Interview with Vito Acconci: From my space to yours

Shaking off the "continental" label has been a lifetime's work


Vito Acconci began his career as a poet concerned less with the meaning of words than the page-space they inhabited. In the late 1960s, he became a photographer, video and performance artist using his own body as a subject. Between 1969 and 1973, he performed and developed more than 200 conceptually structured, body-related works, many incorporating subversive social commentary, including Seedbed, 1971, during which he lay masturbating beneath floorboards at Sonnabend Gallery while vocalising fantasies via a loudspeaker about visitors walking overhead. In 1988, he founded Acconci Studio, focusing on architecture and landscape design with an emphasis on public/private spaces. The studio has been awarded this year’s Designer of the Year prize by Design Miami. Acconci has taught at Yale University and Parsons School of Design. He currently teaches at Brooklyn College and is adjunct associate professor at the Pratt Institute in the graduate architecture and urban design department.

The Art Newspaper: Design Miami’s Designer of the Year award is a huge accolade. How do you feel about receiving this recognition of your work?

Vito Acconci: I’ve gotten used to people not thinking of “Acconci Studio”—only of “Vito Acconci”—and my 1970s work about the body that made me, made my reputation. It has also ruined my reputation, holding me back in time as if I’ve never done any work since the 1970s. Even worse, it has stopped some people from thinking I could ever do any work that lived up to that. I hope it makes me think and do work that I couldn’t before. I hope people think more about Acconci Studio than about Vito Acconci.

Your projects span a wide breadth of disciplines. Did one interest lead to another? And which has become the most important for you?

When I thought of myself as a writer in the 1960s, I questioned what made me go from the left to the right margin, from one page to another. As I thought of the space I was also thinking about time. Then I thought: “Why am I limiting myself to a piece of paper when there’s a world out there?” I focused on performance in the early 1970s because the common language of the time was “finding oneself”. In a time like that, what else could I do but turn in on myself and then go from me to you? Photography, film and video were sidesteps—spaces in front of you—whereas I was more interested in the space where you were in the middle. Now I’m involved with peopled spaces—that’s design and architecture.

Much of your earlier work has been confrontational and controversial. How important is it for you to push the boundaries of art and architecture?

I don’t think I ever intended a piece or performance to be controversial. Confrontational, yes—because I like working close-up. When thinking about a project, I might consider it from a distance but when I think of a person being there, myself, for example, I need to be in the middle of things. I don’t want views from afar.

Can you describe the connecting thread linking all your work from your first projects to the present day?

Specificity. I’m drawn to abstract ideas but I don’t like abstract words because they tell a person what to think. They don’t let people think for themselves. I’ve wanted things we’ve done to show themselves as facts. It’s up to individual people to sum up—to abstract—from those facts.

Do you feel your conceptual art was understood at the time you produced it—and now?

I don’t know if I ever did so-called “Conceptual art”. My activities/­performances in the early 1970s used my body and other people’s bodies. My installations in the later 1970s were spaces visitors walked through or sat inside. Once something is tangible, it probably can’t be conceptual. At the same time, you can’t do anything unless you first have an idea. The idea guides or impels you. The words “Conceptual art” gave museum and gallery-goers an upper hand: the feeling of knowing something other people don’t know.

Which, of all your projects, makes your heart beat fastest?

Our project for a new World Trade Center in New York. It’s a building full of holes. If a building is going to be blown up, then maybe it should come pre-exploded. It can act as urban camouflage so a potential terrorist flying overhead says we don’t have to deal with that one. And when a building is full of holes, the rest of the city—parks, street vendors—comes inside. When buildings mix private and public spaces, each is more understandable, more graspable, when matched with its opposite.

When you are designing a space, which elements are the most important—aesthetics, functionality or the experience people will have?

Not functionality so much as multi-functionality. If something has a number of uses, you might not find them all at once. You get to know them and use them only after time. I’ve never understood aesthetics: the word smacks of “appreciation”, being far enough away from something that you can savour it, sniff it, from afar. It seems as if you’re letting yourself be taken in by something. I’m a fan of complexity, of getting almost lost, getting entangled in the folds.

What are you currently ­working on?

A project in Indianapolis—a tunnel through a building. As you walk or cycle through, you activate sensors above and below that set off LED lights like swarming fireflies that move from one person to another.

Tell me about your Design District installation.

It’s a mix of physical and virtual. You walk through clouds or mesh and settle inside a cubby-hole. You hear my voice, winding from one enclave to another: “This is the second saddest story I ever heard…”

• A Design Miami talk with Vito Acconci and Mitchell Joachim is due to take place on 6 December (6pm-7pm)

• Acconci Studio’s Here/There, Now/Later is at the Buena Vista Building, Miami Design District, until 9 December