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The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project
Colin Marshall

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1. Vito Acconci's Conversions (1971)
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Though I'm approaching Ubuweb's video archive alphabetically by creator surname -- because that's how it's already organized, so boom, no effort burnt -- I'll bet I could hardly have picked a less appealing first selection for viewers dubious about experimental film. (You know who you are, you dead-eyed, mouth-breathing philistines. I kid, I kid.) Ambiguous title? Check. Stark black-and-white? Check. Lowest possible film resolution? Check. No soundtrack? Check. Over an hour long? Check. Nonnarrative? Check. "Plays with trans-gender illusions"? Check.

The film begins, and for its bulk sticks, with part one, "Light, Reflection, Self-Control", which follows a candle moved around the surface of Acconci's body. Though it primarily roams his hirsute chest -- whose hair, it must be said, that candle proves surprisingly effective at removing -- and zooms in on a nipple or two, it gets around to other, less identifiable regions as well. Sometimes I worried that I was looking straight into a taint, but usually what I suspected to be taints were merely more conventional patches of skin manipulated by fingers.

And speaking of digital manipulation, it's not long before the squeezing begins. When Ubuweb talks about Acconci's "attempts to create the illusion of having female breasts," I think it refers to the extended sequence of him squeezing his man-boobs. (This gives the impression that he's in pretty doughy shape, but he later turns out to be of the more standard 70s-substance-usin'-artist body type. Not that I'm calling the guy a druggie, but you know what I mean.) I don't know what it is, but watching man-boob kneading hits me like nails on a blackboard. I after five minutes or so, I could hardly bear it, but, readers, I have a commitment to uphold.

This ceases in part two, "Insistence, Adaptation, Groundwork, Display", which opens with Acconci having adopted what I believe modern parlance calls a "mangina." (I sometimes call it the "Buffalo Bill tuck.") As he shuffles toward the camera, the percentage of the frame filled by mangina approaches 100. Just before making physical contact with the lens, he rotates to give us the reverse shot. After making the loop a few times, it cuts to him jogging at the camera, back and forth, back and forth. Another cut finds him turning around and around, doing some sort of yogic-y stretches. The next gets closer to the mangina as Acconci performs what look like can-can-style kicks. Some squatting follows.

It must be said that these gender transformations aren't particularly convincing. As a straight male and thus a veteran observer of naked wimmins, I never found myself even close to fooled by Acconci's man-boobs, no matter how hard he squoze them. I suppose the mangina works a little better, but what we see is, at all times, clearly 100 percent dude. I'm glad nobody walked in on me watching this, because, if we're talking about gender assumptions, they'd really formulate a few interesting ones about me.

The setup changes dramatically in part three, "Association, Assistance, Dependence", which introduces a second player in the form of one of those skinny 70s girls who show up a lot in experimental film. As Acconci and his associate attempt what appears to be the only sex act possible while maintaining a mangina. (It looks like something even lewder than it is, though, so you might not want to screen this one at work. Assuming your work was okay with all the tucking and pinching and such before.)

Semi-fascinating context effect: as unerotic as this would be in a normal setting, it's positively titlllating when compared to the near-hour of almost uninterrupted views of hairy man-flesh that preceded it. Again, I'm a fellow of the straight persuasion, so of course I'm going to get more interested when a lady joins the party, even if that lady looks strung-out and is most of the time obscured by Acconci's pallid form. But I can't imagine that the Portrait of the Artist as a Squozen Man that was parts one and two would do much for the average gay viewer. (Sexuality-diverse readers, can you confirm or deny?)

All this fits with what I already know about what floats Acconci's artistic boat. He seems big on auto-eroticism, which anyone familiar with his 1972 performance piece Seedbed surely knows. There, he hid under floorboards and masturbated to fantasies, which he shouted aloud, about anyone who entered the gallery. Seven more of his films, all from the early-to-mid-70s, remain to be seen by me, so it won't be long before I know if they're all in the same vein. I see Seedbed itself resides on Ubuweb, so perhaps I shouldn't expect any surprises.

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