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The “text of life” in Vito Acconci’s Diary of a Body

Stamatina Dimakopoulou


À ses débuts, l’artiste conceptuel Vito Acconci combine dans sa pratique poésie, vidéo, photographie et performance, engageant la présence physique du corps. Il explore aussi la tension entre le caractère éphémère de la performance et les formes variées avec lesquelles ses activités ont été pensées, enregistrées et documentées. Les archives volumineuses assemblées par Gregory Volk dans The Diary of a Body 1969-1973 méritent d’être examinées à cet égard, car les documents visuels et verbaux ne sont pas seulement secondaires par rapport à la nature unique et éphémère de l’événement, mais font partie intégrante de l’œuvre. Cet essai revisite les notes et les photographies de Vito Acconci comme un assemblage qui conserve la substance expérientielle de la pratique artistique, et qui témoigne aussi de son caractère in/transitif, invitant une réflexion sur les liens entre écriture, performance et expérience. Constituant un paratexte aux performances et une continuation des premiers écrits, le journal possède une valeur documentaire contradictoire dont on analyse ici les enjeux.

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  • 1 Amelia Jones in “The Body in Action: Vito Acconci” points to the aporias of the early performances (...)

1Working with and across poetry, video, photography, and performance, Vito Acconci is often considered one of the major artists-writers of conceptual art. His early artistic practice is a site where textuality, visuality, and the involvement with the physical body intersect, complement and cross-fertilise each other. From his early poetic experiments with seriality, chance and repetition, to his aphoristic, polemical or theoretical statements, to notes on the performances, Vito Acconci, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, has affirmed himself as an artist who is intently and intensely self-aware about the reflexive character of his art. He has exposed the social, linguistic, and cultural conditioning of the self and of the masculine subject1, while his self-referential aesthetics has engaged the conceptual artists’ critique of the institutional boundaries of art. Yet what also characterizes Vito Acconci’s early work is the interface between conceptual pairs that essentially define our notions of language, art, and experience : self-reference and referentiality, accident and design, presence and absence. Much of Vito Acconci’s early work seems to be premised on maintaining our awareness of these interfaces, namely, through the tension between the transience of the performance, and the various forms with which the artist’s activities have been devised, recorded, and documented. The voluminous archive that was assembled by Gregory Volk in the Diary of a Body 1969-1973 is a compelling document in this respect, and merits to be considered in its own right. These visual and verbal documents are an integral component of the artist’s early work, and not only secondary to the uniqueness and the ephemerality of the event, as Gregory Volk suggests.

2In what follows, Vito Acconci’s notes and photographs will be revisited as an assemblage that preserves the experiential substance of the artist’s practice, but also speaks of its in/transitive character, inviting reflection on the connections between writing, performance, and the ground of experience. A paratext to the performances and a continuation of his early writings, the diary is a storehouse that has a documentary value against the grain : the notes and the photographs seem to invite us to break through the self-referential loop and establish a reflective distance that Vito Acconci’s “decidedly poststructural texts”, as Craig Dworkin put it (Dworkin 2001 93), and, subsequently, the logic of performance, seem to have been intended to leave out. In the uneven form of the diary, photographs, notes, and glosses mediate the processual and contingent character of the performance and invite interpretative strategies that are dependent on our retrospective reading and viewing. What is at stake in our encounter with the diary is not only how the notes mediate and/or unsettle the documentary value of the images: through the diary, we can rethink questions of space and time, as well as our perceptions about the production and the reception of art, as the relation between writing, photography and performance involves the fixity of the finished work and the contingency that went into its making.

From Language To The Body And Back Again

3In the introduction to the volume that brought together Vito Acconci’s early writings, Craig Dworkin underlines the vital connection between writing and performing, and the significance of the moment “when the last of his poems, as such, bleed off the page into the first of his performances, as such” (Dworkin 2006, xi). Kate Linker too, in her monograph on the artist, has highlighted that in the late 1960s “ 'language' and 'page' give way to 'body' and 'space' ” (Linker 13). Linker has also shown how a persistent reflexivity emerges as the primary trait of Vito Acconci’s writing: “language points to itself, reflexively describing its motion over the page along with its capacities for accumulation, juxtaposition, and interplay” (Linker 14). Similarly, Craig Dworkin stresses that by making his “body art” “an explicit continuation of his poetry” (Dworkin 2001, 99), the artist “explicitly uses the figure of opacity when he declares that he had wanted, in his poetry, 'to use language to cover a space rather than dis-cover a meaning'” (Dworkin 2001, 93).

4Reflexivity and opacity operate in a complementary manner, as both the art historian and the poet-critic suggest: just as the figure of opacity disregards meaning, the self-referential loop of the early performances disregards the possibilities of a narrative. “These early poems,” Kate Linker notes, “comprise a series of ruthlessly logical operations on poetic space” (Linker 13). Craig Dworkin, later on, will relate “a writing that no longer needed to tell any story other than its own material instantiation” (Dworkin 2006 xiii) to a genealogy that spans Beckettian indeterminacy, the linguistic experiments of the authors of the nouveau roman, and the resonances of Derridean différance. Craig Dworkin also maps Vito Acconci’s diverse American affiliations and avant-garde affinities, his indebtedness to late Modernists like Robert Creeley, the poetry of the first and the second generation of the New York School, the Fluxus movement, as well as the legacies of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Mina Loy and Raymond Roussel (Dworkin 2006, xiv-xv).

5Vito Acconci's writings seem to recycle Steinian repetition, Duchamp’s wordplays, or the Dadaists’ use of found language, just as they are akin to the conceptualist experiments that, together with Bernadette Mayer, he published in 0-9. Phonetic play, semantic slippages, syntactic and grammatical word-play, verbal compounds, varied typographies, the varying frame of the printed page, gratuitous combinations of words alternate with often exhaustively long chunks of found language, ranging from Roget’s Thesaurus to the yellow pages and snippets from weather forecasts. Typographical arrangement also varies throughout: cluttered pages contrast with pages that are predominantly blank; strings of words alternate with segments of text in parentheses. Words also appear in various guises — spliced, in brackets, or under erasure. For one, these texts seem to preclude subjective investment, while the disregard for meaningful, referential content implicates the reader in verbal ambiguity with varying degrees of sophistication, off-handedness, or involvement. Yet there is one element that may paradoxically point beyond the disregard for any extra-textual “story” in a body of “language” that directs towards itself, if we are to read in these writings more than verbal play: it is the persistent and ironic literalism and the emphatic presence of words unbound by context. An early poem that playfully speaks of the mundane circumstances of the “mind at work” in an undefined interior, as it were, is a most telling instance of the self-aware, even self-ironic reflexivity that will take on a more puzzling, physical and even anxious expression in the early performances:

That day, the pen I used was made of plastic, you see.
The writing could be stretched in any direction—“elastic,” —they said.
That didn’t refer to the words so much
As to me, while writing, at my desk, with desk-chair, desk-blotter,
desk-top, desk-toy, desk-ball, etc., I mean. (Acconci 2006, 4)

6As is the case here, Vito Acconci’s experiments with the reflexive movement of language often materialize by means of words that designate things and actions that are far too mundane and concrete. The “plasticity” of the pen finds its counterpart in the “elasticity” of writing, as qualities of artworks and/or mundane objects become metaphors for a self-referential malleable text in which the “me”, the “writer at work,” as it were, is becoming as flexible and as resistant as “writing” seems to be in relation to “meaning”.

7Throughout, Vito Acconci’s early texts contain temporal and spatial markers, indexicals, demonstratives and pronouns that are not substantiated by any specific anchoring. The literalism of non-abstract nouns and the potential transitiveness of verbs in the active voice are not integrated in a narrative frame. These tropes will be replicated in notes for realized and unrealized activities and performances. As will be discussed later, the notes come across as temporal nodes in a narrative frame about the activities of the artist: a frame in which grammatical modes constitute modalities of life in its most generic, too specific, or unspecified aspects.

8To return to the writings, the “material instantiation of language” through the use of pronouns, verbs and tenses, that is, generally, through the deployment of grammar, often results in fragments that read like notations for unrealized performances. The parentheses also play out an important ambiguity: what they contain can be read as if it were abstracted from a text and a context that the poet resists providing:

(He moved yesterday) (
(He walked once) (
(He stirred there ) (
(He ran two miles) (when a rope pulled him further)
(He shuffled a moment ago ) (

(He rolled in the morning) (
(He danced Wednesday) (
(He drifted twice) (
(He flew at 5 o’clock ) (
(He darted one second) (when the alarm rang, which made him reset the alarm)
(Acconci 2006, 17)

9Similar effects are generated by texts where the “I” is used as a linguistic shifter paired randomly with verbs in phrases and sentences that could have appeared as incomplete drills in grammar books. At the same time, the shifts in tense can be read as evoking discontinuity, a back-and-forth movement, and anxiety about time:

I lie down on the land.
I had it
I have it
I did it
I do it
I will it
I lay him down on the line.
I had
I have
I did
I do
I will (Acconci 2006, 59)

10In other texts that read like scores or captions for unrecorded activities, the boundaries between parody, solipsism and a self-conscious, controlled reflexivity are tenuous. Especially in texts that look like elliptical and disengaged verbal glosses on unnoticed, mundane gestures and situations, we come across a dramatization of the push-and-pull of exposure and privacy that was subsequently enacted in the performances:

Now I will tell you a secret. I am nodding my head.
Now I will tell you the truth. I am stretching.
Now I will tell you something that can’t be questioned. I am waving my hands.
Now I will tell you the facts. I am waving my leg.
Now I will tell you something you don’t know. I am changing position. (Acconci 2006, 75)

11The affinities between the tropes of the early writings and the notations about the early activities are numerous. To the use of shifters and grammatical modes, we may add the list-like pages. Although evidently resulting from word play at the phonetic, visual, or semantic level, these lists could be read more meaningfully against the grain, especially when they contain words with which ordinary objects, impressions, thoughts, or sensations could be described, randomly or arbitrarily. The list of words arranged in alphabetical order cited below is a case in point:

able acid angry automatic awake bad beautiful bent bitter black blue
boiling bright broken brown certain cheap chemical chief clean clear
cold common complete complex conscious cruel cut dark dead dear deep
delicate dependent different dirty dry early elastic electric equal
false fat feeble female fertile first fixed flat foolish forceful free
necessary new normal old open opposite parallel past physical poor
possible present private probable public quick quiet ready regular
responsible right rough round sad safe same second secret separate
violent warm wet white wide wise wrong yellow young
(Acconci 2006, 31)

12In such baffling juxtapositions, the reflexive movement of language produces both auditory and visual variations which prompt us, as readers, to add verbs and prepositions in order to generate connections between the conditions that the qualifiers suggest. Reflexivity seems to become more permeable, as the qualities that the words evoke open up spaces for projections of meaning. Similarly, the extensive and ironic use of the meta-language of the dictionary intensifies the closure of language and at the same time points towards other, albeit unanchored, possibilities of meaning. A striking instance is the spelling out of the (our) sense and notion of place. Here, the poet stages a shift from the codified meanings and contexts of a word to a more personalized appropriation of a category of thought:

Let me explain. A place is a way for admission or transit;
physical environment; physical surroundings; an indefinite region
or expanse; a building or locality used for a special purpose; a
particular region or center of population; an individual dwelling
or estate; a fortified military post; a particular portion of a
surface; a passage in a piece of writing; the point at which a
reader left off; relative position in the social scale; relative
position of merit in any context; a step in a sequence.

Come closer. There. Now let me explain. A thing is a matter of
concern; a particular state of affairs; an event, circumstance; a
deed, act, accomplishment; a product of work or activity; the end
or aim of effort or activity; whatever exists or is conceived to
exist as a separate entity or as a distinct and individual
quality, fact, or idea; (Acconci 2006, 80)

13A certain rational sequence seems to be at work here as the juxtaposed phrases deploy variations on “places” or “things”. In this sequence, we readers may potentially see private thoughts at work, alongside more commonly shared notions that are perfunctorily mentioned.

  • 2 In “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence”, Anne Wagner returns to Krauss’s seminal essa (...)

14Overall, what is disconcerting in Vito Acconci’s early writings is not only the absence of a narrative, the lack of a performative frame, or the lack of underpinnings of any one kind, but also the fact that verbal play somewhat relegates the reader to a tentative ground that may be just as constraining as the “sustained tautology” of the “narcissism” that Rosalind Krauss saw at work in the early videos (Krauss 50): a tautology that results from the parodic gesture that, as Rosalind Krauss argues, was intended to expose the self-sufficiency of modernist forms2. Responding to “a climate of radical semiotic interrogation” (Dworkin 2001, 103) in Vito Acconci’s experiments with indeterminacy and reflexivity, semantic and referential variation, language becomes a ground of potentiality just as it is recyclable and expendable. Equally, Vito Acconci’s texts, like his early performances, produce an effect of depletion and clutter and an inconclusiveness that echo the anxiety of his times. As Gregory Volk aptly reminds us:

There is something wonderful about many of Acconci’s works from this time, an attempt to connect with one’s body, to explore, measure, and take stock of one’s own capabilities and limitations. […] In the background there is also the social and political turmoil of the time, the horrific Vietnam War, and a sense of being both powerless and manipulated by forces entirely beyond one’s control. (Volk 11-12)

  • 3 In the influential work The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon stresses that reflexive polit (...)

15Our relation, therefore, to the ways in which Vito Acconci’s early writings “explore, measure and take stock” of language’s “capabilities and limitations”, anticipates our retrospective relation to the early performances. The artist’s early experiments with self-reference may be revisited not only as a critique of culturally-specific structures of signification but also as pointing towards the inadequacies of the politics of reflexivity, at the same time3. If so, we may rethink how the early writings prepare us for the early performances with this aporia in mind.

16In an often-quoted interview with Mark C. Taylor, Vito Acconci spoke of the connection between linguistic play and the performing body as defined by a reaching out beyond the closure of self-reference, as it were:

I’d put poetry at the bottom of a hierarchy of the arts — not because it’s lesser, but because it’s the base, the undercurrent, the sub-structure of the arts. But, as a base, it’s only a beginning. Poetry has nothing to do with concentration of language, or distillation of language; poetry is an attempt to get through language and arrive at a state of pre-language — it’s a cry, a gasp, a screech. Poetry is thinking — or maybe it’s only feeling — in opposites; poetry is fluidity between opposites. Then, later, poetry, throws the voice into spaces, events; poetry grows up to become a novel, or a movie, or music, or architecture.

But: once a poet always a poet — or, at least, once a language-user always a language-user. I don’t know how to think — more exactly, I don’t know how to know I’m thinking — except by language. I start a project by naming the conditions and playing with words, punning on these names. Or I start a project by subject-verb-object: I parse a space, I use sentence-structure to plot possible movements through that space. (Ward et al. 9-10)

  • 4 Monica Manolescu offers a different angle on Acconci’s notion about poetry and language: “A primord (...)

17Regardless of the degree of earnestness that may or may not be vested in this statement, Vito Acconci here posits writing and performing as experiential modalities: he posits language as a ground of mediation, and as the means with which we may “poetically”, should we say reflectively, pierce through it. We may, therefore, revisit the early performances as underscored by a similar longing, albeit ironically4.

18Vito Acconci’s statement about the role of poetry in his work offers a point of departure to connect language and performance to personal experience also because it anchors artistic and poetic work in lived time. The composite form of Vito Acconci’s archive mediates and preserves a temporality that is of the order of narrative and not solely of the site-specific temporality of performance. As I will discuss in the next section, the different temporalities and tonalities of the notes and photographs signal the distance and the space between the representational and referential value of the document, the physicality of the performing body and its contingent environments and contexts. The idiosyncrasy of the diary invites us to approach performance art as more singular and particularized, and not only as “construct[ed] experiments to experience” in which the artist “objectif[ies] his self as our self or, more accurately, the self, the contemporary human subject,” as a “mutable, changeable, term” (Linker 7).

  • 5 In “Performance After the Fact”, Acconci, in a sort of counterpoint to his later statement on poetr (...)

19The intermittently transitive and intransitive components of performance parallel the dialectics between closure and inconclusiveness, opacity and transparence in the writings: closing off and reaching out for the index and the traces of personal experience. As the “tautological narcissism” of his early work seems to be anticipated by the reflexive movement of language, the connection between self-reference and performance, the interface between the use of language and the ab/use of the physical body can be thought otherwise: just as language writes itself as it is being written, so does the body become both a transitive verb, and a verb in the middle voice, complicating the question of agency, as well as the distinction between acting and being acted upon. Vito Acconci in his early work becomes, as it were, a “middle verb”, and the distance between the performer and the reader that is retrospectively imposed by the record can also be seen as allowing for a more engaged and engaging involvement “after the fact”5.

Investing in the record

seeing or finding in written form or in some similar form
learning from what one has seen or found in such form
(Acconci 2006, 282)

  • 6 In the introduction to the volume Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects, Gloria Moure offers one (...)

20The early writings certainly constitute an important precedent to Vito Acconci’s notes on his performances: for one, the proliferative guise of the artist’s writings finds its counterpart in the wealth of material that was recovered from Vito Acconci’s loft. Yet despite this continuity, the casual and meticulous recording becomes even more striking given that Vito Acconci’s generation distrusted the presumed durability of fixed forms and premised their thinking on the critique of visuality and narrative in art. As we approach the material “after the fact”, the sheer volume of notes, jottings, and the numberless photographs come across as tokens of a paradoxical investment in the record. Moreover, our encounter with documentary material of this kind confronts us not only with the publicly shared and the private components of the performance, but also with a certain self-containedness that is at odds with our potentially reflective role as readers. At the same time, the notes and photographs complicate the opacity that Craig Dworkin posits as defining Vito Acconci’s writing, as they direct us both to the intractable texture of experience and the closure or rather the paradox of a representational reflexivity6.

21In the “Notes on my Photographs 1969-1970” (1988), Vito Acconci relegated the record to a secondary status. As he speaks about his movement away from poetry and from a notion of the page “as a container for words,” that are being “beaten back into their cell (the page)”, he describes the transition from writing to photography as a reaching out towards contingency:

My first pieces, in an art context, were ways to get myself off the page and into real space. These photographic pieces were ways to, literally, throw myself into my environment. They were photos not of an activity but through an activity; (Acconci in Moure 349)

22Unlike the photographs of his early performances which Vito Acconci dismisses as “only souvenirs, after the fact, whose proper place was in the pages of a book or magazine” (Ibid.) “these photographic pieces,” Vito Acconci seems to imply, have value because of their primary status, as it were:

These photographic pieces, on the other hand, were first-hand information: their only existence was as photographs—the activity of a photograph wasn’t an end in itself, the activity was performed in order to cause a photograph. (Ibid. 349)

  • 7 Anne Wagner makes an interesting point: “the uses and abuses of the performer's body underwrite one (...)

23The paradox which is at work in Vito Acconci’s aesthetics takes us back to his notion of poetry as the “base”, to remember his statement about poetry: by privileging the “piece” over the “document” — the “existence” of the photograph “as photograph” as he puts it — Vito Acconci prioritizes what emerges “through” something, at the expense of the record “of” something. Yet experience is of the order of both: “through” the lived and “of” the lived. Vito Acconci’s statement about photography is in a way similar to his statement about poetry: photography and writing are valued as activities per se and seem to be permeated by the same logic7.

24Yet, as we come across texts and photographs in the diary, the reflexiveness of either medium is being disrupted as we relate text and photograph in a contextual manner. The photograph anchors the text, and the text provides content for the photograph. This is the case with early street works. Our encounter with the material that documents “a situation using streets, walking, glancing” (1969) is a case in point: a shot of the corner of 5th avenue and 50st South is framed by a dry and sparse text that reads like a fragment of an exhaustingly intense self-observation:

A continuous walk, for three hours, around the sidewalk of a busy city street: straight line along the curb, cut across the corner, straight line alongside buildings.

In the middle of people going in and out of stores, I’m walking long enough for someone to think: “Hey, I’ve seen this guy before.” (Acconci in Volk 20)

25While the sense of a certain playful gratuitousness is there, the casual and matter-of-fact rendering comes across both as an expression of detachment and as a wish for connectedness. Either way, the dry account of the “activity” serves as a gloss to the image: it provides a narrative for a photograph from which the agent is absent, while the photograph provides more referentiality to the text, as it were.

26The “notes” facing the page that contains the photograph and the accompanying gloss, entwine the interconnected “activities” of “walking” and “glancing” with a playful list of found and/or devised metalanguage. Detailing the situatedness of the artist’s activity in a specific context, time and place, the early “notes” enmesh the order of narrative with the slipperiness and potentiality of metalanguage which turns out to be more idiosyncratic than the discourse of the record. The “notes” provide an account of the untracked everydayness with which the artist’s activities intersect, while the feigned metalanguage of the dictionary refracts recognition as an experiment with reciprocal gazes, the account of which is being disrupted as the text slips towards the impersonality of lexicographic definition:

4. Possibility of recognition (A person seeing me, walking by once, as he/she goes into a store; the person seeing me, walking by again, as he/she comes out of the store; the person wondering whether or not he/she has already seen me.

5. Recognize: to take notice of; to make out or perceive to be something previously known; to acknowledge the de facto existence of (as a government in a state); to acknowledge the independence of (as a community or body that has thrown off the sovereignty of a state to which it was subject) and treat as independent or otherwise effective.

6. Separate: to make a distinction between; to disperse in space or time. (Acconci in Volk 21)

27A number of variations on the same “activity” are excerpted in the “diary of the body,” such as “a situation using street, labels, buses” (Volk 22). The notation of time and place, followed by the detailing of the “circumstances” for the carrying out of the performance confer to the list of grammatical modes that Vito Acconci terms “Developments,” an experiential quality that is mediated through the semantic play and the slippages that the juxtaposition invites. It is through such semantic and grammatical slippages that lived time and space are being mapped onto language in Vito Acconci’s diary. Grammatical categories point to forms of experience and the attributes and qualities we may attach to them (passive, active, imperfect, progressive, historical etc).

General circumstances: Street Works I; March 15, 1969; 42St. to 52 St., Madison Ave. to the Ave. of the Americas.

Particular circumstances: A label attached to the side of a bus; the label noting the time and place of the bus when the label was attached.

Four buses; four stopping places, on Fifth Avenue; four times; four gummed labels, 1×3”, contents not recorded.

Developments: transitive verb; intransitive verb; copulative verb; active voice; passive voice; present tense; past tense; future tense; present perfect tense; past perfect tense; future perfect tense; progressive present tense; imperfect tense; historical present tense; indicative mood; subjunctive mood; imperative mood; participle; gerund; infinitive; adverb; prepositional phrase; conjunction. (Acconci in Volk 22)

28In other instances, the detailed and painstaking instructions about locations and timings of the “street works” operate doubly: they hollow out and preserve the experiential content of the performance. “A situation using streets, walking, running:” (1969) contains an intensely self-aware observation while punning on the artist’s own performance of physical and verbal “shifts”:

1. When I choose the person walking, and know that I will reach the second corner before that person, “I am beginning to shift the first corner,” which that person marks to the second corner; until: when that person moves ahead of me, as I stand in place timing that person, “he/she is beginning to shift the first corner,” which I mark; until: as I pass alongside, and our lines of moving meet, “we are repeating the corner”; until: as I start to run ahead, ”I am shifting the shift.” […]

4. “Watch” is activated as I look at my watch to time to other’s starting point; the watch goes on to time each point the other gets to while I am occupied lifting my notebook, writing the number down, etc. (Acconci in Volk 28)

29The several variations on the unrealised project entitled Room (1969) also show the way the artist maps language onto possible physical gestures and actions. (STANDING ROOM), (MORE OR LESS ROOM), (WALKING ROOM), (BOOK ROOM), (GOAL ROOM), (STORAGE ROOM, CITY ROOM), (BACK ROOM): these variations range from filling a “room” with rugs, to relocating books, throwing rubber balls “in the direction of the room,” uncovering and retrieving stored furniture in different parts of the city to dumping “whatever is done” in the “next room” in the “middle” of a “gallery room.” (in Volk 98-101) The notes for this unrealized piece evoke an imagined movement of depletion and clutter.

  • 8 Following Piece involved following people chosen at random in the street, and stopping when the per (...)

30Throughout, and this is also true of much later recordings and interviews in which Vito Acconci speaks about his early pieces, the notes alongside the photographs do tell stories that, as Gregory Volk writes, compel us precisely because their inconclusiveness opens out a space for reflective and affective involvement. The notes for Following Piece are certainly a case in point: the two pages of notes for Following Piece (1969) “[read] like a compelling poem, or rather a strange amalgamation of a poem, a diary entry, and a personal manifesto […] packed with both driving aspirations and nagging alienation”. (Volk 9-10) The “notes” for Following Piece8 contain a meticulous notation of duration, diagrams of eventual patterns of following, as well as photographs that elide a frontal view of either the artist or the person that is being followed. The notes, in all their “nagging alienation”, also speak of an anxiety for connectedness through the metalanguage of grammar which is presented as the “(general condition of making art)”:

I need a scheme (follow the scheme, follow a person).
Street (def.) ‘promising line of development,’ ‘channeling of effort.’
Adjunctive relationship: I add myself on to another person (I give up control / I don’t have to control myself / I become dependent on the other person /I need that person, that other person doesn’t need me).
Subjective relationship; subjunctive relationship.
Out in space
Out of time (Acconci in Volk 77)

  • 9 In her study of the use of language in conceptual art, Liz Kotz notes the connections between the v (...)

31The notes for Following Piece also offer a blueprint for reading by allying authorship, intentionality and privacy — the “subjective relationship” — to the interpretative possibilities of subsequent critical encounters that are “subjunctive” rather than actualized9.

  • 10 For Blinks (1970), Acconci took a series of photographs each time he blinked, despite his effort to (...)
  • 11 Volk 248-249.

32As phototextual compounds “after the fact”, Blinks (1969)10, and Security Zone (1971)11 retrospectively call for a similar response: the dereliction, the bleakness and the desolation of the photographic stills convey an anxiety that Gregory Volk located in the poetic quality that invites both empathy and distance. The notes for Security Zone are among the most narrative instances in the diary, presenting the idea and the action of wandering in a deserted pier, blindfolded and with ears plugged, “putting himself” in the control of a person “specifically chosen: someone about whom my feelings are ambiguous, someone I don’t fully trust.” The “notes” for Blinks, on the other hand, contain a reflection on temporality that invites us to see performance art as a form of mediation, connecting a bodily response to the environment and a longing to transform the urban landscape into a more poetic landscape of the mind that will be preserved through the image and the text:

  • 12 Gregory Volk points out that “the notes for Blinks (November 23, 1969) [were] written a short while (...)

Notes on Blinks 1969
Keeping in sight: having in view, holding in view (camera as a means to ‘keep seeing’—when I blink, I can’t see—when I take a photograph, while blinking, I have a record of what I couldn’t see—see it later, feel it now).
Delayed reaction: postponement: anticipation (when I blink, I know I will be seeing, later, what I am missing now).
Performance as ‘double time’: I see what’s before me in the present —now and then, I know I will see, in the future, what was before me in the past.
Art-work as the result of bodily processes (my blink ‘causes,’ produces, a picture)
camera as storage (it will let me see later).
Camera as prosthetics (it lets me see what I can’t).
Camera as simulation (it will let me remember later what I can’t see now). (1970) (Acconci in Volk 114)

  • 13 Nikky Cesare Bartnicki offers an interesting discussion of the question of presence in relation to (...)

33These notes seem to encode a body, yet the body is what is absent from the photograph. The experiential component is marked paradoxically by the absence of physical presence in the photograph. The distortion of the frame and the variations on angle dramatize, as it were, the uniqueness of each shot. In Blinks the movement of the body is related to the click of the camera: the “blink” signifies the coincidence of the unpredictable movement of the eye with this click13.

34While Blinks suggestively evokes absence, the photographs and the notes for Project for Pier 17 (1971) are essentially a record of obsolescence and tell a story of dereliction, which is concurrent with the artist’s intervention, but from which however he is detached:

(Untitled) Project for Pier 17
Every night, I’m at the pier at 1 a.m,: I’m alone—I’m waiting at the far end of the pier, for one hour.
If someone comes out to the pier to meet me, I confess to that person something about me that hasn’t been revealed before, something that I’m ashamed of and that under normal circumstances I wouldn’t tell a soul, something that—if it were made public—could be used against me.
In exchange for keeping the secret, the visitor can demand something from me: the visitor can blackmail me. (Acconci in Volk 258-259)

35Tom McDonough, in his reading of Vito Acconci’s “street works” and Following Piece, states that “even the camera became a narcissistic extension of the body, the resulting photographs existing less as iconic documentation than as physical traces of exertion, no different from the sweat, spittle, and other assorted bodily fluids likewise produced as by-products of his actions” (McDonough 109). In a similar vein, Craig Dworkin writes that the photographs of the performances operate as language, as “purely visual examples­­ of a ‘generative proliferation”’ (Dworkin 2001, 107). In Craig Dworkin’s terms, seriality and relationality confer meaning to the photographs “in a way that justifies the generative movement” or “productivity connotated by the a of différance” (Dworkin 108). Yet the camera and the photographic record while being tokens of a self-referential, and later on a sado-masochistic narcissism, do seem to have more possibilities beyond being a mere instrument of recording. The facticity, the “then” and the “there” in both text and images points to a time and a space that has an experiential density.

36For all their dry and disengaged, factually descriptive manner, the glosses and the notes that accompany still images of Vito Acconci's performances speak of a persistent and enduring loyalty to language, as well as an enduring loyalty to what we experience, think and feel. In spite of their matter-of-factness, irony and play, these notes rescue the facticity of performance. The indexicality that marks presence and a tautological reflexiveness disconcertingly coalesce in the record. Thus the notes, glosses, instructions, especially when written after the fact, are marked by the indexicality of the photographic record. The phototextual archive therefore is the space in-between the physicality of performance and the reflexive politics of conceptual art.

  • 14 By the end of the film, I’m staring into the camera again, I’ve worked myself back to my original (...)
  • 15 Fixed camera shoots me from the waist up: […] sooner or later I wouldn’t be able to do it again.” (...)

37The relation between language, the image, and the precariousness of the performance becomes more complicated when it comes to records of performances that entailed physical pain or intense physical exertion: in these records, the gloss is minimal, as we essentially come across captions that are definitely literal. Explicitly and unambiguously referential notations accompany the stills from ‘Soap & Eyes” (1970)14, or “Hand & Mouth” (1970)15:

  • 16 Reprinted handwritten note next to stills from the 3 minutes film.

adaptation it’s all in the eyes (spatial concentration) seeing eye to eye (my eye directed at camera eyes)—work myself back to this (eyes fixed: my eye and camera eye fixed together16 (Acconci in Volk, 184)

  • 17 Pryings involved the attempt of one of the two participants of the performance (Vito Acconci), to o (...)

38Overall, looking at still images and glosses raises questions about the uses of narrative and the function of the image as a token of experience. Photographs invite reflection, even if that reflection amounts to asking whether the stillness of the record elides or to the contrary comes across as a token of the intensity of pain. In the stills from Pryings (1971)17, for instance, one could argue that the still image disempowers the performance itself, hollowing out its physicality as it were, yet also disturbingly reinforcing it through stillness, mobilising the affect that is somewhat held at bay in its narcissism. The value of the documents rests precisely in that it reminds us of the physical obstacle or the contingent circumstances that brought the performance to an end.

39To return to the connection between Vito Acconci’s early writings and the early performances, it seems that writing and performance are complementary, as Craig Dworkin has argued, but also apart. The distance between the lived, the performed event, and the record retrospectively disrupts the conflation or coincidence between form and content that, Craig Dworkin reminds us, defines Vito Acconci’s practices: “the subject of the writing comes together with the writing itself” (Dworkin 2001, 97). The record points to a disjunction that creates a space for a different and retrospective critical response. The reflexive and the experiential converge, inviting a reading “activity,” to use Vito Acconci’s term, in which our temporal lag from the moment of performance becomes the condition for a critical approach of a different kind. The radical discontinuity between the lived and represented is preserved and reintroduced in the archive and becomes the ground of connectedness, as our separation from the tautology of the unique event is the precondition for reflective distancing. The narratives that retrospectively emerge, constitute a mediating ground that complicates the anti-mimeticism of the pieces themselves. The diary localizes (through photography) and narrativizes (through the glosses and the notes) the “thing that lives”.

Coda: with and against the in/adequacies of conceptualism

40The disjunction between the irrecuperable moment of performance and its record has been revisited in Silvia Kolbowski’s “Inadequate history of conceptual art” which was compiled after the reminiscences of artists who were asked “to speak from memory about conceptual projects from the past” (Kolbowski 53). In testimonies that were excerpted and brought together anonymously, artists return to the anti-institutional impulse of performance and, with varying degrees of detachment, connect the transience of the performances to whatever experiential value it might have borne. Remembering each individual gesture as a ground where the boundary between the private and the public is contested, where the viewer finds herself ill at ease or indifferent before the artist’s self-reflexive, tautological act, they all draw attention to the actual experience and its irreducible temporality. The remembered event becomes narrativized because of its temporal and spatial substance.

41With and against the grain of the self-aware legacies of conceptualism, Vito Acconci’s archive invites us to re-invest in a more permeable notion of both narrative and experience as integral to the making of art and its reception. Like the testimonies that were recorded by Silvia Kolbowski, The Diary of the Body sits uneasily in the politics of the “there” and the “then” of conceptual art, as by virtue of its status as document, it tells stories that negotiate and eventually reinstate and traverse the boundary between the closure of self-reference and the more uncertain and slippery ground of the index. The “reductivism and self-referentiality” of performance, as Tom McDonough puts it (McDonough 109), is disrupted in our encounter with the more composite form of the diary; the stillness and transience of the finished work, in a way, solicits us to recall the contingent circumstances of the conception and production of each piece. The phototextual compound turns out to be not all that constraining, secondary, or misleading after all: the record does have its own value which rests in the way it invites us to invest texts and images with meaning, precisely because we are removed from the initial “aggressions and coercions” (Wagner 67) with which the artist confronted his initial audiences. The record is a figure of opacity, yet at the same time it opens the possibility to pierce through it, as it is after all detached from the artists’ own physical presence. Unfolding the dialectics between experience, textuality, and the visual, the diary suspends the self-referential politics of the works themselves, and speaks of the experiential substance that went into their realisation. Looking at documents “after the fact” points beyond the artist’s paradoxical mastery over his work, and towards “the text of life” that, as Wallace Stevens told us, is what “our eyes behold” while at the same time “one’s meditations on the text and the disclosures of these meditations are no less a part of the structure of reality” (Stevens 76). These “structures” contain both the intractable substance of experience and the paradox of a representational reflexivity beyond the conceptual and theoretical loop of a self-enclosed, yet open work.

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Acconci, Vito. “Notes on My Photographs 1969-1970, January 1988.” In Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects. Gloria Moure, ed. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2001, 349-350.

Acconci, Vito. “Performance after the Fact, April/August 1989.” In Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects. Gloria Moure, ed. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2001, 351-357.

Acconci, Vito. Language to Cover a Page: the Early Writings of Vito Acconci. (Craig Dworkin, Ed). Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

Cesare-Bartnicki, Nikki T. The Aestheticization of Reality: Postmodern Music, Art, and Performance. PhD Thesis: New York University, 2008.

Dworkin, Craig. “Fugitive Signs.” October. 2001. no 95, 90-113.

Hutcheon, Linda (1989). The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd edition. London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Jones, Amelia, Body Art/ Performing the Subject. Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1998.

Kolbowski, Silvia. “An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art.” October. 2000, no 92, 52-70.

Kotz, Liz. Words to Be Looked at: Language in 1960s Art. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2007.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”. October. 1976, no 1, 50-64.

Linker, Kate. Vito Acconci. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.

Manolescu, Monica, “Vito Acconci. Spaces of Play”. Jeux et enjeux du texte. René Alladaye and Sophie Vallas (eds). Numéro spécial Transatlantica. 2013. no 2. [last accessed 4 November 2015].

McDonough, Tom. “The Crimes of the Flaneur.” October. 2002, no 102, 101-122.

Moure, Gloria. Ed. Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2001.

Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries form Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1985.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1951.

Volk, Gregory. Ed. Vito Acconci: Diary of a Body, 1969-1973. Milan: Charta, 2006.

Wagner, Anne. “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence”. October. 2000, no 91, 59-80.

Ward, Frazer, Taylor Mark C., Bloomer, Jennifer. Vito Acconci. London: Phaidon Press, 2002.

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1 Amelia Jones in “The Body in Action: Vito Acconci” points to the aporias of the early performances in relation to the question of subjectivity: “Ironically, […] it is Acconci’s continued fascination with masculinity that makes his works potentially so destabilizing to the norm. While, as Butler notes, “the authors of gender [often] become entranced by their own fictions,” Acconci’s maintenance of these fictions takes place within the body art format and thus exposes heterosexual, white masculinity as an intersubjectively determined construct, a fiction of its own”. (Jones 111).

2 In “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence”, Anne Wagner returns to Krauss’s seminal essay and reminds us that Krauss “further understands the relation between the body and the camera as syntactical”: in Krauss’s terms, Wagner argues “the body ought to be considered to be held in qualified suspension: it is bracketed just as is a linguistic phrase or sign”. (Wagner 68). In her response to Krauss, Wagner’s argument points towards our retrospective involvement with performance as readers: “If Centers were a poem”, Wagner writes, “we would be forced willy-nilly to attend to its use of a key rhetorical figure, apostrophe-forced to take cognizance of its direct address to some dead or absent figure, some thing or abstract idea. But Krauss is concerned with medium, and her omission is more strategic than ideological”. (Wagner 68)

3 In the influential work The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon stresses that reflexive politics are not synonymous with a delimited notion of self-reference: “Despite the polarized camps in the evaluation of the postmodern, there does seem to be some agreement about certain of its characteristics. For example, many point to its parody and self-reflexivity; others to the opposite, its worldliness. Some, like myself, want to argue that these two qualities co-exist in an uneasy and problematizing tension that provokes an investigation of how we make meaning in culture, how we ‘de-doxify’ the systems of meaning (and representation) by which we know our culture and ourselves”. (Hutcheon 18).

4 Monica Manolescu offers a different angle on Acconci’s notion about poetry and language: “A primordial relationship to language lies at the origin of artistic thought and action, informing self-awareness and epistemology as well […] The notion of 'language-user' suggests a pragmatic approach to language, but the question of how to reconcile this pragmatic linguistic view with the quasi-mystic understanding of poetry as pre-language (‘a screech, a cry’) is open to speculation”. (Manolescu)

5 In “Performance After the Fact”, Acconci, in a sort of counterpoint to his later statement on poetry as “the base”, says that performance is irrecuperable because it is concurrently the record of its existence and disappearance, but also something that mediates the lived: “This ‘problem’ with performance art is also the benefit of performance art : it destroys itself as it is being made—it can never be pinned down because it has already disappeared—as soon as it exists in fact, in an actual place and in an actual situation, it isn’t itself, because it shares the place of something else, it breathes the air of whatever alien place it’s in, it starts to become the thing that lives in that place”. (Acconci 1989, in Moure 357). The record then allows for the critical work of recovery.

6 In the introduction to the volume Vito Acconci: Writings, Works, Projects, Gloria Moure offers one of the most compelling critical overviews of Acconci’s work, and eloquently states the artist’s awareness of the entwinement of language and experience: “The plastic and visual artist, by the very nature of his or her creative approach, is always on the edge of the inexpressible and in fact seeks to configure it: indeed, the artist operates in the signic soup of forms and materials, but more in the sense of transgressing the last linguistic bastion or perhaps, more precisely, playing with these, attempting in this way to move in the Foucauldian outside, where silence and the failure to speak are due to incapacity not repression.” (Moure 11-12, in “From Words to Things”, 9-56).

7 Anne Wagner makes an interesting point: “the uses and abuses of the performer's body underwrite one set of sensations of authenticity, while the tape or photograph guarantees its testimony on different grounds. Sometimes the two elide. When body and technology come together, however, the result uproots confidence in art's ability to testify in relation to the moment of performance and video which is in a way a document/a record after all”. (Wagner 74)

8 Following Piece involved following people chosen at random in the street, and stopping when the person that was being followed was entering a private building. As Tom McDonough notes, the piece was consistently recorded by the artist himself: “Each day from October 3 to the 25 Acconci undertook what became known as his Following Piece, the details of each pursuit dutifully recorded afterward on a large index card”. (McDonough 107)

9 In her study of the use of language in conceptual art, Liz Kotz notes the connections between the verbal tropes of the early writings and the notations for projects like Following Piece: “In Acconci’s notations for performances, short gerund-based descriptions specify a core action or series of actions­—for example Following Piece […]. While a work like Following Piece employs language only at the initial stage—to state the general schema that will then be realized under different conditions each time—it extends the operations of text-based projects like Transference Roget’s Thesaurus into far more highly charged realms of urban public space”. (Kotz 170)

10 For Blinks (1970), Acconci took a series of photographs each time he blinked, despite his effort to the contrary, during a walk on a busy street.

11 Volk 248-249.

Cf. Tellingly, the notes for Security Zone have been included in Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, 517-518.

12 Gregory Volk points out that “the notes for Blinks (November 23, 1969) [were] written a short while after the action” (Volk 11).

13 Nikky Cesare Bartnicki offers an interesting discussion of the question of presence in relation to the “past” presence of the performance, and the value of the document and points to their complementarity: “It is not, then, only through the document that piece exists qua performance, but via the perfomative interaction with what is present (the document) and what is absent (the act). The document becomes its own subsequent performance dependent upon that first walk, as that which is absent in either document or performance is dependent upon that which is present, but it by no means compromises the fact of the first performance”. (Cesare-Bartnicki 335)

14 By the end of the film, I’m staring into the camera again, I’ve worked myself back to my original position, I’m staring through the soap on my face.” (Acconci in Volk, 184)

15 Fixed camera shoots me from the waist up: […] sooner or later I wouldn’t be able to do it again.” (Acconci in Volk,185)

16 Reprinted handwritten note next to stills from the 3 minutes film.

17 Pryings involved the attempt of one of the two participants of the performance (Vito Acconci), to open the closed eyelids of another person (Kathy Dillon). The performance was carried out and recorded at New York University.
See (Volk 2006, 235)

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Stamatina Dimakopoulou, « The “text of life” in Vito Acconci’s Diary of a Body  », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 21 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 21 janvier 2018. URL :

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Stamatina Dimakopoulou

National and Kapodistrian University, Athens
Stamatina Dimakopoulou is Assistant Professor in American Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and has been Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the English Department at New York University. She is associate editor of Synthesis, an Anglophone journal of comparative literary studies. Her publications include articles on John Ashbery, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Sherwood Anderson and modernist magazines, and she is co-editor of The Letter of the Law: Literature, Justice and the Other (with E. Mitsi and C. Dokou, Peter Lang, 2013). She is currently working on a monograph tentatively entitled Towards a Poetics in a Minor Key.
Stamatina Dimakopoulou est Maître de Conférences en littérature américaine à l'Université Nationale et Capodistrienne d'Athènes et elle a été bénéficiaire d'une bourse Fulbright de Visiting Scholar au département d'anglais de New York University. Elle est rédactrice adjointe de Synthesis, revue anglophone d'études littéraires comparatistes. Elle est l'auteur d'articles sur John Ashbery, Max Ernst, Joseph Cornell, Sherwood Anderson, et sur les magazines modernistes et elle a co-dirigé The Letter of the Law: Literature, Justice and the Other (avec E. Mitsi et C. Dokou, Peter Lang, 2013). Elle prépare actuellement une monographie provisoirement intitulée Towards a Poetics in a Minor Key.

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