Superseding Transgression: The Architecture of Vito Acconci (or... what does performance art have to do with design?)
I have been a visual artist making installation works and a deviser of performance and video pieces in which I collaborate with dancers, musicians and writers. I have also worked with architects and other designers on competitions for projects in the urban environment. It is in the last two endeavours that I see potential for something intriguing that is neither design nor art. I imagine these disciplinary overlaps without contradiction. They are, simply put, something like 'a practice'. I imagine in them a fluidity of potential for thinking critically about how we think, build and operate within our culture and wider environments. The overlaps offer the potential for extrapolating rigorously at the fringes of each discipline, a position that allows one to see the 'operating system', so to speak, upon which each discipline rests. I am also a teacher in a department of 'Design and Computation Arts', and it is here, in the educational institution, that I find this overlap running slightly across the grain of traditional disciplinary categories like fine art and design, or new (non) disciplinary categories such as 'research-creation' which attempt to draw the conjecture of art-based practice into the social sciences or vice versa.
So for me the 'wicked problem' is about design itself – a question about the work of some practitioners that is evidently exiting and challenging (to me) yet to which art and design schools may not have quite caught up. I am compelled by the way design students will take on a problem as one between us in the world where fine art students often, somewhat disturbingly, can turn any problem into one of personal expression. Conversely, it seems that the designers have difficulty examining the philosophical grounds of a problem whereas it is the art students who have the willingness and the critical tools for pulling the ground of a particular situation out from underneath itself in a way that can lead to new ways of doing. So it is simultaneously demanding more from design and demanding more from art that has lead to my current research and set me on the trail of practitioners whose work seems to offer up clues to new modes of 'design practice'. The 'uselessness' of art and the 'applied' or productive nature of design appear to be a defining feature of each discipline. Art can ask any question, down to the very grounds of thinking and doing. Design can build to the refrain of any problem. There is a deep resistance to overlapping these two modes of thinking (or seeing the overlap which is already there), likely because a revealing failure is inevitable. Perhaps dwelling in this contradiction is the most useful corrective for each of these disciplines. Joined at their origins, they must stumble on together.
IntroductionWhen you tease criticality out of the avant-garde you get what Theodor Adorno called the culture-industry (that is: entertainment). In the world of material culture you get design. When architecture, in the body of Mies van der Rohe, comes to America, it separates itself from its avant-garde roots and you get something called design – more specifically, 'international style' (according to Benjamin Buchloh). So we have generated a design culture that is separated radically from avant-gardist criticality and, meanwhile, we have an avant-garde which itself now exists merely as an historical category (occasionally re-staged by its own practitioners as nostalgic 'classical repertoire', as we see with Marina Abromavić). These assertions invite perplexing questions around re-defining 'criticality' in design and visual art as well as in a range of 'new' practices in which distinctions between 'design' and 'art' do not seem obvious. These might include electronic media work, practice in public space, the academic zone of research-creation and some approaches to gaming—all of which are coming to terms with a world where the push of corporate-technological culture seems to have shifted the location of potential human discourse to an information-driven, predominantly visual and screen-based culture of event. So the question which designers and artists face is where should creative practitioners go to do work which is relevant, rigorous and critical (as opposed to merely 'cutting edge')?
Can one be 'critical' and 'applied' at the same time? On the surface, practices rooted in design and new technology do not share what is understood as avant-gardist criticality. Does this mean that the work is not critical or rather than we need to think differently about how we define criticality? This paper uses the architectural practice of Vito Acconci as a way of looking at the potential of cross-disciplinary practices with a particular focus on design for public space and 'criticality' in relation to technology. Acconci's practice shifted from iconoclastic and transgressive art-performance to design for public space and buildings. This shift is from a defined artistic discipline (ironically, one whose 'wide open' scope is crucial) to a more slippery (and ironically, more 'specific') cross-discourse practice—a deliberate, apparently resistant and contradictory opening seemingly conceived to rupture strategies central both to his earlier work and conventional strategies of design. One could ask, does Acconci's architecture not just simply import a subversive construction derived from art performance into the world of architecture where it becomes ineffective? Or does this cross-disciplinary performativity allow a unique and essential questioning in the realm of public space that might offer an alternative to the visual and the monumental? Looking at Acconci's architecture leads to a consideration of design as inter-subjective cultural space, in contrast to a more 'western' history of design/architecture as a commercial-material culture of display. Why think about Acconci? I find some of Acconci's design work formally simplistic, even clumsy. Yet I think the key point is that this very failure or clumsiness (which is, I'd say, a vestige of an artistic-poetic strategy) is what situates this work right on top of a fault-line that is the vital problem for design and design-related cross-disciplinary work. This problem is a problem of meaning, a problem of criticality and a problem of articulating a rigorous position in relationship to technology. That some of Acconci's work might seem to fail and come across merely as 'poor design' is emblematic of the wickedness of that problem. So, though the work may not be successful in terms of cementing its own qualities as commodity or 'designed-thing', it does succeed in discursively opening a territory normally covered over by the architect/designer's finesse and sleight-of-hand at reproducing the expected in a novel way.
A Quick OverviewWe know Vito Acconci as one of the key figures of the American avant-garde in performance in the 1970's and 1980's. The pieces we know the best are a group of performances, photo-documented performances and performed video works from a period of eight or so years (1969-77) that have become part of the canon of American performance art. These works include the Following Piece (23 days in 1969), Proximity Piece (52 days in 1970), Claim (1971) Seedbed (1972), and Untitled Project for Pier 17 (1971). Overlapping this burst of performance work was, beginning in the mid 1970's, a group of installation works that situated the viewer as a participant in the work and explored the public/private interaction space of the museum. Here are some examples: Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?) (1976, Sonnabend Gallery-a meeting where not everyone has a place at the table); Middle of the World (1976). These projects take on more and more 'architectural' concerns into the 1980's: Machine for Living (1981); Portable Living (1983) House of Cars (1983)… culminating in an exhibition at MOMA, NY entitled "Public Places" (1998). What is significant is that from the eighties onwards Acconci begins to slip out of a role of artist making so-called 'public art' or 'art in architecture' and is operating more or less fully in the realm of design for public space, landscape and architecture and that the questions and provocations the work has to make are critical engagements with the discourse of design.
This turns us on to the question; what exactly is critical engagement with the discourse of design-culture? Park up the Building and House up the Building (1996) are parasitic structure attached to the modernist facade. Mobile Linear City (1991) is a mobile, public, accordion habitation that pulls into town and stretches out like a worm, as a disruption to urban planning's separation of driving and living, of corporate and domestic. The Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed in 1993, manipulates or animates the very façade that defines a building from the outside or a room from the inside, and takes these basic signifiers of place as precisely the thing to be brought into play, once again literally flipping the public into the private, like the slapstick flipping walls in Buster Keaton's famous parody of building, "One Week". This is the beginning of a formal strategy that continues through much later work, where floors and wall turn into seats and tables, where gardens go vertical, ceilings become ground, where paths wander off-axis and civic space is floated offshore. Courtyard in the Wind (1997) and Mur Island (2002) are two ambitious built projects that seem to have a complete independence from Acconci's earlier 'art' work and shit-disturber persona. We could mistake them for architecture, or landscape architecture. The question arises, now that these designed things live in that world, what do they do that is different from the productions of super-star architects who populate our urban space with feats of visual audacity and inventiveness?
Avant-garde to ?How do we define notions of criticality embedded in avant-gardist cultural practices in relation to emerging potential for new kinds of criticality in the cross-disciplinary. Cross-disciplinary practices (often discussed in relation to 'new-media' and 'research-creation') coalesce multiple and differing ideas of criticality as well as differing formulations of the relationships of content, audience, space and the location of culture (for example, in the museum, in the theatre, in public space, in virtual space). In the discourse of new-media, dance and architecture have become touchstones in defining and redefining the terms of meaning-making, criticality and the space we are drawn into through cultural practice. The design practice of Vito Acconci demonstrates the kind of philosophical and ideological stress points that can be revealed by cross-disciplinary work in relation to meaning-making, criticality and the conceptualization of space itself. Looking at Acconci, we examine work that is exemplary as a bridge between the heyday of the American avant-garde and contemporary cross-disciplinary and design practices. The avant-garde in visual and performing arts is characterized by strategies of criticality and transgression that gather strands from many sources. Among these strands are the surrealist/Dada tradition, the hermeneutic criticality of the early Frankfurt School and the purely formal audacity of the American avant-garde in sculpture, music and dance (think of John Cage–truly audacious 'abstract' art). We can also include a generation of academic criticism which fixed the 'avant-garde', for better or worse, as a primary enabler of post-1960's theory. How does a definition of art practice which imbibes this 'critical' or transgressive role for art encounters new practices generated from a very different point of view, by virtue of the other fields and stake-holders brought into cross-disciplinary play (academic institutions for research, the dynamic of corporate high-technology, public and urban spaces as animated by mass-culture through technology and information media, and the deeper dynamics of technology itself)?
I'd like to (this is my project) clarify the terms of a certain discomfort that can be clumsily described with the following questions: What happens when the 'transgressive' of the avant-garde meets the universe of 'user friendly'? Is 'WYSIWYG' (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) emblematic of a dynamic where technical competence had replaced performative interplay, and ethics are eclipsed by a false representation of responsiveness? What happens when the world of poetry meets the world of science and the entrepreneur-inventor (when Antonin Artaud meets Thomas Edison, or in the present tense, when Vito Acconci meets Steve Jobs)? Is the iconoclasm and transgressive criticality of the avant-garde, the criticality of 'art' in general and of performance in particular, now a matter of nostalgia, as tired as the rebellious posturing of pop stars? If so, on what basis do we look for a new critical register, not bound to these tropes and strategies, in relation to prevailing conditions? Looking at Acconci-the-architect allows us to refine these questions both in terms of their philosophical and theoretical implications and their importance for meaning-making in contemporary creative practices which now must include design.
The 'Fixing' of SpaceIn relation to many new-media practices, the space of performance is of prime interest as a hybrid between two encoded cultural spaces; firstly, action grounded in the human body, with its proper perceptual world, and, secondly, the 'without-ground' or 'without body' of new media and the virtual. Acconci's practice has moved in reverse through this connection—from body-based performer to material/spatial designer (according to Acconci's self-described narrative). Movement- and space-based art practices (such as dance and architecture) are a key point of overlap between traditional artistic disciplines and new technology in their ability to confront a culture of information with a culture anchored in the experience of space. How are movement and space 'fixed' or codified by technology and new media? The nature of this 'fixing' should be a significant preoccupation for creative and critical practitioners in the face of new technologies and the reformulations of 'space' they entail. The nature of this 'fixing' is something that Acconci's evolution from body to space is predisposed to question. This questioning about the relation of bodily movement to space as technology would seek to 'fix' it is perhaps (and this very tentatively for now) one of the keys to something we could call one 'critical' zone in contemporary design practices.
The architectural practice of Vito Acconci is, then, compelling on three levels. Firstly, this shift in practice embodies a movement from a defined artistic discipline with an explicit 'audience' to a cross-disciplinary 'public' practice—a deliberate, contradictory gambit outside the art-world, conceived to rupture or resist rather than align itself with predominant work in the fields of architecture, urban design or landscape architecture. The work is generative of a performative engagement for a 'public' that much architecture and design avoids in favour of visual spectacle. Secondly, in the trajectory of Acconci's solo-practice, this cross-disciplinary work appears to abandon artistic tropes and strategies central to his earlier practice, including an oppositional and confrontational 'artist-iconoclast' persona in favour of attempting to embed new forms of criticality within larger social formations, where a construction of the artist's subjectivity as 'event' is not central. Thirdly, perhaps most interestingly, there is the predisposition to examine the 'fixing' or codifying a technological idea of space. When these three things are drawn into a practice of design something quite original is happening. Acconci's is not a project of display. It is a project of self-reflexive inhabitation. The idea of 'criticality' as a predisposition to examine the fixing of the human body in space by technological thinking, can help us see the strategies of Acconci as quite distinct from the epic visual monumentality of 'signature buildings' generated by contemporary architecture and engineering stars.
Criticality?Can (something like) design be critical in a cultural era where avant-guardist iconoclasm, the subversive uncanny, the audacious purity of minimalism, critical negation or deconstructionist critical displacement have been superseded by a complex conflation of form, style and technology best expressed in the phrase 'user friendly' (and its terrifying artistic corollary, 'interactivity'). How does cultural practice re-situate itself beyond a nostalgia for the avant-garde's subversive strategies in a critical relationship to the managerial presuppositions of a culture of technology, information and entertainment?
Contemporary cultural practice that is uniquely defined in terms of its cross-disciplinarity and explicit use of technology (and design is this practice, par excellence) lives this 'wicked problem'. Acconci's cross-disciplinary metamorphoses is an example of a shift in how criticality can be deployed. With Acconci's architecture, there is an interest in the intimate relationship of body to space and to time as 'un-fixed' that is fundamentally different from masterworks of architecture and the main currents of design where visuality, efficacy and monumentality are the primary experience. So if we say that we are interested in how technology 'fixes' time and space and our relation to it, we see with Acconci a desire to fish out all the 'un-fixed' moments as the moments in which there is the most at stake and the most to be revealed.