Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
I met Vito in Vienna in 1986. We’ve been following each other around, in a way, ever since: we both showed at International with Monument and now we both show with Barbara Gladstone. He just had a show, and my show followed his: I told him I felt like the Rolling Stones following James Brown at the Tammy Awards in 1964. I wanted to talk to him about mainstream cults.
Richard Prince Born in the Bronx, 1946?
Vito Acconci1940; I wish you were right with 1946.
RP And graduated from Holy Cross in 1962?
VA Went to Catholic elementary school, high school, college. There wasn’t a woman in my classroom between kindergarten and graduate school.
RP When did you come to New York?
VA I thought I was always here; the Bronx, after all. But then again, in retrospect, it was like the country, a wild country where I grew up, but at the same time, a kind of Midwest in New York. Then I went to the real Midwest, graduate school in Iowa City. I came back to New York in 1964 and saw a lot of movies. I was writing poetry then; I saw a Jasper Johns for the first time, and realized that I was at least ten years behind my time.
RP 1971: John Gibson Gallery—who were some of the artists around then? Was anybody else doing things like you? What about minimalism? Robert Smithson?
VA I thought everybody was doing things like I was. I think we all shared the same general concerns, to break out of, and break, the gallery system—to range the way the “Whole Earth Catalogue” ranged—to be as articulate as possible about work so that art wasn’t mystified, to see art as just one system in an interrelated field of systems, to hate the United States, and power, during the Vietnam War.
Minimalism was my father-art. For the first time, I was forced to recognize an entire space, and the people in it (I had to look at the light socket on the wall, just in case, I wasn’t going to play the fool). Until minimalism, I had been taught, or I taught myself, to look only within a frame; with minimalism the frame broke, or at least stretched.
Smithson was probably everybody’s conscience. Maybe because Smithson went outside, I could go inside—I had to go somewhere else—inside myself.
RP What about someone like Dennis Oppenheim?
VA He’s the art context person I’ve been personally closest to, from the beginning. He’s the most restless artist I know.
RP Chris Burden was somebody on the other coast who got a lot of publicity for that gun shot piece. I always thought that was a major network piece, something the prime timers, Life or People magazine, could get, whereas your work was more a mainstream cult. Your pieces didn’t have any hambone or dancing bear stuff in them. Your work never seemed to have a facelift. What did you think of that Burden piece—cheap shot? Good shot? Corn ball? Did you roll your eyes and say, “Please?”
VA I didn’t take Chris seriously enough until later; maybe at first, I saw him as a competitor—anything you can do I can do better, anything you can do, I can do more tortuously. I pay more attention to him now than ever: he grabs particular situations better than anyone else—for that situation, after careful consideration, he performs a serious prank.
RP I see the media as the Antichrist. How do you view the media?
VA My early work depended on media. An action needed reportage, it didn’t exist unless it was reported. For my work now, I see the media as a travel guide, it points out places. But the situation hasn’t changed much, most of the public stuff I do doesn’t get built. It remains in model form, the embodiment of the idea. A model space is a purified space, away from the changes of place and time and people; media can put it, if not into an actual place, at least into the news. As long as there are multiple media, I love the “distortions” of media, because those distortions are multiplied and contradictory.
RP What about feminism? The difference between the ’70s and now?
VA My early work came out of a context of feminism, and depended on that context. Performance in the early seventies was inherently feminist art. I, as a male doing performance, was probably colonizing it.
RP Pornography—what do you find pornographic?
VA A conversation in which a man keeps touching a woman’s arm, a man on the street looking back at a woman who’s just walked by; a man kissing goodbye a woman he’s just met … and probably a woman doing the same. I don’t know if these things are pornographic, but they’re probably obscene.
RP What kind of sex do you like?
VA The kind in which two people use every part of their bodies and every secretion of those bodies and every level of pressure those bodies can exert.
RP Did you have any encounters with the Vietnam War?
VA I was in the usual demonstrations. I was one of the usual suspects. My early work came out of the context of the Vietnam War: self-immolation, boundary protection, aggression. The problem was that the work generalized those themes away from a particular target. It made them “ideas” and not political action.
RP They always talk about your voice. You really think you would have been able to fuck anyone without it (using your voice as a sexual persuasion)?
VA Anyone? Well, that’s probably exaggerated. But there are people I would never have fucked with if I hadn’t been an “art star.”
It’s not that I’ve used my voice as a sexual persuasion. I hope I’ve never tried to persuade anyone to fuck me. My voice probably has, for some people, a storage of sexual associations (Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino). Also, it seems to come out of some depths, so it probably promises intimacy, sincerity, integrity, maybe some deep, dark secret (it ties into biases of Western culture, it seems to go beyond surfaces).
RP You live in your studio.
VA I can’t separate living and working; I like to sleep for an hour, get up, work, sleep again, etc. I need to have books and records (tapes, CDs) around me at all times like pets, like walls.
RP You’re Catholic. Is that like being …
VA Was Catholic. But you didn’t finish the question. The thing that still interests me about Catholicism is the number of saints. There’s no void, no distance between “person” and “God.” There are all those saints in between: every misfit, every problem has a patron saint attached. So you’re always part of a crowd, and there’s no abstraction, everything’s tangible.
RP What kind of drugs have you taken? Have they done anything for you?
VA The usual late sixties drugs: pot, hash, mescaline, not even LSD. And hardly more than once. I was only a tourist. I get woozy, I’m afraid of losing control.
RP There’s an old joke, “Sex between two people is beautiful. Sex between five people is fantastic.” What would be an ideal sex situation for you?
VA Theoretically, sex with everybody. In fact, sex with one person I feel inextricably connected with.
RP What are your favorite TV programs, if you watch it at all?
VA Mainly watch when I’m eating. It could be anything (eat anything, watch anything). Eat late; so I see news, Nightline, Night Heat, ends of ballgames, commercials.
RP Movies? Which one comes to mind?
VA The Searchers, Videodrome, Blade Runner, Detour, Phantom of Paradise, Shock Corridor, Double Indemnity, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Last Year at Marienbad …
RP Do you ever feel like disappearing? Your early pieces had an appearance/disappearance method to them.
VA The early work applied stress to the body that then had to adapt, change, open up, because of that stress. Remember, this was just after the late sixties, the time—the starting time of gender other than male, race other than white, culture other than Western; I wanted to get rid of myself so there could be room for other selves.
RP You’ve said a lot of the early work focused on your self so you started using a camera because one thing you were sure of was that “I had my own person.” Do you see a difference between personality and person?
VA Personality fixes person, makes it static. That was a flaw of my early work: it started by being the activity of a person, any person, like any other—but once that person became photographed it became a specialized person, the object of a personality cult. After a while, anyone who knew work of mine knew what I looked like; action had become trademark. So I had to disappear from my work, certainly. And that takes us back to the question before this: I don’t know if I ever feel like disappearing—spreading out and branching out maybe—but I’m stuck with old habits: I want to keep working, other people work with me, there’s got to be someone for them to work with, I have to be around somewhere so work can be around elsewhere.
RP Do you still see yourself as a male cartoon?
VA When I said that, I meant—I hope I meant—not “myself” but “myself-as-performer” in some of the early work, where maleness was made so blatant that it stood out like a cartoon: so then it could be targeted, it could be analyzed, it could be pilloried.
I still see a lot of my work as cartoon-like: turn a house upside down, build a miniature Supreme Court that’s “ours” and submerge it in the ground in front of “theirs.” I’d like a piece to appear in the world, on the street, like anything else on the street except that maybe it’s in a dot matrix, maybe the colors are too simplified, maybe it oozes.
VA Except for early stuff, like Knife in the Water, I haven’t thought about his movies much. I think of the person, or the myth of the person, more than the work, and I don’t like that myth; I’ve been in relationships with people much younger than I am, and he makes a relationship like that look ugly, and I don’t want to believe they have to be ugly.
RP Have you ever had someone who you’ve been close to come to some unspeakable harm?
VA People died, in ordinary ways, probably too unspeakable.
RP What’s your relationship to your mother?
VA We speak on the phone every night; I’m an only child; my father’s been dead over 25 years. By this time we should know each other, but neither of us asks the right questions; maybe, in spite of all the phone time, we leave each other alone too much.
RP Would you consider serving on the Supreme Court?
VA I don’t want to make laws and commandments. I do want to make places that function as models, models for activities, but models can be tampered with, and added to and subtracted from, and there’s no punishment.
RP What did you mean by “dumb literalness”?
VA I don’t remember in which context I said this. What I would mean now is: I want a thing, a place, to just be there, and not look as if it’s asking for interpretation—maybe you wonder about it later, or you wonder about it on the side, but you don’t have to talk about it in order to use it—something that’s so clear you can’t believe your eyes, something without an inside, like a stone.
RP Can insanity be prevented?
VA For me, insanity would be like a vacation, or a belief in god; out of desperation, you let yourself fall into it.
RP When a person says gloomily, “No one understands me,” are they telling the truth?
VA They’re telling the truth in the sense that they’re making a demand: “Don’t understand me.” (Underneath the imperative is a subjunctive: “I hope nobody understands me, because if somebody does, then I’m just like everybody else. Who am I then?”)
RP Do you think anyone understands how another person feels?
VA Everybody, in a particular culture, understands the language other people in that culture use when talking about feelings, and that’s all understanding can do, it can understand language. Language is the realm of feelings when thought about or talked about, and that’s enough to take us from language to some kind of action.
RP Did you ever play any sports?
VA When I was a child; all the usual sports, in the usual awkward way. At the same time, from the early sixties, I’ve had a make-believe baseball player. I follow his career, think about him when I’m falling asleep, when I’m drifting around the studio. He’s my age, based on somebody I went to elementary school with (there had to be a real person to ground this on, though that real person was, as far as I know, nothing like this make-believe person, the real person functioned as a man without qualities, only the bones onto which all my storage could be grafted). The ballplayer’s an outfielder (all alone like an American pioneer), he’s batted .500 once, hit 121 home-runs one season, pitched a little toward the end of his career in the mid-eighties (relief pitcher, came in just when everybody needed him). He’s played other sports off-season (the thing about this guy is that he has only basic skills, he’s taught himself to be—willed himself into being—a superhuman player). One trouble is, he’s been traded a lot, he sticks out like a sore thumb, he’s never been on a World Series-winning team. He has a personal life: he’s gone out with actresses, rock singers. After he retired, he made a movie, 24 hours long, about the real invention of baseball, around the wagon trains on their way west (Jodie Foster plays the woman who began the sport). He’s making a comeback now, trying to stretch his career into four decades (he tried a comeback a few years ago, but he had gotten into trouble with some kids at The Palladium, and was drummed out of baseball). Now he’s playing with Oakland. After all, people forget. And anyway, they don’t worry about that sort of thing in the birthplace of the Raiders, so now he has one last chance at a World Series, one last chance at being a team player on this team of individuals.
RP Do you think women are more easily satisfied with their portraits than men?
VA More easily satisfied with (painted) portraits, less with photographs. (I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, I’m just playing your game.)
RP I was wondering, do you think you can break a bad habit by practicing it to excess?
VA By practicing it to excess, you can break the habit of calling it a “bad habit.” It just becomes ordinary life.
RP Do you think it is possible to reason with people who are in love?
VA When I’m in love, I think I can be reasoned with most easily. On one hand, I’m always eager to find reasons to question my love, break that love; on the other hand, I’m determined to be in this love-state, love-event. But, in order to be really determined and adamant, I have to know all the reasons against it, and do it anyway.
RP Is there one sure sign that you’re not an emotional grown-up?
VA When I’m stuck on a piece, or when I hate my work, and I complain about this to people around me, I’m making the assumption that other people would be interested in what are, after all, ordinary troubles, and just mine, and of no concern to them.
RP What’s the best way to conquer fear?
VA My early pieces were based on stage-fright. In every early performance, I spent the first few minutes having second thoughts, “This is the worst piece I’ve ever done. The only honest thing is to admit this and get out of here.” But then, after a while, since the pieces usually involved some kind of talk, both to myself and to others, after a while I talked myself into it. I was hypnotized and the piece went on. (But, if I conquered anything, it was only the fear of performing. In everyday life, I’d be as afraid as I always was.)
RP How would you cure an inferiority complex?
VA Remind myself of some kernel of something in some piece I’ve done, tell myself that this could—just possibly—improve and range in the future. That might be illusory, of course, but so might the inferiority complex. I’d be fighting it at its own level.
RP Under what circumstances would you murder someone?
VA I could see myself murdering the Fascists in Salo, the rapists in Ms 45.
RP Don’t you think it’s a little pessimistic to believe you can read a person’s character by the way they look?
VA Yes, since it implies direct cause-and-effect. The character causes the look, and the look causes the character, and there’s no escape. But it might also be said to be optimistic, the belief that things can be so solvable and handle-able.
RP Is anything worth worrying about?
VA Yes. Falling into old habits, customary modes of working, already-used solutions. At the same time, I worry about not reusing solutions. I have a tendency, when starting a piece, to act as if I’ve never done a piece before, as if I have nothing to fall back on. I worry about that, so I have to assume it’s worth worrying about. It’s worth worrying about because it reveals a romanticization, a desire to divorce myself from history, from my own history, a desire to think of myself as a person alone in a vast unanswering universe—I hate ideas like that so I’d better worry about it.
RP What about anxiety, do you have any?
VA Anxiety about exclusion from large group shows, particularly European shows, anxiety that certain directions aren’t clear enough in my work. (E.g., I think of my work as more political than apparently a lot of other people think. I think the only way art should exist is as politics, as a critique of power and an impetus to change. I’m anxious: either I’m missing something or they’re missing something, and if it’s them then I’m missing an opportunity to change their minds.)
My biggest anxiety is that my stuff just isn’t good enough, and sometimes I can’t even answer “good enough for what?” That’s what causes the anxiety.
RP Is there some piece you’ve wanted to put out there but thought, “Even I couldn’t get away with that?”
VA There have been pieces I didn’t know how to do, so I never worked them out far enough to put out. In the early days, there was an idea of some performance on a floor filled with babies. In the early ’80s, there were some vague ideas of walking houses and rolling homes.
Doing a public space project always means adaptation, and modification, sometimes because of subject matter (no pricks, no cunts, no burning American flags), sometimes because of safety standards (no holes, no heights without railings). But I don’t think I’ve felt stopped from something I’ve wanted to do. I don’t think I’d want to do something that didn’t fit into the conventions of public space (the pieces aren’t put out in front of people, they already contain within them at least a general idea of people, actions and customs). You don’t put something out, you infiltrate, you squeeze something through.
RP What part of women do you like best? I like the voice, I think, just the way a woman can say your name.
VA The vagina. If the person is someone I’m not involved with, then the vagina must be the reason that the characteristics/qualities I’m drawn to in that person are different from those similar characteristics in a man. If the person is someone I’m involved with, then the vagina is, literally, my way to get inside that person and that person’s way to envelop me.
RP What do you live for?
VA 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.)
RP Do you eat pizza?
VA Yes. There was a time in the seventies when I couldn’t walk by a pizza parlour I hadn’t tried, I had to go in for a slice. I wanted to eat every pizza in New York.
RP Who do you think the Pat Boone of the art world is?
VA This might be the question I love most, but I have no idea how to answer it. (Shit, I suddenly have one or two ideas, but I won’t say a word.)
Let me avoid the question. The thing that means most to me about Pat Boone is that for people of my situation and class, at a certain time, he made black music available—distorted certainly—but enough so that you could go and hunt down the real thing.
RP What makes you cry? Is there some kind of music, a scene in a movie?
VA Twice, when a person I was in love with left me, I cried. Now, in love with someone, I cry sometimes when I’m with her and I feel I’m part of her and she’s part of me and that’s all there is to that.
I cry at the end of Last Year at Marienbad, when the narrator says (and there’s no one left on screen): “You were alone—together—with me.”
I cry when Gloria Swanson comes in for her close-up at the end of Sunset Boulevard and she blurs out on the screen.
I cry when John Wayne slips down off his rearing horse in The Searchers—the horse is just about to pounce down on Natalie Wood—and he picks her up in his arms and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
I cry (or something like it) when Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers drifts around his dead brother’s body (his dead self) and says/sings, “El-lie, El-lie, El-lie …”
I cry (or something like it) in the middle of the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” when the music stops for an instant and then starts again, with Johnny Rotten’s voice coming in, “Fuck this and fuck that.”
I cry (or something like it) when I look up through the Guggenheim’s spiralling ramps, up to the circle of light coming in at the top.
I’d probably cry, or something like it, at the Malaparte House in Capri, if I were there.
RP Do you think about what you are going to wear before you go out?
VA A little. If I’m going farther than my immediate neighborhood, I take off my green pants (indoor pants) and put on my black pants (outdoor pants). I decide whether to wear a black collared shirt or a black turtleneck (the old one that’s turning blue-gray, or the newer one still black, or the one with the hole in the sleeve). I choose between my black jacket (if I care about my image that day) or my green army jacket, I guess whether it’s cold enough to wear my green army coat.
RP I’ve heard you referred to as “The Hunger Artist.” The hunger artist supposedly leaves out or forgets about public opinion.
VA 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.
RP Why do you think you’re an artist’s artist?
VA If I’m an “artist’s artist,” it’s probably because: I don’t make much money; my work seems to change, so it looks as if I must be trying; I’ve been with a lot of galleries, so it looks like I’m my own person, no strings on me.
RP You once told me you’ve saved a lot of money by not having to go to a shrink. What did you mean?
VA Early work of mine might have been a substitute: I went through the motions of therapy, I physicalized therapy. (But I don’t think that was the purpose, I thought I was doing art. I was shifting the focus from art-object to art-doer. To prove I was focusing, I could target in on that art-doer, myself, physically—by extension—I could knock that art-doer out of existence and move out of self and on to place. So, if therapy is about getting rid of the problem, then my early work was getting rid of me.)
Also, I used to be Catholic, I couldn’t make myself go to another priest.
RP Did you really ever have an orgasm under the Seedbed?
RP Have you ever seen someone murdered or executed? What do you think about capital punishment?
VA No. No use for it, and even if there were use, no justification for it.
RP Do you really describe yourself as a minimalist, can that be amended?
VA My early work came out of minimalism (and also out of R. D. Laing and Erving Goffman and Edward Hall and Kurt Lewin and pop psychology of the time … but that’s another question.)
If minimalism was my father-art, I had to find something wrong with it, I had to kill the father. (The flaw in minimalism, as I saw it, was that it could have come from anywhere, it was there as if from all time, it was like the black monolith in 2001.) Well, if something just appears out of nowhere, then you never can tell where it might have come from, all you can do is bow down, kneel down, you’d better respect it. To get around this, I probably made the decision that, whatever I did, I would make its source clear: that source was me, I was the doer, I would present my own person. (When I think of Seedbed, I think of the room as a prototypical minimal-art space: nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor, except in this case there was a worm under the floor.)
I still think of my stuff as making minimal moves: it bulges walls out, digs under floors, it’s usually tied into buildings so it’s based on right angles. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with minimal art. It probably has more to do with co-habiting a space and fitting in, nudging in …
RP Would you shoot an animal for sport?
RP Who do you do your art for?
VA For myself, to prove I can think. For other people, living people, to join in a mix of theories that might sooner or later lead to practices; for future people, to function as a track that might be renovated and taken from.
RP What kinds of food do you eat?
VA I could probably eat nothing but Chinese food everyday for the rest of my life. But I don’t. What I eat is: if I go out, Indian, Chinese, Thai; if I stay home, which is what I usually do, basic chickens, basic pastas, basic salads.
RP Do you know any good jokes?
VA Best joke I’ve heard recently is an old Milton Berle routine.
A resort in the Catskills. Lots of women around: widows, divorcees, they’re searching for men; one of them spots a man she hasn’t seen before.
“You’re new here,” she says.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’ve been in the can!”
She’s confused, “You’ve been on the toilet?”
“No, no, I graduated.”
She’s confused again, “You’re just out of college? You’re that young?”
“No, no, when I say I’ve been in the can, when I say I graduated, I mean I was doing time.”
She’s still confused, “Doing time? What time?”
“Let me explain. You see, there was my wife. I took an axe, I chopped my wife into 25 pieces.”
“Oh, you’re single?”
RP Have you been married, any children?
VA I was married in 1962, just after I graduated from college, we lived together on and off until 1968, no children.
RP Do you have a good memory? How far back can you recall?
VA I remember scenes from movies well, and lines from books and movies and songs. I don’t remember faces well or, more precisely, I don’t connect names and faces. I don’t think I remember further back than to the age of four and even then, it might be that I’ve been helped by photographs.
What I remember most from childhood, around five or six or seven, is a recurrent childhood dream. I’m in the bathroom, I’m standing in front of the toilet, I’m pissing. I’m pissing blood. I draw back, shocked, scared: as I draw back, my piss shoots all over the place, all over the walls, over the ceiling. I see what’s happening, I make a sudden decision, I grab my prick and direct my piss more determinedly over every inch of the walls and ceiling, I’m not scared anymore, I’m exulting. The color of the room is changing and it’s all because of me.
The real life incident I remember is: I’m over my father’s knee, he’s spanking me, I’m about five. As he spanks me, I throw up, I’m vomiting spaghetti all around his feet. (The spaghetti I had eaten had tomato sauce on it, I was sure of that, but as it came back out of my mouth, it came out all white, as if it was filtered through my insides).
RP What kinds of men and women do you dislike?
VA I like multi-directedness, and the look of a frightened colt, and the little engine that could, and grasping at straws: I dislike smugness and self-satisfaction.
RP Did you find when you were growing up, that people often frowned upon those who sought out psychiatric help? What about now?
VA When I was growing up, people had priests, or they assumed they had themselves. There are no individual bodies now, no skin, no separation between public and private. (If there was, would I be so earnestly trying to answer these questions?)
RP If fashion is what comes after art, what comes before art?
VA Probably everything. Let me put it this way: when I realized I wasn’t writing anymore, in 1969, what drew me to “art” was that art was a non-field field, a field that had no inherent characteristics except for its name, except for the fact that it was called art: so in order to have substance, art had to import. It imported from every other field in the world.
Let me put it another way: for me, what comes before art—in the sense of influence—is architecture, movies, (pop) music. (But probably literature and or philosophy come first. Books provide, literally, a text, theory. But of course, a book can provide a text, a theory, only because it’s a storage of what really comes first: history, science … )
RP Do you write letters? To whom?
VA Three times in my life I’ve written a lot of letters, each time to a person whom I was in love with and who was, either physically or some other way, very far away.
RP What makes you really angry?
VA Being cheated, being tricked, being slighted in stores or at business offices because of the way I’m dressed. Right now what’s making me angry is that I’m spending so much more time answering these questions than you spent writing them. (I work so much more slowly than other artists seem to work: that makes me angry.)
RP Do you ever hang out at topless bars?
RP What sort of porn should be banned?
VA On the one hand, I believe that porn influences crime; if I didn’t believe that, then there’d be no reason at all to do art, since art couldn’t affect a real-life situation. On the other hand, I don’t believe that porn should be banned. You can only ban the crime, not the influence. (All you can do is hope that other influences, colliding influences, might act as a buffer. That’s what the electronic age is all about.)
RP Do you think art is one of the places in the world where something perfect can happen?
VA Visual art, architectural models, (concert) music, books … all those situations where there’s a viewer, an audience, where there’s a separation between person and thing: something perfect can happen only where there’s visual distance.
Which is why I resent the visual: the visual means you don’t touch it, the visual means somebody owns it and that somebody isn’t you.
I prefer the perfect to come down to earth and be imperfected: the architectural model become architecture, the architecture become renovated, music become pop music, blasting out of some radio while some other pop music blares out of the speaker in front of some store …
RP How many pairs of shoes do you own?
VA One pair for going out, another pair that used to be for going out but then wore out and now functions as house shoes, and a pair of all purpose sneakers, sort of on reserve in case one of the two majors breaks down and I need a quick replacement.
RP What artists do you like: old, peers, new?
VA Peers (we can commiserate and maybe my position can be buttressed); new (I can try not to be left behind).
RP Did you do your homework when you were in school?
VA Yes. All my life, I’ve never had particular skills, particular talents; I’ve just had will, and I’ve worked hard. I see myself as a drudgerer. (As for school homework, it wasn’t pure academics, I knew I couldn’t keep going to school unless I got scholarships, so I did what I had to do).
RP Do you wear underwear?
RP Do you eat meat?
RP I don’t like it when men whistle at women on the street. What about you?
VA I hate it, too. At the same time, walking down the street, in the city of the ’90s, means putting yourself out in public, subjecting yourself to the public, you’re up for grabs. This applies to men as well as to women, men realize they can be victimized, too. You don’t have to accept this situation, you just have to guard against it. And I don’t mean carry weapons, but I might mean wear armor: this is what late capitalism is all about. (At the same time, it’s apparent that women are subjected to whistling and men aren’t, except in specialized situations: women-whistling, therefore, should be a punishable crime.)
RP Has anyone ever tied you up?
RP I heard that Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis bought brand new Cadillacs with their first money. Have you ever gone out and blown a couple of inches of cash on something you really didn’t need?
VA Just on books and records/tapes/CDs, and I always need them. And, at various times, on presents for a person I was in love with. And that person needed them, or we needed them in order to be a couple.
RP Would you ever trade places with a woman?
VA Yes. Except that, as in your previous trading-places question, I don’t understand what it means: would I know I’d traded places, or do I “become” that person? Do I keep doing “my” work, only doing it as a different person? Who am I anyway?
RP Have you changed your bedroom situation since I last visited you?
VA It’s still the same. So that others can know what we’re talking about: all the implements for living—bathroom, sink, stove, refrigerator, table and chairs, bed, clothes closet—are squeezed into what’s probably less than 10% of a 3500 foot loft space.
RP What’s the best place you’ve been to? I mean, do you ever see yourself away from New York?
VA LA maybe Paris. New York follows an old model of a city: it maintains the idea of a center, it keeps vestiges of piazzas and town-meetings. The new city would be more like a blob, like ooze, like LA; the new city would be a ground for floating privacies, floating capsules; the new city would have more to do with the curves of a highway than with the grid of streets.
RP Have you ever walked into a bar and picked somebody up or been picked up?
VA I’ve been in situations, not bars, where I’ve met someone, we talked, and then within a few hours we fucked. I assumed we were picking each other up (I don’t think the word “pick up” came up in anybody’s mind: I assumed we were, simply, meeting each other).
RP Do you have call waiting?
VA No. I never answer my phone directly, always have my answering machine on; don’t like to be surprised and at a loss for excuses; call-waiting would be asking to be put on the spot; I want to avoid calls, not be in the middle of more.
RP What is the connection between the bras and Seedbed? It seems like you’ve come full circle, from masturbation to nursing (a kind of regression).
VA It’s hard for me to pinpoint the meaning of a piece; I’d want the reference, the connotations, to free-float. I want to make a situation where a passer-by says: “It’s a wall! No, it’s a bra! No, it’s a room-divider! No, it’s the attack of the 50-foot woman!” Then you could go on from there, and possibly have fleeting thoughts about sex and comfort and power and regression, etc., but by this time you’d be inside the space, and the space would be part of your everyday life.
I’m afraid people pay attention to my stuff only when it has something to do with sex: that’s my art role, and I’d better live up to it.
Seedbed started by taking architecture, something assumed as neutral and apart from person, and filling it with person: I’d be part of the floor, the wall would breathe. Adjustable Wall Brasstarted with taking a wall, the wall in front of you, and bringing it out to you, making it bulge. Now that it bulged physically, it could bulge with a person inside it, it could bulge with metaphor. (Seeing the world the way a baby might see the world, the breast as the baby’s wall.)
I hope the piece brings up other ideas besides nursing, I hope it brings them up all at the same time.
RP Having to follow your show with mine, I feel like the Rolling Stones having to follow James Brown.
VA Doing this interview, I feel like Eddie Constantine in Alphaville, answering the questions of Alpha 60. (One comment: the Rolling Stones sell a lot more albums than James Brown.)
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby