New York

Vito Acconci

Dia Center for the Arts

Realizing that, by any objective standard, a good rock band is better than most art, Vito Acconci made the obvious choice and called in a rock and roll band—the Mekons—for his portion of the Artists in Action project, a new addition to BAM’s annual “Next Wave Festival,” which enables visual artists (this year it was Acconci, Ilya Kabakov, Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel) to present works-in-progress for the stage. Of course, since Vito was given a largish quantity of someone else’s money to spend, he couldn’t reasonably be expected to just let the Mekons play a gig at Dia (which would have been an admirable gesture in its own right), he had to tinker with the experience somehow.

So the band members all stood on their own separate platforms—lead guitar, lead singer, bass, accordion, rhythm guitar, drums, each all alone—located behind the audience; the walls moved up and down, variously isolating and revealing the audience and band; six separate ceilings dropped (also variously isolating and revealing both band and audience); and everyone played their parts one at a time and in tandem. In a pit in the middle of set and crowd, techies ran things. Occasionally, the techies would tweak something, the lights would go out, and Vito’s voice would come up, spouting mock profundities (“Everybody stand still, everybody dance”) in a voice eerily reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s.

Consequently, along the way to simply playing a simple song, Vito Acconci and the Mekons’ primo Theater Project for a Rock Band, 1995, managed to answer a few questions that you may or may not have known you had about rock and roll. Those being: 1) What if the Marquis de Sade had been able to stage rock shows (besides Gwar shows, I mean)? 2)What would it be like if they let Robert Wilson stage rock concerts? And 3) Did Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, 1969, ever have a positive influence on anyone?

But still, it’s not like it was an easy ride getting there. Actually, it was kind of dull—occasionally titillating, but dull just the same. It just went on and on, slight variation here and there, but not much, repetition to the point of a hypnotic boredom. You could see it in the faces of the crowd around you: everyone slowly sliding into their own little groove, heads bobbing in time to some internal beat. It was as if Acconci had been reading Sade and decided that numbing repetition was a necessary precondition to reception. Except that, unlike Sade, Acconci isn’t really into perfecting torture for its own sake; you could tell when the singers sang “This is the simulation of a song/Isn’t that cruel” and everyone laughed.

Early on, Acconci made a career out of performing mundane/magical gestures (masturbating, hair pulling, secret telling) over and over again, until they finally took on the qualities of enigmas. Robert Wilson, it could reasonably be argued, has made a career out of doing essentially the same thing, only from the other side. That is, in his work, people perform enigmatic gestures over and over again until they start to seem mundane, until you finally realize that the enigma is everywhere, all the time. Which is essentially what happens here: you come in, sit down, and while the walls slide round, someone you can no longer see plays what might be a snatch of a song. This happens over and over again, sometimes with voices, sometimes with other instruments, interrupted only by silence and darkness and a voice murmuring vaguely threatening things.

And when the whole thing finally breaks, it’s almost magic: a band, a roomful of people, coming together in a song, for God’s sake, an actual rock and roll song, the kind you sing along to at the end of the night. It happens everyday, all the time; it happens in bars and garages and dance halls and stadiums all over the world, nothing more common. Except that now, you realize that it was never really mundane, you realize that what happens all the time was an enigma all along.

As far as the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida thing goes, you’d have to say maybe—probably. Yes. I mean, I can’t swear that Acconci was influenced by it, but at the same time, you have to think he was. After all, anyone who grew up in the ’60s had to have heard Iron Butterfly’s drug-addled epic, just like anyone who decided to make an ordinary rock song stretch out for 45 minutes had to have thought about it. At least in passing.

Mark Van de Walle