Zoë Ryan

In a climate increasingly energised by cross-pollinating media and references from myriad sources, Acconci stands out as an ambidextrous thinker and doer. He has indefatigably cast his net wide, exploring multiple paths and creative endeavours in order to achieve a distinctive and personal body of work. Whether you know him as poet Vito Hannibal Acconci, as an artist working with video, film, and photography, remember his performances such as the notorious Seedbed (1972) in which he masturbated under a ramp in New York’s Sonnabend gallery, or are more familiar with his most recent guise as designer and head of Acconci Studio, he has ardently spent the last four decades liberating the arts from their ivory tower and engaging increasingly larger audiences.

Born in the Bronx in New York in 1940, Acconci instinctively knew early on that he wanted to be a writer and, in his early 20s, attended the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. On graduating he was drawn to New York City’s thriving downtown alternative literary scene and began publishing poetry and fiction and collaborating on projects such as the poetry journal 0 to 9, that he founded and self-published with Bernadette Mayer. From this starting point, Acconci’s subsequent career path and eventual abandonment of the artworld for the fields of design and architecture might seem atypical but, as he notes, the premise of his work has changed very little from his first literary ventures in the 1960s. From the beginning, ‘my work had to do with movement,’ he asserts of his experimental poetry that challenged conventional rules of language for a freer aesthetic that incited new readings and personal associations. ‘I thought of the page as a field over which a writer could travel, could move. This page then was a field over which the reader could move.’ Encouraged by his output he challenged himself to explore his ideas on a more physical level through performances, videos and film, in which he describes as moving ‘through the already existent systems of a city. I moved towards myself, and tested myself, I moved towards a viewer. I thought of art as an exchange system, an occasion where the person in the role of artist came face to face with a person in the role of viewer.’

Acconci’s performance-driven style of work, whether written, spoken or acted-out, developed within a rubric of non-traditional performance art produced by artists such as Allan Kaprow, who coined the term ‘Happenings’ in his landmark essay ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock’ (1958) to describe his non-linear work that avoided classical narrative and was performed by anyone who cared to join in rather than by professional actors. Like Pollock, who had referred to physically being ‘in’ his work as he dripped and poured paint over the canvas, Kaprow believed that to fully experience a work of art the artist and audience should participate in it and engage all the senses in perceiving and illustrating areas of life considered unknowable.

Acconci was often the protagonist in his early works and regularly invited viewer participation. Pieces such as (Untitled) Project for Pier 17 (1971) were conducted as tools for self-analysis as well as explorations into human relationships. For one hour, over a 29-day period, Acconci would wait on Pier 17 in New York. If someone happened to stop by he would tell them a personal fact about himself that he had never revealed before ‘something that I’m ashamed of and that under normal circumstances I wouldn’t tell a soul, something that – if it were made public – could be used against me.’ Asking the viewer to keep this secret, Acconci then invited them to demand something from him, even blackmail him. In Broadjump 71 (1971) Acconci challenged viewers to a game of leapfrog. The person to make the longest single jump was given the opportunity of spending two hours with the woman that they chose from the two that Acconci was living with at the time. The work, ironically performed in the Atlantic City convention centre where the Miss America pageant was held, caused outrage especially with feminist groups.

Acconci’s talent has rarely manifested itself in portable, easily installed, salable works, yet he has not suffered as a consequence at the hands of the gallery system and his works have been celebrated in exhibitions around the world. 1988 was a significant date in Acconci’s career when the Museum of Modern Art marked Acconci’s contribution to the artworld with a solo show of his work entitled Public Places. The exhibition presented a selection of key works including Bad Dream House No. 2 (1984), an angular building made up of three separate house-shaped parts, which Acconci describes: ‘now that the houses are collided, their privacy is made public.’ The exhibition also included proposals for public buildings and spaces. Although this was the first time that Acconci’s work was seen within this context, he had been developing works around the theme of public space for many years and continues to be fascinated with the inherent dichotomies that lie between our private lives and those played out in public. Visitors to the installation Instant House (1980), at the San Diego Museum of Modern Art, found four panels painted with the American flag lying in a cross pattern on the floor with a swing hanging in the centre of the cross. The piece was activated when a visitor sat on the swing and the panels lifted to form walls around them.

However, Acconci remembers an earlier work, his performance/installation Where We Are Now (1976) at the Sonnabend Gallery, as being significant and an early indicator of his interest in moving towards producing works for public space. The piece consisted of a long conference table that extended eight feet out of the gallery window and was surrounded by wooden stools. A soundtrack ‘called a community meeting to order’ and voices were heard discussing issues to simulate a meeting. Gradually the meeting turned from one of democracy to one of autocracy, with voices barking orders. The work highlights the innate problems with ideologically prescribed community spaces. Acconci realised, however, that he was ‘treating the gallery as if it was a town square [and] if you keep pretending that you’re somewhere else, then sooner or later you’d better get up and go there.’

In spring 1988, shortly after the MoMA show opened, Acconci decided to establish his own design workshop with the objective of creating public architecture. Now a ten-person strong team, Acconci Studio, based in an old warehouse building in DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Brooklyn, has been steadily gaining a diverse portfolio of commissions for furniture, interior design and architecture. Art is no longer a goal and, when projects appear too much like artworks, they are sent back to the drawing board to be reworked. ‘Art comes up as a bad dream,’ explains Acconci, ‘as something to avoid.’ Instead he is drawn to the universal quality of design. ‘Architecture is the art of the everyday world,’ he asserts. ‘Everybody knows architecture, whether they realise it or not, because everybody has walked up a stairway, everybody has gone through a doorway.’ With this in mind, he treats architecture as a performance place where daily life is acted out.

With no formal architectural training, Acconci’s initial commissions – collaborations with architects John Tagiuri and Richard Price – were predominantly for public art rather than architecture. ‘All we could do was provide a marginal note to the building,’ says Acconci. However, his works continue to walk the fine line between art and architecture and he continues to create installations, such as Park up a Building (1996) exhibited at the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which comprises a succession of stepped aluminium grating that climbs the façade of the building, creating a public space. Acconci realises that through these public artworks he can leverage his position as an outsider by being able to ‘de-design, we could nudge into the power that the building was based on; we could infiltrate the building… Once an architecture moves, then it becomes generative; it enters the field of biological processes, it grows the way a city grows.’ These experimental explorations in space also provide Acconci with a testing ground for his ideas that inevitably inform his permanent projects.

Extra Spheres for Klapper Hall (1995), another ‘parasite’ project, was commissioned by The City University of New York . The half-domed, fibreglass public seating units populate the barren public space in front of the English department. The memorable forms are illuminated from inside, giving them an eerie yellow/green glow. Speaking about Flying Floors for Ticketing Pavilion (1998), a series of resting areas for Terminal B/C at Philadelphia Airport, he uses words more commonly found in science textbooks than in art. He describes the sculptural seating areas that curve up from the ground level onto the second floor as leeches or cancers that have attached themselves to the interior spaces, animating these non-places between destinations.

Although Acconci has turned to architecture as his favoured medium, he is aware of its many drawbacks and limitations. ‘I love architecture because it deals with the materials and processes of the everyday world; but I hate architecture because architecture is inherently fascist, architecture determines human behaviour.’ To counter this intrinsic quality, Acconci develops designs that are fluid in form and programme, emphasising that, ‘Architecture is an occasion for people. How they react, how they use it, what they feel as they use it, is up to them.’ This idea was the trigger for his façade for the New York-based, non-profit organisation Storefront for Art and Architecture. A must-see for any architecture enthusiast, the perforated frontage was created in 1993 by Acconci and architect Steven Holl, and gives the institution a distinctive presence on the street. Conscious of the limited space inside the 250-square-metre triangular gallery, the pair created a façade that is both an entrance and an additional display area. Angular shapes sliced into the metal façade open out to allow natural light to penetrate the gallery and can be rotated and secured at various angles to create a constantly adjustable display space. These moveable sections cantilever over the pavement. Acconci explains, ‘We wanted to pull the sidewalk into the gallery – the sidewalk would sweep in with the pivoting of a wall – and we wanted the gallery to spill out, ooze out, onto the street.’

Acconci’s deftness with language and his interest in its expressive properties are extant in his speech and writing. He describes his work with poetic syntax. Even short descriptions become performances. His thick New York accent wraps around words, which are delivered in staccato. As he speaks he rocks gently back and forth in time with the words. Describing one of his most recently completed projects, Mur Island in Graz, Austria, he insists that we ‘Picture an island; it's a circle in the middle of water. Picture that island in the middle of the Mur; it's an oval now, its length parallel to the riverbanks...You're picturing an egg – something like an egg – floating in the middle of the Mur. The egg is hollow, the egg is a shell, the egg is floating lengthwise: the bottom half is submerged below the water, the top half is exposed – like the hull of a submarine – above the water.’

This project was envisioned as the focal point of Graz 2003 and, although designed as a temporary facility, has since been proposed as a permanent performance space extending its yearlong lifespan. The 450-square-metre island that was three years in the making incorporates an open-air theatre with 300 seats, the ‘Vito’ café run by Sorger, Graz’s traditional bakery and coffee house, and a children’s playground. Constructed from a latticework of 320-tonnes of steel and glass, the memorable twisted form creates a bridge between the two sides of the city. As in previous works such as Storefront, the themes of public and private, indoors and outdoors continue to permeate Acconci’s work. In the island project, Acconci notes that by creating interwoven spaces with semi-translucent surfaces that afford views inside and out, he formulates new sightlines through the city, ‘There’s no hierarchy, no boundaries, no separation between inside and outside; the user decides for himself/herself where to set the limits. The playground forms the background to the stage. While you’re watching a performance on the stage, there are screaming children in the background. While you’re having a drink in the café the children are playing overhead.’

This idea is taken up again in Acconci’s most recently completed project, a store in Tokyo for New York-based fashion house United Bamboo. The store is located in the Daikanyama area, a burgeoning neighbourhood populated by independent retailers and trendy bars and restaurants. What distinguishes this nondescript, grey, box-shaped building from those adjacent to it are the bay windows that Acconci has sculpted on either side to protrude into the neighbouring courtyard, blurring distinctions between interior and exterior. Lit from within, they are ideal display spaces for clothing that can be viewed from inside and out. Acconci experiments with the inherent dichotomy between public and private spaces more overtly in his vision for the façade. Hung across the window on the second level, which is almost the width of the building, a video screen is animated by a continuous stream of images. At present, a selection of short films and digital works by promising young artists are being shown, but Acconci’s hope is that the budget will permit hooking up a surveillance camera in the store so that images of shoppers browsing can be projected outside.

Having gained a reputation as an innovative thinker with a distinct roster of built projects, Acconci is steadily demanding increasingly ambitious commissions that include a house in Calamata, Greece; the renovation of the West 8th Street subway station in Coney Island, New York; a lighting system for San Francisco Airport, and a store for the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna. However, Acconci remains faithful to his roots. ‘Language is still the base of my work; for better or worse, verbal thinking is probably the only kind of thinking I understand – using language is the only way I can prove to myself that I can think.’

Zoë Ryan is a British writer and curator based in New York