Revolution is Sneakier: Conversation with Vito Acconci

The recent touring exhibition “Acts of Architecture,” curated by Dean Sobel and Margaret Andera, focused on Vito Acconci’s work since the 1980s, in particular the public art projects of Acconci Studio. It also included his sculptures, which function as furniture or architecture. These highly eclectic pieces, such as Convertible Clam Shelter (1990), often become complete interactive environments with audio components. The accompanying catalogue features Acconci’s public art proposals, as well as completed projects for a broad array of public spaces.

Screens for a Walkway, Shibuya Station, Tokyo, 2000. Mirrored steel, polycarbonate, and light, 15 x 15 x 60 meters.

While Acconci continues to exhibit in galleries and museums, he has devoted most of his recent career to re-envisioning public spaces. These proposals include Garbage City (1999), a theoretical project for the Hiriya Garbage Dump in Tel-Aviv that uses solar panels, crops, and gas-processing equipment, in addition to the more usual concrete, steel, glass, light, and water. Acconci also re-envisions interior spaces, as in the Design Shop for MAK, the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna, in which the store is organized by a series of rings, each rotating in an opposite direction. Together with his studio of architects, Acconci continues to ask questions and provide highly innovative answers.

Anne Barclay Morgan: What propelled your trajectory from video to furniture to public art and architecture?

Vito Acconci: I never think about the start of it as video; it was writing. My background was not in architecture or art, but in fiction and poetry. When I was writing, what interested me was the space of a page, how you move from left margin to right margin, how you turn from one page to the next. I treated the page as a kind of field over which I, as writer, traveled, just as you, the reader, traveled. Once I realized I was so interested in movement, it seemed unnecessary to restrict that movement to an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper. There is a whole world out there or at least a street. So stuff entered a so-called “art context” at the end of the ’60s. Art seemed to have no inherent characteristics of its own, except for the fact that it was called “art.” In other words, art was a field into which you could import from psychology, sociology and politics. I used to know what my ground was—this piece of paper in front of me. Now I didn’t have that ground anymore; now I was in real space.

Instant House, 1980. Flags, wood, springs, ropes, and pulleys, installation view.

I started by taking a system that already existed in the world and tried to tie myself into it: if there was a person walking on the street, I would follow that person. Decisions of time and space were out of my hands; I became dragged along by another person. It became obvious that if I was to go on using my own person in pieces, the pieces had to be about person-ness, they had to be about the self, the development of the self, the question of self, or maybe the destruction of the self. The pieces started to become somewhat circular: I start an action, I end this action. Many were done in film, rather than video tape, because what interested in me in film was that a camera could be set up in front of me, so I am the target of the camera. In turn, I can do what the camera is doing, I can use myself as a target, I can focus in on myself, I can concentrate on myself, I can do something to myself, apply some physical stress to my body. The body can change or adapt according to that stress, the notion of a person, the development of the person, the changing of the person. That set up a self-reliance. I only had myself to work with. I didn’t need anything else. Maybe I needed a match to burn myself, but apart from that I didn’t need much else. I didn’t need other people, but that became a problem. I thought that if I applied some stress to my body, if I made myself vulnerable, maybe the viewer would have more of an approach toward me. But that didn’t happen at all, the opposite happened. If I start an action, that action is in me, I am setting myself up in a closed circle. The viewer is outside.

I wanted some occasion in which my space and the viewer’s space coincided. The performance piece Claim (1971) made me think of art as an exchange, an occasion of meeting, a place where the person in the role of artist comes face to face with the person in the role of viewer. But it bothered me that I was a still point, viewers had to come toward me. This confirmed an art world hierarchy: viewers have to struggle in order to get to the art; viewers had to struggle in order to get to me. It seemed that everything I disliked about art—art as religion, artwork as altar, artist as priest—was enhanced or confirmed by my work. There had to be a way out. My problem was one of focus: as soon as viewers entered a space the focus was on me. What if I tried to disappear into the space? Rather than being a point in the room, I could be a part of it. I could become part of the architecture. Seedbed (1972) raised the question: If I am not seen in a space, do I have to be there at all? I started to wonder if my work was so involved in notions of self. It was no longer the ’60s, and I and a lot of people had very different notions of self. Self didn’t exist unless it was part of a social system, a cultural system, a political system.

Multi-Bed No. 4, 1991. Galvanized steel, nylon, Plexiglas, fluorescent light, cable, mirrors, and winches, installation view.

By the mid-’70s I wasn’t involved with pieces anymore, stuff became installations. Now, “installation” probably means something else. Then, a lot of us used it because we knew no other word. It meant something that was not as definable as a sculpture. For me, it was trying to fit out the already given exhibition space. My installations involved audio and some kind of furniture—I don’t know that I would have even used that word at the time, but there were certainly places where people could come in and sit down. In ’76, ’77, ’78, I was using a gallery or museum space as if it were a plaza or town square, a place where people are together anyway. Now that they are here, could a piece be used to form a community, bring a community together? I had this nagging doubt about pretending a gallery or museum is a town square. It is not; it is a gallery or a museum. If I really want a town square or a plaza so badly, I can’t pretend all my life. Sooner or later I better go there. I didn’t quite know how. So, after those installations or sound pieces, I worried that my viewers weren’t doing much beyond sitting. I started thinking that if I made my viewers listen to something, maybe I was also making them neurotic in the sense that there was nothing they could take their anger and frustration out on—they could only listen. I wanted people to be more a part of the piece. In the beginning of the ’80s, a number of pieces were designed almost as self-erecting architecture: a person sits in a swing, it turns into a house; a person sits on a bicycle, it forms a kind of house. It started to occur to me that I didn’t like the field I was in.

ABM: Why was that?

Adjustable Wall Bra, 1990–91. Steel, lathe, plaster, cable, lights, and audio, installation view.

VA: I started doing art because I hated art. I started doing art because of a resentment against the “do not touch” signs in museums, because it seems that in every other field of life, when you come upon something for the first time, you pick it up, you touch it, you taste it. In art, the viewer stands here and the art is there. You are always in a position of desire and hence a position of frustration. Why aren’t you supposed to touch it? It is worth more money than you’ll ever know, it is more expensive than you. With those pieces in the early ’80s, the swing becomes a house, it became clearer and clearer that I was trying to re-invent the wheel, to re-invent architecture, to discover for myself what architecture could be. Could human use, could human instrumentation make a building? I was obsessed with the notion that four people standing in a square could become the living columns of a roof, of a house. In the mid-’80s, there was some reaction against the self-erecting architecture, which made demonstrations of building a house but didn’t leave any remaining space, a house to be in. By then, I was more interested in the space that remained. Such a space shouldn’t be in a gallery or museum, because the gallery/museum is already a house. There is no reason to make another inside. So if you want to make a house or something like a house, it should be on the street or in the park.

By that time, I realized that my stuff wasn’t art anymore and didn’t depend on art conventions. It seemed to want function. I am not sure if art is ever so happy with function. Also, art depends on the notion of the viewer: a person enters a gallery/museum space and, in effect, announces him/herself as an art viewer and, by extension, separates him/herself from all those others out there who don’t happen to be art viewers.

Courtyard in the Wind, 1997–2000. Pavement, grass, trees, benches, steel, motors, and wind turbine, 13 x 95 x 105 meters.

I don’t know that I like the idea of a viewer. I think I prefer the idea of a passerby. Someone who hasn’t come specifically for art. You happen to be walking on a street where many things are happening and for some reason you happen to go through this one. It seemed that the passerby existed in a public space and not in a gallery/museum space. If I was going to do something in a public space, I had to come to terms with the fact that architecture and landscape already dealt with public spaces. If I wanted stuff to be in public spaces, I had to start working the way architects work. I needed people to work with, because I didn’t have any particular skills. Can’t draw, can’t build. Luckily, the year before my stuff appeared, words such as “Conceptual Art” were first being used. If it wasn’t for that, I would have had nothing to do. Suddenly, with conceptual art, there was a place for me. The idea was only possible when the means to carry out that idea were there. If you work on something private, it ends private. If you want to work on something public, it has to begin at least quasi-public.

Bicycle Parking Lot and Guardhouse, 2000. Steel, polycarbonate, and light, 18 x 52 x 52 ft. Project created for The Hague.

ABM: You needed a crowd.

VA: By the end of the ’80s I thought the work shouldn’t come from Vito Acconci anymore. It should come from a studio of people. Vito Acconci Studio has been in existence since 1988, with a number of people, four of them architects, plus me. We work very much on projects together. I might start off a project with a general idea, a vague theory. I might be asked to see a space. I come home with slides and vague thoughts, and then we start to talk, or we work together. I don’t think the projects we have done over the years would have been the same if they had come just from me. For me, the studio has worked best when it is has been a mix of thinkers, when there is a mix of genders, nationalities, and ages to mess things up. The studio has maybe two or three people who have been there for four or five years, and then some newer people. Everybody who works in the studio thinks of their own work as architecture, except for one person with an art background who certainly thinks of his work as art. I do too; I am not officially an architect. We mostly get so-called public art projects, rather than architecture projects. You are asked to do the piece in front of the architecture or to the side of the architecture. Sometimes that position gives you an advantage because they don’t take your work as seriously as the architecture, so you can get away with more. At the same time you are always doing something where the function has already been dealt with—you add the extra.

ABM: The embellishment.

VA: Yeah, yeah. We try to be semi-architectural, but often we can’t give people more than a place to sit down. I don’t know if that is enough. You have to get up sooner or later. Lately things are changing.

ABM: In what way?

VA: We have been asked to do some projects, mostly in Europe and Asia, that seem more like real architecture projects. We are doing an island in Graz.

ABM: Your proposal called Island on the Mur as described in the catalogue sounds like a wonderful idea. So you are actually making this?

VA: Yes. As you know, until construction starts, you have to have some hesitancy. Construction drawings are being done now. It is supposed to be built in 2003. It is meant to function as a theater, a café, and a playground. We have also been asked to design the museum shop for the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna. They are excited about doing it but don’t have the money yet.

ABM: Your exhibition “The City Inside Us” in 1993 at the Museum of Applied Art was quite extraordinary.

Light Beams for a Transfer Corridor, 2001. Light, acrylic, steel, sheetrock, and telephones, 16 x 20 x 192 ft. Project created for the San Francisco Airport.

VA: That project meant a lot for us. We started thinking in terms of not adding too much in order to make the space. Maybe you can turn it inside out, maybe you can turn it upside down. The only reason that project existed was because of Peter Növer, the director of the museum. The museum had been closed for renovation for three years. Peter has such an image of himself as the bad boy—the idea of re-opening with the museum turned on its side was so perfect for him.

ABM: For architectural interventions, would you pick predominantly historical sites or modern spaces?

VA: Probably modern spaces, only because I feel I have a kinship with them. The spaces I love to be in are modern. Not that I ignore the old spaces, but I always feel like this is a different time. I need to be here, now. The place remains, but the culture doesn’t. I feel much more comfortable if I am in a place where the culture and the place coincide. I am a city person. I like to walk through cities, which few people do in the U.S. You drive. Our first goal is to come up with some kind of idea or theory of the space. If we get excited enough, maybe we can convince one other person. We tend to work a long time on projects because we want each one to have a logic of its own connected with the activity in the building, the use of the building. These places are occasions for people, their interactions and activities—some shape, some form must exist that presents the potential for some relation, some inter-relation that might not have existed before.

Island on the Mur II, 2001. Steel, polycarbonate, water, and light, 5.5 x 75 x 75 meters. Proposed project for Graz.

I have no idea what public space is or what public space should be at the beginning of the 21st century. With regard to public, well, the most I can say is that increasingly it is a composite of privates. When Peter Schjeldahl wrote for the Village Voice, he commented that I make spaces where large groups of people gather to be totally alone. I don’t think he was so far off. Public space isn’t a piazza anymore. I don’t think public activity exists. I was grounded in the ’60s notion of public space—where discussion occurs, argument occurs, and then the revolution happens. I don’t really believe that anymore. The revolution is sneakier than that, and it probably happens with billions of people, each withdrawing to a home computer and cell phone. I have a feeling that “public” has become a mix of capsules, which is why there are a lot of cities such as Miami and L.A. that I don’t understand, even though they fascinate me. Everyone says it is all about private spaces because everyone is in their own car. But those millions of capsules are going to make public space, though I am not sure exactly how.

ABM: You bring humor to your work—is humor a way to link the private and public spheres?

VA: Possibly. I think humor has been part of my work for a long time, because I hate the kinds of things in which the viewer or experiencer is meant to be drawn in and numbed by something, so that you have to believe. I don’t like spaces that make you feel awe. Going to Catholic schools from kindergarten to college convinced me that I don’t want awe anymore. Humor gives me a chance to have second thoughts, to reconsider. You don’t have to be numbed by something, you can draw back. Laughing means you’ve reconsidered. Humor allows subordinate clauses and parentheses, allows you to see things in two or three different ways. Things are pretty difficult now. Is there a public or private? There is a mix, a fluidity, a blending, and the humor allows you to have both sides.

View of the MAK Design Shop, 2001. Steel, acrylic panels, light, and motors, 20 x 36 x 80 ft. CAD project renderings.

ABM: Another thing is the question of flexibility versus control in your work; for example, the Convertible Clam Shelter in six different configurations.

VA: It is a supermarket freedom. People can put it in different positions, but there may be only seven or eight. There is a limit. People should be making these decisions themselves. Why are we even designing them? Is design an inherently totalitarian thing? In some ways, you are saying “sit here” or “sit this way.” I have a love/hate relationship with that. I love the idea of finding different ways or different ideas of use, but at the same time, we are imposing these ideas on the world. We could put in as much changeability as possible, but we are still making the rules of changeability. I suppose a person can always not observe that by breaking or destroying it. There has got to be another way.

ABM: What about the use of sound? Sound becomes its own architecture in many of your furniture pieces.

VA: I used sound in all my installations, but I have never found a way to use it in a public project and I am not sure why. I think there are many more possibilities now for having sound—you don’t have to have so much maintenance. For me, sound was much more of an inroad for architecture than sculpture was, because both sound and architecture are structures in a surrounding structure, ambient structures and environments, whereas I don’t really think sculpture can ever really be an environment. Something has to differentiate sculpture and architecture or they wouldn’t be two different words. We tend to listen to music a lot in the studio. Music has been really important to my work through the years. I always thought vocal music was important, but now I think it demands too much attention. I want music to be a surrounding: not so much to disappear, but to be there while you do other things. I like sound that is wallpaper; I want music to be insinuations. A space can be a surrounding, it doesn’t have to be a container. There is some place to break out, live through, revise. I wish we could have spaces we could revise more. We have to assume that cities change. So shouldn’t this change too? You design something and then five or six years later it is built. When we design something, we can conjecture what might be right for this particular place for this particular time. But what about six years later?

View of the MAK Design Shop, 2001. Steel, acrylic panels, light, and motors, 20 x 36 x 80 ft. CAD project renderings.

ABM: How do you expect public space and your own projects to evolve at the first of the new millennium?

VA: We have to stop doing public art and start doing architecture projects, because we don’t have enough to do in public art projects. We work best when we have different kinds of programs, when we are asked to provide different functions. I’m thinking of entering one or two open architectural competitions. But you were asking a broader question. In the 21st century, there has to be a totally movable architecture. I don’t think things are going to stand still. There won’t always be places you go to, but rather places you take with you. It seems inevitable and enviable. I love the idea of an architecture that can move. Movable architecture and portable, movable people will continue what has already happened in the 20th century, a blending of nationalities. Walking around Miami, it is so clear. What race is a particular person? It is almost not a question anymore. That has to be a sign of more movement, more portability, fewer boundaries, whether of country or race, and architecture is following that, becoming fluid, an architecture of clothing.

ABM: Would you tell young artists interested in the public sphere to study architecture?

VA: I would love to tell them that, but so many people have been squelched by architecture school. Of course, there are different architecture schools—two of the people at the studio went to Columbia, and I don’t think they got squelched at all. Columbia, at least for now, sees architecture as a form of thinking and not necessarily as a form of building. I would strongly advise this person to wonder whether he/she should be doing something in an art context. I sometimes wonder if art is something that lets you get away with things that people in other fields can’t. You can say that it is not really architecture, but if it looks like architecture it should act like architecture: if someone sits in this, it better not fall apart.

Klein Bottle Playground, 2000. Molded polycarbonate, 4 x 4 x 6 meters. CAD project rendering.

I sometimes think that art gives you the luxury of acting like a spoiled child. I love the idea of art as an activity or attitude. I wonder if it should remain a separate career. Can’t there be an art attitude whether you are doing architecture, physics, or design? Does it really need to be a field unto itself? Wouldn’t it be better if it was an occasion? It would be so much freer. Once art becomes a career in itself, it becomes a closed system. Obviously all systems are closed, but art seems to be particularly closed and self-protective. It has its own dealers, its own critics, its own doers. Art is particularly disturbing because I can’t think of any other field whose name also glorifies it. Say something is architecture. Now you have to decide whether it is good or bad architecture. Once you say something is art, you are already saying it is good. Of course, some in the art context would say that there is good art and bad art. But if you call this a work of art, you already are ascribing value to it. Something is dangerous about a profession that already has its own values inscribed. You have to earn value. For my generation, it was very important for us to try to talk about what we were doing. We wanted to think of art as an activity, art as an organizational system. It can’t be religion. If you make an attempt to talk about every other human activity, you can talk about art. People who go to architecture school are forced to defend what they present. They are forced to give reasons, while artists are given the luxury to say, “I don’t know.” I only mean about the artist’s intention. If I talk about my work I can’t talk about my work, and what it ultimately means, because the meaning changes and another person has just as much privilege as I do. But in regard to intentions, I probably know more than any other person knows, because I have the intentions. Artists should be at least willing to talk about their intentions. The notion of art has really bred a kind of spoiled child. And arrogance.

Anne Barclay Morgan, a frequent contributor to Sculpture, is a writer based in Florida