Vito Acconci (New York, 1940 – 2017) is an American artist, poet and architect who, since the late 60s, has explored the media of writing, performance, installation, public intervention and architecture, making the relation between the body and space the focus of his research. His interest in the mechanisms by which subjectivity is related to the experience of otherness enabled his initial involvement in the performing arts, of which he was a pioneer and one of the greatest protagonists in the international arena during the 70s, to evolve by the 80s into the construction and installation of permanent structures whose development in 1988 was the foundation of the Acconci Studio architectural design ofﬁce.
The extreme nature (often touching the limits of self-destructiveness) of many of the actions that Acconci created in the 70s — which the artist prefers to call “activities” rather than “performances” – was the hallmark that has always characterized his work, which can be deﬁned as research into the limits and conditions of human sensibility, its vulnerability, loneliness and violence as an extreme form of communication.
Many of his historical actions are often carried out even without the presence of the public and are designed as anonymous and spontaneous forays into the urban fabric, outside the conﬁnes of exhibition spaces, such as galleries, and are subsequently documented in panels that combine photographs, texts, maps and diagrams, in accordance with the “documentary” aesthetic that characterized Conceptual Art. An example was the Room Situation, a work created in 1970 at the Gain Ground Gallery of New York. Over three weekends the artist moved part of the contents of his home into the exhibition space, with the temporary and progressive relocation of his bedroom, kitchen, living room and ﬁnally his studio.
The following year Acconci presented Seedbed at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York, perhaps his best known and most controversial work: the gallery space was modiﬁed by a platform raised above the ﬂoor, on which visitors were free to walk, while the artist was concealed inside it. Surrounded by the sounds and movements of the people he imagined around him but could not see, Acconci masturbated for the eight consecutive hours the gallery stayed open, pouring his fantasies into a microphone that ampliﬁed his voice in space without the public being able to see him. In this work the architecture became a membrane that simultaneously separated and connected intimacy and public space, desire and social norms, auditory perception and visual perception. In the same years Acconci used video as a form of documentation of actions in which his own body was the primary medium, subjected to harsh ordeals through gestures that tested his stamina and resistance to pain, as in the case of the actions presented at the Galleria Lucio Amelio in Naples in 1972-73. The dimension of the voice as a synthesis between intcriority and the space of communication and sharing became central in the second half of the 70s, when the artist explored its perceptual and installational implications in a series of audio works, while he began to develop projects with a more speciﬁcally environmental matrix, such as Instant House (1980) and the controversial Way Station I (1985).
The work presented in the context of the Per_forming a collection project and entitled Self-Writing Billboard (1998), is a creation by Acconci Studio consisting of four panels composed so as to form a single surface, on which a series of cuts allows the light behind to ﬁlter through, making legible the word “help” through the undulations that activate the slits in the panels. The extreme simplicity of this work and its great visual and physical impact echo the poetic of Acconci Studio, whose architectural designs are often characterized by extreme ﬂuidity in the way they conceive the separation between interior and exterior, as well as between the foundations and elevation of the building. With the same ﬂuidity, the surface of Self-Writing Billboard comes alive to give a glimpse of the letters standing out against the dark background – in their turn the result of an expressive and violently corporeal gesture of incision – so creating an osmosis between the limited and rariﬁed gallery of the museum and the multifaceted urban space outside, between the immateriality of the luminous message and the almost monumental solidity of the form, between the support of the billboard – symptomatic of the integration of advertising and architecture that we see as inhabitants of the contemporary metropolis – and the urgency of a call for help.