interview by JEFF RIAN
portraits and pictures in Vito Acconci’s studio by ARI MARCOPOULOS
All art works courtesy of Acconci Studio
The icon of the New York underground art scene didn’t come from art but changed it forever.
JEFF RIAN — You began as a writer.
VITO ACCONCI — By the time I was in high school I realized this was what I wanted to do. But I don’t think any of this would have happened without my father. He didn’t go to school, so he taught himself. He constantly spoke in puns like, “What’s honeymoon salad?” The answer was, “Lettuce alone.” That was followed by: “Don’t look now, Mayonnaise is dressing.” I heard my father before the Marx brothers, who were totally about puns. In school, language made sense, then I heard my father and the Marx brothers totally explode it. Groucho is on a ship and a detective comes in the room, and asks, “How many are you in this room?” “Just one,” Groucho says, “Just me.” “But this table’s set for four,” says the detective. Groucho says, “That’s nothing, my alarm clock’s set for eight.”
JEFF RIAN — Were you a good student?
VITO ACCONCI — I always felt that I just wasn’t as smart as other people, so all I could do was work harder.
JEFF RIAN — But you always got the scholarship.
VITO ACCONCI — It might have started with Regis High School. I took a test and you had to be picked. There were about 80 kids in each class. I was consistently number three, and once was number two, but I was never number one.
JEFF RIAN — When did you start thinking about writing?
VITO ACCONCI — As a teenager I was obsessed with Faulkner — As I Lay Dying. I liked Flannery O’Connor. I never liked Salinger. I wrote in high school. At Holy Cross College I was co-editor of the literary quarterly, although two of our issues were suppressed because of stories of mine. One story began with a priest sitting on a sofa, and his sister is leaning over him with a box of chocolates, and he sees her gigantic breasts. They didn’t like it. I wrote a short story called “Run Around,” which began: “They cut him up. And since the chairs had just been varnished for the celebration, he was set down on the giant floor urn.” This was the first short story of mine that was accepted by a literary magazine. I wrote it before going to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
JEFF RIAN — Protestant country, the Bible Belt.
VITO ACCONCI — I had a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which I thought I would use to go to Yale Graduate School to study medieval English. Then I thought, if I go to Yale, Yale wins and I’ll become a bad academic.
JEFF RIAN — What was Iowa like?
VITO ACCONCI — Fiction workshops, poetry workshops. I free-translated 14 lines from classical Greek, turning them into three-and-a-half pages, in a kind of Ezra Pound style. John Clellon Holmes, a kind of academic member of the Beat Generation, was there and we became friends. I remember, the first semester, having coffee with a writing teacher — a then famous short-story writer named R. V. Cassill — who asked me, “Who’s your favorite writer?” This was not long after the film Last Year at Marienbad came out, and I’d been reading a lot of Robbe-Grillet, so I said, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He sipped his coffee and said, “I think Alain Robbe-Grillet is toilet paper.” They favored something different from me.
JEFF RIAN — When did you go back to New York? What did you do? Did you have a job?
VITO ACCONCI — Well, let me go back. I came back from Iowa in the summer of 1964. I was living on Christopher Street, in the West Village, between Bleecker and Bedford Streets. I was writing poetry. I didn’t know artists. I did little teaching jobs.
JEFF RIAN — But how did you go from writing to performance art?
VITO ACCONCI — When I was still in Iowa I remember seeing paintings by Jasper Johns in a newspaper or magazine — maybe the targets or numbers. I realized it had been done in 1955, and it was already 1964 and I had no idea about it. I knew something about art. But Jasper Johns really struck me. He used things that everybody knew — numbers, a flag, a target, letters of the alphabet. In New York I was also publishing a small magazine with Bernadette Mayer, called 0 To 9, whose title was inspired by Jasper Johns’ number paintings. We started in 1966 and stopped in ’69. We published New York poets, like John Perreault, Aram Saroyan, Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, Fluxus pieces, Dan Graham, and Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art.” We sent copies to writers and artists. I met Dan Graham because he’d seen a little poetry book of mine called Four Book. One of the last poems I wrote was from a page of a book on how to improve reading speed. The title was: “MOVE/MOVES (DOUBLE TIME): the time taken for me to walk from 7th Ave. and 17th St. (NE) to 6th Ave. and 17th St. (NW), June 30, 1969, beginning at 9 PM.” I wanted to make the reading of the page equivalent to the time it took to walk from one corner to the next corner. Then I started to think, I can’t write anymore. This has taken me to the actual world. The poet John Perreault, who I met and was living around the block from me, was writing art criticism and organizing performances. That’s when I started performances, or “art-doing,” as I liked to call it in 1969.
JEFF RIAN — Were the performances documented?
VITO ACCONCI — No one saw them. They were activities. I had to write them out, but I didn’t take any pictures. One of the first was to walk around a block on 5th Avenue, starting from 51st Street, walk on the inside of the block, go around the outside of the block, for three hours, thinking that someone was going to go into a store and come out thinking, “Haven’t I seen that guy before?” I don’t know if it happened. Then I realized they didn’t exist without photographs, certainly not in the art world. So all I had to do was have someone take a picture. Everybody’s following somebody.
JEFF RIAN — What was the first art place you showed in?
VITO ACCONCI — There was a gallery called John Gibson’s Projects for Commissions. It was early: 1970, maybe ’71. He showed Christo, Dennis Oppenheim, and Dan Graham, who introduced me to him. Gibson had some semblance of a vision. We didn’t want to hang stuff on walls. We wanted to do something else. We wanted something you could be in the middle of. I think it struck a lot of people of my generation that the old guard was fading away.
JEFF RIAN — What did you do at Gibson’s gallery?
VITO ACCONCI — In March of 1971 I put some photos and descriptions of projects on the walls at his gallery. I also did Untitled Project for Pier 17 during the show. Every night, at Pier 17, I would attempt to tell people something about me that they could not have known. It was the act of telling. At that time the piers were starting to disappear. Even before I did my piece, Willoughby Sharp had organized “Projects: Pier 18.”
JEFF RIAN — That was a famous exhibition.
VITO ACCONCI — They were documented. The photographers, Harry Shunk and Jean Kender — who were known in Europe for creating the famous photograph of Yves Klein jumping out a window — were shooting for Willoughby Sharp’s magazine, Avalanche.
JEFF RIAN — So now you’re in the art world.
VITO ACCONCI — It happened fast. There was talk — more than talk — of a new art gallery neighborhood opening in the fall of 1971 below Houston Street, in SoHo, as it’s called now but wasn’t back then. Paula Cooper was one of the first. She had a gallery on Wooster Street in 1970-71. Dan Graham had organized a night of movies and performances. When the performances began I was at 100th Street and Broadway, and started walking down Broadway. If I came upon a phone, I’d call the gallery and a person at the gallery would announce, “Vito Acconci is on 79th Street.” I was told that Yvonne Rainer said, “Tell him to get a cab!”
JEFF RIAN — It takes a minute to walk a north-south block…
VITO ACCONCI — People didn’t know me, but I kind of loved that piece — I knew it could tie into something else. It was a very specific time. Soon Leo Castelli opened on the second floor, at 420 West Broadway; his ex-wife, Ileana Sonnabend, was on the third floor — they were still very close friends; Dwan Gallery (the bastion of the new art — Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Land Art), which became John Weber Gallery, was on the fourth floor; and André Emmerich was on the fifth floor. Not long after the Gibson show, Ileana Sonnabend came to visit. Sometime later she said that she really knew about Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but now she was lost. She’d asked the photographers Shunk and Kender to give her a list of artists she should be thinking about. I don’t know if she lied, but she said I was the first name on the list, which had a lot of people on it. She went to see all of them, and she asked me to be in the gallery.
JEFF RIAN — Why did she ask those particular photographers?
VITO ACCONCI — I think Ileana saw Avalanche as something different from Artforum or Art News. One specific point was that Avalanche didn’t have writings by critics. They had the artist’s own words, or interviews. There was, to use my favorite word, an art-doer’s face on the cover. It looked different.
JEFF RIAN — Wasn’t your first show at Sonnabend when you did Seedbed? How did you get the idea?
VITO ACCONCI — That was in January 1972. In the fall of 1971, three months before my first show at Sonnabend, Gilbert and George performed there as singing sculptures, standing on a plinth, made up in gold or silver, singing all day. I didn’t want to be a person everybody looked at. I wanted to be an art-doer, not an art star like a person on stage. I wanted to do something that was public where nobody could see me. They knew what I was going to do.
JEFF RIAN — You told Ileana?
VITO ACCONCI — I think I told Antonio Homem, who called Ileana. She called me and said, “I heard you’re preparing to do something outrageous in my gallery.” I said, “I’m not doing it because it’s outrageous. I’m doing it because I want to take something that’s supposed to be private, and by putting it under a floor I’ll make it, or at least my voice, public.” And so she said, “Okay, carry on.” But she was smart. She knew there was going to be a lot of success. I did three live pieces, which I had to alternate: Seedbed, which was the whole eight-hour day for 18 days, Transference Zone, and Supply Room.
JEFF RIAN — Seedbed established a new artistic limit.
VITO ACCONCI — Seedbed might have made my career, but it also destroyed it, because nothing could live up to that, especially once you bring shock… People got to know me as someone who masturbated under a floor. During the show they could think that they heard me come, but I could have been faking it. One of the other two performances also went on all day, Transference Zone. It was this little booth, five feet by five feet, with two stools, and on the walls were seven photos of important people in my life. The door would be locked, so when anyone knocked I would let them in and react as if this person were one of those prime people, say my mother. Things from these seven people were also on the floor, so visitors had to walk on ties, jackets, etc. Supply Room was a space between, like a passageway, where I stood blindfolded behind a transparent green net. A prerecorded tape of Kathy Dillon’s voice played, while she actually played the drums: “Right now, in the corner, Vito is in the position of a prisoner… I want to enjoy that…” At the time there weren’t really walls because it was a “space,” and people thought art shouldn’t be on walls. That kind of thinking lasted for two or three years, because soon the galleries realized that if they were going to sell anything, it would be paintings. They said painting was dead only until they realized they had nothing to sell.
JEFF RIAN — What happened after that show?
VITO ACCONCI — Nothing. Artists probably thought, “I’m glad he did it, so now I don’t have to.” Most people in the United States didn’t think it was art at all. It was kids’ stuff. It did mean I started to have a lot of European shows. I was a cheap show. It was only me to ship over.
JEFF RIAN — Business is like that. Was there anything to sell at your show?
VITO ACCONCI — No. Ileana asked me to do things she could sell. Sometimes I made a kind of documentation, like photographs and writings. They didn’t sell that much. But they were giving me a stipend. I think it was like $1,000 a month, which was really a lot. But I didn’t realize that a stipend was a loan. Because when I left the gallery in 1980, she took work. Still, she’s the only one I really had respect for. I got an answering machine because of her. She’d be constantly calling, saying, “We need to have something to sell! We need to have something to sell!”
JEFF RIAN — Was the answering machine a filter?
VITO ACCONCI — No. I didn’t want to answer it. I had to think. And I started to wonder why I needed the gallery.
JEFF RIAN — How was it, being called an artist?
VITO ACCONCI — I never liked to use the word “artist.” I always liked to use the word “art-doer,” or “art-something.” I hated the word art, because art pre-approved of something. It’s the only category I know that comes with pre-approval. You say this person wrote a novel; this person wrote a short story. It’s just a field. In everyday language, you can see a beautiful woman and say, “Wow, she’s just like a work of art.” Art is spoiled because it becomes a term of praise.
JEFF RIAN — Did you want to create a different kind of experience?
VITO ACCONCI — Well, the idea of people going inside a gallery always seemed fake to me. I just didn’t trust it. I had no particular affection for people who went to galleries, which art turns into a kind of sacramental space. I can’t step on this because it’s a Carl Andre. I don’t think my stuff ever felt churchlike. There was never an altar. I wanted an art that you could be in, the way you’re in a city. I don’t care if they kick it.
JEFF RIAN — Your voice always attracted people. Maybe they interpreted your work differently, like music. That’s what happens with art.
VITO ACCONCI — That’s what they should do. But they should have other ideas, too. Music gets people together. But they’re paying attention to the musician. I don’t want people paying attention to me at all.
JEFF RIAN — But maybe it didn’t work out that way for you, especially after Seedbed, with the audiotapes and films. I think you’re best remembered for Following Piece and for the shows you did in the 1970s, like Why Are We Here, Where Are We Going, when going into a gallery could often be a total surprise.
VITO ACCONCI — That’s why I didn’t continue to do performance. Performance led to other things, but I couldn’t go on with that.
JEFF RIAN — Were those performances related to poems?
VITO ACCONCI — For me it came from poetry, and John Perreault was instrumental in organizing kinds of performances that people wouldn’t know were performances or that would be on a certain street at a certain hour. It also maybe came from Minimal Art, which came from dance.
JEFF RIAN — Dance?
VITO ACCONCI — Yeah. Minimal Art came from dancers like Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay… They danced ordinary movement. Dance became walking across a stage. It could have been the other way around, but I don’t think it was. Bob Morris was living with Yvonne Rainer, and he was starting to do performance, and at one point she forbade him to ever do a performance as long as she was with him.
JEFF RIAN — I always thought minimalism came from home building supplies.
VITO ACCONCI — It very possibly did. The idea of using things you could buy and not from an art supply store was important.
JEFF RIAN — Did you make pieces with your own money?
VITO ACCONCI — Someone other than me made everything. The gallery’s people constructed them. They made the floor for Seedbed, for example. But the piece that really got Ileana upset was in 1976, Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?). I had a ramp constructed that went out the window over the street. She had this mania that a young child was going to get on the stool and climb up on the ramp and run out the window and die. I think she came from Romania, and maybe they liked marching kids out of windows. But she was afraid — as were other people. It was November, and it was screwing up the heating system, so they closed the window.
JEFF RIAN — You also stuck ladders out the window.
VITO ACCONCI — That was at PS1 in 1979. I also made a swing at Sonnebend that started on the roof of the building and went inside and had pulleys that could be released, which she was definitely afraid of.
JEFF RIAN — Did she sell Where We Are We Now (Who Are We Anyway?)?
VITO ACCONCI — No. But she could have. Nobody believed they could be sold. I don’t think people thought of those pieces as art.
JEFF RIAN — What happened to all that work?
VITO ACCONCI — A lot was destroyed, even the ’80s projects, but not as many as from the ’70s. No gallery thought the installations were salable or my stuff was buyable. Galleries didn’t preserve the originals — except the Adjustable Wall Bra and the Convertible Clam Shelter, which was in 1987, when I was showing with Barbara Gladstone Gallery — she was all about selling. Ileana Sonnabend couldn’t sell performance art. I couldn’t afford to pay to get them back from galleries in Europe or outside of New York, either. I should have, because many were salable. I did a piece at The Kitchen in 1978 called VD Lives/TV Must Die, and years later, in 1997, the Guggenheim bought it. It was a weird piece for the Guggenheim to buy, because it depended on five columns, and they didn’t have columns, so they only put it up once. But ideally, I didn’t want to sell anything, I hated the idea.
JEFF RIAN — How did you live?
VITO ACCONCI — I’d got teaching jobs. And things were so cheap. Through the late 1960s into the early ’70s my three-room apartment on Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford was by far the most expensive apartment I’d ever had, and that was $92 a month. Only much later did I find a better way to do things. But so much was done in order for a piece to exist. If a piece had audiotape, I had pages and pages of audio text. That’s the stuff, I learned, that should be sold.
JEFF RIAN — When did you start making furniture pieces, with concrete and plants?
VITO ACCONCI — That was maybe ’83 or ’84. I started to think of architecture, and I thought the first step was furniture. Well, the first step toward architecture is clothing — the way the skin covers the bones, clothing covers the skin and bones — but I didn’t think that then. It was the next few steps that led me to architecture.
JEFF RIAN — Was the furniture — or even the Adjustable Wall Bra and Convertible Clam Shelter — a reaction to performance or simply looking for another way to get people involved?
VITO ACCONCI — I always had simple ideas, thinking about being a child or a baby. How would I see my world? The Clam and Bra were like that. Once a big clam is opened, a person can be sitting or lying down on one side. But you can have clams in different positions, so I tried to figure out many configurations.
JEFF RIAN — Were the furniture pieces sculptures?
VITO ACCONCI — No. But they were made as art. They were even sold in editions — seven for the Clam, and five for the Wall Bra — because of the different configurations. But I also thought I simply didn’t like art.
JEFF RIAN — Why’s that?
VITO ACCONCI — I could not stand “Do Not Touch” signs in museums. I wanted stuff to be for people. I didn’t want art to be only about looking. I made installations so that people could be in the middle of something, sit down, listen, and be involved. But gallery visitors were confused, because they were in a gallery. They’d ask if they could sit.
JEFF RIAN — You also made models and flags and masks. They’re pieces. That’s art, isn’t it?
VITO ACCONCI — There was one show about flags, and I followed the rules of folding a flag, and I called it US Flag (Retired). The masks were hung in a circle and you got inside. That was in the late 1980s.
JEFF RIAN — With the furniture pieces and all the way back to stories like “Run Around,” there’s an element of humor. You want to draw people in. Often you want them to sit down and maybe even amuse them.
VITO ACCONCI — Is sitting down a necessary human act?
JEFF RIAN — I don’t know, but art is the opposite of humor and sitting down. Museums are like subways: they don’t want people taking a nap. What are all the seats that began to crop up in the furniture and then continued in the architectural projects?
VITO ACCONCI — By the time I did stuff like that, which wasn’t before the ’80s, I wanted to work in architecture. After that I started Acconci Studio. It wasn’t about getting away from art, but I didn’t want to protect myself under the word “art.” As soon as I was doing furniture and public projects, I didn’t think my stuff had a place in an art gallery or in art. I made a point of that. Since then all works have been made by Acconci Studio.
JEFF RIAN — Who works with you at Acconci Studio?
VITO ACCONCI — Architects. In order to compete with other architecture I had to work with architects.
JEFF RIAN — Are they like partners?
VITO ACCONCI — Everybody is listed on each project. I’m usually first in the alphabet. I put V period, A period, and then everybody else’s name. I did projects under a different name: Acconci Studio.
JEFF RIAN — You were also one of the first artists — maybe the first — to make installations without objects to sell. Then you kept moving away from art, which, I think, set a precedent.
VITO ACCONCI — Once Acconci Studio started, there was no more Vito Acconci, except maybe a published essay or something like that. By then, too, I knew much more about architecture than I knew about art — because I paid more attention to it. I couldn’t name an artist that I was particularly interested in.
JEFF RIAN — You went against what is expected, first in art then in architecture, which is the toughest medium, because it’s more controlled by a public process.
VITO ACCONCI — That’s what I like about architecture. I want people to change it. Architecture’s lasted a long time for me, but I’m still not considered a designer or an architect. Though I don’t know where I’d go from architecture. Right now you can only have things a certain way. Maybe in the future people will be able to make the architecture they want. I don’t choose to do what we do. I’m asked to do something on a city street, such as a plaza. I can’t build an eight-story building. The largest budget we’ve ever had was for the Graz project, Mur Island, which was €6 million (about $9 million at the time). We’ve had three or four million-dollar budgets.
JEFF RIAN — You also refer to everything you do with the word “we.”
VITO ACCONCI — I always use the word “we.” There’s a reason. I don’t want what we do to come from just one person. It maybe took a while before the three, four, or five people working in the studio could come together to make a project — and I don’t know if it ever really came together. But there were at least three people making decisions. I don’t think any public space can be thought about and altered by one person alone. It has to be a conversation of at least three people — three, because two isn’t good, because someone always wins and loses. I want it to be group thinking, because if you’re doing public projects, it has to come from someone working with other people, from a studio of people. I’m interested in design, but alone I’m not a good designer. Nor can I invent a project, because I have to work in relationship with people.
JEFF RIAN — When involving the public, what are you after? To me your work offers a kind of friendly sanctuary — sometimes a place to sit down, but your architecture doesn’t necessarily derive from protection.
VITO ACCONCI — In public spaces, I want to lead to some kind of use. But when you create shelter or movement, it has to be outside a gallery or museum. A lot of people think that architecture began when people started to sit around a fire. That’s not about protection, but more making a community of people who might not even be able to stand each other. It’s also hard to make floors become ceilings.
VITO ACCONCI — In public spaces, I want to lead to some kind of use. But when you create shelter or movement, it has to be outside a gallery or museum. A lot of people think that architecture began when people started to sit around a fire. That’s not about protection, but more making a community of people who might not even be able to stand each other. It’s also hard to make floors become ceilings.
JEFF RIAN — Do you see the future in terms of materials?
VITO ACCONCI — In terms of structure — and time. Time makes things change. I think about a near future because of the way computer technology has both taken over and enraptured people’s minds. I also see a future when people aren’t thinking about flat planes and surfaces, but in terms of curves, and in terms of pixels or particles that are kept together by some form of big air. The material in Tokyo, for the United Bamboo store, was transparent, so that you could put lights inside. We used Corian, which is a hard material to use, in another work. It’s very heavy, very hard, and thicker than Formica. We did some research and realized that if you heat it, you can stretch it one-and-a-half to two times. That’s what I like about architecture. I want people to change it, but it weakens and can break.
JEFF RIAN — What are your favorite architecture pieces?
VITO ACCONCI — I like the Mur Island piece in Graz — it’s named after the Mur River — the United Bamboo store in Tokyo, and the Storefront in New York.
JEFF RIAN — Your work, whether in writing, art, or architecture, has always seemed to push against something. Do you work in relation to history?
VITO ACCONCI — I don’t know if I ever pushed against anything. And what seems possibly dominant now doesn’t seem to be history. That’s already been pushed against. When I was writing poetry I never cared about history. It never meant enough to me. It was something I always had to study.
JEFF RIAN — It seems to me that your moving away from art set the stage for later artists to go beyond objects and into space and time, which is why you’re still considered an artist. Do you not see your past in your present?
VITO ACCONCI — I was never interested in repeating myself or making the same kind of piece. I think one of the things we now want is for projects to be movable — not necessarily from place to place — but, like the Storefront, with walls that open up. But that’s not real movement, because it’s based on hinges. The Pompidou, by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, had complicated hinges and connectors, which had to be remade 10 years later. The outside of Beaubourg is more successful than the interior. You can’t make a work move to some place that it was not designed for it to move to. That’s harder. I don’t know how to do that. Many people work more digitally than I do, and I think you can make any part movable. Also with things like 3-D printing you can do everything.
JEFF RIAN — A lot of art in the past was concerned with upward flight, to light — birds, domes, the light of God, all that. People now think of vacation as renewal. Did you ever think in terms of transcendence, going toward something greater than human, a reaching for a poetic awakening, like a song that transports us into ourselves rather than toward a higher being?
VITO ACCONCI — But is that simply going into yourself? Some of my colleagues are — as one of them said — supporters of elegance. Elegance, to me, means rich people — rich people who go to overly expensive stores, not because they necessarily like the clothes, but because they can shop there. I get this stomach-churning over that, because they’re so serious about elegance, and I can’t stand it. I grew up a Catholic, but the idea of something other than earth never hit me. Mazes and labyrinths interest me. Not necessarily to get lost in, but to be in a position where you have to find your way through — but if you don’t, you should find a way to enjoy the going through.
JEFF RIAN — Didn’t you do projects for skateboarders?
VITO ACCONCI — We did two: the first one was in France, in Avignon, Skateboard Park that Grows Out of a Building. I like the side of skateboarding where the city belongs to skaters. Even though the city might want to get rid of them, they find places. A few years ago there was an amazing number of skaters on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I would have thought they would have wanted higher steps. I’ve never skated, though I felt that we should talk to skateboarders.
JEFF RIAN — You might have something in common with them: a search for space.
VITO ACCONCI — I usually think we can do a project in any kind of space. But that’s old-fashioned, to take off from a space. You build into it. You invade it, in some way change it, but you still recognize the space. But I don’t think people think in terms of site any more. Space can be topological. It can be self-enclosed, like a Klein bottle or a Mobius strip. Architecture’s all curves since Corbusier. I’m not sure space is so important to people, though it’s still important to architects. I usually don’t have an idea for a project until I see a site. In the ’70s they were gallery spaces. Then they started to be outdoor spaces. When we did the skateboard park in 2000 in France, it was in an abandoned building complex with a lot of graffiti. There was an empty space in front of it. I’m sure they thought we would start with the empty space, but we started on the inside of the building, then went up on the roof and came down.
JEFF RIAN — Looking at your bio, you have many projects — some built, some temporary, and a lot of projects that weren’t built. Do you expect things to be built?
VITO ACCONCI — I hope they’ll be built, but I also hope that we can do what we want to do in a particular setting. A few years ago, New York City held a competition for a new streetlight. The competition brief said that some of these posts were going to have to hold a number of different signs and a number of different lights. I didn’t quite believe that. But I liked what they said. I thought we shouldn’t make one big post, but a number of the thinnest possible posts, so that if they held more than one sign or light, they would twist together. They didn’t even consider us. And it was one of my favorite projects.
JEFF RIAN — You’ve gotten into a lot of people’s minds, which is the purest function of art. People come here because they want to know more about you, how you work, and how you’ve always stuck to your guns.
VITO ACCONCI — I hope I got their bodies into and through an experience as well. I never wanted a spectacle.
JEFF RIAN — It seems that you look for meaning through a sharing of experience.
VITO ACCONCI — It’s more of a communication. Can I take a thing or place or vehicle and twist it or warp it? Can I make a change in it from what I might know to be something new? And if it becomes something new, can you then start a new category or subcategory? When I think of what I’ve done, I don’t know if there are that many things or places or instances that are so different from what was there before. The more I work, the more I want to do something like a virtual space, something exploding or breaking up into pixels or particles.
JEFF RIAN — I think Following Piece is the generator of your recognition or fame. People know that piece more than Seedbed. They know the videos and images of body art performances, and they know you’re involved in architecture. What’s your feeling?
VITO ACCONCI — People are interested in Following Piece and Seedbed, not so much in Claim. When the Mur Island piece in Graz opened, it got a lot of attention. People wrote to me. Yesterday a woman wrote and said she had a gallery in Washington, D.C. when I did a show at Max Protetch and Harold Rifkin, in 1971. She’s now working for the US government. She told me that the person who’s now the director of Storefront for Art and Architecture became one of the three people chosen to curate the Venice Architecture Biennale next year. It wasn’t about me so much, but she said she’d followed my work and that she’d almost wept when she saw the Graz project. What’s amazing is how quickly things become public. The architecture is separate from the art.
JEFF RIAN — For many people, your work is connected to the sound of your voice, and the way you speak — the stopping and starting and building up… Your voice stays with people. It’s just that it might not be enough for you.
VITO ACCONCI — It’s not. As I get older I feel like I don’t have time.
JEFF RIAN — But you do a lot of talks. Could you ever be happy simply talking?
VITO ACCONCI — Oh, so you mean that talking could involve creating a new situation or event but isn’t itself a tangible situation? I do think that making up a situation, if enough people do it, and they start to be on the same track, even though they don’t know that somebody else is doing it, might eventually become something physical. I’ve done an amazing number of talks. They’re all about the career. I start with early stuff and I talk about how things go from one to another. I’m so used to talking — but never once have I not been nervous beforehand. I think the most interesting thing about my talks is why and how I went from one thing to another. Still, I’ve never had a show of everything I’ve done.
JEFF RIAN — You have an immense library of books and your own book categories, which is a project, a work in progress — even an artwork. From how far back have you kept your books?
VITO ACCONCI — Since college, certainly graduate school. Most I keep. But within the categories and the subcategories, the books are alphabetized by author, title, or subject, although they’re a bit sloppy, except the books on me, and Acconci Studio books and periodicals. I don’t remember exactly when I started, maybe the late ’70s, but I wanted a different way to categorize books. I thought each category could be ascribed to different kinds of books, and I wanted to be more specific than that. My book system had a lot of categories.
JEFF RIAN — You’re still teaching.
VITO ACCONCI — I teach architecture and I also teach a writing class, which I begin with song lyrics — Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” leading up to Buddy Holly, Van Morrison, the Doors, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Fall. I end with some non-vocal music and then I read some poems. I mean, this is a very biased approach.
JEFF RIAN — Do you read poems in your classes?
VITO ACCONCI — I read Emily Dickinson, because of her punctuation — the dashes, which I only recently discovered she used. Nobody knew because when they were first published, some guy changed the dashes to commas and periods, and it destroyed the poems. When I read a poem, I read it in relation to a page. With the dashes it’s like somebody’s killing me at the end of the poem, like your throat is cut. I also read William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just to Say,” which, to me, is one of the best poems ever written: I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold It’s so actual, and tangible. Okay, “forgive” is an abstraction, but the rest is tangible. It’s a very cruel little poem. I read a poem titled “Poem,” by Frank O’Hara, which has the lines “Lana Turner has collapsed” and “Oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” I liked that poem because I knew I could never do this. I love that kind of casualness. He makes it seem so off the cuff. This is a person who’s walking down the street and he’s writing a poem; he’s at a cocktail party and he’s writing a poem. When he wrote that, Lana Turner had been living with a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, whose daughter killed him — shot him! I also read some of my poems. One begins with a period: “I make it again/now you get the point.” … “I’m going from one side to the other…”
JEFF RIAN — Maybe in the ’60s people stopped reading poetry because they were listening so much to songs.
VITO ACCONCI — That’s probably true. The late ’60s probably stopped a lot of people from writing poetry, so they made music. The Doors’ “People Are Strange” or “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind” or Van Morrison’s song “Ballerina,” which may be the prime song of the ’70s. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” supposedly written by him to his brother, who fucked his wife. There were two parts to ’60s music: one was the Grateful Dead — a group I despised — and the other part was where people were urged to do something. That died.
JEFF RIAN — What about Dylan?
VITO ACCONCI — I don’t play Dylan. I should, but I found his voice so grating. Maybe he was too overpraised. But I didn’t follow the Beatles or the Rolling Stones either.
JEFF RIAN — Has the environment in which you work dramatically changed?
VITO ACCONCI — Recently I went to the Bronx Zoo with my girlfriend, Maria Mirabal. She’s a writer. She wanted to know where I grew up, which is not far from the zoo. She saw my school. She saw the block where my apartment building was, but it doesn’t exist anymore. The zoo was very different. Once the animals were in cages. Now they’re in environments. After living in the West Village, starting in 1972, I lived in a loft on Christie Street between Broome and Delancey. Two tenants before me was Gordon Matta-Clark. I didn’t like moving out of Manhattan, but it was much cheaper here in this neighborhood in Brooklyn, near the Manhattan Bridge, where I’ve been since 1980, which is now Acconci Studio.
JEFF RIAN — Do you come to your studio every day?
VITO ACCONCI — Mostly. I’m trying to come here less.
JEFF RIAN — What’s your favorite food?
VITO ACCONCI — It changes. I don’t like breakfast food, like eggs. We go out to a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown called Pho Pasteur — the Vietnamese have been conquered by many others. Maria and I used to live in Chinatown, where it was easier to eat cheap. Now we live near Wall Street, which isn’t quite as good. But if I take a very short subway ride from Wall Street to Chambers Street — I tend to eat late — there are these restaurants that mainly taxi drivers go to, and there’s one, called the Pakistani Tea House, that’s really good. It’s getting expensive now. It used to be five or six dollars a few years ago. Now it’s eight dollars.
JEFF RIAN — You only eat at night?
VITO ACCONCI — Yesterday I didn’t eat in the day because I knew I was going to teach.
JEFF RIAN — You don’t get tired?
VITO ACCONCI — I can’t get tired in front of students. But I got tired yesterday, when I knew I was supposed to be here at six and it was already seven-thirty. And it was the last guy and I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. But then right afterward I walked a block to a place called The 3 Luigis and got an eggplant Parmesan hero and a sausage Parmesan hero and I brought them home.
JEFF RIAN — How did Storefront for Art and Architecture come about? Was it a commission?
VITO ACCONCI — Storefront was originally more a square than a rectangle when it started in Prince Street in the early-’80s. It moved around the corner to Kenmare Street a few years later. It wasn’t a commission so much as an invitation to me and Steven Holl by Kyong Park, the architect who founded Storefront, to do a show — actually more a project that was supposed to be less transitory than a show. It might have seemed like fate for them to choose an architect-artist combination. I thought of myself as an architect, or at least a designer — I formed Acconci Studio in 1988 — but I doubt anybody else did then. When Storefront began, Steven and I imitated each other. Steven had been making breaks in his facades to bring in light, while Acconci Studio had been making breaks that users could activate to change functions. Only then did we come together and validate each other. We had only a little space inside Storefront and a small budget — $50,000 — so we renovated just the facade, blurring the boundary between inside and outside. As a by-product, we didn’t just do the interior; we redid the street.
JEFF RIAN — In the early ’90s you designed Mobile Linear City, a van that could open like a telescope. Have you designed any other vehicles since?
VITO ACCONCI — In the mid-2000s we designed a car using a science based on cymatics, possibly a pseudoscience: the insertion of sound onto, into, and through a surface, which makes the surface ripple, shake and tremble, without the need for a motor. It used gas, but instead of tires, the base of the car was made of horizontal planes, like carpets — flying carpets — one on top of the other. We worked with a physicist, a mechanical engineer, and a roboticist, but one of them said the car could only move 15 miles per hour with cymatics, so we gave up. In the meantime we discovered by-products: the exterior surface of the car could be soft, made of something like airbags or pillows, and the surface could yield to impact rather than resist it. This soft surface could be re-inflated. Cars could be attached one after the other, so the lead car could be driven while the following cars could be driverless, or the drivers could be asleep…
JEFF RIAN — Returning to your seats, Lobby-For-The-Time-Being at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Fence-On-The-Loose are almost extended sculptures with seats. Isn’t that also art?
VITO ACCONCI — I thought of Lobby-For-The-Time-Being as indoor furniture, and Fence-On-The-Loose as outdoor furniture. If there are places that can be sat on or sat in, somewhere in a space, I assume that they will be and that sooner or later other parts of the project will be too, whether they’re easy to sit on, in, or not. The project/piece/space or whatever whoever calls it is up for grabs. People might, should, and can do whatever they want with it. If it’s art, it isn’t furniture; if it’s furniture — even if it was art once — it isn’t art now…
JEFF RIAN — A number of your works, for decades it seems, use the inside and the outside of a space — Storefront for Art and Architecture, Walkways Through the Wall, and Dirt Wall — or break through a space. Is this a kind of transition architecture?
VITO ACCONCI — I don’t want breaks. I don’t want distinctions between public and private. I want the private to gradually melt and blend into the public, and the public gradually to melt and blend into the private. There should be something like a mixed space, a place where a citizen of one kind can be a citizen of another kind.
JEFF RIAN — Is what you do a kind of “space age” architecture?
VITO ACCONCI — Maybe I want a multispace — a space and time that’s an assemblage of many particular places, but each with its very own space. Or maybe it should not be an assemblage of many different places, but a complex mixture of all the differences co-mingled and intermixed.
JEFF RIAN — When Buildings Melt Into Air & The Air Re-forms Into Buildings might make one think about what might be a Platonic mirage — things are there and not there. Was that a statement about materialism?
VITO ACCONCI — This one was organized by Ludovica Lumer, an Italian neuroscientist: five projects, each chosen by a different art-doer or architect, done at the same time in different plazas in Milan, during this past year’s furniture fair. In each plaza, people — they could be anybody, not a specific person — were asked to stand in the middle with a smartphone. I chose Piazza Duomo. And on the phone, they saw one small part of the plaza’s surroundings straight ahead and had to hurry round in a circle to keep up with the phone images, while one circle after another broke into larger and larger pixels, until all the buildings dissolved together in clouds of grains and particles. We didn’t think we were making a statement: we were taking facts — planes, surfaces, the matter of this time — and exploding them into dots and points and particles/pixels of that time, some future time.
JEFF RIAN — Maybe you’re creating architecture for between-spaces that aren’t buildings or roads or access ramps but more like bridges, such as Mur Island, and gardens, where people can be without the specificity of, say, a cultural environment, like a gallery or a park. Or am I reaching too far?
VITO ACCONCI — I hope you’re not. I feel more akin to bridges than to gardens. I want to make one-sided, one-ended bridges. We know where we start but we don’t need to know yet where we’re going.
JEFF RIAN — What do you want to happen to your work? A retrospective? Recover lost pieces? Preserve your archives?
VITO ACCONCI — I don’t think there are any pieces in Europe to be retrieved. What I have documents of has been destroyed. I have my archives. Maybe they’ll be sold.
JEFF RIAN — When you were a kid, did you tell the truth in confession?
VITO ACCONCI — Well, I realized that I didn’t have anything to say to the priest, so I’d tell him I got angry seven times. I remember a priest said to me, “These aren’t sins. What are you wasting your time for?”
JEFF RIAN — So you felt okay.
VITO ACCONCI — I’ve never gone to a therapist.
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