American avant-garde artist-cum-architect Vito Acconci died on April 27 in Manhattan. He was seventy-seven. Acconci is noted for early films and performance works that toy with power relations and foreground the autoerotic nature of the male artist. To commemorate his legacy, we looked back in our archives to our November/December 1976 issue, in which Ross Skoggard responds to a screening of Acconci’s 1974 film My Word at Artists Space in New York. Skoggard’s essay considers the “glamour quotient” of film as a catalyst for Acconci’s reconfiguration of the audience into a desiring, affirming lover. “Yards of film are devoted to Acconci’s funky body and face with the apparent intent to win approval,” Skoggard writes. “To an extent perhaps disturbing to the classically trained, liking Acconci means liking the movie, and liking the movie means liking Acconci.” We present the article in full below. —Eds.
Acconci’s self-exposing films enforce an intimacy with his audience that becomes the medium for investigations of sexual identity, mental process and cultural conditioning in the twilight zone between life and art.
By presenting his body as art, Vito Acconci would redirect the approval and respect traditionally reserved for the esthetic object toward himself. Film, with its history as purveyor of sex objects to the world, makes a natural vehicle for Acconci’s autoerotic involvement with his role as artist. Masturbation is his theme song. It is the only way he can take the whole gallery to bed with him. The idea of an artist having an erotic relationship with his or her audience has, until recently, been expressed mainly by singers. Janis Joplin, Liza Minnelli and Mick Jagger have all spoken of the sensual appeal of an audience’s reaction to their performances. Acconcci extrapolates the erotic content of public affection, which is the condition of stardom, from the achievement that earned it, and he defines his role as artist as one who has a “love” relationship with the public.
In his notorious gallery-piece Seed Bed, 1972––which had the artist (ostensibly) masturbating under a closed wooden ramp while fantasizing out loud (his mumblings broadcast by a sound hook-up) about visitors to the exhibition––Acconci made a particularly vivid and disturbing image of this relationship. Some of his films make hay with it, too. Three super-8 movies, Application and Conversions, both 1971, and My Word, 1974, feature the portrait of the artist as sex object.
Application, which records a performance done in Chicago in 1970, starts with Acconci’s bare torso being covered with lipstick kiss-marks by a young woman. On one level, the artist is impersonating a piece of drawing paper, with the woman’s lips as the pen. This is the art-historical sugar-coating on a pill we don’t want to take. We balk not only because this disagreeable transaction seems to date the film as pre-women’s movement but also because it anticipates and burlesques the affection we like to feel for artists and art works that please us. That the image is on film shames, as well, our love of movie stars (who manage to be both artists and artworks at the same time). When the woman has finished, the artist’s red-marked body looks as if it is in pain––closer to a gory Renaissance St. Sebastian than to anything in avant-garde art. In the second section of this film, Acconci makes a “monotype,” rubbing his red chest on another man’s back until both glow with the shared lipstick. Acconci peppers the stew with allusions to painting in all these movies. He may think this is the way the art audience likes it, or it may be that the art audience––and he––can’t help but detect painting allusions.
Conversions is a more Gothic fable about the artist-as-artwork. The first part has Acconci, in the dark, burning hairs off his chest with a candle. He clears a circular area around each nipple in about 15 or 20 minutes. You can almost smell the burning hair. The artist produces the illusion that he has a woman’s breasts because the now-bare skin picks up the light and comes forward in time-honored plastic tradition. But, as if this illusion were not enough, Acconci vainly tugs at his breasts. Later he walks naked toward the camera with his penis tucked between his legs. Two feet away, he turns and walks away, the illusion contradicted. The artist attempts to render Venus with his own body; it comes out Hermaphrodite. We get a sense of the Prison of the Flesh, the substance that opposes spirit.
The last part of Conversions is a strange dénouement: the artist in profile puts his penis back between his legs into the mouth of a nude young woman squatting behind him. The strange and unwieldly beast they make resembles nothing in Classical literature, and try as I might, I still read it as an image of a rather distasteful sexual politic, and nothing more. The somber, almost ritualistic air of the first part and the Muy-bridge-style exposition of the human body in motion of the second part give way to prurient interest in the third.
It seems that Acconci’s strongest, most memorable movies are those which seem most repulsive at first exposure. Conversions is difficult to watch, but when Acconci’s somewhat abrasive presence is gone from the screen we are left with a strange and almost beautiful parable of the will to form, of spirit and intransigence of the body. My feelings about My World, Acconci’s latest super-8 effort, also changed after its screening last spring at Artists Space––complete with an in-person appearance by the artist, who fielded questions. A day later, Acconci’s peculiar obsessions were forgotten, and my dominant memory was of Acconci himself. This film (in color) is better-behaved and in better taste (in temper with the times?), and yet during the screening I took offense at the artist’s vanity, which struck me as the film’s subtext. In retrospect, however, what’s wrong with an artist (or anyone) advertising himself?
Try to imagine a 140-minute TV commercial for an avant-garde artist. It would have to evidence taste, intelligence and a measure of obscurantism; and if the artist is very “today,” a dash of coy sex. Acconci is very “today” and his movie has all these qualities, and perhaps that was enough to make the two hours pass like one on the hard gallery chairs. In this movie Acconci’s love affair with the camera (audience) is a little more refined, and his definition of the artist’s role is more sophisticated. He treats his lover-audience a little better, and, if he seems a better artist with this picture, it’s because to that extent he seems a better lover.
Like his other films, My Word respects a formalist definition of the film medium pioneered by Warhol’s early endless opera. A rhythm of handwritten white-on-black titles intercut with short, prettily composed takes of Acconci, places (his loft and its roof) and things (furniture, clothes), describes the format. The images seem meant to illustrate the phrases or figures of speech they follow, and they are contrapuntal in an almost musical way. Thus the opening title, “No, I won’t talk about it,” is followed by a black-and-white shot of the corner of a white room. The camera pans back and forth imitating the shaking of the artist’s head: “No.” The phrase “I’m moving away from you in my mind” is followed by a succession of accelerating close-up pans of a wood floor. “I’ll stop thinking all together” is followed by a shot of black paper. Not thinking equals no image; therefore, on some level, the artist proposes that his images equal thinking. The titles, on the other hand, seem to embody speech rather than writing, because they are all phrases one hears or says but seldom reads.
After this introduction and demonstration of the kind of visual sign language the artist will employ, characters are introduced. These include the protagonist-artist-hero (Acconci) and an invisible, silent heroine (the audience) who goes by the names of Ann, Elaine, Susan and a few others. The rest of the movie is a parade of “relationship idioms” as Acconci alternately seduces and abuses her-them-us. The camera zooms in on the artist’s crotch and we know we are about to be treated to a reprise of the masturbation theme, only this time the text explicitly implicates the heroine (audience) in the act. (People in the audience tried not to squirm.) The Acconci of My Word doesn’t seem to want us to share a startling vision with him so much as to like (love) him. “Come with me, I’m free. You can tell by looking into my eyes.” Yards of film are devoted to Acconci’s funky body and face with the apparent intent to win approval, not really for what the body and face are illustrating, but for the body and face themselves. To an extent perhaps disturbing to the classically trained, liking Acconci means liking the movie, and liking the movie means liking Acconci.
During the question period following the Artists Space screening, a German man remarked that the film, were its titles more professionally printed, would begin to approach poetry. This idea caught on with the audience, perhaps because these days any investigation of metaphor can look to many like poetry. Acconci, though he didn’t reveal much about the film, knew enough to resist attempts to classify his effort as poetical. It is more concerned with the structure of language (what isn’t?), or rather with language as a sign system, or how a sign system can function as a language, or how a sign system and a language can interact. This is his work’s instrumental level, finally incidental to the intended emotional involvement of the viewer––achieved via an intelligent and ruthless manipulation of the sign system’s powers. On a more superficial level, Acconci also trades in the formal intelligence of modern painting. The rhythmic, almost serial quality of the word-image sequence in My Word evokes the popular wisdom that repetition can simulate profundity. Individual frames seem composed to appeal to modernist sensibility. Shots of striations of tar and tarpaper on a flat roof bring to mind very early Stella. Opening shots of a corner where walls and ceiling meet look like the projecting corner of a cube––trompe l’oeil á la Al Held.
I asked myself why these films were not videotapes: perhaps because Acconci’s autoerotic conception of his body as art object is more suggestive on film. We are used to seeing our idols on the silver screen. Moreover, film estheticizes its content much more than does video. Beautiful photography does not really come across on TV, which seems best suited to record processes rather than objects. On TV we watch what a thing does, on film what it is.
Although Acconci exploits the glamour quotient of his artist-presence, his statement can still be taken as ironical––as a satire of the ego-inflating benefits of either art or movie-stardom. On one level, My Word (especially) hangs on Acconci’s not inconsiderable ability as an actor. His vanity is tolerable because ambiguous (artistic creativity is not, in any case, a function of modesty). In Acconci’s swagger can be seen a sincere, indeed almost humble, acceptance of his own humanness, as we begin to understand the other features that make his latest film feel like a classic.