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Vito Acconci Photo

Vito Acconci

American Artist and Architect

Born: January 24, 1940 - New York City, United States
Died: April 27, 2017 - New York, United States
"What I loved about performance was the fact that presenting and doing were one and the same."
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Vito Acconci
"If I can't change the world, then maybe I can at least change something about the space in the world, the instruments in the world. What keeps me living is this: the idea that I might provide some kind of situation that makes people do a double-take, that nudges people out of certainty and assumption of power. (Another way of putting this: some kind of situation that might make people walk differently.)"
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"I never leave out public opinion, not public appreciation but public consideration, public response; people are part of all the pieces I do. I anticipate a range of responses, or at least actions."
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"I really don't know how to be interested in any relationship that doesn't cause trouble for me and potentially for another person."
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"Public art anticipates its own history, it envisions its own revolution against it."
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"You had only one chance; you were like a stand-up comedian. The lights go on, and you had no other recourse, you had to make do"
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"I think the architecture of the future is going to be moveable. I won't be alive. But I think the future will be, no national boundaries, so that maybe you'll carry your home with you like the turtle."
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Vito Acconci

Summary of Vito Acconci

Always adventurous in his decades-long career, Vito Acconci worked across mediums and disciplines, having started as an experimental poet before gaining attention in the art world through his boundary-pushing performances. Some of his early works used sex and eroticism to create new and at times uncomfortable viewing situations, challenging the art world's propriety, even as they also drew criticisms for their sometimes sexist overtones. Throughout, his evolving relationship with the viewer remained a central thread linking his varied artistic outputs, all of which re-imagine the artwork-viewer dynamic in participatory ways. In some of his early works, viewers became complicit as voyeurs, witness to Acconci's sexual drama, or were potentially subject to the artist's aggressive tactics. Later installation works let viewers manipulate the objects to activate them and fostered social interactions. While his 1970s pieces remain his best-known work, Acconci was also an accomplished designer whose studio came up with innovative proposals and iconic public architectural projects.

Accomplishments

  • Acconci was not content with creating art objects for the public's neutral consumption in a traditional art-viewing context. Instead, he instigated situations, installations, and participatory contexts that broke through the typical public-private separation in society.
  • Through sexuality and even aggression, the artist pushed his art into a new level of intensity and affective involvement, sometimes with provocative gestures, such as by masturbating underneath the floorboard on which viewers walked, and sometimes with startling vulnerability in laying bare his abjection and desires. Beyond sex as pornographic exposure, his work centered on his complicated psyche as a male subject within social environments.
  • Acconci drew on Conceptual Art to interrogate language, its unstable signifying structure, and potential beyond everyday communication. He used his body and sometimes video as a basis for these early investigations. In so doing he also became a pioneer in Performance Art and Video Art.
  • Acconci's use of his body explored what the art historian Elise Archias characterizes as the "concrete body" in art, that is, its inherent construction of embodiedness (inseparable, in fact, from language). His video work stands out especially for its foregrounding of the medium as a technology that mediates and relays images of the body and its underlying subjectivity, as well as the use of language as a tool for manipulation and the creation of a heightened atmosphere. His interactive installations can be considered a precursor to Relational Aesthetics of the 1990s.
  • Later in his career Acconci designed installations and public space projects that invited audience participation and fostered interactions between passersby, all done with an understanding of how space and politics, including global geopolitics, intertwined.

Biography of Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci Life and Legacy

The multiple possibilities of audience involvement, whether physical, psychic, or emotional, were key to Acconci's artistic propositions from the start. As he moved away from Performance, his installation and public art projects invited hands-on involvement of the audience. The multipurpose Murinsel in Graz, Austria remains an iconic design that still functions to this day as a creative hub.

Important Art by Vito Acconci

Following Piece (1969)

One of Acconci's best-known works, Following Piece (1969) was the artist's early foray into themes of voyeurism, agency, and the public/private separation. In this game-like activity performed on the streets of New York City for nearly a month, the artist followed the same instructions everyday: "Each day I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street. I follow a different person every day; I keep following until that person enters a private place (home, office, etc.)."

The process varied in length, lasting anywhere from a couple of minutes and up to several hours, depending on the subject he chose each day. Acconci documented the activity by taking notes while following the individuals. For practical reasons, he did not carry a camera, and no photographs were taken of the performance. However, the final work exhibited in the gallery did incorporate staged photographs. Acconci explained, "It doesn't count unless there's a photograph. Art magazines deal with images. So I thought, I have to have photographs of Following Piece."

The act of following random individuals can be associated with danger. It certainly was voyeuristic and designed to make the viewer uncomfortable with the power dynamic between the artist and his unknowing subjects. Yet the scheme created by the artist also required him to give up a certain degree of agency: "I am almost not an 'I' anymore; I put myself in the service of the scheme." The performance based on predefined parameters, as well as the moderation of the artist's agency, puts this work within the lineage of Performance Art, Conceptual Art, and Fluxus in the 1960s, even as its involvement of the public and more aggressive overtone anticipated 1970s Performance Art and what the art historian Amelia Jones calls Body Art: work that makes use of the artist's body as a medium.

The work reveals a thread that will be dominant throughout Acconci's career: his persistent exploration and blurring of the public and private boundaries. Conceived as part of a public exhibition wherein artists were invited to create performance and conceptual work on the streets of New York, Following Piece signals the artist's interest in examining the power dynamic and erotics of human relations and encounters in ways that had until then not been addressed by other artists, at least not in such an explicit manner. It also played a significant role in the artist's early development before he branched out into further photographic activities, and experimentations with video art.

Remote Control (1971)

In the performance Remote Control, Acconci and his companion Kathy Dillon sat in two wooden boxes in separate rooms. The set up included a monitor in front of each of them, which allowed them to see and hear one another. The viewer could see the pair on separate channels. Throughout the performance, Acconci and Dillon attempted to interact and respond to one other, as if their communication were unmediated.

Acconci stated that his aim was to "control the girl's mental framework and behavior - lead her to perform particular actions on herself inside her cramped private space. I will be constantly talking and using my body in an attempt to manipulate her." In the performance, he instructed Dillon to tie herself up with a rope, urging her to think of the rope as his own body wrapping itself around her. Initially, Dillon complied, but later she reacted to these manipulative tactics and asserted her own will.

As Acconci used language and gestures to manipulate and assert domination over his subject, Remote Control brings to mind questions of power dynamics between a male artist and his female subject that have, in fact, been inherent in the use of live models in art history. Similar to Following Piece (1969) but more explicit and layered, the work has sexual and voyeuristic implications, including for the viewer: what the artist describes as "private activity for two persons, in two enclosures" is passively consumed by an audience through a different monitor. The isolation of the couple and the reliance on technology as the only means of communication emphasizes the manipulative potential and danger associated with media technology as isolation chambers. While the title of the work refers to the artist's "remote control" of Dillon, it also implicates the viewer watching them as if on a television channel, anticipating more contemporary displays of power dynamics and manipulation of subjects such as on reality television.

Dillon and Acconci were living together at the time, and they collaborated on several performance pieces in the early 1970s including Applications (1970) Pryings (1971) Conversions I, II and III (1971) and more.

Seedbed (1972)

Acconci's most iconic and notorious performance. The artist set up a wooden ramp halfway across the empty Sonnabend Gallery space, and then crawled under the ramp, concealing himself from gallery visitors. While occupying the confined space under the floor, Acconci masturbated repeatedly and shared aloud his sexual desires and fantasies with the audience. When visitors entered the gallery space, the artist would hear their steps, which fueled him to vocalize his unfiltered thoughts and desires, prompting the audience to react.

Seedbed deals with a central theme in Acconci's art, challenging the boundaries between the public and the private spheres and pushing further his exploration of voyeurism, desire, and power relations. By performing what is regarded as a private and intimate act in a public space, he attacked public norms, especially in an art gallery, a seat of modern high culture. By vocalizing his sexual desires, Acconci also brought his inner sexual-psychological landscape out in the open, in a cultural context where most people had been conditioned to keep theirs private.

The art critic and curator Germano Celant equates Seedbed with failed coitus: the artist dreams of an impossible penetration, which is transmitted to the audience through the floor. His action disrupted the regular art-going experience, jolting visitors out of their presumed neutrality in approaching art - but within an atmosphere of uncertainty and discomfort, if not menace, pushing at the edge of personal boundaries. From today's perspective, the gender identification, sexuality, and personal history of each audience member would inevitably have been a significant part of how the work was received, whether, for example, as provocation or harassment.

Seedbed can be understood within the context of his artwork exploring human relations around this time, not only in sexual or intimate relationships, but also the implicit, underlying dynamics of the public sphere, including between artist and viewer. Whereas his previous work often implicated his viewers as voyeurs, this performance explicitly turned the table on the audience, who could not see Acconci. They were unable to confirm what exactly he was doing under the floor or even whether he was there at all times.

Over time, Acconci developed an ambivalent attitude toward the work: "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."

In 2005, another pioneer of performance art, Marina Abramovic performed a variation of Seedbed as part of the performance Seven Easy Pieces (2005) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Vito Acconci
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Rosemary Mayer
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    Bernadette Mayer
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    Kathy Dillon
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    John Tagiuri
  • No image available
    Maria Acconci
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Vito Acconci Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
Available from:
First published on 06 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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