Curriculum Vito

Since the 1970s Vito Acconci’s performance art and installations have actively engaged both people and public places. He tells Cathy Lang Ho why architecture is his focus now.

Vito Acconci crops up in art histories under a range of categories–conceptual, performance, body, and installation art, to name a few. But he remains absent from architectural annals, despite the fact that, for 10 years now, he has not undertaken independent art projects, having founded his own design practice, Acconci Studio, in 1990. Though not trained as an architect, most of his staff of seven are. Out of his Brooklyn studio, they produce a dozen or so design projects a year, mostly commissions for public works.

Your arrival to architecture follows an interesting trajectory–from writing to performance to installations to public art. How do you explain this progression?

When I was writing, I found myself mostly interested in the question of movement–how you move across a page, how you move from left margin to right margin, from page to page. I was using the page as a field for movement. I was interested in parts that existed as a route.

But while writing, I always thought I wasn’t really a writer. This concern with movement started to become the movement of me: “I do things to myself.” Eventually, [the performance pieces] felt too self-enclosed. I had been treating “self” as something that could be isolated, but by the 1970s, a lot of people, including myself, had very different notions of self–we thought of self as a kind of system of feelers that only existed because of a social, cultural, and political system. I felt I had to do something with other people. I began to think of art as a way an artist or a person in a gallery or room could meet other persons in the room. To me, art was a kind of exchange, a kind of meeting place. I started to do more installations, treating the gallery as a sort of town square.

Your art was transforming space into a public forum.

I had been using exhibition spaces as a place for people to come together anyway, but then I started thinking, Now that they’re here, could some community be formed? They have something to see and to listen to, but there’s nothing they can do. I started thinking more about how people could create and use the spaces they’re in. I always thought of space as a kind of event for people. In the 1980s, the pieces became a sort of “self-erecting architecture.” In one piece, there were four panels on the floor, covered with American flags. There’s a swing hanging above them, and when a person sits in it and swings, the panels rise up around him, making it an instant house. I guess that’s where the pieces started to get more architectural.

Is it worth distinguishing between art that is architectural, and architecture that is artful?

As far as my own work was concerned, I just started to doubt that it had anything to do with art, and felt it had more to do with architecture and landscape architecture. My work always grew out of its immediate context or the landscape. A lot of my 1980s work played with the conventions of house, but I realized that even if they have a function–as a sign–you still can’t live in them. That’s when I began to feel that my work had to be more than just demonstrations. I wanted it to be buildings or spaces that remained. But projects that are permanent and exist in a public space can’t start from one person s work alone. If you start something private, it ends private. That’s why I started Acconci Studio [in 1990].

Was the transition difficult to make?

I did a show at the MoMA in 1988 called Public Places, and after that I thought, I have to take this seriously–I really have to do stuff in public places, which means I have to work the way an architect works. What I like about public spaces is that people walk by or pass through them. What bothers me about a lot of art is that people have to first make the decision that they are going to be an art viewer, and then go to see an artwork or installation. I’m more interested in the passerby than the art viewer. People decide for themselves whether or not the space is useful.

But your designs do straddle the ground between art or folly and architectural or landscape design. For example, for your bicycle parking lot in a park in the Hague, you’ve elevated the lot among trees, which makes its access challenging.

When were doing it, a friend of mine said the same thing: “It’s so difficult for a person to go up a ramp to park a bicycle.” But at the same time, elevating it creates more space below to make something else–a covered garden or something. You also create the opportunity for users to have a more varied experience, different views, and so on.

It’s not that we want to make things hard for people. We want these things to mix with the world around them. We are trying to create a fluid, changing space, where you’re not sure where the boundaries are. Even with my early installations, I never wanted to have a thing within a space, but rather, wanted to have a space become a thing, or a thing become a space. I wanted the landscape to become the architecture, or the architecture to sink back into the landscape, so that you would have fluid, continuous space–so you don’t separate a thing from its surroundings.

Why is this important to me? The absence of any hierarchy means that a user or person can determine what’s more important, at whatever different times. I’m a child of the 1960s, when the thinking was: People are instrumental, they decide how to use something instead of being told how to use it. That is the basis for most of our work.

How did you come to the equation that public art is architecture? It’s important to me that my work is in the public realm, and that it’s useful. What do either of these things mean, anyway? “Art” is just a way of thickening the plot. I don’t know what separates us from practices like Bernard Tschumi’s or Asymptote’s.

You probably face the same dilemma that many experimental architects face: When the work appears to be wild and wiggly, many people have a difficult time relating to them as real, viable design projects.

Sometimes people like wiggles. Builders don’t, but people do. In a lot of our work, we take space and turn it inside out or upside down–and people feel liberated by that. Sometimes wiggles inspire people to feel involved, invigorated. Wiggles can tie people together, just as it ties itself together.

Is buildability important to you?

I do think it’s important to build. Nothing we do is ever purely fantasy. They might be difficult, they might cost more, but none of these things are impossible–in most cases, the technology to realize them does exist. And every project, whether it’s built or unbuilt, is a study, a model. For example, the World Health Organization/UNICEF commissioned us to design a playground that could be produced in numbers and installed in many different countries. We had to have something that would have its own space. We came up with a playground that we’re calling the Klein Bottle, which is a sort of 3-D Mobius strip. The neck of the bottle comes out then goes back inside of itself, so that inside and outside get mixed up. It would be transparent, made of some form of molded polycarbonate. It’s a continuous space, from inside to outside. I don’t know if it’s going to get made, but regardless, it will be a model for other things. The Klein Bottle Playground could be the Klein Bottle House. Or it could be a model for a c ity.

How does your identity as an artist affect your ability to work as a designer?

We are fortunate that we are asked to a lot of different kinds of things–like a skateboard park in Avignon, the design shop for the MAK Center in Vienna, a light installation/phone booths in the new San Francisco Airport terminal, a new city on a garbage dump in Tel Aviv. But we would love to be asked to do a building or a private house.

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