Multi-talented artist and all around “mensch” Vito Acconci (1940-2017) died recently. His loss is devastating for anyone interested in expanding concepts of art and public space. Vito spent most of his career trying to improve the ordinary places we inhabit and forcing us to acknowledge that these can be artful, playful, and unpredictable events in our everyday lives. Most importantly, he said that space only makes sense if it is inhabited.
Many of the obituaries for Vito have stressed his innovative and often outrageous performance art. For people of my generation – those of us who “came of age” on art in the late 1960s and early 1970s- it is easy to say that he is remembered for his shocking “Seedbed” at the Sonnabend Gallery (1972). Underlying these antics, however, was a firm belief that we can’t distinguish between public and private venues and that art can be found anywhere, not just in rarified museums. Vito understood his debt to the slightly older artists of Happenings of the early 1960s and he invigorated their restlessness for a generation that was contending with the Vietnam War and the societal upheavals of the late 1960s.
He formed Acconci Studio in the late 1980s to tackle commissions for public space. While Vito was trained as a poet at the prestigious writer’s program at the University of Iowa, he created the Studio in order to make tangible his explorations of movement and the incompleteness of reality. He effectively wanted to build permanent frameworks for ongoing performances of life. Through his studio, he hired young architects to draw his ideas. The types of users were intended to be as fluid as the spaces themselves.
Vito used the Möbius Strip literally and figuratively in many of his concepts. Metaphorically, it represents a continuum without a beginning or end and a space that is constantly morphing from inside to outside. In real designs, Vito often depended on the Möbius strip for open-ended possibilities. His Klein Bottle Playground, which originated as a vehicle for refugee children but has not been built although the Miami Design District has considered it, is a good example. The transparent tubing offers non-directional ways for children to explore climbing in, on, through the structure. There are many points of access and adults could potentially use this environment as readily as children.
Acconci Studio has created other designs, both built and unbuilt, that are not playgrounds or even parks, per se, but that provide urban experiences for anyone. Take a look at Acconci Studio’s “Fence on the Loose” (2012) for WaterPark City Condominiums in Toronto. Devin Lund took these photographs that come courtesy of Public Art Management, the firm that was responsible for bringing Acconci into this project. Lanterra Developments funded it as part of a development agreement negotiated with the city. The expansive results handle hand-hammered steel like molten taffy that wraps two joined buildings. The pushed and pulled metal starts at the back of a concrete retaining wall, twists and turns into seating, climbs up an exterior wall and provides a vertical shaft that could be climbed. It is also a bris-soleil, a canopy for the main entrance, and a compelling freestanding sculpture. The sculpture is seating; it is also the skeleton for swinging as if it were a kind of free form monkey bars.
As many of you who read this column know, I hate fences because they tend to cage in people. The irony of this Toronto piece is that it fences off and demarcates the apartment block yet it brings in participants. Like Vito’s performance art, there is no distinction between private and public. Many of the early Modern designers believed that artistic works could be part of our daily life; it is striking that Vito extended that legacy through his studio.
Vito not only furthered the legacies of Modernism and early performance art but also left his own mark, too. Karen Mills, the founder of Public Art Management, says that he was responsible for “rethinking the way we occupy public space.” When we look at some pieces I have already discussed on this blog, such as the seesaws that designed in Montreal, we can find an interest in non- static, variable projects that Vito encouraged. Landscape architect and sculptor Walter Hood, a powerful artistic force in his own right, notes “Vito forged a path for someone like me to take…..where art gives agency to all aspects of design. He is in my thoughts…” I would add that he remains in the thoughts of all of those he touched by his vision of dynamic public space.