An interview with the late artist on the unique classification system he devised to organize his books
In his essay ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’, Georges Perec talked of the ‘problem’ of the library as two-fold: ‘a problem of space first of all, then a problem of order.’ With regard to the latter, he offered examples of more or less standard ways of organizing books: alphabetically; by continent or country; by the book’s colour; by date of acquisition; by date of publication; by genre.
Vito Acconci, as one might expect, did not rely on any such traditional system for organizing his library. He instead arranged his books based on an idiosyncratic, all-encompassing classification system very much of his own devising. Acconci's system begins with general ontological categories – such as ‘Time’, ‘Space’, ‘Matter’, ‘Body’, ‘Life,’ ‘Mind’ and ‘Signs’ (there are 12 such categories in all) – which then proceed to sub-divide into more particular divisions and sections. By giving primacy to the ontological over the bibliographic, Acconci’s system does away with many library classification conventions. For instance, fiction and poetry are not treated as related genres of writing and thus placed within range of each other. Instead, novels are placed in a subset of ‘Time’ (‘fiction is about turning pages, it’s about time,’ according to Acconci) while poetry is classified as a subset of ‘Body,’ along with books on dance, music and clothing – perhaps reflecting Acconci’s own early evolution from poet to performance artist. Art and architecture books are also not assumed to share a common heritage and therefore assigned proximate shelf space. Instead, architecture books belong to a subset of ‘Space,’ while art books are classified as a subset of ‘Matter.’
Acconci began organizing his library along these lines in the early 1970s almost as a thought exercise, but it quickly found practical use on his shelves. As Acconci’s thinking changed in later years, he revised, adjusted, modified and fine-tuned the system to reflect those changes. At the same time, the library as well as its classification system were something of a constant over the course of his variegated, pluri-disciplinary career, a touchstone to which he returned again and again at key artistic and personal junctures: Acconci said he sometimes wondered whether it might be the single best piece he ever did.
The library, meanwhile, continued to grow (as libraries tend to do). When I last visited, it occupied nearly 400 linear feet of plain metal shelving that lined the perimeter of the Acconci Studio in Brooklyn. For all its tight organizational structure, the library was anything but tidy and archival; it had a slightly dishevelled air, oblique and askew, not unlike Acconci himself. It was what might be called a ‘working library’ – as a source of both reference and inspiration it was intrinsic to the functioning of the rest of Acconci’s design studio. Among the first things new arrivals to the design team had to do was learn the classification system in order to participate in the studio’s conceptually and verbally oriented collective design processes.
Six years ago I met with Acconci to talk about his library, and more specifically, about his system for organizing it. It was a sunny Sunday morning in Dumbo and the studio was empty and quiet. Acconci was there early, dressed as usual entirely in black, and, as usual, affable and loquacious. What follows is a slightly abridged version of that conversation.
George Stolz Do you remember why you started organizing your library this way?
Vito Acconci Probably because I was obsessed with the Whole Earth Catalog. But even before that I loved Roget’s Thesaurus. Those were the most important books of my life because they were books that weren’t just books – they were books of everything. They were a way to access the world, a way to access thinking about the world. The Whole Earth Catalog at that time to some of us … we just craved for the next issue to come out. It was a phenomenal thing, even the sub-title: ‘Access to Tools.’ You felt like, wow, okay, take the world into your hands. That’s why I did work using my own person. It was about instrumentality of person.
GS And Roget’s Thesaurus?
VA It’s a very different thing. It’s one person’s attempt, or a group of people’s attempt – and this is the great thing about it – not so much to understand the world, but more how to surf the world. It’s not encapsulations. It’s not individual. It’s a field. It opens things up rather than closes things off. When I’m really stuck, and I get stuck a lot, I always resort to this.
GS To this system?
VA To this book! Maybe we’re doing a pre-fab house and we’re really stuck, so I look up ‘pre-fab’ and that takes me to different places. Hopefully something will be shaken by that.
GS This ‘Synopsis of Categories’ at the front of the book – it’s wonderful. Whiteness. Blackness. Greyness. Brownness. It’s beautiful just to read it.
VA It’s unbelievable. One of the last poems I ever did was, starting with page one of Roget’s Thesaurus, copy down every word until I got to the first reference number, then go to that page, copy down every word until I got to the reference, and in about 35 pages I had got through the entire book.
GS When did you start using Roget’s Thesaurus?
VA I don’t think I know. I know I had a copy by 1962 when I got out of college and was in graduate school. I don’t remember if I had one when I was in college. I kind of suspect I did. My father probably introduced it to me – he introduced a lot of great things to me. My father was obsessed with words. My father never went to school – he did it himself. He was involved with puns. I grew up in a world of puns and it was a very exciting world, because everything was funny. Growing up like that was phenomenal. It was about ‘wow, this stuff is fun.’ It’s not school, it’s not study, it’s about having fun with the things around you.
GS With words?
VA Yeah, with words. Because you can twist them, warp them, turn them upside down. My father came to the US when he was 11 and got obsessed with the American language, the American language more than the English language.
GS The spoken language.
VA But there was also an obsession with Italian-ness – we went to La bohème at least eight times by the time I was six years old. Not having understood a word, but it was embedded. So even though it’s not really fair to him for me to say this – he read Dante to me, but at the same time he read Faulkner, he played Verdi for me, but at the same time he played Cole Porter – but for a while I thought that to do music, art, literature, that you had to be Italian. Which developed in me then a real resentment against Italy. An unfair resentment maybe, but obviously I had to have some rebellion. So I chose to go to the Irish Catholic school rather than the Italian Catholic school. A tiny rebellion. Bad choice. Introduced guilt. Whereas the Italian Catholics had no guilt at all.
GS Is your library growing?
VA Last night I just ordered USD$300 worth on Amazon. I probably spend USD$300 every two weeks. Books are expensive.
GS It doesn’t seem that big.
VA Not that big? Maybe not compared to Susan Sontag’s library.
GS This system is for you personally, but it’s also for organizing the books in your studio, where other people are working too. It has to function for them as well. Does it?
VA It has come up sometimes that people in the studio say they don’t know where to go to get something. Maybe it’s too private a system. And I have been criticized for other reasons. Sometime in the 1980s, a close friend of a woman I was going out with came here and said ‘typical male domination of the subject’. And maybe it is. I hope not. I hope it’s not a domination of the subject. I hope it’s ‘Tools of Access.’ I hope it’s a way to go through, that there’s a way to get through the multiple subjects. I hope it’s not killing them. That’s probably why there are 65 or 70 categories. If you get them down to five, six, seven, you would probably kill them. At least with 60 or 70 they might have a chance to breathe and grow a little bit.
GS So it has to function as a way to find the book you want when you want it, but then at the same time it still has to be useful for your thinking?
VA For me, yes, I need to find pathways through. So those categories are pathways – and that too goes back to Roget’s Thesaurus: you start with one, then you go to another, you go to another, you go to a byroad. That’s what shaped the way I think.
GS This really is your way of looking at the world, not only your way of organizing your books. It’s not anecdotal.
VA I don’t know if I’ve said this myself, or if sometimes someone has said: ‘I wonder if this is the best piece you’ve ever done?’ But sometimes I think: why do I find it hard to work sometimes? Why don’t I know where my ideas come from if I have all this? Why am I ever stuck? I’m stuck all the time. Maybe I don’t understand it enough myself.
GS What leads you to restructure your organizing system?
VA I know what led me to change the list from the ’70s. I was doing performance, activity, work that started from me, therefore the body was the base of it and ‘Body’ was the first major category. By the ’90s, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe in ‘the person’ anymore, but I didn’t believe in the dominance of the person. I wanted the person to be subsumed into something else.
GS And now? Does it need new classifications?
VA This one is certainly serviceable. But it needs some newer classification.
GS Why do you say that?
VA Why? Because I want to see where else can we go with it. It is a way to exercise my mind. I’ve made the system. I’ve stolen from others, just like in everything I’ve done. I don’t believe in creativity. I believe in organization. I believe in organization and disorganization. Let’s organize all the things I know: now let’s mix them up. I hate the notion of the creator. I don’t want to believe in God. I don’t care if God exists. I don’t want to believe that things are universal, even if they are. Because if things are universal, then there’s no reason to change. And I want a reason to change.
GS To reorganize.
VA All this stuff is there already. We just have to combine, separate, recombine.
GS Beyond the books themselves, does what you do with organizing the categories have significance to what you do with the studio?
VA It is significant to the way we work. We try not to allow ourselves when we are designing something to say ‘we need a door here’ or ‘we need a window here’. Because once we start using words like doors or windows, we get stuck in conventions. We try to use more general categories: ‘opening’ rather than ‘door’. What does ‘a door’ mean? A door means desire. If you’re outside you want to get in, if you’re inside you want to get out. Door means intrusion, or it means I want to spill, I want to spill out. I don’t know if I can say that’s how we think, but it’s certainly how I think.
GS And how you transmit your thought to others.
GS And they perhaps execute it in another language, in drawing.
VA That’s not how the studio works. The studio doesn’t execute what I think. The studio converses. The studio thinks together. It’s not my ideas. My idea is a starting point. This is a studio of collaborating people. They think just as much as I do. They’re not my instruments.
GS But after it has been thought about enough, it has to be translated in order to be built.
VA That goes back and forth too, all the revisions. And now it’s mostly computerized. Everybody thinks more digitally now. Even I do, even though I don’t know how to use the programs. We’re constantly trying to teach ourselves how we think with the computer, what is the computer asking us to do. Maybe I – more than the people in the studio who know the computer more than I do – maybe I might want to believe that maybe the computer has a mind of its own. Maybe we should try to combine with it.
GS Bring it in as a partner.
VA Yeah, bring it in as partner rather than okay, yeah we have this idea and now the computer carries it out. The computer can do more than that. Not everybody in the studio believes that. They might feel that the computer is a tool. It’s a tool maybe, but it has gathered so much information, that by this time I wonder whether it has an instrumental power of its own.
GS Not in terms of drawing maybe, but in terms of other things: words, hyperlinks, organization.
VA The big difference is that with the computer you don’t have to flip through pages to get somewhere: you go through. That’s a difference. That doesn’t mean it’s completely different, but it is a different way of thinking.
GS Space might be different in the computer.
VA Space is different, and I don’t know if I know how to define that difference. It has to be defined better than saying with a computer you go 'through.' That's not enough, that's not enough of a definition of its difference. If I’m in a time, which I am now, when I feel kind of lost about what I’m doing, it’s good to talk about this. Maybe I can re-find myself a little bit, or re-find my ways of thinking, and then let’s see where those go.
GS In what way are you kind of lost?
VA I’m kind of lost because I know we have to, and want to, use these much more digital ways of working – but I don’t think I get them. I don’t think the people in the studio get them either, even though they use them. We talk sometimes about the problems of it. Computation is a way to get at a surface, maybe a surface can get at a structure, but it really doesn’t get at a design idea. That doesn’t mean we have to have a design idea first and apply this, but I think none of us know how to use it. You get an amazing number of things where everybody’s drawings look all the same. We start to think – what separates UNStudio from Greg Lynn? Everybody’s using the same computer program. It’s probably the way it was in the Renaissance, when perspective was invented. Probably everybody’s drawings looked exactly the same until somebody made a drastic mistake. None of us have made that drastic mistake yet, that mistake that suddenly blows the system. Not that systems are bad, but they also are prisons. I love systems, but systems can act, they can determine too much. You have to find a way to misuse a system. Not even necessarily purposefully, you have to realize suddenly that you’re misusing it and now you’ve expanded it, you’ve let the system spill and it hasn’t become a trap.
GS This system for organizing your books is a system.
VA It could be a trap. And the categories always fail. I probably could stop doing anything except lists, let’s constantly revise the system. There’s always a book where I say ‘Where does this go?’
GS Where does this [Roget's Thesaurus] go?
VA Where does this go? It’s always on my desk!
Main image: Vito Acconci's Library. Photo: Elizabeth Felicella