Are We Misleading Ourselves?
by J. Gabriel Lloyd
Sometimes I think about things too much. I end up working myself into fits thinking and thinking, wondering if what I am doing is what I should be doing. In January of 2004 I was working for Vito Acconci in his studio searching through slides and documentation of work from his entire life. It got me thinking. I was thinking about how well I knew and had known about artists associated with Situationists before I started working there. I was startled by how little they wanted to be known when they were making their work. It was startling because the movement I am associated with, psychogeography, is considered the brainchild of Situationists, yet psychogeography tries very hard to make itself known in the art world. Was all this publicizing of the psychogeographic work beneficial for the long-term goals of the artists involved, or should we be doing what the Situationists were doing and abandon all types of public acknowledgement? Or was the publicizing really paying off at all? While leaving work on January 21, 2004, I asked Vito Acconci, “So, Vito…have you heard of psychogeography and what its doing?” What I learned from our conversation surprised me, gave me a sense of relief and consequently loaded me with a significant mental burden. If the working practices of psychogeography do not follow the working practices of our precursors, could we be leading ourselves down a dead end path?
Vito’s response of, “Sure, I’ve heard of
[psychogeography]. I think I understand what its all about” was a surprising
relief. Vito Acconci, a high profile name in the art world knew about the
work I had been involved with. Cool. The compliment from Vito made such an
impact upon me in this conversation because of the incredible build up his
artistic presence has made upon my work. Psychogeography aside, Vito’s
work had been tremendously influential, causing me to become not only a new
artist, but a critiquer of my environment. In becoming a thinker, however,
psychogeography became introduced into my life as a means of extending the
conceptual vocabulary of artistic intent in my work. Psychogeography has become
prominent in the past few years due to a large digital international communication
network backed by the internet. Mailing lists, websites and events are highly
publicized and circulated resulting in more and more people becoming knowingly
involved in psychogeography. This effort has a specific intent upon being
exhibited in an international art scene. The exact type of exhibition varies
from person to person, however the conveying of ideas is always a focus. I
am quite proud to be a part of this expansion of ideas in the digital subculture
Hearing my new artistic pursuits, Vito began talking about his work when he was about my age, information which I had previously only received from art books. Vito has a strong conviction that artists can only respond to their immediate surroundings. Now, Vito and I had one previous conversation where he spoke of his perceptions considering his work ‘art’ because, “…[art] was a non-field field. I could do something and call it art. I couldn’t call it poetry1.” Vito’s makings in the “non-field field” consisted mainly of pieces that were fast and economical for him. Because of this, Vito responds to the political, economic and social persuasions of the time. Protesting of the early 1970s was a major influence for Vito. He saw protesting as an amassing of people that created a large amount of energy that vanished without creating an object. The results of the gatherings were catalysts to people reconsidering their views about issues. If society was not making objects to persuade thought why should he? Vito’s response in the early 1970s became what we consider performance art2 with such pieces as “Following Piece” (1969) and “Biting Piece” (1970). Vito elaborated to the point of saying, “What we3 were doing was an attempt to tear down the art system. You couldn’t classify what we were doing, so how could anyone sell what we were making?” It was a rejection of the gallery world; a rejection of an organized method to promote art.
This is about the time when I began to think again. Vito
and friends were rejecting the art world so vehemently that they wanted to
tear it down. I totally understood why. Vito once said, “I wanted to
break out of the ‘white-wall’ art world—the “Look,
but don’t touch”. That’s not how I learned when I was a
kid. You feel, touch, taste—experience to learn.” I agree, but
do you have to totally reject the art world? At this point I realized that
Vito’s collaborators were a small group of friends who were directly
subversive. They could be because they could satisfy each other’s artistic
needs. In today’s world, I have never even seen some of the people I
have been involved with making art, thanks to the internet. The projection
of the self into the digital world already breaches the subversive desires
of Vito in the 1970s.
But, even in the 1970s, Vito and friends could not get away from publicity and acknowledgment. Art historians and critics were lumping Vito with other artists whose work was similar to his. These artists were in France, who collectively called themselves Situationists. “The thing about Situationists is that I had no idea I was one until 1980. No one had ever brought up the term with me. I had never heard of [French Situationists] while I was making work. I had no idea they existed. To me, I was making art, and I knew it was being recognized, but not as a ‘Situationists’. The people I worked with just made work, and that’s how we continued.”
I asked, “Not even your art critique friends brought up the term?”
“No. What is ironic about the work we were doing,” Vito continued, “…what ended up happening was that we realized we were artists that needed to live. Art was really our only means of living at the time, but our work did not fit the conventions. It made the art dealers very powerful…more powerful than ever. We had all this work that no one knew what to think. A painting is a painting, and people will accept that it’s a painting if you show it to them. You couldn’t do that with our work (laughing). We needed the art dealers to tell people that [our work] was, in fact, art. People would listen to art dealers and say, ‘Oh, ok.’ They wouldn’t really listen to us. This gave them so much power over us.”
“Were the galleries as prominent and commercial back then as they are now?”
“No, not at all. Well, probably not. But, I think we made them even more powerful. We gave them all this new work that could be shown.” Vito also explained how the work they created made art an elitist entity. A viewer needed the art dealer to explain, but the art dealers didn’t always explain to everyone. From my own studies and experiences, this made art the abstraction and subculture it has evolved to. Uneducated viewers who do not want to take the time to “become educated” are left out of the loop.