Saturday, August 30, 2008

Conversation with Vito Acconci (7 January 1977), Bruce Barber

Bruce Barber: In your latest work you still haven't lost what was important in the use of the Goffmanian "dramaturgical metaphor". What interests me about Plot is that here you have a space made up of "pages" which is to all intents and purposes a book, but it becomes something other than a book and you read it differently. How did the audience relate to that?

Vito Acconci: It's hard for me to tell for a number of reasons. Because of my earlier work, I find it difficult to be at a piece, because as soon as I'm there as a recognizable image the work becomes something else. I really don't know exactly how the audience reacted. Also I don't really understand a non-American audience; how, what do an Italian's movements around a space mean? I don't really know enough about that so it's really hard to tell.
BB: in the Addenda section of Plot, you were talking specifically about "imperialism" in relation to that contract you formed with the people in Italy. You were there to do a show; do a piece. Did the same kind of thing happen in Venice?
VA: Not so much, I guess. There's a piece between the Venice work and this one which was done in Bordeaux this past spring. The piece began ... it was a group show called ... Identity – Identifications" [I'm not sure.] The show was basically to do with earlier work ... person kinds of pieces. The piece started for me as a kind of reaction against the way I usually work. Sometimes I question whether I am just a little too dependent on an existing physical space. It's very difficult for me to do a piece until I see an existing physical space and I start to define it visually, structurally, graphically, whatever, and then I think, OK, what am I getting at. I wanted to do something opposite to that, which could theoretically exist in any space. Once I thought of this it seemed to me, if the piece could exist in any space, then what becomes emphasized is the fact that something has just been "dropped" into the space. If it could exist anywhere, then the focus becomes on the particular "dropper", the nature of the person who "dropped" the piece in. So, OK, I am doing this piece in Europe. I am not going to be there, I am going to send it ... I'm putting this piece in a space in Bordeaux. It's coming from me in America, so I'm sort of "dropping" this thing there. What am I "dropping"? The title of the piece became "The American Gift". It was a black box shape five feet by five feet by seven feet high. A slit at the top of the box around the perimeter, a blue light inside so that there's this vague blue light on top. The black box would be at one end of the space. At the other were one or two folding chairs. At the folding chairs there were two speakers and then inside the box another speaker. At the folding chairs ... speaker on the left, my voice speaking in English, in a whisper saying: "You are the Europeans". Other speaker on the right, French man and woman's voice: "Nous sommes les Europeans". My voice: "You have America in the back of your mind, ah na na na na na" ... "You are not responsible for what you say, ah na na na na na". Of course they are not responsible, I am saying it ... they are translating it. That kind of thing. Then every once and a while from the box, my voice speaking in French but obviously in American's French, saying something like, ah ... "Listen America speaks, America speaks, La la ba la la la". Then my voice by the chairs again: "You learn the language". French voice: "Nous apprenons le langue, La la la". But this time in a slightly French accent. Then from the box, my voice saying: "Quiet please. One minute of America". And there might be a minute of Charles Ives music to a minute of New Orleans dance hall, to gunshots, to a woman screaming. It seemed to me that there were some implications, though this was more narrative, insinuating, round about drift kind of thing. That was more direct. Actually the idea for that piece came from the film 2001 with the black monolith ... trying to sniff out this black monolith. The notion of doing pieces elsewhere, the notion of dropping something elsewhere, began to really interest me.
The Venice piece began to develop a kind of ‘we' voice and it was unclear whether the ‘we' was a kind of Americans in Europe; almost a kind of desperate ‘we'. Almost trying to make a ‘we', a ‘we' that is not this yet but can we be a ‘we'. Can we be this kind of community based on interest. It's almost a sense of failed revolution.
BB: It seems to me ... I'm going to get into intentionality; that invariably ends up with my projection onto the thing.
VA: Sure when I talk about it, it ends up with my motivations.
BB: I'm going to talk about eclecticism in your work. It's the kind of eclecticism that doesn't carry a pejorative sense. It's the kind of eclecticism that one would associate with someone like Borges, only it's popular eclecticism. You are working with popular psychology, popular sociology, popular politics, popular music, whereas Borges might be dealing with a once popular mythology, theme ... I find that kind of relationship quite interesting. When you talk of ‘black box' my mind goes immediately to Borges, and to Maxwell's demon. Many of your earlier pieces have to do with ... things that were possibly in the air at the time ... the entropic function ... the exhaustion principle. That seemed to inform your work.
VA: Yes, in a lot of ways. At least in retrospect. I'm not sure how much it was part of a conscious intention at the time but in retrospect it seems that way in many early pieces, those direct body pieces. Almost like a last gasp of Minimal art making myself into a self-enclosed object; circling in on myself, turning in on myself. It really was connected I think to that time, also bringing popular currents ... encounter groups and that sort of thing. That stuff is obviously a big part of work of mine. I mean, I hated the idea of encounter groups that existed at that time and yet, obviously, they interested me.
BB: Getting back to Plot. You say in the end of the Prologue that you are constructing a plot and that you are constructing a sub-plot which negates the intention of the plot. The plot might be: "I do not believe anymore in the efficacy of art". The sub-plot: "But I have to believe in it because I am part of that plot to convince you the viewer of that meaning". You've done your market research and now there's your imposition. Now going to some notes about video (Art-Rite, No: 7) and going to what is essentially a producer-consumer relationship, you are saying ... OK this is the way television works, I deal with video in a similar but more potent way. And when you are dealing with your audience you go through the whole range of human emotions.
VA: I wish you could see the tapes I've just finished. They're called The Red Tapes; two hours of what we have been talking about; trying to come to grips with American history, American culture.
BB: When I started doing my investigations I was annoyed that critics were using ‘reify', a classic Marxist term ... Max Kozloff is a classic example ... using that as a pejorative in order to criticize early works of yours and others. And then there's Lea Vergine, I like what she has done but she has been over-prescriptive and has come up with what I would call a specious psychologism. She hasn't realized the differences between an artist using certain materials or ideas as his or her subject, the artists' wants to use this as their subject matter ... they don't necessarily need to do it as some kind of therapy. The artist isn't always a victim of his or her psychology. And yet going back to an earlier statement by you; if I remember rightly, you said that you used to think that art wasn't therapeutic and that now you think it is.
VA: Yes ... You don't remember when I said that do you? I'm trying to remember. If it was in '73, it would have made sense in regard to pieces I was making then. It had a lot to do with using gallery space to focus on the kind of public-ness of that space. I could use the exhibition space to make something public that supposedly wasn't public. I would use this situation to effect or change something in my everyday life. Can I just mention briefly a piece as an example. There was a piece called "Air Time" (Sonnabend). It was a closed-circuit video thing where I was in this enclosed space, hidden from the audience. There was a video monitor outside. I was facing a mirror so that the audience could see and hear me on the monitor, not so much talking to myself but talking to a specific you, a person within my life; a person whom I had been living with for four years. My attempt was to recreate incidences in our life together. I want this to be public, I want them the audience to see the way you ... once it's public, I have to see the way I am with you ... have to face up to the reality, that I can't change it now that it's a public fact. I can't change it. I'm forced to realize that we can't be together anymore. If I made that statement then it would have made sense. There were a few pieces like that.
BB: The ‘you' that you talk about in your pieces is not only singular but also plural. That interests me where you bridge the gap, whether in talking to one you are talking to the other. By extension ... I can make a huge leap here and talk about the so-called collective consciousness and collective unconsciousness; that is, we are what our culture and our family has made us. Nothing is going to alter. So when we are talking about the individual, we may be also talking about the group.
VA: Though we're never sure. We don't know whether we are keyed into that. The thing that has troubled me about earlier work ... I always wonder about my use of self in earlier pieces. It's always seemed like a very generalized self. Very recently when I see a lot of work by women dealing with self, it seems a really specific self ... compare it to some of my stuff and it seems like, my god, as if mine is a general, abstract, a kind of male abstracting notion. A generalized almost grandiose self.
BB: When I talked before of the self-effacement, in a sense, of a work such as Plot, I could in turn generalize about your earlier work as being self-aggrandizing. One of your strongest pieces for me is Seedbed. That piece points out the problem of not only dealing with the individual but also with the group. And not only dealing with a self-aggrandized Vito Acconci but also with a self-effaced Vito Acconci. Not only dealing with the intimacy of your contact with yourself and your audience ... that onanistic type of behaviour ... turning yourself into a kind of object ...
VA: That interesting problem of dealing with people which is, ... my god, what am I doing to these people? Bring them into the gallery and make them part of my fantasy life. Of course they can leave. Things like that interest me in the piece but the entrapping of an audience gives me very queasy feelings.
BB: Your work seems peppered with Goffmanian concerns, those also of Edward T. Hall, Reich ... lots of people there but the way that you deal with that material is hard to pin down ... whether you identify with it or live through it.
VA: Goffman was someone I came across at a really important time for me, a time when my work was in a sense really beginning. My whole background was writing, poetry, fiction and in ‘68/'69, things began to shift. The shift was occurring and I began to search out moves in real space and came upon Goffman. This thing came at such an important time in my life and my work. It's almost difficult to know what I feel about Goffman aside from that I related to him at the time. There's almost that kind of positive(ist) side of Goffman that I related to.
BB: So this gave you an idea of what was happening in your own life?
VA: Yeh. It started to ... having Goffman's language at hand, it started to allow me to order things ... to clarify things ... to put things in some kind of order rather than vague, vague groupings. It was a kind of categorizing I could relate to. I've always had to deal with things in terms of categories. Categories can be wide enough to lose things that don't belong there. I've always had that kind of bias. If we're using words, we're using categories anyway, the thing is to stretch them as far as possible so that you can't avoid them.
BB: They're often stretched enough in our society anyway. We have to attempt to restrain the artifices of the Humpty Dumptys of this world.
"Orchestra Pit" (Plot) ... how to dig the harmony of the spheres. Is that some kind of reference to music?
VA: So many pieces of mine come from my own background of playing with words. Centre point. There was this centre point. I don't know how this came about but there was to be this music coming from the centre. Once you get the centre, you get the pit; once you get the pit, you get the orchestra. Harmony and harmony of the spheres. Dig. I think that happens a lot in my work ... taking that semi-mystic notion ... I've obviously been attracted to it ...
BB: it's a kind of verbal and visual punning in a sense.
VA: Then once I've got this kind of plot thing going, there's a novel field, a movie field; then obviously, if there's a movie field, there should be background music.
BB: But you're not dealing with traditional novel of filmic structure. The plot is a plot ... not in the sense of being a narrative, climax or denouement? It's an interesting plot.
VA: The plot started me thinking very much in terms of science fiction. Maybe that is the kind of ultimate, ultimate novel; a combination of horror movie on the one hand and science fiction on the other.
BB: In the different rooms or spaces you are trying to provide analogues for objects from contemporary American art history ... say, the last ten years.
VA: Yes, things that were very reminiscent of art that's been going on.
BB: Still a little ambiguous, in that you need signification of the word to object to get at it. But when it's on tape ... it becomes provisional, a provisional quality in that you can pass by them without any conditions of true acceptance going on.
VA: That's something which has always troubled me.
BB: It's always provisional ... and as far as art history is concerned it doesn't help the ‘efficacy' of art.
VA: What do you mean?
BB: It doesn't (in terms of plot) help your self-image, maintain or provide for your immortality through your art. It doesn't make your art live on after you, and doesn't really impose your will on any other artists.
VA: Hmmm ...
BB: Your latest work doesn't appear to have received a lot of attention. Why?
VA: No, it hasn't. (Laughs) That troubles me. Even when stuff is written now, it still talks about earlier work, the really blatant frontal image of that earlier work. It's been really difficult for people to deal with my more recent work. I'm sure that people think it's regressive, which is a fear of mine.
BB: Regressive?
VA: Yes, if I was dealing with direct person in earlier pieces, now there's no person there. Now I am dealing with space in a way that could be related to traditional sculpture.
BB: Plot though is dealing with very contemporary kinds of issues and not necessarily popular ones.
VA: Those early pieces, if I want to criticize myself or hate myself, were really media oriented. They were very easily sloganized. Five or six words could give the idea of a piece. You can't do that with my recent work. Many of those early pieces like "Claim", where I sat at the foot of the stairs of a basement ... there was never any allowance to say ... what if I change my mind in this ... what if I didn't want to go on with this constant obsessive drive towards something ... what if my mind drifted. That kind of thing was never allowed for; there was always this kind of directness ... focus. If those pieces were drive, now I'm more interested in drift. But at the same time ... at the base of my work, there still seems to be a kind of I/you/me/you. There's still that going on. Maybe it had to be at that time when the notion of encounter group seemed as if it was going to lead somewhere. Obviously it couldn't. Things aren't quite that simple.
BB: All of your early works have to do with manipulation. They may be exploitative in a sense, sometimes of yourself or your audience but these later pieces take into account the audience.
Tell me about the Venice tape.
VA: The Venice tape stands up by itself; I'm not sure whether that's good or bad. The verse itself leads to a kind of theatrical situation; it sets up scenes without that situation. It was part of that series of rooms which Germano Celant arranged, called Ambiente. In the Venice section maybe twelve or so contemporary people had rooms to themselves. Interesting space. Each room had a skylight, though in other ways each was varied. In size they were all about thirty by twenty feet. It was a piece that started with the title. I don't think I'd even seen the space. I thought, well it has to have something to do with Venice so the piece was called Venice Belongs to Us, stolen from the Jacques Rivette movie Paris Belongs to Us. I think that came before I even saw the plans for the space. The thing that struck me ... OK, let me go back into what is probably an habitual way I have of going about pieces, what are the quirks in this space? There was a skylight and there were three entrances, something I thought I could make use of. Lately I've been thinking of what I can do with a space ... simply lay something over a space, or across the space, trying to deal with what is already there and join something to it. So, taking that skylight area, planks were laid across the skylight so that it became a kind of room in itself. At each doorway a large ladder blocked half of the doorway and led up to the skylight. There were some stools placed on top of the planks, the room became loaded with some kind of presence. Four speakers were placed on top so that the sound was directed downwards. Then the text itself; one speaker dealt mainly with in a sense, directing a specific ‘you' ... almost a kind of theatre direction. That was speaker one. Speaker two dealt with kind of movie directions ... setting up a scene. Speaker three dealt with an announcement of possible intention, not so much my intention but what ‘our' intention could be in the "lights, camera, action!" I guess on seeing that space I thought well the skylight area; whoever might be up there ... obviously no-one could be up there but you could look down on the space and ideally out on to the city itself, on to Venice. Almost a kind of lookout space. This movie idea, setting scenes of Venice ... the piece dealt a lot with this ‘we' ... what are ‘we' doing here? Almost a kind of ... a lot about this piece is in different pieces of mine ... that it seems to be stringing people off into "revolutionary fervour", but I don't take them anywhere ... what do I do? I've got nowhere to go and I've got nowhere to tell them where to go. There's this fight ... builds up but then plop it drops.
BB: I think you mentioned somewhere (Art-Rite) that Goddard does the same sort of thing ...
VA: Yeh.
BB: Seeing some of his films ... you almost turn round to the person next to you ... did you see that? What are we going to do?
VA: Yeh. For a while that's enough but it can become self-satisfying. OK, we're angry ... fine.
BB: Well, you've got to start somewhere. In some way what you are doing is presenting the issues, yet setting the scenes and the stage for another theatrical ... maybe the revolution is theatrical in your case.
VA: Yeh, well I'm not really sure.
BB: The use of the ladder interests me. Weren't you using ladders, stairs in '71?
VA: That's true actually, there's a lot of ladder stuff.
BB: Jacob's ladder? Transcendence?
VA: I'm not sure how consistently ... it seems that it's setting up to something but doesn't quite get there.
BB: It's not a simple "Sisyphus" thing ... rolling a boulder up a hill and finding it coming back down, though.
VA: There's a lot of people using ladders. Recently in Ohio (Dayton) there were a lot of ladder structures. There's a piece that's going to be done at the Whitney for their Biennial and at least the piece I'm thinking of now involves a kind of ladder structure. So it's there a lot; it's a general enough form.
BB: Why do you think the ladder is so prevalent in your work?
VA: I think it has a lot to do with that notion of training, a kind of preparation that either leads to a kind of exhaustion or you break through that exhaustion and you get to something ... or is it an illusion of getting to something? When you reach the top ... is reaching the top of the ladder ... is this a real place of rest, or is this just saying, I have achieved something? I don't know. It has a lot of these implications.
BB: Chapter 2 of the Plot is "The accelerated mountain. A ladder-like structure closed on the outside. A ladder that will have to be climbed from underneath: inside, coloured lights dot the ascent, like signals, like visual-lights on an upward journey." The quasi-religious connotations of that kind of thing ... "a search for tomorrow"?
VA: Yeh.
BB: One of the most important elements of your work for me is this notion of dealing with the "popular" and in some ways it's the "popular" things like Goffman that lead me away from your work. I know that you're a part of your culture as I am of mine. You come out of literature, poetry; you've been an heir to the issues confronting abstract expressionism and minimalism. I've been an heir only to the minimalist, conceptualist tradition. In some ways that leads me away from identifying too strongly with all the kinds of issues that you've involved yourself with because they have become popular in a certain sense. They are popular for a certain section of the population and yet I may conjecture that you have deep feelings for the working class ... you live in an area where you are seeing certain sections of the population undergoing so much stress.
VA: Yes, sure, but I'm seeing them with obviously non-working-class eyes ... you
know ...
BB: My background, even though I may sound like an academic, is British working class ... your background ... going to Italy to do these pieces ... how does that ... You have come from New York ...
VA: Yes, that's strange. I'm from New York. My father was born in Italy so I grew up very much with that kind of Italian consciousness.
BB: What does that mean for you?
VA: Well, for me it was entirely an Italian cultural consciousness. I grew up listening to only Italian music, seeing only Italian art. I guess I was twelve before I realized that you didn't have to be Italian in order to write music or to do art. I grew up so much in the middle of a kind of hero worship for DaVinci and Verdi. My family was really very lower middle class ... except I never would have ... The attempt was to raise me as ... as a kind of Italian prince. I never realized how impoverished my family was until I was in high school.
BB: I hope it wasn't a Machiavellian prince!
VA: Not quite ... no. I don't think it was quite like that; my family wasn't that impoverished.
BB: Yet there is something quite Machiavellian about the way you, dare I use the word, use your audience.
VA: Yes that's been bothering me a little lately. What kind of manipulation, pressure have I been exerting. I'm not exactly clear on that.
BB: Have you talked to many of your audience members? You obviously have some cognizance of what you are doing with an audience, even when your presence is just limited to video tape or sound tape.
VA: Yes. I've gotten extremely varied kinds of reactions. Most people have felt that they have been involved ... that they have felt some sense of freedom and that they weren't in fact being exploited. Obviously, that doesn't apply to all of the pieces. They must have felt exploited with some of the earlier work. I at this point object to that, yet at the same time, I keep wanting to do pieces which take that public situation into account and that you are with that potential audience as very much part of the piece. Now how do I keep that from being a matter of manipulating the audience? I'm not quite sure.
BB: Even when you have your audience empathizing with you as in say Seedbed ... though that is always going to be a difficult piece ... in a sense you are still manipulating your audience, extending, projecting your fantasies onto them and you are definitely in control of the situation.
VA: Yes, I'm not sure. My conscious aims are towards the opposite of that.
BB: So it's the empathy that you have for your audience rather than that they have for you?
VA: Yes ... but I think the emphasis has been on the other side of that. I'm not so sure with the very recent pieces like the work done at Sonnabend.
BB: Tell me about that.
VA: There was this board that had a kind of table function with stools on either side of it. It extended out the window about six or eight feet like a kind of diving board and was about sixteen feet or thereabouts inside the room. A hanging speaker was midpoint between where the board was a table and where it became a board out the window. Part of the gallery was closed off and in darkness so that it became almost a large black box. A speaker at that plank area, and two speakers at the back. My voice saying ... "now that ...". Voice says "rise ..." violin music ... "change places ..." ... "rise ...". Sort of like musical chairs. Voice saying "what do we do with that one ... no room for that one", or "where do you think you are going?" "Where do you think you are going?", then from the black room: ... kind of indefinable crowd sounds ... many talking, garbled sounds, then a voice above the table. Two women's voices start to give ... define the crowd room as something that is always there in the background. Is it something we are going towards, is it something we are avoiding ... this kind of indefinable "they". The "they" give us reason to exist or "they" give us something to run away from but the main part of the tape is the "now that". It was repetitive and there were ten sections. The piece which repeats is the "now that we know we've failed", the crowd then goes off into position one but it's mainly about this kind of vapid gallery situation ... the contemporary situation.
BB: It seems we are running out of time. Thank you, Vito.

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