PRINT March 1988


1. The beginning of John Ford's The Searchers: after title an credits on brick, a black ground appears with white text: “Texas 1868.” The text fades out, the screen goes black. Suddenly, a cut slices the ground, the black begins to open from the inside, a vertical rectangle in the middle of the horizontal screen, a landscape seen through that rectangle—and moving into that opening, a woman. She stands with her back to the camera, her back to us—she’s at a doorway, the opening in the black was the opening of a door, the black is the inside of the house, dark except for the light of the landscape the doorway frames, through that frame we watch John Wayne approaching on horseback. We’re behind the woman, we’re the males at/on her back, we know her secrets, we’re in the dark of a private house, a dark that merges with the vast dark of a public house that tries to be private too by giving us the darkness of privacy—we’re in the darkness of a movie theater.

Go through the plot quickly: while the outsider/guardian John Wayne is called away, the house is attacked, the parents killed, the daughters kidnapped—Wayne returns to discover this, goes out again to bring them back.

Two hours later, years later, after the search is over, the movie about to end, the same black ground appears, the same hole into the landscape. It’s a different house, but no matter, the inside is just as black; the comforts of one home interchangeable with the comforts of another. The family is coming back in: first the lost girl who has lived with Indians/aliens—she comes in with the people who will be her new parents now that she’s white again; John Wayne, then, should be next, but he steps out of the way to allow a newly formed couple to enter (this is a necessary couple, because the male member is a half-breed who must be integrated), they’ve all come in now but Wayne, he’s alone, the others have forgotten about him. He puts one foot on the threshold but he can’t come in, he turns around, he turns away, the door closes, the screen goes black, the movie is over.

A second thought as we’re leaving the theater: when the family streamed in, they didn’t come directly toward us. They came in askew, to our right; when they disappeared off screen, they disappeared not into us, but off to our side. So we’re not them; we’re in the house, but also outside where we’re able to see it. Though we might be family, we have the mobility of a John Wayne—we have a choice of either role. (After all, the inside of the house is dark, so dark: if we choose its comforts, we have to take the abyss along with them.)

2. The American (male) myth demands the building of the home; but it demands also the outsider who comes and goes as he pleases, who can’t (won’t) go home again. The American male is divided in two and both parts can be defined in relation to that building. One part, one role, is that of husband/father who builds a house for self and family; this act of building comes out of his essence, out of his name, this is an act of building-from-within. Once the house is built, the husband/father can take it for granted and turn his attention to the people inside. But to preserve that house, or to raise it again once it’s been destroyed, requires an act of building-from-without, an act that comes not only from necessity and fact, but also out of will and abstraction. The other American-male role, then, is that of architect: his desire goes beyond building a house for himself and his own but, instead, to build any house, to building all houses. In so doing, the American architect subverts the role of the American husband/father, who is seen as a sissy, a stay-at-home. The American architect’s mission is to build a home for others, a home for women, a prison for women. Once the woman is brought home, the American architect is free to go back out and hunt for more women and put them in place, the places that he will build. The American architect is allowed to go out and be, at one time in history, a pioneer, and at another time, a swinging single.

3. Sooner or later, the child has to leave the home. The way to leave that home is through sex: sex means leaving the home, leaving the family. But the American house is a fragile structure; unlike its European counterpart, which is embedded in centuries of history, the American house rests on recently laid formations. The American fear is: if you leave the house, the house might disappear. So the American is in a double bind. In order to save the house, the American has to stay at home. But in order to save the self, in order to grow up, the American has to leave home.

The resolution of this contradiction is incest; incest is sex without having to leave the home. But mother-son sex, or father-daughter sex, confirms the home too completely, provides a closure, pins down the male so that he can never get up again. Mother-son sex and father-daughter sex, though satisfying the need to maintain the home by staying at home, deny the male-myth need to be outside. So the most American version of incest (Melville, Faulkner) is brother-sister sex. Brother-sister sex keeps the show on the road: it allows the children to leave the home, as they must in order to grow up, while all the while carrying their own home (in the form of one another) with them as they go. Brother-sister sex is the prototype of the American mobile home.

One note of warning: brother-sister sex theoretically grants mobility to both parties. But in the end, brother-sister sex restricts the female. Though the sister is rebelling against the father—by rejecting him in favor of the brother—sooner or later she’ll end up seeing that brother as the spitting image of the father, so she’s been subjugated to that father all along. So if the woman stays at home as daughter, inside the fixed home, she’s stuck; if she moves away as sister, inside the mobile home, she’s carried.

4. Let me tell you a story; more precisely, let me tell you a dream, a dream from sometime in the mid ’70s. There’s a large set of steps, stone steps, so long you can’t see the ends of them, steps of grandeur, steps as if up to a palace, the steps of a Cecil B. De Mille movie. The dream is shot in long t, but at the same time that I’m seeing the scene from afar I’m shoved right into the middle of it, I’m climbing up the steps. I’m struggling up the steps: at each step there’s a small band of toy soldiers fighting to stop me, to keep me down. They’re tiny toy soldiers (this is how I see them in long shot), but each has the strength of ten men (this is how I feel them in close-up). Okay; they’re strong; but I’m winning anyway. At each step, I make my way through them, I push the soldiers away and climb higher. When I push each soldier off me, the soldier falls—now there’s a definite cut from close-up to long shot—I see the steps in side elevation, each toy soldier (small and barely visible in relation to the steps) falls off his step in a slow, graceful arc, the arc is visible, the arc has a sound, too, the sound of wind inside a room. Finally, exhausted, I reach sky the is white. . The Resting is on an the empty ground plain: : the three vast black ground and white is gray photographs and concretelike, aged but photographs probably , natural; the together, like pictures on the mantel of a grandmother’s fireplace, but as large as a person, as large as me. Pictures of people who must be larger than me, since they show only torso and face: a photo of Marx, a photo of Darwin, a photo of Wagner. The eyes of one of them (I can’t remember which) turns to the others, like the eyes of a statue in a Cocteau movie, and that one says, “Isn’t it absurd of Vito Acconci to spend all that time avoiding the House of Torment only to arrive here at the House of Torture?”

5. A first-person narrative begins at home, comes out of the home. The reader, in the closure or herself in the first-person narrator’s place (inside that narrator’s house) or comes face-to-face with that narrator (as if one half of a couple, as if in a marriage). A third-person narrator, on the other hand, allows the reader to travel: the reader views the people and events in the narrative from afar, the reader skims over things without having to be embedded in them.

The mystery novel is the exemplar of the first-person narrative: the talking detective talks himself (herself? usually not) into existence, goes on talking until that metaphor makes a place to put the self in, talks in circles so that a plot might thicken. The mystery novel never leaves home, it goes down into the basement and finds the skeletons in the closet; the mystery novel goes from the present into the past.

The science-fiction novel, on the other hand, is the exemplar of the third-person narrative: the narrator doesn’t have a home, the narrator is only a visitor in foreign (alien) places—places, things, and persons are seen at a distance, as objects to be examined and studied. This laboratorylike observation allows for the free play of remixture and reorganization; committed to no home and no family and no love, the third-person narrator goes from the present into the future.

6. Before I work in an art context, I wrote poetry. My first art pieces were activities in the street. Through these excursions into the street, I was trying to leave home, a home shaped by the contact between writing person and desktop, through means of paper and pen and defined by the boundaries of light. Looking down at the sheet of paper on a desk is analogous to looking down at the plan of a house; going out into the street a way of literally breaking the margins, breaking out of the house and leaving the paper behind. After a few months of street pieces, however, I started doing pieces with my own body: I concentrated on myself, I worked on my own person. It was as if I had left home too quickly, as if I was afraid I would be lost out in the streets: I had to come back home—whatever work I would do as an artist had to begin with what I could assume I knew at least something about. (Had to begin with my own body, had to begin at home.)

7. My generation instituted an age of promiscuity: we used whatever materials were conveniently available, we switched media at will, we worked on the spot in different sites. The reemergence of painting after the mid ’70s represented and confirmed a return to monogamy. Painting was a last gasp of the self, a last-ditch attempt to believe in the existence of the self, a self that could then commit itself to things (consistent materials) and to other selves (persons who would take the time to stand in front of a painting, the time to mentally go through the painting). Painting was a way to connect yourself with what you were doing. (Inevitably, the person who paints gets some paint on himself/herself—that paint is like the sperm that consummates a marriage contract.) And once you and yours were connected, you were out of the reach of others: once the painting was hung in a gallery or museum, it couldn’t be touched.

What painting did for the rest of us, who didn’t paint, was to provide a scare, or at least a reminder, a reminder as ominous as Pascal’s wager: we might not believe that the self existed, but what if it did? If it did, we had a lot to lose—we’d lose the self we didn’t even know we had. So we might as well act as if we believed that the self existed. In order to prove, to ourselves and to others, that we believed, we would swear fidelity to something or someone else.

8. The home is made up of talk; the foundation and maintenance of the home depends on a group of people who all believe in a self that is expressed by voice. The home survives on a mixture of voices, each of which can be heard and responded to by the other people who, once they hear, know they are not alone in the house. The people in a house talk themselves into a corner that they can then call home. Family talk can’t be allowed out of the house; if a voice escapes, the family becomes confused; it no longer knows where it is, the home opens out into the street and becomes confused with the street.

Considered from the outside, then, the house that remains a home is silent. If an outsider hears a voice from inside the house, the home becomes all too familiar, all too human, the outsider who overhears recognizes the owner of the voice as one of his or her own kind. The outsider feels at home and has a way in; the barriers of the home are broken. Considered from the outside, the house that remains a home should be seen and not heard, should only be seen, and therefore desired. Whereas the house talks within, it writes without; outside, the house displays its public image, its facade. This writing is public and can be shared with outsiders, while the talk inside is private and can’t be. But the house as writing presents itself as a page, a wall, a flat plane that acts as armor. Talk, on the other hand, welcomes the outsider inside the body of each member of the home: once the house talks, it’s opened inside-out.

9. Some recent public places, sometimes called “art,” look like houses. But they don’t have all the functional parts of a house (plumbing, electricity, etc.), or, if they do, though they have the appearance of private houses, they are publicly owned and available for public use. These are houses meant not so much for living in as for passing through. Some of us who make these places have chosen the house as a prototype because it is familiar to people and is thus less likely to be met with resistance as “art.” So the house can be used as a place for social interaction and an occasion for cultural reconsideration.

This dependence on the form of the house, however, might betray, in the middle of what’s meant to be a public realm, the art-doer’s desire to withdraw into privacy. The art-doer’s construction of a house might reveal a desire to domesticate the environment: to fill the world with tiny houses, even if those houses aren’t needed to live in. The implication is, then, that the public realm is too large to be addressed, that the flaws in the social/economic/political system are so out of control that the only thing to do is to give up and go back home. On the other hand, what could be seen as retreat might in fact be a reapproach through a collision of conventions. Our insistence on the form of the house might be a way to insert, inside the public realm, inside the world of courthouse and town square, a world that by convention has been considered male, to insert inside that world a region that has been considered by convention female. (Think of the wife/mother in Joe Dante’s Gremlins attacking the little monster while shouting, “Get out of my kitchen!”) The sprouting of tiny multiuse houses all over public space is the introduction of intimate distance into a world where only public and social distances have been permitted; this emergence of houses (make-believe houses, half-houses, substitute houses) is like fucking in the streets, like an orgy in the middle of a town meeting. Inside the house are hallways, attics, basements; places where secrets can fester and bombs can be planted.

10. You read the book before going to sleep, then you turn out the light. The lights go out—we’re in a different room now, not a bedroom but a theater—and the movie begins. The book, enclosed within its covers, is like a house; the reader who opens the book opens the house, but can only look on the rooms within from the outside, as if looking at a model. The movie is on the wall, the wall of a house that is, at the same time, the projection of a landscape; the viewer can’t get through the wall, can only stand outside and look, as if the wall were a picture-window. The viewer can’t travel through the landscape, can only look at it off in the distance like a billboard. The book is written in a language that everybody knows, everybody shares, but the book can be read only by one person at a time. The movie theater can be occupied by many people at the same time, but this public place is dark, like the dark each single person sleeps in, the viewer sleeps in public. The book is, physically, smaller than life; the movie is too large for life.

The book and the movie provide a theory, a scenario, and an image of public action. But the closure of the book within its covers, the confinement of the movie to the wall, the privacy of movie-viewing and book-reading—all this contradicts public action, stops public action before it can begin, puts off public action to an unspecified future. Public art, architecture, public action, all feed off the influence of books and movies—but as long as you don’t put the book down, as long as you choose to see the movie again and again, the book and the movie function as surrogates, making public behavior unnecessary. Only when the book is closed, only when the movie is over, can public art/architecture/public action begin. The goal of public art/architecture/public action might be: to obviate the need for books and movies, to include what used to be the domain of books and movies within the experience of public space, to nurture beings who live out books and movies of their own, on their own, and with each other.

Vito Acconci, 1988