Vito Acconci — Interview

Published on Arte e Critica, March 2005.

Full text.

DB I would like to start talking about the Sound Art Museum in Rome where the Acconci Studio is developing a device for listening to the sound works of the archive. Can you explain how you conceive the experience of a work of art made of sound?

VA We started by thinking, since sound is something that you use your ears for, to make a place for the ears, for the head. We wanted to turn the room into some kind of an almost maze-like corridor that you walk through, but your head is surrounded by a kind of tunnel of sound; you would have different directions to walk and the sound, here, wouldn’t be specified sound... we are still not sure how we are going to do this, but we want the sound in this corridor, in this tunnel to the head, to be a kind of mix of many sounds. It might be other sounds, it might be a mix of sounds in the archive. It would be as if your head is flooded with sound. Then off this corridor, off this tunnel, are little - what we think of as - nodes, stopping places where, as you walking in the corridor, if you step to the side, you now can go into different positions, that are off the position of standing: there is a leaning position, then there is a sitting position, then another one is a sitting position and this is when the back of seat is leaning a little further back than the leaning position, another position maybe you are sitting even lower, now you lean further back. Eventually you get to a node where, in order to hear the sound you have to almost crawl in, you lie down, and these nodes are places where you can choose your own sound, where you can have a single sound or a sequence of sounds according to what you want. In other words, where at the corridor there was this mix of sounds, now there is a kind of private sound: you can be alone with the sound.

DB In Tonight We Escape From New York at the Whitney Biennial of ‘77, you chose a separate space to create a way to escape from the institutionalisation made by museums. But you also said that this was done for practical reasons related to sound...

VA Yes, because sound interferes with other things and other people don’t like sound in their work, if they didn’t have sound as part of their work...

DB So was it an issue that was an ongoing concern for you during this time, or just occasional?

VA It concerned me because I knew that when I did a piece with sound, if I did a piece in a show of my own with sound, that was fine; if I did a piece in a group show, other people would complain about sound because the sound would seep into their space. So it was something that I was forced to consider an issue, just because of practical circumstances. I admit though that I used it as a kind of excuse, I like the idea of, well, in order not to interfere with other people spaces, I had to find a place a little bit away from their places; this gave me a way to be a little bit apart from the museum, you’re in the circulation system of the museum, you’re in the stairway of the museum rather than in the gallery places, so in some ways you’re in almost the non-art spaces of the museum.

DB Can we say that making a sound work for you was a way to escape from the closed box of the art?

VA Yes, I think so, but also to escape the closure of what is such an art convention: the notion of the visual. I mean... the simple fact is that art magazines can’t show sounds, they can only show pictures. So sound is always something that is hard for an art context; and now there’s many more attempts, I mean in the 70’s it was so rare for people to use sound, now there seems to be an attempt on so many people’s part to have sound and there are many sound galleries now. Sound is much more admitted now than in the 70’s. But also, I think it’s deeper than that: if there is something visual, if there is an’s easy to own an object, it’s not so easy to own sound. It’s much easier to know where you are, when you are faced with something visual, because you’re looking at it, where as with sound sometimes it is difficult to know where is sound coming from. What interested me in sound at the beginning, I think it still is, is that sound is something that... I mean I like conventional phrases like the song you can’t get out of your mind, the fact that in western culture we talk about a mystic seeing things but an insane person hears things, so that sound seems to, at least in western culture, have associated with some notion of oppression; sound is an atmosphere more than something visual is, because you have to be in front of it to see the visual, where as sound can come from everywhere. I mean just the simple fact that you can close your eyes but you can’t close your ears, so that sound is almost pressure, sound is a possibility of oppression. What interests me is that sound the more the work has become design and architecture the more I realise that sound and architecture are inherently connected because both of them make a surrounding. The great thing both about sound and architecture is that you can do other things when you’re in the middle of sound, you can do other things when your in the middle of architecture; that sound is a surrounding, a context, an ambiance.

DB What do you think of this huge diffusion of sound art?

VA I don’t know if so many great things have been done with it yet, but in some ways I think it’s a new thing for people. People are trying to find a language with sound so that they can then use a language. And I love the fact that sound is there because I think sound inherently defeats the gallery system, because it’s too easy to reproduce sound and it’s too hard then to own sound. Sound can’t have the preciousness of any kind of art object. I don’t think, though obviously the art galleries will find a way to make limited editions of sound, that’s contradictory to the medium.

DB The audio was present in most of your installations from the 70’s, but rarely alone, as an autonomous element. Even when you used headphones, (like in Three Columns For America) they were integrated as parts of the architecture....

VA I always wanted sound to be part of a place, then I guess I felt I had to ‘make the place’, so they have to be some kind of physical environment, some place to sit in, some place to walk through... I mean now that you asked the question so directly, I wondered why I thought that, why didn’t I think sound alone could do something, cause it is true, in my pieces of the 70’s the sound was always one element among other elements; a major element, the piece wouldn’t have existed without the sound, but at the same time the sound wouldn’t have existed without particular...I always wanted to make a kind of circulation routes inside of which you would get the sound, or stopping places, and I’m not sure if that was because I didn’t trust sound? I don’t know how to have a convincing answer yet, maybe I’ll think of something!

DB You started to work as a visual artist to find a way out from the field of the page, something that you were already experimenting with the written words. But at a certain point you moved to performance and video as new fields of action...

VA Yeah, especially for me it was that I realized on the page that I was thinking so much of ways to move across the page and eventually I realized that, well, if I wanted movement there’s no reason to limit it to a page, you can move over a floor, a ground, a street, a city.

DB And was the audio a new field that intervened after performance and video?

VA Well I already did some sound pieces at that time. I never thought so much about how they would be experienced. I did in the same way, at the same time that I was doing pieces where I would use a still camera, I would try to take a photograph the way I thought of it, not so much a photograph of an action, but a photograph through an action, so go through the motions of throwing a ball, I snap a photo in one position, go through the throwing motion, snap a photo in another position. At the same time I did some audio tapes that were probably very similar to something like that. There was a type of breathing piece where I would take a deep breath and hold it as long as I could, then release it, then take another breath. So I just then took the convention of a 30 minutes long tape, so all the tapes would probably be of that length; or, running in Central Park, counting my steps as I ran, every once in a while I would stop, catch my breath, running again, and I don’t remember now, in the beginning maybe the counting was faster then it got slower the longer I ran. Or there was a piece where I was in a locked space about 30 meters long, the microphone would be in one place and I would throw a rubber ball and you would hear the rubber ball bounce but then the sound of the bouncing would get lower and lower and there would be my footsteps going over to the ball. So I think in the beginning I used sound as a way to try to measure space, to try to survey space.

DB Maybe it was also because it was an easy technology?

VA Totally, because at that time I was using super 8 film; super 8 camera was a technology easy to use, you didn’t have to think of yourself as a moviemaker, you can carry a small super 8 camera with you, and in the same way you can carry a cassette tape recorder with you. And also there’s the fact that you could do it yourself, without the need of a sound studio. It was a time very much when I and a number of other people were thinking that you didn’t need large expenses to do something, you can make do with whatever you had.

DB But later on in the 70’s the systems became more complicated, with different channels and different speakers...

VA Yes, but even with all that sound stuff I still did it myself, I just had a very simple mixer, I had a 4 channel reel to reel tape recorder, and you can do a lot with that, like putting output on one channel, input on another, you can make a kind of echo device... I remember when I recorded I always had a type of coffee pot with me, so I can speak into the coffee pot to get a more metallic voice. There were ways to do things like that.

DB I would like to ask you if the radio had a kind of importance in your life... I have in mind the recording studios of Other Voices For A Second Sight, (1974) with the night program of the DJ, the music and the stories...

VA To make one comment on that piece, yes, it was very much about radio, but for me that piece came so directly from a movie of the early 70’s, a movie by an American director named Bob Rafelson, The King of Marvin Gardens, in which Jack Nicholson was a kind of all night talk show disk jockey, and the movie began with this close-up on Jack Nicholson face, and after a few minutes as he’s talking, and he’s talking a very slow meandering story, you realize that there’s a red light blinking on his forehead. Gradually you realize he is in this recording studio, he’s in the middle of recording this all night radio programs, so in some ways it was through movies that I got re-excited by radio. But your question in general is an interesting one to me, because I don’t listen to radio much now, and I’m not sure why, because I used to as I was growing up... radio was constant, constant, constant for me. Maybe the simple reason is that I played it in places it where is difficult to get good radio reception, and also in New York there aren’t tremendously great music stations on radio.

DB And the music had an influence on your work? In Ten Packed Minutes in ’77 you play with musical elements including the free jazz of Ornette Coleman...

VA Ten Packed Minutes was done for a record in which it was charted for 10 minutes, so I wanted to pack into those 10 minutes some combination of narrative, narrative with soundtrack, narrative that changes places, I mean the sound ranged from street sounds to this jazz duets... I wanted to pack... I don’t know if I can explain every moment of the Ten Packed Minutes. But music had an influence on me for a very long time; we tend to play music a lot in the studio as we work. I’ve always felt that work of mine has probably worked best when it connects with some kind of pop music of the time. When I was doing work with my own person, it was the time or maybe more just after the time of single voice long song... Van Morrison, Neil was the time of Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground. I think my work has always been affected by that; in the mid 70’s when work became installations with sound, my influences were The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, I know at that time, before I wrote a text for an audio tape, I always played a lot of records, and copied down a lot of the phrases... I can look at some audio tapes of mine and realise that this is playing off an Iggy Pop phrase... that is playing off a Lou Reed phrase

DB In the second half of the 70’s, often in the gallery spaces, you created some systems of balance made of different elements and held together with wire cables that go through the space. The speakers were often the joints of this circuits. Could you talk about this idea?

VA What was important for me in regards of the elements joined together, was that they could be a kind of release points. The viewer is in the position of being this potential instrument. You can unhook a hook and more than the whole thing would collapse... it would have now some kind of effect, a big bowling ball would be released and hit the screen of a television set, or it would miss it and go through the window. There would be a steel ball hanging out over a street connected from inside the gallery with connection points that, as you said, were little steel boxes with sound. So the viewer would have this potential to even cause a kind of disaster. Then again it was a gallery space and probably nobody even thought of doing it, but I guess I wanted sound to... again this is the time I was so effected by Sex Pistols etc. and I wanted sound to an incentive, I wanted sound to be this kind of scream that could be directed towards a person. I wanted the person to be almost burdened by the sound so that they would get to a point where they would want a release point, they would have to do something, they would have to make something happen.

DB At that time the idea of escape from the space of the gallery was also very present, with several elements that were placed out of the windows, like in Decoy For Birds And People at the PS1.

VA Exactly, I was obviously telling myself that I really couldn’t be in a gallery anymore. Maybe I should have took those clues sooner, but, as usual with the way I work, I can’t just say “I want to do something” and do it, I have to sort of show myself that I really need it, that I sort of can’t turn back.

DB And finally the sound is out in the city, with the Peoplemobile...

VA Yes

DB In conclusion I would like to ask you to talk about the voice, the spoken word as opposed to the written word....

VA It’s kind of interesting for me that when I was writing, I don’t know if the stuff I was writing, if I thought of poetry as something to be read. I thought of poetry so much as something in relation to the page, so that you had to see the words in relation to the page. Written language is a visual space in the middle of which these integers, these words, these letters can potentially move. Spoken languages are a whole different things; written language I think is probably necessarily private, I mean obviously there are different kinds of written language, you can have big written language as posters, as billboards that maybe becomes public, but printed language, book language, is the privacy of the act of reading. Spoken language, I think, immediately brings a kind of community. Oral, I think just the fact that it engages other people just as it’s engaging you, you’re not alone when you are in the middle of the oral. Maybe written language brings a kind of structure. At one point, I don’t remember what year, I wrote some essay called Notes on Language, I think it was at the end of the 80’s, and I made this one sentence/paragraph, that I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I probably still believe it, this was something like “if spoken language is music and dance, then written language is architecture”. I’m not sure if I totally understand that. I kind of believe written language is necessarily a structure system because you can see the beginning of the page at the same time that you see the end of the page, so you can structure the page as a whole. Oral language, obviously I’m sure oral language has a structure too but its a structure that is made up as you go because as you’re speaking something, you don’t necessarily know what’s going to come next, what’s going to come later.