The physical language of Vito Acconci

In 1972, Germano Celant presented the work of Vito Acconci — recently named Designer of the Year by Design Miami — as a set of experiences where "the slang of the body" became the only way in which to escape from the dictatorship of the language of books.

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This article was originally published in Domus 509 / April 1972

Vito Acconci
In order to constantly and determinedly flee from the representative tradition and from esthetism as a form of communication and also in order not to share the responsibility of their work and craft with the expectations and understanding of the bourgeois spectator, always ready to esthetise and thereby consume every fresh energy to be found in artistic research, the artistic movements of the last five years have tended systematically to avoid all linguistic or attitudinal homogeneity.

They have gone from written language to nature, from mental operations to concrete physical encounter, from the "stated" to the "nonstated ", from the organic to the ecological, from the object to the work that totally disappears. They have eliminated the "spectator as corpse" and they have sought the conscious and physical involvement of a public that was formerly passive and homogeneous in order once again to lead it to the trauma of art and to wake it up out of stupidity.

Naturally enough, the society of the spectator reflects what it wants to of the revolutionary action of the artist in order to castrate it and to integrate it as consumption into its system, and for this reason the conflict or encounter is once again directing itself towards the exchange of goods and the values of the market. The search for an "encounter" nonetheless remains the fulcrum of the effort and this is why the last few years — from 1967 to the present — have seen any number of artists involved in an attempt to establish a contact and a confrontation not only with thoughts but rather in such a way as to involve the entirety of human existence, from instinct to unconscious motivation. The discipline of experience has thus become the only way in which to escape from the dictatorship of the language of books — a dictatorship that has produced a language that is censored, hidden and repressed, puritanical and aseptic. This superior, official, and computerized language is being every more thoroughly challenged by the slang of the body.
Top: Vito Acconci, <em>Channel</eM>. Above: Vito Acconci, <em>Performance Test</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Top: Vito Acconci, Channel. Above: Vito Acconci, Performance Test, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
In fact, the body has a language that is crude, violent, and vulgar. It is spontaneous and does not elaborate. It proposes the affirmation of slangs as opposed to the disinfected language of the university. Its language is not censured by philosophy since it is the primitive and unpleasant language of sweat hair the penis and the nude. The use of the body and all of its experiential implications also involves evaluations that are ideological and social. An elitist and official language is challenged by a popular language. The dictatorship of writing is responded to with a word-less language that eliminates linguistic extensions, the concept and the name, the category and the proposition, and in place of this there is the exaltation of apperception, tactility, experiential transmission and sensoriality. Apperception thus moves out of the sphere of the general and moves into the area of the historical and particular. Idea is no longer philosophical and rational, but rather concrete. Every datum is a datum of experiential communication. There are no mental relationships, only physical-relationships. Every entity is objective and all information is furnished by subjects. Discussion is eliminated; there is no repetition of the experience; knowledge is simply consciousness of existing as a transmitter and a receiver of signals.
Vito Acconci, <em>Following Piece</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Following Piece, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Presence is what Vito Acconci has assumed as his only system for transmission of signals between his own body and his human and objective surroundings. In 1968-69, he began a work on the unspoken and the "felt" and it slowly led him to look for a communicative, sensorial and sensitive relationship in terms of all possible media. His work can be thought of in terms of a "fluid" that expands as an uninterrupted, an uninterruptible act between his body and its surroundings. It translates itself into a continuous exchange and contact of energies that absorb into their field those few human and environmental entities that are capable of exchanging the fluid. This exchange can be a choice for one of the participants and the other may be unaware of it, as for example in Following Piece, a work of variable duration that takes place in the streets of New York, and that consists of choosing an individual at random, and of following this person no matter where he or she goes or travels up until such time as the person enters into someplace private. This contact is no longer either an invention of images or of discourse; there is no longer an idea of life and of art, but rather a notion of vitality in which there is no rite, but simply a tension between two energetic poles; there is no artistic sublimation, but instinctiveness; there is no elevation of the quotidian to the worldly.
In fact, the body has a language that is crude, violent, and vulgar. It is spontaneous and does not elaborate. It proposes the affirmation of slangs as opposed to the disinfected language of the university
Vito Acconci, <em>Room Situation</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Room Situation, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
This is a relationship between bodies that eliminates "reflected" elements, and that produces other elements that depend upon nothing other than themselves, like the signs emitted by one's own body, traces left in sand or incisions made in one's own flesh by violent bites and then transposed onto various surfaces. It is a physical and concrete encounter between two surfaces in a violent and immediate exchange of energies in which the important thing is the direct dialog between two "bodies". In Runoff this is obtained by running for several hours in a space to work up a heavy and violent sweat in such a way that the color of the walls comes off on the body and the sweat of the body enters into the walls up till the point at which the two "bodies" have made a reciprocal exchange of sweat and color. This is a language that is violent and crude, that does not seek out the generalization of the word, that avoids spectacle, discourse, and the phrase in order exclusively to concentrate itself upon a one to one communication, without any dispersion of energy or incomprehension of the emitted signal.

What we have here is direct contact between two poles of a dialog that takes place between two opposed "narcisisms ". It is never based upon observation and thus the works of Acconci since 1970 always tend to involve or to assume "the other", and evidently not with a language that is either formal or inhibited but rather through a vitalistic and organic tension that excludes mental mediation in order to include the component of experience. This involvement is developed with the gaze of the eyes in Performance Test, a contact between looking and being looked at for 15 seconds. The same involvement takes place in terms of direct sensitive communication in Rubbings, a film in which Acconci crushes cockroaches on his own skin to the point of rubbing them away entirely. This is a performance that arouses extreme disgust.
Vito Acconci, <em>Rubbings</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Rubbings, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
In these works it is clear that it is Acconci's intention to react against the linguistic, philosophical, cultural and aristocratic professionalism of the conceptual trend. His research is directed to bringing hyper-specialized and only "legible" language back to the dimension of simple language without words, a language in which communication takes place out of physical syntony, a language capable of eliminating the power of words as the only possible instrument of communication in art and about art. In Blindfolded Catching Piece he is trying to establish this empathy between two individuals. Acconci places himself, blindfolded, in front of another person who repeatedly throws a rubber ball. For three minutes, Acconci tries to intuit where the ball will come from and to catch it.

Intuition is in fact the most correct system for the "transmission" of signs from the body to the external world, and these signs can consist of no more than simple physical presence, as in Room Situation, where the action is to stand in the proximity of another person and to move into his "territoriality" and private space in order to crowd him and make him feel the invasion of his own physical privacy as effected by another body. A "passage" of territoriality physically takes place in Applications with the transferal of a lipstick mark that a woman has placed on the chest of the first performer onto the back of the second. This is an application of private signs that is first the acquisition of a color and then the transference of this color to another body. The contact between the three individuals is entirely physical, no words are spoken, the experience of flesh on flesh is not repeatable, and thus the communication is unique, and neither generalized nor generalizable.
Vito Acconci, <em>Untitled (project for Pier)</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Untitled (project for Pier), from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Acconci worked on the principle of the concentration of communication between bodies for all of 1971. The subjects of his works take all forms of sensorial availability into consideration, including telepathy and silent communication as in Channel. There are two performers with their ears stopped up and with a microphone to speak through. Neither can hear the other. The microphones serve only to communicate the exchange of words to the public. The dialog established is based entirely upon the performers' reciprocal effort to intuit the commands of movement that they give to each other and also, of course, upon the effort to communicate commands through intense physical concentration. As long as either performer makes a wrong move, the other can do nothing to interfere except to change his command. The physical effort of intuition and telepathy is enormous, and the word and language become frustrating because they have been put out of action. The only viable language is the performers' own sensory language, which is also used in Contacts, in Zone and Pull. These are works in which the search for a communication based only on the senses takes place by means of the hand and the body, which have to come reciprocally to meet each other, or through a man's physical constriction directed at making a cat stay in one place by walking around him and developing a territorial pressure.
Vito Acconci, <em>Pull</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Pull, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
The hypothetical circle created by the human field ought to force the cat to remain still and not move out of the circle and the major result of the performance is a kind of physical hypnotism that is communicated between two beings in contact with each other — an hypnotic dimension that ties two beings down in a circle of light and that forces them to look each other in the eyes and to move about freely, one on his own position and the other on the circumference of the circle of light. The condition is one in which all others are excluded (apart from the circle of light, the entirety of the rest of the room is in darkness). There is a private circle in which each of the performers have another private circle and the two are united only by their gazes, which lead them to become identified one with the other. An exchange of fluid in Untitled (project for Pier 17) becomes a transmission of intimate secrets, jealousies and fears that Acconci doesn't want to make public except in terms of individual contact. Thus, from March 27 to April 24, 1971, Acconci waited every evening for any chance individual who desired to meet with him, and, alone, he made the revelation of something he considered a part of his own privacy. The other could make any use of the information that he desired to, even to Acconci's damage.
Vito Acconci, <em>Zone</em>, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, Zone, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
The experiential risk of confiding one's own life to another has another side to it in Control Box. In this work a cat is closed up in a wooden box that can be opened and closed only by Acconci. He thus disposes of the life and nutrition of the cat. This dependence upon another involves not only the cat but Acconci as well, conditioned by a need or a stimulus to make something live or die. In Combination we find a correlation between two blind entities in which the word has no power and in which art and life are neither confused nor identified. They remain solitary vitality, tensions and integration between two living poles. The work is based upon a human body and the vital space of a few hens. The body attempts to adapt itself to the vital space of the animals up to the point of disappearing and becoming integrated into or united with the life of another creature for whom the man is a concrete influence just as that creature is an influence upon the man. This contamination between two different natural physical entities continues to be a part of the work that Acconci has done in 1972. He has attempted physically to imitate the movements of a female body with his own masculine body: he has tried to "seminate" public space with his own sperm. The same is the case when he annulled his own body and its gestures with those of a woman, then to unite them, and have a third born out of them as a kind of sum of them both. Germano Celant
Vito Acconci, self-inflicted incisions, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, self-inflicted incisions, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, marks left on the sand, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972
Vito Acconci, marks left on the sand, from the pages of Domus 509 / April 1972

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