public gallery space, the activity itself was a combination of the space and terms for the situation—words provided the activity.4

This interchange or intertwining of regions, on both physical and psychological levels, makes Seedbed a milestone in Acconci’s art.

In Seedbed the notions of performer and audience underwent modification as the distance was altered. The audience in the gallery is more than just an observer (if this is a proper description of his or her role at all). The artist/performer is not performing in any super-added sense of the term. (Paradoxically, it is the structural separation between the parties involved that calls into question the normal separation implicit in the idea of performance.) Ultimately, the work explores ways of breaking down the barriers between the artist and his public in order to achieve a new type of communion between himself and the perceiver.

Acconci’s later works tend to confirm his acceptance of the referential aspects or metaphorical overtones of Seedbed while continuing to explore the physical and psychological aspects of space. His interest in Kurt Lewin’s view of spatial structure, which dates back to 1969, suggests a deliberate interest in the psychology of space. In such works as Cross-Fronts, 1972, and Line-Up, 1973, he explores the relationship of territory to the artist’s various roles. Each area is associated with a transformation of the artist as he assumes a new role and identity. Through this assumption the artist extends his own comprehension of himself, while the structures and relationships of the spaces stimulate new kinds of experiences for him. Again, his art moves in a dialectic between self-exploration and an examination of the interrelationships between artist and audience. As the very poles of his art, these poles are involved with the topology of space and the psychology of intimacy which Acconci investigates by exploring the parameters of performance. His art, then, is “theatrical,” or rather “metatheatrical,” since it investigates the nature and role of the audience, the performer and the performance itself.

Acconci’s art has related indirectly to contemporary interest in the spatial environments or contexts of art. Unlike most sculptural interests in space, however, it explores the relationship between the artist’s own space, as body and as psychological landscape, and the public arena of activity. The exploration of the boundaries between these territories has caused the borders between them to be both physically and psychologically less definable and consequently less static. In the same way, the polarity of performer and audience has also been placed under attack. From a wider perspective, Acconci’s art questions the very boundaries of the discipline itself, as he himself questions his own state of being. His inclusion of “objectionable” activities into his art can be seen as a direct assault on the whole concept of limits. “We have been taught that certain activities are socially permissible and others are taboo, so we don’t go into them. One of the attempts of my work is to state that these categories aren’t essences.”5 Similarly, we have been accustomed to considering that certain ideas about space and distance are related to such categories as the private and the public. It is just this attitude toward essences or “hidden dimensions” that provokes his exploration of territoriality and performance. His art not only challenges premises about art—object, viewer, exhibition, etc.—but about ourselves.

Edward Levine is chairman of the art department at Wright State University.


1. Edward T. Hal, The Hidden Dimension, New York, 1969.

2. Many of the views expressed in this paper were stimulated by a lecture given at Wright State University by the artist and conversations with the author.

3. Excerpts from tapes with Liza Bear, Avalanche, Fall 1972, p. 74.

4. Ibid., p. 71.

5. Cindy Nemser, “Interview with Vito Acconci,” Arts Magazine, March 1971, p. 22.