Essays

Learning from Vito Acconci, a Relentlessly Curious Teacher

In the Brooklyn College Art Department, where he taught for years, the late artist’s assignments and approaches are legendary.

Vito Acconci with some of his Brooklyn College MFA 2009 students (image courtesy Brooklyn College MFA)

“Think of this world as a white sheet of paper — a blank page. Get past dreaming and doodling. We can use that page to make fictions on, for one thing, and to make calculations on, for another.”

—Vito Acconci, “Research Station, Antarctica, For Your Ears Only” (2004)

A few years ago, when my children were small, we attended a short version of The Nutcracker somewhere in Midtown. A man sat right in front of me, and I soon realized it was David Bowie.  He was wearing a beautiful pink cashmere sweater with tiny flamingos embroidered into its fuzz. It was the most beautiful garment I have ever seen. That was the closest I came to my favorite rock star.

As far as my art world heroes, I was able to come a bit closer to and get to know one, at least a little. For almost a decade, I had the pleasure of being on the faculty of Brooklyn College’s Art Department with the incomparable Vito Acconci. His death last week left many of us who worked with him in a state of shock and grief.  Although we knew he was ill, he seemed somehow permanent — even though, at his core, more than anyone I knew, he believed in change and impermanence. In that sentence above, I almost wrote, “his passing last week,” but one of the lasting lessons he imparted to me and his  students was a serious skepticism toward floral, imprecise, and mystical language. He once told me how bemused he was when he worked on an outdoor installation out west, where all the arts administrators insisted in calling the dirt he wanted to use “soil” or “earth.” He said something like, “Hey, I’m a New Yorker — we just have dirt here.” My research tells me he must have been talking about “Dirt Wall, Arvada” from 1992. When I look it up onthe Smithsonian website, the project is described as a “spiral earth wall.” I guess he couldn’t convince them.

The importance of language in Vito’s thinking can not be overestimated. An MFA program, if it’s worth anything, is founded on conversations. Often these conversations are a bit of a dance, as we try to find common language to describe visual sensations and bridge the gulf between the artist’s intentions and the perceptions of the viewer. Vito constantly questioned existing conditions. He would say, “I just don’t know how to talk about” x or y — and then proceed to do just that, all the while asking probing questions about not just the work at hand but the whole enterprise of art making. This could be terrifying, because although he was always charming, he was raising foundational issues that would not (and will not) go away. He left nowhere to hide.

What would save the student in this situation was matching their own curiosity with Vito’s. Then the conversation could lead anywhere, dispensing with conventions and proposing new strategies that stretched far beyond gallery walls and artistic limitations. As a colleague, I knew Vito was hooked when he’d lean over and say, “That one is onto something really interesting, right? I can’t figure it out.” A renowned performance artist (though he disliked the term), he surprised me once at a graduate critique when he leaned over and whispered, “Why do they all talk about ‘ritual’? What is that anyway, Jennifer? I brush my teeth every day, but it’s not really a ritual!” In a class entitled “Writing and Practice,” he would advise students that you don’t have to use abstract language to explore abstract ideas. He once told me my work was interesting because it’s literal. I was put off at first, but then came around to the idea; I called my next exhibition with my collaborator, Kevin McCoy, The Allure of the Literal. He convinced everyone in his orbit to be more clear-eyed. He seemed allergic to the mystical but completely enamored of the mysterious.

Vito’s teaching projects are legendary in our department. I came across an assignment sheet for “Writing and Practice” once, and the prompts were fascinating. “Write as if you are fucking,” read one. A former student told me that Vito once spent an entire class reading Bataille’s Story of the Eye aloud, without breaks, for four hours to his graduate students. The student, now a professor himself, described the event as being simultaneously uncomfortable and somehow comforting. It was endurance reading/teaching/listening. Although poetry and performance permeated his teaching, he prioritized architecture. I know he taught in architecture programs at other institutions, but, to me, his teaching hit its stride when he trained artists to think like architects. He pushed them to think lyrically about the real conditions of culture and the lived environment. His prompts instilled in them a wariness of authoritarian constructs. One student told me of his exhortation to “introduce noise into the system.”

Although I’m describing Vito as the challenging radical that he was, this was coupled with his extreme kindness and generosity. When a student’s son was losing his eyesight, Vito donated a valuable drawing to the benefit auction. He donated another work to benefit my children’s school. I curated a show in 2010 for which all the art had to be emailed or recreated on site. Vito not only agreed to participate, but sent me a beautiful audio file entitled, “Research Station, Antarctica, For Your Ears Only” (2004) that he had created for an architecture proposal. We emailed back and forth deciding on which desert landscape the viewer should see when hearing the recording. He would always listen, and though he could be skeptical of the art world, he called our gallery, Postmasters, to wish us luck when we had openings. He was a friend, and I wish I could have known him better.

It’s been a hard year for the avant-garde. Just in my personal orbit, there have been the deaths of Pauline Oliveros, my graduate music professor; Tony Conrad, whom I knew as a professor and friend; and now Vito Acconci. I’m sure that every generation of artists feels the passing of the nonconformist thinkers who lit the way for them as a gigantic loss, but these people truly were adventurers. What Vito was trying to convey is not easily found out there in the world; I will make sure my students learn it.

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