Recession Tales: Vito Acconci

Recession Tales: Vito Acconci

Conceptual artist, poet, designer, and performer, Vito Acconci, 69, has been pioneering interdisciplinary practice and interactive architecture for over four decades with such performance work as Centers (a 1971 video of Acconci pointing at himself); architectural works including the recently restored 1993 facade of the Storefront for Art and Architecture, on which he collaborated with Steven Holl; and landscape/architecture projects such as the artificial Mur Island (2003) in Graz, Austria. In a frank interview with writer and editor Lilian Pfaff, he discusses how the recession has had an impact on his studio and his thinking about future work. (Read previous articles in this series here.)


Lilian Pfaff: So you are closing your studio. Why?

Vito Acconci: It’s not so much because we don’t have projects. We have a number that we are just beginning: a three-story building from the ground up in Milan; a “makeover” of a strip-mall in Athens, Georgia; an amphitheater in Stavanger, Norway; a park near Delft in the Netherlands; a kind of plaza/park over some train tracks in Vienna.

The contradictory thing is that at a time when there are these architectural projects that we have the possibility of doing, how do we keep the studio active on a day-to-day basis? We don’t have money constantly coming in, we have money that comes in spurts, but we can’t pay people’s salary every two weeks, rent, insurance, etc. I think it costs approximately $50,000 a month to keep the studio going, and we certainly don’t make anything near that amount now.

How many people are working in your studio?

It changed at the beginning of last summer. There were six designers, an office manager, and someone who took care of press. Sometimes we also had interns who came in to deal with the archives.

The economic crisis made a big difference. At first, I thought it wouldn’t affect us, because we never made a lot of money. But it really has. One of the reasons is that we have never consistently supported ourselves from the architecture. We also depended on the sale of my artwork and without this we wouldn’t have survived. It’s a very difficult time for architecture projects to exist, but it might be a harder time for art sales.

What are you going to do?

This is just very new. I am still shell-shocked. I am trying desperately to think of alternative ways. Ideally I would like to get where I at least could hire two fulltime designers, but I can’t count on it. I think I have to find a way to work differently. I might take up some more theoretical architecture work. Instead of having a full-time studio I might try to hire people either part-time, or hire one person for Project A and then one for Project B. The big problem with this method is that our studio doesn’t seem like an architecture firm, it seems like a research lab.

Can you explain why and how it’s so important in your architectural work to collaborate with other people?

One obvious way is that other people in the studio are working on the computer, and I don’t know how to use computer programs. I depend on the background I came from; I depend on words. I think when the studio work is successful, it’s a mix of mathematics and poetry, a mix of biological systems and narrative. And I hope in some ways the mix makes the studio different from others. When I talk about a project, I talk as if I am writing a narrative.

An example: A few months ago there was a competition for a museum in Perm in Russia. The site of the museum was at the top of a slope. The way we began our project was that everybody knows that the museum should be at the top of the slope, but maybe the slope is too strong, it’s like the call of the wild. The museum can’t resist the slope, the museum begins to fall down, as the museum falls down it becomes maybe as much a landscape as a building. There were train tracks that ran across the middle of the slope. It just so happens that Perm is a kind of out-of-the-way place, it’s very hard to get there, so we could take advantage of this. Part of the museum folds over the train tracks and becomes a train station. So the museum doubles as a train station, the museum also becomes the way to get to the museum.

A person in the studio said to me once, maybe you never called it this, but you were doing computer scripting from the beginning, you set up rules and followed the rules because you didn’t want to know before what something looked like. So in some ways we were very close, but from very different directions.

Another way of answering your question would be that without the studio maybe I would be doing only versions of Italo Calvino writing. But I don’t know if this is enough. I can’t claim that the most important thing for me is that things be built. Ideally, I want to come up with something that couldn’t have been imagined before the 21st century. The notion of now is important to me. I think theories can be very cheap until you don’t have the proof, and I want both.

Do you think your work will now go in a different direction?

It could go into other parts of design. I would prefer that we would be doing a building at the same time as we are doing, say, clothing. What drew me from art to design was the possibility of being able to deal with the occasions of everyday life. I want to make places you can be inside of and I want things you can hold in your hands, because things possibly are more important to us than places.