PRINT November 1980

“Dirty Acconci”

Dirtiness in itself is not . . . bad
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929.

IN THE SPAN FROM 1960 to today, art has perpetuated the loyalist position which established it as absolute knowledge and dogma, capable of holding within itself all contradictions—with the result that it has been transformed into ritual, into repetitions of all-comprehensive formulae that furnish a response to every situation. This leaves no possibility of doubt. At the public level, in fact, the artistic experience has been sustainable only to the extent that the existential fracture manages to be hidden within some larger, reassuring vision: one thinks, for example, of the mediation of minimal and conceptual, which has resulted in robbing art of the incompatibility inherent in existence. Enclosing itself within the circle of logical and scientific “theory,” art has removed itself from the dominion of the “real,” thereby liberating itself from discussion and criticism, too. This liberation cannot be carried out, however, unless one conceives of art as a unique discourse. And such a concept reveals itself as both equivocal and idealistic—since it is based on a concept of art where total “order” (organic and hierarchic, natural and moral, social and political) is integrated in a unique vision devoid of empty spaces or margins of doubt.

Of course, this order tends not to depend on historical, transitory conditions; it has an atemporal character, which makes it authoritative. Consequently, the positive certainty of art has the end result of rebuffing (in the realm of knowledge and therefore in the empyrean of culture too) the pressures and attacks of “disorder.” Thus art defends itself against actions which would disturb the system and its rigidity. To rid oneself of chance, of chaos and filth, is to allow only organization and pleasantness. To attain these results, art employs reflective surfaces, geometric figures, simple planes, industrial materials, mirrors, shiny papers, decorated fabrics, philosophic citations, and other entities, which with their brightness and lucidity can dazzle, and even blind, the spectator. Everything must proceed to the coronation of the clean, the ordered and the beautiful, which Freud defined as the fundamental needs of civilization.1 But to what do these restraints pander? What do they hide or repress? Are they not images, dictations, that have arisen from the needs of an aristocratic and individualistic affirmation of a culture that tries to picture itself outside the conditions of existence?

Since art reflects political engagement and social relationships, its ingestion of structure and perfection symbolizes an ideal that seeks to unify, organize and homogenize our larger environment. In art, imperfection and filth are threatening transgressions. Actually, they are a danger to political power, because, if they are elaborated on as models, they would acquire a cultural significance of social anomaly and rebellion: “To reflect on filth allows reflection on the relationship between order and disorder, being and non-being, the formal and the informal, life and death.”2 This is why art that constructs itself, or is constructed, according to dominant social values doesn’t speak of dirt. As the carrier of a moral judgment, it must affirm, against any antisocial spirit, a sense of order. It should be understood that social, in our system, signifies “toward economic management.”

Society cannot afford to have its self-image tarnished, so instead it tries to “reclean.” This operation is the effort of a functionalist economy based on the circulation of new goods, the diffusion of which can be seriously impeded by the presence of refuse and scum. In fact, these are repeatedly hidden and sublimated, as if the acknowledgment of their quantity and intensity were unbearable. Yet the state of our cities speaks for itself: New York, Mexico City, Hong Kong, New Delhi—filth is predominant in all. Emerging from technological sphincters, refuse is regulated according to vital rhythms of retention and evacuation; nevertheless, these municipalities no longer manage properly to free themselves of this refuse. Can’t we see the discrepancy between cultural acknowledgment and physical reality? If not, why not? What restrains culture from associating itself with the excretive functions of city life, functions which produce millions of tons of garbage? And yet, the truth of the “bowels” is equal to that of the “head,” and the resulting obscenity is revealing, from the symbolic as well as from the political point of view.3 Must we consider culture a fetish, an inanimate object, a closed system that cannot incorporate “unpleasant things”?

It is clear that one characteristic of the esthetic “religion” that forms and informs the investigations of the 1960s and ’70s is the lack of distinctions among the terms linear, reduced, polished, rational, analytical, philosophical . . . and clean. There is therefore a direct relationship among them, something like an analogy, which produces a front united against the non-clean. Thus the universe of art was divided into things and actions, subjects that were then to be reduced, leveled, defined, formalized. The rules of order protected every context (from framework to ambience, from volume to theory) against the intrusion of profanities (erotic, female, pornographic, decorative, gratuitous, or personal), entities with which, as carriers of danger and ruin, one wished to have no contact. In this way insubordinate attitudes were suppressed. One could speak of racism, communism, sexism, chauvinism and colonialism, but only with a restricted vocabulary. Whoever used “base language,” overlayed with the muddy and foul residues of sex or politics, was considered a “corrupter.”

Times change. The growth of art’s wealth had produced a treasure island, and though it couldn’t “sell itself,” it could “develop its social value.” We know that since the end of the ’60s, effluvia have inundated every intellectual space, without euphemism, according to a clever manipulation of the merchandise. Isn’t there a discrepancy between the need to construct and to understand in the realm of “pure” language, and in the cesspool of the marketplace? To purify art, to release it from corruption, meant at one time to enrich it and to render it incorruptible by the marketplace. But today, when everything is merchandise, even “clean” art finally joins up with the scum running through the sewers of the city. It is, then, vulgar language amid vulgar languages. It serves only to fatten and nurture as intellectual and visual manure, as compost.

If someone passionately embraces his double through the glass, at that moment the double becomes alive, and the being and the image love one another through the wall.
—Alfred Jarry, Les Jours et Les Nuits, 1897

In the slow development of Vito Acconci one can detect a reluctance to show off art’s purifying power and an attempt to confront its relationship with “filth.” He puts the history of the senses before the history of forms. In fact, all his work seems to me to lead to the disqualification of the formal and the visual, in favor of everything that annoys form and vision. Acconci does not differentiate between places of corruption and kinds of filth, which gild all esthetic fields, and the art dealings in which he himself participates, as do thousands of other “art merchants.” From the stomach of New York, from the orifices of Naples, Amsterdam, Chicago, San Francisco . . . he has tried to extract the viscera, making nearly visible the processes of culture’s “ideal” ingestion. These processes are, in fact, the sine qua non for the self-perpetuating energy that regulates the art world: from the loves/hates/jealousies in private relationships to the loves/hates/jealousies in artist/dealer/critic relationships. His marketing of the private makes sense (many of Acconci’s works have been concerned with his disputes/encounters with friends male and female, protagonists in his life, both intimate and public) insofar as art is the place where people carry on “real-life” business and therefore emit “real-life” emotions. Each person’s “emissions” proclaim the ethics of his or her location—gallery or museum, studio or magazine, all places where people are invited to take a seat on heaps of fame and stardust.

Acconci, who began strolling the pseudo-clean avenues of art around 1968–69, immediately noticed that contemporary investigations and tendencies (from minimal to systemic painting, from land art to conceptual art) paid court only to order and cleanliness, to the socially ideal, the naturally and the philosophically mystical—while considering repugnant the “dirty” and the private, the corporeal and the sexual. The latter, in fact, came to be designated personal territories, solely individual. The fact remained, however, that this polarity testified to a reciprocity and a dialectic: the enthusiasm for the clean and the rational indicated how much art hid from itself. It had discarded a threat, by means of concepts and dematerializations, but residues still remained. It was useless, then, for Acconci to employ steel or polished surfaces, immaterial gases or ideas of volumes. Abstention itself became the stimulus for sticking his very nose in the obscene and unnameable, which lies beneath abstraction. Instead, Acconci chose to seal up his own body, all possible orifices, from the mouth to the glands, having first expelled all biles and bad blood. (He no longer wanted to “hold them back.”)

Photo piece, 1970

Biting myself: biting as much of my body as I can reach. Applying printers’ ink to the bites; stamping bite-prints on various surfaces.

Notes by the artist from Avalanche, Fall 1972:

Finding myself—getting to a region, getting through a region—the attempt is to reach, mark, as much of my body as possible.

Turning in on myself, turning on myself (my action drives me into a circle): a way to connect, re-connect, my body (grouping of parts according to the way one part is produced by another—my leg bears the mark of my teeth: my leg is derived from my mouth).

Stake a claim on what I have: the bite should be hard, should break down resistance: go through what I have (the bites can mark off places to be removed—expendables—I can be made so private that I disappear).

The bites set me up as a target (I can shift the focus—apply printers’ ink to the bites so that they can be made available—I can point out other targets by stamping bite-prints on paper, on a wall, on another body).

Opening a closed region: building up a biography, a public record (bite-print as storage—identity peg—an alibi: I was so involved in myself that I couldn’t be somewhere else).

Reasons to move: move into myself—move around myself—move in order to close a system.

Reasons to move: show myself to myself—show myself through myself—show myself outside.

Make my own outside—send my inside outside (I can slip outside, then, because I am still moving inside).

Super 8 film, color, 5 minutes, 1969

Facing a mirror: punching at the mirror: punching at my image in the mirror until the mirror breaks and my image disappears.

Notes by the artist from Avalanche, Fall 1972:

Get to me—get at me—get into me—get through me—get through to me.

Talking to myself—talking myself into myself—talking myself out of myself—taking myself—taking to myself—taking up myself—taking myself on—taking myself through—taking myself off—touching myself—touching on myself (touching lightly and passing myself by).

This is a way to get rid of myself. No, this is a way to get rid of an image and so be able to stand on my own. No, this is a way to get rid of a necessary support. No, this is a way to get rid of a nagging shadow. No, this is a way to get out of a closed circle and so have room to move. No, this is a way to get rid of deep space, so that I have to bang my head against the wall.

The inside of the body, then, is the territory of primary retention into which the artist escapes. It was obligatory to clear out places delegated for art (galleries and museums), and since the studio too has become a space where cleanliness is rendered, the only remaining place for retention is within the artist’s body and person. However, the stomach, as well as the skin, is full of “toxins,” which must be expelled or thrown out: spit, sweat, fatigue cannot be held in indefinitely. Second step: Acconci takes them up and uses them as art.

Videotape, 1971

1. Boundary (burst): filling my mouth with saliva, making my face a balloon, until I can’t hold any more—the saliva bursts through my lips.
2. Cup (storage): my hands are cupped below my mouth—the saliva, when it bursts through my lips, is stored in my hands just as it was stored in my mouth.

Photo piece, New York, 1970

Running in place for two hours; developing a heavy sweat. Leaning back against the wall; moving around against the wall—the sweat reacts with the paint, the paint spots my body.

By 1969, as much as it had before been considered noxious and unpleasant, morbid and fetid, the human body became interesting to the extent to which it characterized and denoted life, as opposed to the inorganic world of chromatic pigment or industrial material. Digestion and alimentation began to play a role in art arguments as did fertilization and the sowing of fields. One paid attention, from body to land art, to the vitality of both the earthly and biological body, which now appeared luxurious and rich with infinite sensations and mutations. The extent to which the body had been covered by a rigid and opaque cloak came to light, and all the “statues” re-clothed themselves, according to the five senses.

One can affirm that until then sculpture had had no idea of primacy, as if the existence of odor and tactility, more or less pleasing or displeasing, pertained solely to the olfactory beast which had precipitated the whole discussion. And since for the culture of “good taste” the beautiful has no odor, nothing emanated from the beautiful. In other words, art was employed in the systematic production of something that“ counts as,” but is not, radical. It conserved and repressed those base parts which truly disturb. In moments of social disintegration, such as the years 1968–69, every structure and apparatus of power was straining to repudiate disorder. The best art works were considered to be those which subscribed to society’s model. Ambiguous or private things could certainly not be in harmony with this; therefore they were discarded. Disorder as much as the personal was seen as a threat and transgression, and it became a part of the marginal and fringe cultures.4 Art was—or ought to have been—a nonsensual place, where one could exclude things of the senses. The surfaces of all bodies were therefore “cosmeticized”; they could be described or represented only by painting or words, since associations with the organic remained proof of “filth.”

It has already been said that the propensity for objects (inert, mobile, polished) has been a political choice, yet one could also pinpoint a religious compulsion. Important aspects of Western art have been based for decades on Judeo-Christian culture, the philosophical and ideological effects of which are constantly being analyzed. If one follows the valuable suggestions of Douglas5 on the heritage that has been passed from Leviticus through to contemporary culture, one can find profound and precise analogies between fear of the unclean, illness and contagion, and rites of purification and expiation. Western thought is full of references to impurity and ways of freeing oneself from it. It enumerates, as well, many precepts and injunctions against filth and about the extent to which we stain, sweat, and emit bodily fluids. In the case of Acconci—from the beginning his work pointed to the body as a system, sweating and spermatic, fecal and salivating—the reference doesn’t seem to be accidental. In his work, surfaces and volumes of wood and steel cannot “stand for” the surfaces of the body. It isn’t possible to substitute for them; instead, it is necessary to replace them one for the other, since vulvas, nipples, penises, skins, buttocks, sweat, mucus, the sphincter, the tongue, the nails, the teeth, the umbilical cord . . . are all part of another “economy.” This is a difficult exchange; these parts cannot become signifiers of the universal and the abstract, of the rich and the seductive, but denote the singular and the private, the primitive and the “dirty.”

Super 8 film, color, fifteen minutes, 1970

Pulling out the hairs around my navel (clearing a space, clearing the film frame, extending the opening of my navel, opening myself up).

Notes by the artist from Avalanche, Fall 1972:

This can be a way for exhaustion to be useful—the hair is used up, I’ve deprived my body of hair—my deprived body can be used as a new body—so the exhaustion is reversible—the exhausted performer can pass, without serious resistance, to another pattern—my drive against my body results in a drift into another form.

The film frame here functions as a kind of vise—my stomach is squeezed inside so that I can work on it, I can take my time—a way to clear a space (I can think of this as a kind of cleansing, opening up new ground: a way to get through to some hidden region—I can use this as a base for future activity—this might mean that I have to keep repeating the piece, keep the hair from reappearing, re-enclosing).

Acconci strives to arrange “surfaces,” and he responds to the request for impersonality, for artistic context, with the corporeal I, which initiates and becomes a metaphor for art, for his art. The permutation among esthetic materials is evident: the formality of the clean and the orderly can be flanked by the presence of the organic and the sexual. The weave of the canvas concedes its place to the epidermis, while the empty space of volume is found in the orifice of the mouth; brushes and colors are translated into spit, saliva and bites. Acconci attempts, then, a work of soldering, among antithetical linguistic positions; he eliminates the barrier between calculation and perversion and introduces among esthetic mechanisms secondary signs of the “unspoken,” the physical. Along with the production of new words and new syntaxes (also spatial and volumetric compositions), he inserts “gestures” that are removed from the moral/art context. Noticing that art had omitted intensity and physical passions, he assumed for it an aggressive and transgressive value. He infuses bodily fluids and dirt into the processes of intelligence, incorporates the genital head in art discourse and dialogue.

Performance, Mönchengladbach, Germany; one hour; October 14, 1971

A closet space, inside a warehouse—toys, shawls, foam, splinters of wood (the closet space is crowded with color: something to sink into).

Withdrawing into the closet space—I have only myself to work with—turn in on myself—I’m dividing myself in two—turn my penis into another person.

Notes by the artist from Avalanche, Fall, 1972:

I can dress my penis here, wrap it in shawls, put on dolls’ clothes (I can see my penis as separate from the rest of my body)—the space is scaled to it: toy houses, toy animals—it functions side by side with them—I can throw myself into its world: my body’s draped with color, smoothness.

I’m talking to it—my words are addressed to me (I have to believe in the terms I’ve set up)—my words are addressed to the penis (it has a life of its own, it’s far enough away for me to talk to it).

I’ve divided myself in order to work myself back into a unity—I can act on, with, myself while becoming someone else.

A viewer passes by the closet space—the closet is low, he has to look down—a place where I can regress, make a fool of myself—I have to: he shouldn’t want to have anything to do with me—I’m something to throw off, withdraw from.

The word addressed to the erect penis is an offer to abolish the mental center. Directed toward an affirmation of the self, the penis is a force and an agent of art, in that it presents itself as an appointed cultural model. Its abject placement doesn’t, in fact, exclude attention to this goal of self-consciousness. The intent is perhaps to insert a subversive element into the tidy, antiseptic and asexual paradise of art. Dressing the penis in dolls’ clothes serves to illustrate our phobia for loathsome and dirty components: sex in its totality, from masculine to feminine. We must “put on new clothes” in order to expose and finally rejoin the true I. Repugnance for true sensuality/dirt thus begins to be resisted; Acconci prepares everything for not only an intellectual but also a pragmatic rapport with art. (It doesn’t need saying that in many religious cultures, especially the Catholic, the act of touching oneself is a sin.) What should be emphasized, however, is the will of the person, not external circumstances. To touch oneself is the equivalent of a choice in the first person, and that choice is therefore voluntarily antiritualistic. In opposition to the ritual of display in museums or galleries, which usually preempts any passionate or sexual response, Acconci proposes the exposition and rapport of love with the penis itself.

Is art then an aphrodisiac which gives the male artist an erection, first by means of himself and then of others? For Acconci it seems to be so. Rather than offering the renunciation of pleasure he has seemed to prefer—materialistically—the realization of desire, And since man’s vicious circle of pleasure lies in his inability to disassociate himself from the penis, Acconci cannot be indifferent to its presence. If he were, one would have to speak of sacrifice, necessitated or required by functions external to the intimate, and sacrifice is an act of censure and denial. Acconci takes note of this denial and his excitement is increased. The voluptuous emotion of discovering oneself and of the procreative act are, in fact, related. For Acconci, creation is finally a sexual act, a solitary gesture through which he senses himself, hoping with his ejaculation to fertilize the other from people to “the world.” This intellectual and artistic condition aspires to change society not slowly but with violent “orgasms” (revolutions or rebellions).

In the conversion of creative energy into corporeal and sexual “services,” all figures change sense and sex. Sex becomes sign. It occupies an analogous place to forms and colors: if color complementaries exist (red and green, yellow and blue), then the analogous complementaries of feminine and masculine are simply kindred singularities, even when antagonistic.

Super 8 film, b/w, seventy-two minutes; August-September 1971 (revised version of a photograph piece, November 1970)

_Notes by the artist from Avalanche, Fall 1972:
Part I (Light, Reflection, Self-control); forty-eight minutes.
Darkened room (the film frame closes me into a withdrawal chamber): I’m lighting a candle, moving it around my body—setting up my body image, finding my limits (the light establishes points of attention): I’m stopping the candle at my breast, burning the hairs (the outside light source pushes into my body, intrudes on it—the camera zooms in on my breast, narrowing my attention as I concentrate on burning the hair): the breast is hairless: I’m pulling at it, making it supple, flexible—an attempt to develop a female breast: I’m turning to the other breast and bringing the candle to it.

Part II (Insistence, Adaptation, Groundwork, Display); eighteen minutes.
Extending the sex change: exercising my new body, adapting myself to my new conditions (six three-minute exercises): I need time to persist in my appearance, to develop ease in that appearance (static camera—I’m in one position in front of it—or I’m walking to it, away from it—I’m forced to play up to the camera—my performance depends on an attempt to handle, control, personal information.

Part III (Association, Assistance, Dependence); six minutes.
First part in privacy, closed region, circular movement—change myself by turning in on myself. Second part: implied public, opened region, display—I’m starting a line away from myself. The third part channels that line to-ward a specific person (the region is closed again, but this time its boundaries are larger): a girl kneels behind me: I acquire a female form by inserting, losing, my penis in her mouth: exercising my body in its new stance (social activity—change by means of another person, change by means of the kind of person I am attempting to change into).

The body itself is a doll, and creativity is self-copulation. Nevertheless, pleasure (art) occurs by one’s coupling with the external. It is not possible, therefore, to renounce the public or to attempt not to desire it. The artist/lover must be loved. (In fact, the public assists in Conversions, 1971.) The loss of the other could be unbearable. There is then a passage from the Ito the couple. The self, negating its dependency on the world, undergoes a change in the vulvic space of a room or an enclosed area, brought about by another (male or female).

Without need and longing, on the part of the other, there is neither pleasure nor satisfaction. The culmination of art is indeed in the realm of the private (that of sex and “dirt”), but this actually comes about through interaction with the public realm within which it lies (Transference Zone, 1972, and Remote Control, 1971). Having recovered through his art the separate self, Acconci attempted what had until then been denied him—copulation, genital and artistic (by now synonymous)—with his “public.” The rapport was initially impeded by an orderly and clean construction: the ramp in Seedbed, which functions as a barrier and a sexual barricade.

Performance, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, January 1529, 1971; twice a week; six hours each day.

Half-way across the room, the floor becomes a ramp that rises gradually to a height of two and a half feet at the far wall. Each day, the piece is open, from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.: I’m underneath the ramp, moving under the viewers’ floor—I’m masturbating, I keep my masturbation going by building sexual fantasies on the footsteps above me. The viewer enters the clean white space; the viewer hears a voice from below.
Voice excerpt:
"I’m doing this with you . . . you’re on my left . . . you’re moving away but I’m pushing my body against you . . . you’re bending your head down, over me . . . I’m pressing my eyes into your hair . . .

Even with this block, Acconci attempts “contact.” The copulation is deferred, however, and reflects the satisfaction of true desire (but not the satisfaction of the other): the belief in art as expression of the community’s pleasures (beauty, order, cleanliness) is simply masturbation. Moreover, the sperm has a finality without aim; it is dispersed and, like art, yields nothing. Nor is it functional within the social process. Its procreative waste is equivalent to a refutation of constructive models. In fact, Stekel writes,

Every masturbator is an autotheos, for he recognizes no other master over his sensuality. Parents, however, wish to remain the God of their children. . . . Masturbation frees man from the social obligation of gratitude. The masturbator owes his sexual gratification to himself alone. But we are meant to owe all our pleasures to a higher power. Thus it comes about that masturbation turns into the symbol of a rebellious attitude against the parents. . . . The urge to masturbate will be most firmly fixed in the child who feels that he acts against his parents’ wishes, whereupon he will continue to masturbate out of neurotic defiance.6

Just as dirt and disorder cannot be included in a perfect totality, so sperm and art cannot conform to order, for which reason they either get lost in one’s head or become antithetical to reproduction. Seedbed is a celibate machine for excellence, like Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass. Both sexual and mechanical, Seedbed is also a failed coitus, where the creative act is only a fantasy of pleasure and the other is only a phantom, invisible and unreachable. The artist, under glass (on the ground and therefore dirty), dreams of an impossible penetration, which “passes through” the glass/wood and allows him to join with the crowd. The inexpressible desire is invisible but attracts because of its unhealthiness. In fact, the artist/public exchange does not exist. The creative act is solitary.

Everything that is absolute partakes of pathology.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

In the sexual greed of the public and in the artist’s desire to copulate with it, one meets again an orchestration of sex and art, which oscillates between eroticism and pornography. Eroticism is first of all a primary cultural necessity, through which the person/artist unveils a concern for pleasure (for Acconci, the period 1969–72, in which he declares himself as “body”). It is a vital and organic flow which allows a true creative intensity, for true pleasure for oneself and the other.

Acconci has worked on an exchange of pleasure among languages separated by a morality which prohibits the seeing and demonstrating of true desire (body and sex). Finally he has given the word to the phallus, to his phallus, removing the veil which hid it from himself and from others. The substitution has been from the mental to the vital. Showing himself in his vital totality, he has arrived at art as writing on the body itself. Art is a self-questioning and writing of bodily responses; for the other (the public or the lover), however, there can be no means other than that of true sexual identity. Certainly there has been much phallic sanctification in the executed works. Nevertheless, the attempts were intended to announce a personal pleasure, which, even when staged, examined Acconci’s private realm, his fears, his loves, his blemishes and his sex. The process was intimate, therefore bio-existential and erotic. When in Seedbed the impulse is inorganic instead, because of the attempt to assimilate the other to actual pleasure, the work begins to reflect art/sex as a process of seduction and of pornography.

It is obvious that the gestural process and the signs don’t change: the same sexual/artistic entity is manifested as erotic or pornographic according to the contents and motivations which the protagonists (artist and public) experience. While eroticism is total communication and the exhibited desire of a subject capable of expressing himself/herself sexually/artistically without violating the other, pornography acts to deny the subject-other relationship, thereby reducing this interaction to merchandising. Pornography is therefore destructiveness, by which the other becomes, as in Seedbed, the object of sensations and pleasure on the part of his or her consumer. Art sets itself up as a type of trap—well suited to seduction. So if art wants to seduce and have power over others—as generally is the case—it performs an affective violence which paralyzes the desires of others, and passes therefore from eroticism to pornography. Attempting to seduce others, art declares itself as an egoistic and aggressive operation which reduces its very partner to a victim. The other is transformed into a possession—merchandise and object of exchange—and art into pornography. All art is pornography if it assumes the right to impose on others personal pleasures and ideas.

It is at this philosophic moment that Acconci removes himself from the scene and goes into exile; he intuits that the artist is an obscene exhibitionist who enjoys himself by entrapping others. Here is the real “dirt”: the role of knowledge and of art lies within the temptation to entrap the public and extract pleasure from it as penetrated and invaded territory. Nevertheless, Acconci removes his body and begins to leave only his seed, concrete metaphor of his passage. At the same time, propagating sperm, he redeems his alienation by speaking to the pornographic perversion which rules relationships; to sexual violence; and to the art world. He begins to pay homage to “social eroticism,” in which art is pleasurable as an autonomous body. He has a clientele and a public; in the galleries and museums they have come to speak of the spermatozoa-and-artist. At this point the focus is on the client and his sterile pleasure, and since Acconci—as artist—derives pleasure from actual sex/art, and has contempt for the passive voyeur, he has contempt for, or appears to have contempt for, the society of citizens and intellectuals who offer up their channels and orifices for another’s pleasure.

The circulation of seed and of art is concerned with the brutal phenomenon of existence. It depends on direct contacts between individuals or groups of people within the same culture. The interaction and movement of one toward the other lie at the base of possession. This dialogue is a test of strength, and the pleasure is found within the settlement and invasion of the body by another. The American Gift, 1976, participates in this discourse between active and passive. The subject is not only the rapport between lover and beloved, but speaks also of intercourse between colonizer and colonized, between (supposedly) civilized and uncivilized. Here the semination proceeds not only within bodies, but also with in languages: one is taught to speak and repeat another culture’s phrases, causing one to lose autonomy.

Installation, Bordeaux, France, 1976

The piece is meant to fit into any space in Europe. The piece leaves a deposit in the space: something dropped from outside, something dropped in as if from nowhere—a kind of dark mystery that just happens to be found on European ground.

The deposit is a black box, five feet by five feet, seven feet high: there’s a small opening around the top of the box—a blue light inside, a blue glow slipping out through the rim. The box is installed at one end of the space; opposite the box, at the other end of the space, are two or three rows of folding chairs.

Audiotape excerpts:


(American’s whisper)

You are the Europeans . . .

You wait and see . . .

You don’t have to speak for yourselves . . .

You have America in the back of your minds . . .

You learn the language . . .

Black box:

(American’s French)

Ecoutez! L’Amerique parle: La-la-la-la
Ab-ba-ca-da. Repetez:
La-la-la-la Ab-ba-ca-da . . .

Quiet please! Silence s’il nous plait! One minute of America—
Une minute d’Amérique—
Aaron Copland,
Quiet City—


(French man and woman’s voice)

Nous sommes les Européens . . .

Nous attendons de voir ce qui passe . . .

Nous n’avons pas à plaider notre cause . . .

Nous avons l’Amerique derrière la tête . . .

Nous apprenons le langue: La-la-la-la Ab-ba-ca-da . . .

The rape cannot be denied. European culture has for years projected American pornography on its screens. Therefore, the gift (seed) becomes an exemplary image (an erect penis and a minimal sculpture) of an historic condition, both artistic and political. It is, in fact, typical of hegemonic power to reduce the other to a subordinate position. During the 1970s, this was so violent that Acconci transformed the conquered “territory” of mind into property (Venice Belongs to Us, 1976), and that property’s inhabitants into defenseless “suckers.”

The degradation of the sexual object corresponds to the degradation of the self: to seduce means to be seduced. Unless one undergoes the same risk as the victim, pleasure is not possible. And so, having placed pornography within the worldwide context of art. Acconci concerns himself with the manifestation of the degradation of the rapist and phallocrat (the artist himself). Otherwise, his discourse would be an overexaltation of his artistic and phallic intensity; his attitude remains, therefore, critical. Whoever prevaricates and violates is prevaricated and violated. He believes in his own pleasure, but his sexuality/art has already been stripped down to “function,” by the cultural industry, in order to be set aside for a perverse use. Fragments of his being have already been taken away and placed in circulation in the marketplace. Pleasure has a price, and if this is paid, it can be used for other’s purposes.

8Installation, “Rooms,” P.S. 1, Long Island City, N.Y., 1976*

The piece is designed for the basement of a school building. The specific space is the boiler-room: four black planks are set down over a sunken floor in front of the boiler with six low black stools in front of each plank: the electric cords are lowered until the lightbulbs touch the floor, fitting into the table-and-chair area formed by the planks and stools.

Audiotape excerpt:

(Front left)

Let’s believe we’re in this together . . .

Ready: We-be-lieve-
Again: We be-lieve-
Again: Mm-mm-mm-
Go on: We-be-lieve-we’re-in-this-
Go on: We-be-lieve-we’re-in-this-to-geth-er-

Let’s be suckers . . .

Ready: We-are-suck-ers-
Again: We-are-suck-ers-
Again: Mm-mm-mm-
Go on: We-are-suck-ers-

(Rear right)

Everybody: Let’s believe we’re in this together . . .
Ready: We-be-lieve-
Again: We be-lieve-
Again: Mm-mm-mm-
Go on: We-be-lieve-we’re-in-this-
Go on: We-be-lieve-we’re-in-this-to-geth-er-

Altogether: Let’s be suckers . . .
Ready: We-are-suck-ers-
Again: We-are-suck-ers-
Again: Mm-mm-mm-
Go on: We-are-suck-ers-

Entering into the cycle of saleable and impersonal goods, the artist reduces himself as well to a pornographic object. He prostitutes himself (in Latin, to prostitute means to exhibit), and his presence satisfies other mechanisms, which in general are called “institutions.” Acconci doesn’t forget that colonizers seek out their proper contexts. Among the passive, then, there are artists, wives, servants, workers, etc., from whom institutions extract their price.

According to this perspective, what should art construct? It appears that esthetic investigations and human tendencies should battle for the liberation of a true language—that is, they should tend toward, according to Acconci, a free use of the body itself. In reality they have, conversely, attempted only to establish themselves inside or in something, denying the vital and the erotic in favor of the pornographic and the constructed. The end result has been the sowing of seed in a hole or art in a museum.

Sculpture (mobile architectural unit)
Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, April 1980

Self-erecting multi-story building, activated by a pull-cart.

In the initial (unactivated) phase, a stack of panels is set down on the floor, at one end of a space. Each panel is the size of a large box, or a small wall; each panel is a wood frame covered with plastic—the plastic has been, in part, painted red, but, at this stage, with the panels stacked together, it’s impossible to discern a pattern through the layers of plastic.

Above the panels, hanging from the ceiling, rope runs down through the wood frames and out to the other end of the space, where it’s attached to a black wooden cart.

When a person sits in the cart and pulls the rope, pulling the cart toward the stack, the panels rise, scissorlike, becoming walls that form a room, or one story of a building: one story mounts on another, rising eventually into a four-story building.

The principle of construction resembles a carnival game, a test of strength (bang the hammer, ring the bell): nearly everybody can raise the building two stories high—but it demands more strength to raise it one more story—it demands still more strength, or will, to raise the building all the way to the top.

When the person gets up from the cart, the cart rolls back to its starting point, and the building falls down.

Pleasure, in art, consists in enjoyment and in mechanism; its practice does not tend toward satisfaction, but toward the erection of moral edifices, which reveal clean intention in their transparency and order. To become an artist means to build a construction which couples with another construction—possibly, in the end, public and cultural (as in High-Rise).

Cultural priapism is a reality, almost a religion, and a procedure that has therefore overlapped with the phenomenon of art. The work of Acconci is an occasion to examine this problem, to see it as being not “dirty,” but “historic,” belonging therefore to our epoch and to our civilization as a whole.

Germano Celant is an Italian art critic.

This article was translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, 1912–13.

2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, (First English Edition: United Kingdom: Hogarth press, 1930).

3. D. Laporte, Storia della merda, Milan, 1979.

4. See the interview by B. Glaser, Questions to Stella and Judd, New York, WBAI-FM, 1964, for the artists’ attitudes against European disorder.

5. M. Douglas, Purity and Danger, An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Marlonsworth, 1970.

6. Wilhelm Stekel, Masturbation and Homosexuality, Berlin-Wien, 1921, p. 135.