Dressed in his obligatory uniform of all black, pacing back and forth in front of room, and speaking without notes, Vito Acconci outlined the many shifts his work has taken in the last 50 years at a lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Acconci has had a number of different labels attached to him over the years – poet, artist, designer, landscape designer, provocateur. That last one has probably stayed consistent. The other thing that has stayed consistent, and the reason he was invited to talk about landscape architecture, is his interest in space – between things, between words, between people.
Acconci started as a writer, a poet, attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. His early work focused on how to make words function as literal, concrete things. His work was about movement, from left margin to right margin, from top to bottom, shifting through the space of the page. This movement through the page soon became actual bodily movement through public space. This idea was epitomized by his “Following Pieces,” which involved Acconci selecting a person each day and following them until they went into a private space. This work looked at the urban environment as a space, and examined relations between people in different types of places. Acconci continued to evolve his practice by bringing his body, his person, more and more into the work with performance pieces such as “Conversions or Claim.” These body-based performances, eventually convinced Acconci that he was setting himself up to be too special, to be a “cult figure,” and he decided he needed to re-engage place. Acconci tried not to conceive any project prior to being offered a specific space for it. These works began to more directly involve and require user participation.
With the start of Acconci Studio, this landscape artist decided his work now required users, not visitors or viewers. Since architecture requires users, Acconci formed a studio where he could surround himself with architects. The last 20 years of the studio’s work has seen a cycle of public art commissions, landscape architecture, architecture, other design projects and more “speculative projections.” The studio, in Acconi’s words, is “messier and louder” than most studios – the basis of all projects is group discussion. Not group discussion about how to achieve his vision, but integral, intensive arguing, and sharing. The work, even after 50 years of evolution, is still based on the word, on cultural understandings and hidden meanings of accepted phrases.
Acconci has continually reinvented himself with the changing cultural zeitgeist, but what is even more inspiring is a singularity of focus within all of this change. Starting with his early poems and ending with the studio’s current work, there is a clear and distinct pursuit of interpersonal relations and how they are formed by space and movement. His legacy will be complicated and far reaching, but his relentless pursuit of understanding and provocation will be central to any reading.
This is the first in a series of posts covering lectures at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) by Andrew Zientek, RLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) II candidate, Harvard GSD.
Image credit: Vito Acconci / Harvard GSD