Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Multitude of Elsewheres

Vito Acconci A Live Reading Swiss Institute November 7th

Being better acquainted with Acconci’s language-based performances and photographic works from the 60’s and 70’s it was a refreshing surprise to hear him read from unrealized architectural and design projects this past Wednesday evening.

During the reading the artist read four ‘chapters’ from the writing project, each chapter dealing with a different architectural theme (e.g. ‘Buildings Inside/Out’). Between chapters Acconci played ‘interludes’—CD tracks of some of his 70’s recording projects. That the 70’s recordings should be interposed Acconci’s mainly 90’s and 00’s architectural writings proved a bit like time-travel (“Vito” then, “Vito” now), yet also consistent with a sense of delay pervasive throughout Acconci’s entire work.* For instance, the series of performances he did in the early 70’s involving the transportation of his library back and forth from his West Village apartment to a gallery where he was showing Uptown; when he wanted to peruse any of his books he would have to get on a train, delaying research. Or the infamous St. Mark’s Poetry Project “reading” consisting of a series of phone calls to the audience at the Project from different phone booths throughout the city. Acconci’s represented voice arrived, as well as his coordinates on the “grid,” however never the bodily presence of the performer one expects from a poetry reading context.

If any delay is at work in Acconci’s reading of last Wednesday it is that of architectural endeavors that also never embody or presence themselves for any number of reasons (because the money doesn’t exist, or technology hasn’t become sufficiently developed; because a particular location is not available or convenient). Among the projects Acconci proposed one of my favorites was his plan for a “research station” in Antarctica. Here the metaphysical thrust of the artist’s writings was felt as Acconci announced ‘an Antarctica of the mind’ and imagined ‘seeing the mind’ itself through the ‘blankness’ of Antarctica. ‘Think of this world as a blank piece of paper’. The ‘beacon’ of the Antarctica research station, likewise, would project a light not for ‘anyone’ (as hardly any one goes to Antarctica and fewer still inhabit it) but for ‘itself’. A communion or conveyance with the stars (‘information gets pulled down from the stars’). A space-age movie house for a cold, iconoclastic geography (‘a movie that is the air we breathe’).

Many of the spaces Acconci chose for his implausible projects may be considered utopian in a literal sense, the term deriving from the Latin for “no place”. In the spirit of Italo Calvino’s *Invisible Cities* or (closer still) Arakawa/Gins’ *Reversible Destiny* projects Acconci enumerates spaces of potentiality, the drafts of an accomplished artist-architect’s imagination unloosed.

Other projects I especially liked were for a garden at W. 24th St. in New York City along Chelsea’s “Highline”. Here a ‘crisscross of moving greenery’ would allow the occupant to ‘move through a magic carpet’ eventually ‘becom[ing] a spaceship [him]self’. Other aspects of Acconci’s utopian projects were to confuse opposed categories such as “nature” and “culture,” “appearance” and “reality,” “identity” and “non-identity,” “surface” and depth,” “inside” and “out,” “public” and “private”. As the utopian must admit the all-too-specific as well as the wildly implausible Acconci also projected a National Quilt museum for Indiana where each room of the museum would showcase a different type of quilt, or quilt by itself. Here the artist acknowledged the quilt as an American art form exemplary for its “multitude of elsewheres”: places, identities, substances, beliefs, fabrics and stitching patchworked.

Other projects included a “Plaza of Plazas” for Strausbourg whereby the elements of the typical plaza should be set into motion creating a plaza its occupants ‘never knew they wanted until they formed it by accident’. Also a ‘Sculpture Jungle’ for the Czech Republic (‘another world that’s somewhere but isn’t here yet’) and a ‘transfer’ for an airport in Atlanta.

In the ‘transfer’ piece the connection between the “no place” of Acconci’s unrealized projects and writing itself was evident in the many puns at play (‘you have lost your head, you have gained still another head’), as well as the conceitful position of Acconci’s narrator (first he tells his reader he is home in NYC, then says he has lied, he is in Atlanta, then says he is ‘nowhere’, he is at an airport, writing). Indeed we have perhaps always been nowhere before Acconci’s work, which consistently pits its audience between here and there, arriving and departing, potential and actual, on paper and off. For Acconci, who began his career as a poet and in so many ways still acts as one, language itself finally seems the ultimate elsewhere.

*for more about Acconci’s ‘delay’ see Craig Dworkin’s introduction to Acconci’s 2005 MIT Press book, *Language to Cover the Page* (ed. Dworkin).

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