New York

Vito Acconci

The Clocktower

A promotional catalogue recently published by Jane Crawford on art performances and projects includes gemlike paragraphs written by the artists about their own work. Vito Acconci describes his plans as “. . . installations designed to fit a specific physical space that, then is tied into an over all geographical/historical/political space that, in turn, becomes the occasion for revealing myself and my (cultural) origins as an instigator.” Despite my general distrust of intent as a valid measure of any sort of product, Acconci’s recent Clocktower installation Cry, Baby! is so faithful a manifestation of his aims that I find it a pleasure to work with that quotation as a critical reference (especially since the “that, then, and in turn” quality of the piece uproots easy delineation and one is grateful for any reference to return to).

The installation was stark; a continuous cable wound through the tower shutting tight or forcing open all doors and windows along its way. A heavy iron ball, visible through one of the windows, hung on the end of the cable, keeping it taut. This sinuous steel presence, along with some electrical wire, snaked in and out through the tower’s various levels, zipping up stairwells like a visible shiver running down one’s spine. It was punctuated by small metal boxes fabricated in the sensuous, craftsy industrial style of electricians. They were handmade speakers.

Acconci’s transistorized voice arose from the heavy metal cords, muffled but relentless, like that of a psychotic princess imprisoned in a tower. This installation is very much like industrial bondage, a tension restrained by stylized esthetics, the menace of which is distributed onto the architecture and, of course, into art. If we see this imagery as part of the overall geographical space of New York, the macho electrical embroidery becomes a psycho-sculptural metaphor for our city nerves. The cultural climate it deals with becomes clear as the audio gradually unfolds its rock-and-roll shadows in a suave and smutty symphony that points directly to its source, the new pulverizing stud rock of Punk.

The four speakers, positioned in each of the three main levels and on the spiral staircase, compose a real “musical song” out of their fragments set at certain precise distances in space and time. The audience climbs and mills around as the audio builds up zones and then blanks them out. Grids of meaning come in and out of focus as one follows the raunchy, gleeful quadrophonic lyrics from speaker to speaker. The first station has an upbeat, nasal baritone sneering out imperative verbs with a rigidity and rhyming which recall the meaty twists in the congugations of irregular verbs (“crawl, crack, smack; reek, rave, crave; beg, bleed, blow; lean, lie, die all about a baby who is mine, your’s who’s?”). This first level is like the bass line; it never lets up, and the other speakers ride this irresistible backing of word-barrage. One is drawn into the shtick whether one likes it or not.

These shouts of intimacy are fast, monotonous, acoustic permutations of a 1-2-3-4 geometric arrangement. The total manages to refer to the streamlined essentials of rock and roll as the Ramones play it—hard, fast and loud. The nightmare excursion unfolds further into a vortex of taboo racial put-downs and cheap detective-story-style dramatizations: “But now you’re alone/ Sombody must pay/Then they say: You’re the one (why me?)/No one has to know you have no past/You have no future/You don’t need a reason/It’s your problem/Get the glory.” The densely ironic text into which Acconci installs the attenuated, washed-out abstract of human relationships is a grotesque and beautiful form, a sort of ugly comedy on purity, deferred on grounds of sexual, racial and career opportunities. Acconci’s general role, that of a shady, paranoid character with a near-hysterical pessimism and a stubborn capacity for pain, in this piece evolves into the character of the lamentable winner who is confronted by the decay of all which he has won.

One of the strengths of the piece is Acconci’s full-scale use of pan-personal language. The first person singular of his earlier pieces suggested too much a total sickness, a demented entity vacillating between repulsion and seduction, and more vulnerable than the emperor in his new clothes. As he moves into the second person, things get active and begin to glow with a healthier aggression. When he arrives at the third person, his work begins to explode in terms of making that “new community meeting ground” he wishes so much to create. And his “we” actually reaches the standard of rascally mass communication, rock and roll. Acconci allowed himself the freedom of the rock-luster youth in his text, while the placement and rigorous internal orchestration of the piece places it in art’s firm hand. The piece is very proficient, and while it doesn’t lack the authentic energy it refers to, it contextually annihilates itself. His earlier work was organically embedded in the context-paradox of art; here the art presence is more subversive. While he leans toward the area of weird sin and flirts with the medium the art world cannot hold, Cry, Baby! remains an artificial masterpiece (in consideration of its overt rock backbone) in which Acconci with every word, with every contorted installational gesture, explodes in simultaneous glory and eradication.

Edit DeAk