PRINT September 2017


Vito Acconci

Cover of Avalanche 6 (Fall 1972). Vito Acconci.

I FIRST MET VITO ACCONCI sometime late in the year 2000. By happenstance, a couple of local galleries had organized secondary-market exhibitions of his performance photography from the 1970s, and as a young writer then working for Time Out New York, I thought of going directly to the artist for comment. Acconci had recently forgone—or lost, depending on whom you asked—all gallery representation, having publicly declared his departure from the field of art for the disciplines of architecture and design. In light of such bold pronouncements (perhaps, I surmised, a polemical holdover from his youthful days as a poet studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), I was a little surprised to get Acconci himself on the phone when I blindly called his DUMBO studio. And I was struck all the more when he promptly invited me over, giving hours of his time to speak about his work with someone he’d just met and who, as far as art writing went, had next to no experience at all.

When asked about it, Acconci was openly ambivalent about the fact that exhibitions of his photographs were taking place. True to standardized histories of the early 1970s, the photograph, for him, remained merely a document of the work and, equally important, was a fundamentally democratic medium, intended for the limitless distribution of information and ideas for all who would seek and receive them. As he said at the very outset of our conversation, he still kept many prints of the same pictures in a back room—and he’d be happy to give them to me. (Another sign of the novice: I didn’t take him up on it.) Looking back, such a stance might seem retrograde. After all, performance as commonly discussed in artistic circles today is rarely considered separately from questions of representation: When it comes to historical work, the circulated image is frequently understood to shape perceptions of the original performance; and among contemporary artists, performances are often fashioned to anticipate or incorporate their mediation, seeking to exploit distribution systems or else underline the tenuousness of presence in light of them. Yet in this vein, I can’t help but recall Acconci’s particular passion for design culture as it was taking shape at that cultural moment, belying potentially fraught relationships between (or separation of) performance and image. As he told me, one of his most important epiphanies at the turn of the millennium arose when he flipped through the pages of the newly minted Wallpaper* magazine, where, for the first time, a publication featured high-end reproductions of designed spaces with—and here he paused for a sense of gravity—people inhabiting them, using rooms and objects as they would in everyday life. For Acconci, this novel choreography of use in mass culture (a kind of representation in real life) was revolutionary. “In every other category of life, you can pick something up, turn it upside down, touch it, smell it,” he explained of his skepticism of art from his beginnings. “So my move toward architecture and design is a move toward something that’s accessible,” and, moreover, toward “something that slides through the world.” In other words, he would no longer take as his focal point a subject’s relationship to an object, or an audience member’s to a performer, or a figure to its reproduction. Indeed, he would not create any focal point at all, but would instead seek to recast the structures and settings making all those other relationships possible.

By articulating this shift in conversation, Acconci made plain his sense of an unfolding periodicity within his life, which, for me, he described best using the idioms of popular culture, more specifically, popular music. In his chronology, he began as an artist during the early ’70s listening to Van Morrison, whose single voice and long songs suggested time and space in which to wander and ruminate, to find oneself. Just a few years later, however, Acconci turned to punk, which resonated with how he “treated the exhibition space as a kind of town square, where my audiotaped voice called a town meeting to order.” But most recently, he’d decided that such music demanded too much focus. So he began listening to Tricky, whom he found alluring because one could no longer tell what was human and what was machine, where one began and the other ended. Eventually, he said, even that music possessed too much voice.

The entire time we spoke that first meeting—some four hours—Acconci rolled a single Gauloises cigarette between his forefinger and thumb. He was trying to quit. And in this act he seemed to display in his person all the qualities of his work: obsessive, both physiological and psychological, insinuating itself into the terms of social interaction. Yet today, again for me, that figure more suggests a marker of time passing and, further, a prompt for considering how Acconci is striking as an artist not of the past but, by virtue of his very departure and disappearance to other spheres, of the future—or better, of both, managing in his very person, and regardless of what his artistic or architectural output might have been, to hold times in relation. Perhaps most striking of all in this respect is Acconci’s assertion that he had never truly departed from the poetry of his youth, wherever he had gone in his work. Whether taking shape in performance, video, sculpture, architecture, or design, his endeavors sprang from an early recognition that the page itself was a kind of space. And if his innovation owed a debt to language, it was as a code through which he moved from platform to platform, inquiring how the place—and tenuous substance—of people had changed, and might be changed again. Such was the basis of his poems, which could consist of nothing but periods and commas. (I remember his mischievous eyes when discussing them years later at a Serpentine Gallery poetry marathon.) And it was, after all, the basis of his earliest works in art, including one whose title stays with me in particular, When the New Revolution Comes: at once a declaration and speculation, exhilarating and terrible, the subject of desire and dread, the stuff of knowledge and the unknowable, and realizing in a single phrase the amazing complexity and tension of a figure who throughout his life realized the very change he sought.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.