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Colin Marshall

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7. Willoughby Sharp Videoviews Vito Acconci (1973)
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I've looked forward to this one for a few reasons. First, since we've thus far watched only pieces by Vito Acconci, it's refreshing to see something that's just about Vito Acconci. Second, it's an interview, and I'm very much into interviews. Third, having been immersed in the video compartment of Acconci's world but knowing little about him not found on The Wikipedia, I actually wanted a peek into his thought process, despite having been less than won over by his work itself.

The conversation is conducted by the late avant-garde figure Willoughby Sharp, who was also a video artist, publisher, writer, gallerist, etc. Obtaining access to San Jose State's television studios in the early 70s, Sharp produced this Videoviews series of artist interviews with his trusty Sony AV-3400 Porta-Pak, one of those early "prosumer" jobs where you wore a VCR on a shoulder strap and plugged the camera into it. Other guests included Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman, and I'm sure we'll run across at least one or two of them down the road in this video journey.

There's much to appreciate in the conversation's tone and aesthetic, as it distinctly captures one particular subculture in one particular historical moment. The other edge of this sword is that Sharp and Acconci's talk is pretty inside baseball, and I'm not sure I possess the tools to determine how much of it makes sense. Not that I can fault the two guys' passion for their subjects, especially Sharp's -- he pitches questions with admirable enthusiasm, though the weary-looking Acconci sometimes seem to struggle with them.

Near as I can tell, most of the interview concerns the integration between Acconci's public work and personal life, especially as regards a triangular relationship he once maintained with two women. Despite all the confessions and the soul-barings and the public masturbation and such, Acconci doesn't initially believe his pieces release all that much information about himself. "I guess I don't feel that I'm revealing anything tremendously personal," he argues, claiming that the spaces he creates would disclose the very same stuff about anyone who happens to occupy them. "These generalized personal elements say very little about me."

This sounds cliché, but Acconci appears to have lived life itself as a piece of performance art, and as early as 1973 the life-art slippage was apparent. "You'd like to be able to get away with what you do in private," Sharp offers, "but it becomes public. But you want it to be public." The conversation periodically swings, as it were, back toward the artist's three-way cohabitation. About this he staged a performance piece at, bizarrely, a "computer convention in Atlantic City." He describes much of his work as either an "attack" on himself for his lifestyle or as an experiment to see how much force and control he could exert on spaces and people: for example, "two girls who like each other would be forced into a competition -- and it'd be competition over me."

Sharp, of the mind that Acconci's work is actually quite personal indeed, gets Acconci to admit that he does allow his "life space" to pass through his "museum space." This leads into chatter about exhibitionism, voyeurism, "art" verus "art context," the relative freedom of artistic, sociological and psychological frameworks and how to move away from typical uses of gallery space. "I... guess there's a question there," Sharp observes upon arriving at the end of a mini-monologue of his own in response to one of Acconci's answers.

Abstraction gives way to concreteness toward the end, when Acconci discusses his childhood. The son of an impoverished bathrobe manufacturer who, standing, attended the opera every night, he recalls staging small performances that made his grandmother weep, holding drawing contests in the kitchen and receiving letters in college importuning him to "please study seriously." Growing up in an art-loving Italian family, he didn't at first realize that one could be involved with art and yet not be Italian -- when he started enjoying Wagner, his dad wouldn't speak to him for a full two weeks.

Ubuweb is right about the smoking, drinking and casualness, all of which are definitely present. (Acconci appears to be drinking Pepsi out of an old-school can, but still.) I'm reminded both of the interview sensibilities of times gone by and of interview sensibilities that never were. I'm inspired to act on them. Perhaps a series of video interviews, shot with similarly unconventional framing and camera motion, where the only rule is that both host and guest must smoke and drink? That's what I call conceptual art.

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