[25 August 2008]
Perhaps it can only happen in graduate school, or at the very least only in seminars. Your professor manages to finagle enough funds to obtain a visit with a famous figure in your field of study. All of the students are asked to develop questions to ask the guest. The guest, it is assumed, will enlighten the class through hard-earned experience, providing insights that can only be derived from a life of “doing it” whatever that “it” is. You ardently believe that this is simply something one does not normally receive in a classroom.
Now depending on what type of person you are, you may find the questions the other students ask insightful or ludicrous. You may find the guest engaging or oddly disappointing. You may believe your questions were well-received or largely misunderstood. But no matter how it goes, you are almost certain to believe that it was an experience unlike others. Talking about it later with your fellow students, you will find that other people have quite different memories of the event. They will ask you what you thought of their questions and what you thought the guest might have thought of their questions. You will ask them if they noticed the guest’s peculiar facial tic, etc, etc. “If only”, you might find yourself saying, “if only someone would have videotaped the whole thing”.
After having sat through Vito Acconci: In Conversation at Acconci Studio, New York with the Halpern-Rogarth Curatorial Seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, I can assure you that you should be wary of such fugitive desires. It must have seemed like such a good idea to Christine Poggi, the professor of the seminar and one of the producers of the DVD. Here was an opportunity to bring together her students—many of whom, I have no doubt, are quite gifted and insightful—with Vito Acconci, one of the most striking performance and installation artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s whose career took a dramatic turn in the 1980s when he began working as a landscape designer and architect. Even if the questions sometimes meandered, as is typical of even the finest seminar students, you had Vito Acconci! Acconci started out as a poet and many of his pieces include recordings of his haunting baritone reciting his sometimes combative, sometimes alluring verbal imagery. He has a way with words. Plus, the man once masturbated beneath a floor of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City for eight hours a day while narrating the sexual fantasies he conjured up about the attendees above him (Seedbed, performed 15-29 January 1971). He doesn’t seem like the type who would allow a conversation to drag. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately nothing goes wrong. The problem is that nothing really gets off the ground at all in order to be able to go wrong. There are some of the obvious missteps that are bound to occur: the awkward silences as Acconci decides what to say or how to differentiate one question from another in a mire of sameness; the student whose question was obviously designed to make the student out to be smarter than the artist (in this case, the student in question compounds the social faux pas by biting her lip and lavishing a smarmy smile upon the camera); the incessant quibbling over how one might use words such as “documentation”. However, all of this is to be expected and none of it need mar what really ought to have been a fascinating and compelling conversation.
The difficulty here is that no real conversation takes place. The students manage to ask some interesting questions to which Acconci offers no real answers and Acconci manages to offer up some interesting statements that correspond to nothing that was asked. The whole affair is simply too disconnected to amount to much of anything at all.
And this is a great shame for certainly Acconci is a fascinating study, as glimmers of the possibilities the conversation did not pursue reveal. His early career as a performance artist was so focused on his life, his fantasies, and, indeed, his own body that his turn to architecture could seem like a rather bizarre development. Indeed, Acconci registers some disbelief of his own in that regard when he remarks that he does not think that the trajectory of his career marks any “natural” progression. However, the architectural works that the Acconci Studio has designed (see the evidence at www.acconci.com where you will learn far more about his current work than one could ever hope to glean from this DVD) are remarkable in their attempts to envision the very permutations of public and private space that have been a central focus of Acconci’s entire career. The conversation continually dances around this subject, to the point where Acconci charmingly, if rather confusingly, attempts to redefine public and private space for our time, but it never manages to come to grips with it.
Indeed all of the participants register their awareness of the lack of progress attained by this conversation. Acconci shakes his legs, fidgets with his arms, and basically contorts his body in the most uncomfortable manner. As the conversation trudges on, students begin to stare blankly into the camera, causing moments of unintentional hilarity when they catch themselves breaking the fourth wall. Even the people controlling the camera make their boredom evident by increasingly focusing in on hands, Styrofoam cups, notebooks, and, for no discernible reason other than to break the tedium, Acconci’s interminably bouncing knee.
Perhaps the ultimate problem with this DVD returns to that disputed word from the conversation: “documentation”. This conversation, after all, arose from a curatorial seminar. Curators thrive on documentation and this project seeks to expand the curatorial project by helping its viewers to become “attuned to the dissemination of information, at once material and virtual, dispersed across borders, penetrating the walls of libraries, museums, and homes” (liner notes). No one in the digital age need be made aware that this is indeed the condition of our (post) modern existence. If this is, in many ways, a later stage of the Information Age, then we can properly be said to imbibe “documentation” (the various forms in which that information is manifested) on a nearly constant basis. We swim within a morass of documentation.
However, perhaps contrary to what one might have expected, the proliferation of such documentation has not made us more selective in our encounters with the information that surrounds us. Rather the suffusion of our existence with documentation has become an embarrassment of riches that ultimately bankrupts the very notion of knowledge altogether. The condition in which all things seem to be equally available gives rise to the symptom that all forms of documentation (and all bits of information contained within that documentation) seem equally valuable and thereby become equally fatuous, equally without depth of meaning or worth. Indeed time itself, inasmuch as time can be equated with investment as in to invest one’s time, flattens out. No longer is it in an abstract sense that the Schopenhaurian horror of time resting on the head of a pin is realized. Rather it threatens to pertain to each individual experience of time in our era. Time in our time has become timelessness.
The extra disc included with the package contains a set of audio works by Acconci. These, with the possible exception of the first, are worth infinitely more than the conversation of the main disc. Furthermore, by presenting elements of Acconci’s work, this disc reveals the lack that sits at the center of the conversation, the failure to engage in any meaningful manner with Acconci’s actual production. For an artist who has devoted so much of his output to exploring what it means to be a self, an artist, a sexual being, an individual, and a member of society, there is very little critical reflection to be had on this DVD. Acconci’s work is eminently worthy of one’s time and consideration. Unfortunately, this DVD is not.