“[Vito] Acconci is to video…

…what [Marcel] Duchamp is to Sculpture” -Carole Garmon

I hadn’t heard of Vito Acconci before yesterday afternoon when I read these two posts on professor Carole Garmon’s Video Art class blog which led to a discussion (in person!) shortly afterwards about this controversial video artist.

Check out this description of his work excerpted from the Video Data Bank:

A poet of the New York school in the early- and mid-1960s, Vito Acconci moved toward performance, sound, and video work by the end of the decade. Acconci changed direction in order to “define [his] body in space, find a ground for [him]self, an alternate ground for the page ground [he] had as a poet.” Acconci’s early performances—including Claim (1971) and Seedbed (1972)—were extremely controversial, transgressing assumed boundaries between public and private space, and between audience and performer. Positioning his own body as the simultaneous subject and object of the work, Acconci’s early video tapes took advantage of the medium’s self-reflexive potential in mediating his own and the viewer’s attention.

What’s so striking to me about this description, and something Carole pointed out immediately when we talked yesterday, is how Acconci’s fascination with “transgressing assumed boundaries between public and private space” in the early 70s with video has never been more relevant than during our current moment. Now that millions of people can easily allow a complete stranger into their intimate, self-reflexive world vis-a-vis video thanks to sites like YouTube, Acconci’s work may prove quite fascinating as way to think through the impact of an imagined self in the advent of relatively affordable technology that allows us to mediate our identities for unknown viewers around the world.

Carole also pointed me to Acconci’s Theme Song, an incredibly disturbing video that features Acconci lying on his living room floor smoking a cigarette while unnervingly flirting with an unknown viewer on the other end of his video camera–and act which might sound rather common in this day and age. He is so very schmary and gross which makes this piece all the more effective. I have embedded it below, it is nine minutes long, but even two or three will give you a good sense of what’s happening here. It will take thirty seconds before you see Acconci, for he seems to be setting up the camera during the initial part of this video broadcast -can anyone say YouTube?

If that didn’t scare you away (and it should have!) check out these two crazy shorts:

Open Book

Remote Control

Can I possibly count the ways UMW Blogs is continually feeding my curiosity, imagination, and general thirst for all things bizarre? Thanks Carole!

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6 Responses to “[Vito] Acconci is to video…

  1. Well, maybe I’m missing something, but I find Theme Song hilarious.

    Maybe I’m reading it wrong — but I assumed he was looking for his “Theme Song” (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka style).

    So he’s trying out these songs, some of which are deep and poetic and reflective, but when he writes his theme song lyrics/interpreation he always descends into this desire. In other words, he’s trying to write his theme song but he has nothing to define himself by other then his want for somebody else.

    Look at this:

    “[singing] People are Strange…
    [talking] See, look how alone I am. Oh, yeah, everybody looks ugly, but I’m all alone! You don’t want to leave me alone like this, do you? You know you can’t leave me alone. Look how down I am and how depressed I am. I don’t have you yet — of course I’m depressed…”

    Then later, with a song I can’t quite make out, starts saying ok, look, I’m not really lonely, I just need a body in here. I’m honest. That’s what I am.

    I mean, it made me smile. Because of course all these “theme songs” are not meant to express but to lure. In the end he’ll take the theme song that gets a warm body next to him.

    Maybe I’m completely reading it wrong — watched it very quickly at work.

    Am I correct in imagining this was in a video installation where people would pass a monitor of him begging them to “come in”? Because that’s a great image, and it makes it even funnier.

  2. jimgroom says:


    “Looking for his theme song,” I love that–it’s a great reading of this video. Why I invoke “creepy” or “scary” in this context is just how over-the-top he is with his schmarmy affect. The squirming of his lower-torso closer to the viewer couple with the constant close-up of him both wooing and taunting the viewer simultaneously. It is a bit hard to watch when I think of how slimey the whole interplay is.

    That said, the title of the work and his constantly playing a different song and riffing off of it with each dramatic monologue totally works with what you are saying. I find his constantly staring at me with those languid eyes off-putting, and when I think of this as the proto-type of all the lonelygirl14s it seems far more confrontational. I think a part of it might be funny or ironic, but I think another element of it is this visceral confrontation with this unknown viewer that is off-putting and at times downright creepy (I jsut can’t avoid that word!).

    As for how the piece itself was exhibited, I’m no certain -it’s an excellent question and I’ll follow-up with Carole, or maybe, just maybe, she’ll let us know in the comments 🙂

  3. cgar says:

    Posted on my page.
    Thanks Bavatuesdays for a great discussion last afternoon. I posted a response to M. Caulfield:
    In response to M.Caulfield, Theme Song is not a video installation. It was done in 1973 in his living room. The way the viewer experienced this work was by sitting down in front of a TV monitor and putting on an audio headset. If you wanted to hear him…you were trapped before him. Talk about power! This makes me think of web cams; one assumes that the viewer has the power…turn it on or turn it off at your whim. Take a look at Acconci’s work and I am not so sure.

    To continue on: Acconci is silly, gross, disgusting and he is doing all of this smack dab in the middle of the feminist movement in art! What was he up to?

  4. Oh — creepy, as in the guys a creep. Yeah, definitely.

    I forwarded this URL to a friend in New York — who turns out to have been friends with one of Vito’s studio assistants — hopefully he’ll stop by. He usually has a good story or two to share.

  5. Sue Maberry says:

    It IS interesting to compare the current YouTube phenomena with early video art. Acconci was an artist, one of the first to use the new medium of video in this way. Although they may appear similar, context is everything. Read this: http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/jsaltz/saltz4-28-04.asp

  6. marcia crosby says:

    that the viewer experiences his work as creepy must have been an anticipated response, one of many,from interested men or women, anyone who had access to the materials and decided to play it. yes, it is interesting that it simply exists out there for userst today to see, and it has its own context on the web. but then, video was new, and this piece is one of the many early works he used to consider issues of the search for self that yields only representation; that other who he wants to come in close, to be with him, as in “someone take care of me; someone remember me” is part of the search for a lost self that begins in childhood (and apparently doesn’t end–now that is creepy; so it’s a need that can take on all kinds of ‘creepy’ manifestations. i think the degree to which we are creeped out by the video performance, Also, when he made the video, he was being shown more in Europe, so I imagine that such work would have a different kind of receptions iin various countries. The purpose of his work is also to alienate the viewer (Brecht), to not create empathy, but inquiry and criticism, which is why i think he exagerates his creepiness, cajoles, manipulates, gives up, uses different tactics — it may elicit a somatic or visceral response of wanting something similar to what the performer offers, and then the distancing effect of the shift in his tone of voice, his moves, which create the critical distance to consider what this artist/performer/video maker is doing, and why.

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