'Brother-sister incest is the fuel that keeps the American dream on the road; it's the engine in the mobile home.'
When Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy restaged some of Vito Acconci's 1970s performances in 'Fresh Acconci', it was to see what would happen if the famous 'peeled-consciousness' monologues were sandwiched into the soft-core porno genre of the Hollywood hills: Acconci's New York art world sensibility jammed into an unequivocally ironic context. What's taking place now, in the later phases of Acconci's career, is probably more interesting than that. His shift from self-endangering, body-exposing, bombastic work such as Seedbed (1972) and Claim (1971) to non-confrontational public architecture is one of the weirder trajectories in art. It's a journey from the personal to the public, from improvisation to high-budget via an integration into the cash nexus of New York's Percent for Art projects. Nevertheless, his new role of architect is crucial to Acconci's view of the American Dream, its sexual and aesthetic economy.
Throughout the 1980s, sculptures such as Face of the Earth (1984) and (Broken) Father's Garden (1986), drew on the signifiers of American suburbia, the automobile and the lawn. Acconci has always been interested in the tension between domestic seclusion and public encounter, the possibility of adventure outside the home. For him, the architect is the travelling salesman who frees the father from the responsibility of building the home, lets him get out of the house and into the world. Having the dad hanging around in the house mires everything, slows down the oedipal drama. Father-daughter incest doesn't get anyone anywhere; add the architect and it all starts moving again.
Acconci's six-person studio now undertakes about a dozen proposals a year, of which only a few get built. His exhibition 'Para-cities' at Bristol's Arnolfini Gallery is a prelude to a full retrospective in the UK, but it looks a lot like any architectural display in a corporate lobby: models, briefs, text panels, sites and solutions, projectors helplessly ratcheting away at screens. Up close, however, things are more unsettled. The displays are canted at unusual angles and from every direction comes Acconci's familiar, chain-smoking, rasping voice, guiding visitors with a vision of what the experience of walking in these landscapes would be like. The models are rough; they look like Thunderbirds' Tracey Island - a bit too rough to pass in most free-spending New York practices. One of Acconci's projects is for a roundabout on the A13 near Dagenham which comes to life as cars approach it. Sensors are activated by passing cars, causing discs of turf to rise up and create an illuminated coiling waterfall. If there are no cars around, the waterfall sinks back into the ground. Another project is the 'Garbage City' for Tel Aviv, in which a city dump is transformed into a self-sufficient, methane-powered community to 'ride the tide of the dump'. There's still just as much blurring of political correctness and exploitation - and ambushing.
Andrew Gellatly: There's a thread of architectural subversion in your early work that hasn't been talked about much, while some other aspects, such as inter-subjectivity in particular, have been placed in the foreground.
Vito Acconci: Not everyone has seen it that way but yes, Seedbed began by thinking of a Minimal art space, with nothing on the wall, nothing on the floor; except there's a worm under the floor. The ground shifts under your feet because it isn't stable any more. In a public space there are casual passers by, not art viewers. I don't think you can go up and confront these people, you have to be sneakier.
AG: The models in 'Para-cities' are rough - your approach seems to be a direct attack on standard practices. Didn't you once say you wanted to be a cancer on architecture?
VA: A lot of architects hate the models I make because they look like railroad models: the kind of models children could understand. We want to understand what the space is like - our models have people in them. Do people sit face-to-face in the squares? What about the person who wants to be a serial murderer? Sure, we make forms, but the only reason for the forms is that they are places for people to be. Frank Gehry's work is too sculptural. I wish the outside of his buildings had more to do with the inside. I wish the forms did something to make activity happen. Maybe it needs a single person, or an animating vision - I started reading Wallpaper magazine because they always featured Brasilia - in the 1970s we were encouraged to think Brasilia was a terrible thing, but it seems completely amazing now.
AG: In the project for Klapper Hall at Queens College, Brooklyn, you have placed huge concrete orbs outside the English Department building - what you call 'The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes'. How are people supposed to use that space?
VA: The orbs are hollowed out and sliced, allowing people to meet. I like the idea of a building where people can use the outside for other things. I always like a plaza where there are benches - but I like it more when people decide to sit on the steps, which is sort of like the first radical act. The first act of revolution: a bench has told me to sit down, so I'm not going to sit there, I'm going to sit where I will bother people walking up the stairs.
AG: Would you mind if your public art projects fell into disuse, if they wound up as skateboard ramps?
VA: If the kids left home, lived there and skateboarded, I would like it. If a project became an alternate lifestyle and offered housing for kids, then sure.
AG: Amelia Jones has written about your unravelling of Pollock-style, Modernist male identity, but certainly your position was also influenced by your background as a writer outside the art world. When did that become an all-out hatred of the art world?
VA: So I was masturbating under a floor in 1972 - people were fucking in the streets in 1966. For art this might have been new, for the world at large it had existed for a long time... A lot of the stuff we did was a real resistance towards and reaction against, specifically, the Abstract Expressionist attitude of 'I don't know where this came from but it came from me.' I'm always amazed at how people from other fields, film-makers for example, when something is pointed out to them as being what's really hot in art, their first reaction is: 'that gallery dealer must be really smart...'. I think things still happen faster and more interestingly in music. I don't know if there was anything that was done in art in the late 1960s that was even as interesting as the Velvet Underground.
AG: Your own video works, like Theme Song (1973), were so massively influential that it's hard to understand why you walked away from that practice. What do you think of other artists who are trying to develop that kind of work now?
VA: Maybe if I had thought of video more as a distribution medium and not so much as a tape shown in a gallery space I might have found a way to get more involved in it, but the performances were always more important. I always assumed that the way I was going to show video was in a gallery space, and it became a poor substitute for a form of theatre. There were seats in front of a monitor. If I'd thought of a television inside people's homes I might have had more to work with. I didn't make that assumption, because I never thought I had the capability to do it. I don't know if I would have ever made some of my documentation if it wasn't for the fact that it was going to be shown in a gallery. I had to start to observe gallery conventions. In retrospect I think it was a big mistake. Documentation should be unlimited, it should be distributable; it should be in the form of magazines.
AG: It seems like a precipitous shift from then to now, not least regarding the elements of self-sufficiency that you've forgone to become an architect.
VA: It took a long time to get here - there were a lot of transitions. The body work came out of a language of finding oneself, it came out of a concentration on things like meditation chambers, from a time of interpersonal relations, person-to-person, face-to-face encounters. Once it wasn't the 1960s anymore, I didn't know how to do that stuff. Each phase had something to do with the time it was in. But the early works still belonged to an art context. On the one hand, a lot has changed since the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. On the other hand, it seems the old stuff of mine is very similar to what I'm doing now. I was under a floor where people were walking in 1972; a lot of the spaces we now deal with are spaces where the ground shifts, where it peels up. I don't know if it's that different in intention. But sure, my early work could be made with limited means, it could be done instantly. What I do now; well, it's designed and then five, six or seven years later it gets built. It bothers me that something can't be done instantly. And, yes, the money part - I kind of hate the fact that our stuff costs so much money to build. Other people obviously hate that fact too, that's why the projects don't get built. But if you're going to construct a place for others its got to sustain people's use and misuse. That costs money; I can shrug my shoulders and say that, but at the same time I'm not happy with it.
AG: You've talked about your work as facilitating experience like a theme park but does that mean you visit theme parks?
VA: Well, I like walking around New York City. I like intersections where lots of routes meet, like 34th Street subway station, and most of the time I notice things in Brooklyn that I've never seen before, even though I've walked past a particular place hundreds of times. There's a bias in Western culture towards depth - to actually be there, to experience something; it's an understandable bias. At the same time, I can see twelve movies about twelve different places in less time than I can actually go to one. You sacrifice depth but you get a lot of range... Range is just as good as depth.
AG: Does the outbreak of Reality TV on the American Networks, from Temptation Island to Survivor and Big Brother, make you think you've seen it all before, the poking at the membrane of what is usually considered private?
VA: Someone wrote in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about 1970s art: 'was this the beginning of Reality TV?'. But Following Piece (1969) was a non-intrusive work. I made it in New York; if I had done it in Iowa City, say, it might have been different. I would have become an aggressor. In New York I was just somebody walking down the street - if you walk down the street you are automatically following somebody. It was more about me being the receiver of somebody else's actions. I would follow a person, I would go where they went. Theoretically somebody could go to a restaurant, go to a movie, go to an airport and take a plane - the piece was going to take me elsewhere, somewhere I hadn't planned. But mostly it was intended to be about New York City itself. There was a CBS TV show called The Loud Family, though, which got a lot of attention at the time. The network moved into a family house for a month, the mother and father argued, got divorced, the son found out he was gay. I'm surprised that it hasn't received more recognition.
AG: Does The Acconci Studio proposal for Washington Stadium in Seattle mean you've been going to the ball park?
VA: I haven't been to a baseball or football game since I was 15 years old, but I read the sports pages. Baseball is a sport that's reinventing itself in a terrifying way - it's reverting back to Cooperstown and the beginnings of the game. It would be nice if a baseball stadium could look like a spaceship. What I liked was the idea of taking the institutional stadium and making little stadiums outside where people can have their own games, their own performances. They would decide whether this part is a theatre, this part is a café. I want to make things that are like Mobius strips where you can't separate inside from outside, where you're in a woozy world.
First published in Issue 58