As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Samuel Jablon sits down with legendary god of space, redefiner of public, and Bronx-born extraordinare, Vito Acconci.
Sam Jablon I’m Sam Jablon and I’m here with Vito Acconci at his studio. Vito is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based designer, writer, architect, performance artist and installation artist.
Vito Acconci But not all at the same time.
SJ Would you talk about the collaborative process of your studio?
VA I don’t have an architect’s background. Yet I’ve always wanted to do public spaces, city spaces, spaces that people are in and that people use. The studio began in 1988 after a time when I was working alone doing installations and doing kind of deployable pieces—deployable in the sense that they depended on a person becoming a user more than a viewer. A person would sit in something‚ like a swing or a house. I was doing pieces like this for a while and I thought, This is in the wrong context, this shouldn’t be in an art context; I have to find a way to do architecture.
Not everybody passes through art places, whereas there’s the possibility of anybody, not just somebody looking for art, passing through a city, going along a sidewalk, a street, et cetera. So when I was convinced of that‚ actually there was a kind of significant moment, almost something that sort of told me what to do. In 1988, I did a show at the Museum of Modern Art called Public Places. It was made up of some pieces done in the maybe three, four, five years before that, redone, and redone because at MoMA they had to be inside, whereas they had [previously] been in outdoor places. At the time there was a large green banner outside of MoMA and it said Vito Acconci Public Places and I felt … there’s this kind of incredible Jean Paul Sartre essay on the French novelist/playwright Jean Genet and it talks about how when Genet was a child he was caught stealing a loaf of bread, and the person who caught him said, “You’re a thief.” So Genet decided, “Now that I am called a thief I am going to become a thief.” Genet decided he had to live up to this essence because this name gave him an essence: he had to become a thief … . I felt kinda like that. (laughter)
Once that banner associated my name with Public Places I thought, I can’t go back, I have to really be involved with public spaces. It meant I had to work like an architect. I couldn’t work as a single person, I had to work as part of a group of people. And numbers started to become important to me. Though, when I first started Acconci Studio in 1988, there was just one person working with me. But after a while maybe there were two. The number three started to be incredibly important to me. I started to see one as a solo, two as a couple, or a mirror image; the third person starts an argument. So public starts when you’re at three people. That was kind of the basis. And these things were important because I didn’t have an architect’s background. But of course, I didn’t have an artist’s background either. The only thing I had, really, was a poetry background. I went to writing school—to the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa—but maybe we should get back to that later. The way I saw a studio of people, or a group of people working together, is that what it couldn’t be—because I don’t think I knew how to design alone—was one person, the so-called master architect. I always hated that notion.
I didn’t like that idea of one person defining the concept and the general design of a piece and other people coming in to carry out that design. I wanted people to be together and disagree with each other. I didn’t want people working with me so that we could all agree; I wanted people to always bring in some other idea. I thought collision was just as important as collaboration, maybe more important. I thought, If a space is toocomplete, why would anybody else want to come in? They would have nothing to do there. So I hoped that a space could be approachable, that an influx of people could potentially change a space‚ and that to me is the most important thing about public place. But I don’t know if that’s really possible to do.
I mean, the kinds of things I really want to make are spaces that people, when they use them, change, and are very conscious of themselves changing. I’d like a space to be a starting point. I think sometime in the future all architecture will be like this, where the architect sets something in motion and then people start to be just as important as the architect, they start to do it themselves. I don’t know how. It’s like what happens when you go into a supermarket. You can have anything you want as long as the supermarket carries it. It’s a very restrictive kind of freedom. People can do whatever they want as long as the architect has set it up. It’s got to go beyond that.
SJ Could you talk a little about … I know you want your spaces to liberate …
VA I think people used to think space was implacable, unchangeable. They took it for granted. I don’t dislike the idea of a playground—but as soon as it’s called a playground it’s like, “This is not a part of serious life. This is play time. Now I have to go to work.” But in our projects, the idea of a space becomes the opposite of a space you expect in everyday life. It shouldn’t be useless; if something can be turned upside-down, maybe it would have uses that you wouldn’t have known about if it was rightside-up. If it’s inside-out, maybe it has different kinds of uses. A lot of people have said, “The spaces you make make me want to change my own space.” That is maybe just a little start. But at least it’s possible. Now, do they do that? I don’t know. No, probably they go home and they say, “No, I don’t have to bother about this anymore. I can put it out of my mind. I can go back to normal, rightside-up living.” (laughter)
In some ways I would love to make the spaces that children ordinarily make for themselves. If some children would come in right now, they would probably ignore us and this table would become a house. They would be under the house and they would do whatever they wanted there while we lived our adult life. I think everybody trying to find something does that. Like a scientist trying to find something—they take what they already know and they break it apart, turn it upside-down. So I think it’s something that is really common to human beings. There’s this beautiful Wittgenstein statement, where a person says, “I don’t know what the moon is, show me the moon.” So the person he’s talking to points [at the moon]. And from that day on the person who asked the question thinks the moon is a finger. So language can be confusing, which is kind of interesting. But the thing about pointing is that‚ I mean, babies point; maybe babies point differently, maybe babies point at an adult because they want the adult to do something for them. Whereas when an adult points, I think it’s a way of being here and there at the same time—in the now and the future at the same time. They have this incredible equipment to anticipate and to try predict the future, try to meet the future, but most people say, “I want to live now and forget about the future.”
Architects can be the most conservative people in the world, because when you do architecture you’re really trapping people. You’re forcing people to live up to what you’ve done. That’s why the notion of change is so important to me. I think anytime you do architecture you’re inherently creating a prison. I think I was drawn to architecture because I hate architecture, because I think architecture enslaves you. I don’t want to believe that this has to be true. The architects at Archigram, whose architecture was never built, meant a lot to me. They had ideas of moving cities. There were a number of people there—one of them is dead now, named Ron Heron—and they did this series of drawings like The Walking City Visits New York, The Walking City Visits Tokyo. There’s a moving building with another building moving through it. I didn’t see that stuff till the late ’60s, maybe early ’70s. I started doing something in an art context, but somewhere in the back of my mind was this idea that I might be doing things that have to do with now, but I’m not doing anything that has to do with the future. And Archigram was the potential. Archigram wasn’t the future, but it did present some possible grasps at the future.
SJ Could you talk about how you design public spaces, as opposed to private?
VA We haven’t done that many private spaces. Sometimes I wonder, are we too involved—or am I too involved—with site, with place? I like site and place because if somebody is asking you to do something somewhere, it gives you an idea of what you could possibly do in relation to the site. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give in to the site, play up to the site, do something that the site suggests; you can also try and subvert the site. Maybe there are two kinds of architecture. The architecture that maybe some of these younger architects are doing is, “I don’t even want to pay attention to the site. Let’s think of what I’m building as a spaceship.” It has its own world, and it’s coming into a world it doesn’t come from. Another architect that interested me a lot was Bullet, an 18th-century architect. The 18th century, I think, was the beginning of “No more God.” It was people finding out stuff for themselves.
In the 19th century there was that beautiful Flaubert novel called Bouvard et Pécuchet. It was unfinished—maybe it was designed to be unfinished—because it was about these two people who were trying to write a dictionary of everything in the world. It would cover everything. But it would cover everything from a kind of human viewpoint. And that notion of a person finding out something has, I think, always been so important to me. I was brought up a Catholic so everything was supposedly solved until I realized that I wanted to do it myself. I remember being told—I don’t know if this was a lie or not—but my father used to always say that when I was a child I never wanted to be a priest. And the way he said it was that when somebody asked me, “Do you want to be a priest?”, I’d say, “No, I want to be God.” I don’t know if that’s true, that was probably my father’s hope that that’s what I would do, not that my father had anything to do with God, but he wanted me to be God. That’s a side note. (laughter)
But kind of interestingly, compared to Archigram, who later seemed to be making these perfect spaces—a sphere doesn’t need a world around it, whereas a walking city does—a walking city needs an existing city to walk through, to walk past. But Bullet and Archigram were really important. Piranesi was very important to me. Piranesi’s prison drawings were kind of astonishing to me. They’re like these spaces where it’s almost as if a prison doesn’t even need walls, you just need these endless places to keep walking and turning. It’s kind of like you’re in this constant labyrinth. If you’re in a labyrinth you don’t need walls, you just can’t stop walking. So if I have architecture heroes they’re probably those three: Bullet, Piranesi, and Archigram. Not heroes, but inspirations.
Looking at Roget’s Thesaurus is also very important to me. I just love the idea of Roget’s Thesaurus as contrasted to a dictionary, because a dictionary seems to be part of a mechanical world; it’s about definitions. Roget’s Thesaurus was a way to almost complicate language. If you look up a word in Roget’s Thesaurus there are analogues of the word. So you never get the word defined—the word takes you on different journeys. The most interesting thing to me was that the way you used Roget’s Thesaurus was that things are alphabetical at the back of the book, so you can look up something like the word you’re trying to find, but it gets you to a number of words, each to a different number in the book. So even if—it’s so much about the act of going back and forth in the book. You might go to a number, you might go to page 340. But then there’s a number that takes you to page 10, or to page 212. So the great thing about it for me was [that] you’re kind of journeying through a book. A book is a way to journey in a kind of a portable space. You can always take a book with you. Whereas when you’re journeying in the world, you are probably being taken there by the world. So it gives you at least the illusion for a while that you’re kind of controlling the journey. I don’t know how we got here.
SJ I kind of like where we are.
VA Interestingly, this is how we have meetings at the studio; we start someplace, and we’re really going somewhere else. I hope I’ve finally learned to think non-linearly. But non-linearly doesn’t mean haphazard. It means you think in terms of a network rather than a line.
SJ Do you see an influence of your poetry on your architecture?
VA I obviously didn’t know then—I really thought I was a writer. I mean I remember a long, long, long time ago when, in grammar school, in elementary school when I drew a lot, and I remember teachers saying I could be an artist, I could be a writer. It wasn’t true at all because I wasn’t really drawing, I was copying. I did a little sports magazine when I was ten years old, eight years old. The last issue I did had a cover story with a once famous boxer, Rocky Marciano, on the cover. And the lead story was “Why Marciano Can’t Fight.” And then he won the heavyweight championship two months after my sports magazine. (laughter) So I stopped. It was only one issue, read by my mother and father and grandmother. I started to realize, when I looked at stuff, that I was just copying from photographs. Did I know when I was eight years old I wanted to be a writer? Probably not. By the time I was in high school I did. I was writing fiction in high school and college.
When I went to graduate school at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, I was in the fiction workshop. One of the writers that I loved at that time, who was writing in the ’60s, was an American writer—not tremendously famous, but for me he was probably the most important writer of the second half of the 20th century—a person named John Hawkes. His stuff is around, it’s not out of print.
It’s interesting in the United States: in print and not being in print. When William Faulker won the Nobel Prize, I think in 1950, or somewhere between ’50 and ’58, all of his books were out of print. It was the French—the French idolized Faulkner. Probably without that it would never have happened. I liked Faulkner because he seemed to know that it’s really impossible to put a period down because a period is so final that once you put a period down, what can you do? So he tried to keep things going and going and going. People at that time talked in grand terms—they do now too, I just might not pay attention—but Faulkner always talked about how “man will not only endure, he will prevail.” And I think that notion had something to do with a sentence. If you don’t capitulate to the idea of a period, then you’re not stopped. Now you can at least endure and maybe you can prevail. He didn’t go as far as Joyce, but he did it in a very American way. It was much more concrete than Joyce, at least it was for me. It was language talking about bodily actions. It wasn’t language talking about abstractions. And this was probably when I started to realize that I have no business being a Catholic because this is all about universals.
I don’t believe in universals. I don’t understand big words like God, truth, beauty. But I do understand words like chair, floor, hand. I want the things to be specific. And I started to think that abstractions are for politics and religion because they want people to believe something. I never wanted to be in the position of a teacher. I wanted to be in the position of being able to present something in writing. I don’t want to tell the viewer, I don’t want to tell the reader what to believe. I want to present enough specifics that this person, maybe by himself or herself, or maybe by talking with somebody else, might start to think about what they might believe. Maybe you can’t help wanting people to believe what you believe. But if I want people to believe what I believe then what I really believe in is the possibility that you can always change your beliefs. You don’t have to be grounded by them. I guess that’s why I love that finger pointing. My finger can only go so far, but what it’s pointing to is kind of limitless, though not abstract. Specifics are so important to me.
Chrissy Ilsles was over from the Whitney yesterday and some ’60s music came up. I played this incredible song which was also a terrifying song by a person named Dory Previn, who was André Previn’s wife at the time when André Previn left her to live with and marry Mia Farrow. The song was called Lady with the Braid and this person was saying to this guy who she just slept with, “Can you stay here til sunrise?” And the reason is, going home is such a long drive. So postpone it for a while. And it’s a horrifying song that gives us such a frightening, and sometimes correct, picture of some women. She’s desperate about everything. But desperate in such a knowing way that it’s one of the most disgusting songs I’ve ever heard. Because at one point towards the end she says, “Yes, stay a while because it’s such a long ride home.” But then she keeps saying, “Do you want to see this, this is something I’ve made myself. Do you want to stay awhile and save my life?” And then, just a second or two later, she says, “Oh, I don’t know why I said that. I have such a funny sense of humor, I can’t be downhearted if I try.” It’s a kind of astonishing thing. It’s a song that comes so close to almost being a strange confession. Anyway, I don’t remember why this came up in this meeting with Chrissy Ilsles. I remember then saying, “I wonder sometimes, maybe anything is acceptable if it’s totally specific.” If you are referring to something concretely and specifically, even if you’re doing something that’s almost disgusting, and that song almost is—but it’s so specific that you start to be able to judge, “Where do I want to be in relation to this?” It makes you judge for yourself. I want everything to be against religion. It’s so important to me. And against politics, too.
Samuel Jablon is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work explores travel, interaction, daily experience, and an individual madness/obsession with absurdity, contemplation, and humanity.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.