[text] Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci : »Following Piece«, 1969
[Oct. 3-25, 1969, Activity, "Street Works IV”-Program, organized by the Architectural League, New York]

by Dörte Zbikowski

Alongside Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci is one of those US artists whose action act in the late 1960s was referred to with the new label of »Art Performance«. Acconci describes the beginning of this new type of action art as follows: »We did not want the remote isolation of the theater, attended only by the initiate, in which only abstractions of the world and not the dirty world itself was shown. We chose as our motto the song: Why don't we do it on the road?« [1]

Acconci, who until then had been active as a poet, started as of 1969 to himself perform what he would otherwise have written. Through to 1972 he developed over 200 conceptually structured and radical body-related pieces and performances, that were extremely simple in formal terms, but psychologically highly intricate. The took place in part with and in part without the audience and were documented in photos and films. Many of them were performed on the streets of New York, others in interiors, above all galleries. His performances stand out for the use and experience of his own body, as well as the reflection on and redefinition of the relationship between public and private spheres. By disappearing in the anonymity of the streets Acconci not only penetrates real space, but also essentially endeavors to integrate art into everyday life, such that art itself »disappears«.

Following Piece is one of his early works. The underlying idea was to select a person from the passers-by who were by chance walking by and to follow the person until he or she disappeared into a private place where Acconci could not enter. The act of following could last a few minutes, if the person then got into a car, or four or five hours, if the person went to a cinema or restaurant. Acconci carried out this performance everyday for a month. And he typed up an account of each 'pursuit', sending it each time to a different member of the art community.

Two experiences here were crucial. During the act of following, Acconci submitted his subjective will to the movements of the person followed. And he thus penetrated a private sphere even though he moved in the public domain. Acconci demonstrated that the urban public space is defined by the random encounters between people that take place within it. At the same time, he presents us the city street as a space where civil protection potentially breaks down.

This performance is of special significance as here Acconci for the first time deferred from himself defining what course the performance would take. Instead, he accorded an important role to the participation of outsiders. »I made my art by using other people.« In Following Piece, the concept of the participation of persons who did not specifically agree to participate relied on persons who did not even know that they were being used.

The actual piece of art unraveled without any one noticing. All the more important was that each piece was presented to a broader audience in the form of the typewritten records and the photographs. These form a constitutive part of the artwork. Acconci himself comments: »I think for a lot of us whose work began at the end of the ‘60s there was a common assumption, the question is: is there a way to counter the notion of art as unique object? [...] In other words, people in general were thinking of art as a kind of distribution system more than as unique object, a kind of newspaper report. [...] So when I was doing a piece like Following Piece, there was no viewer or, if anything, I was the viewer. [...] I designed in the way a newspaper event is designed.« [2]

The aim was to overcome the dividing line between artist and beholder/audience. On performance closely related to the concept underlying Following Piece is Proximity Piece (Room Situation) dating from 1970. Here, it is not the public space of the street but that of the museum in which Acconci went into action. He snuck up to viewers and stood unpleasantly close to them. By violating the socially defined borders of personal distance, he drove the person in question into a corner. He indirectly forced them to turn away and leave. [3]

Violations of taboos and staged interactions, evoked, for example, by means of his own person or involving outside persons, are likewise to be found in performances such as Untitled Project (Piece for Pier 17), which focused on the exposure of unpleasant or embarrassing secrets, and Security Zone, which took as its topic proof of trust shown toward utter strangers. Here, Acconci increasingly accorded the viewer a more important role until, in his Command Performance [1974] the beholder donned the role of the artist and the person of the artist withdrew from the works. In Command Piece you hear the artist calling on the viewer to perform certain actions and to then feel important [»You'll certainly look great there.«]. In the context of interacting with the audience, Acconci stated that his works had "hitherto been too private ... I was afraid of going beyond myself ... and discovering the world ... you can show me, how strong you are ... big ... public.« [4] Acconci thus caused a confrontation in which the viewer was manipulated as a prop in a saidstic game, while the other viewers watched this voyeuristically on a second screen.

1 Vito Acconci, Performance after the Fact, in Documents sur l’Art Contemporain, N. Bourriaud,, Paris, 1992. ^

2 Florence Gilbard, An Interview with Vito Acconci. Videoworks 1970-1978, in Afterimage, vol. 12, no. 4, 1984, p. 9. ^

3 See the exhibition Software, Jewish Museum, New York, September 1970. ^

4 Vito Acconci, quoted from Kate Linker, Vito Acconci, New York 1994, pp. 61-2. ^