Vito Acconci's contribution to experimental film and video was limited to just a few years -- 1969 to 1977 -- in what proved to be a long career spent in a variety of artistic disciplines. Nevertheless, he was crucially important and widely influential in the arts, as was his work as a performance artist in the same general period. Born in the Bronx, Acconci earned his degree in literature from the University of Iowa in 1964 and set about making his way as a poet, but after achieving a few publications he grew tired of it and moved into performance art.
Acconci's entrance into film and video around 1970 was partly necessitated by his desire to document his performance art, which was confrontational, invasive, and tended to trammel the personal space of the viewer or audience member. Among the most famous of his early performance pieces was "Following Piece" (1969), in which Acconci followed random people around the streets of various cities; his most notorious piece, "Seedbed" (1972), was a gallery installation where Acconci, concealed underneath a platform, allegedly masturbated and audibly communicated sexual fantasies about the persons walking over it through a loudspeaker. While controversial, Acconci's artistic interest in abrogating the viewer's sense of personal security was easily seen as a serious pursuit in the wake of the 1960s; it might be a little less easy to understand in a security-obsessed, post-9/11 society.
Acconci worked both with Super-8 film and, starting with Corrections (1970), in video mediums. This early start in video places Acconci firmly in the first generation of video artists; although his last film, My Word, Color, appeared in 1974, Acconci had otherwise moved to video completely by 1973. His masterpiece is Theme Song (1973), in which Acconci appears full-face in the camera's view, haranguing the viewer for more than 30 minutes with his attempts to sing a never-finished song, along with a continuous stream of demeaning and self-deprecating commentary. While Theme Song might appear to a post-Internet audience as resembling a video blog, in the 1970s, nothing else like it had ever been seen. Theme Song was distributed widely in a package of video art circulated to galleries, as was much of Acconci's other film and video work, which naturally was shown whenever he exhibited throughout the world in those years. Acconci's productivity in film and video was ambitious and impressive; the most complete listing of his work in this area runs to some 35 titles. However, by 1975, Acconci had basically finished with it, although one major project, the nearly three-hour-long video The Red Tapes, wasn't completed until 1977; Acconci had moved into working with audio tape, which he likewise abandoned around 1980.
In the late '70s, Acconci moved into building interactive sculptures that retained the edginess by then associated with his name and some measure of shock value. In the late '80s, he began to construct small, cramped, temporary houses as sculptures, and this provided a turning point in his work. Acconci subsequently founded a studio with a number of collaborators, turning his attention toward experimental, free-floating, and often temporary architecture and public art. In this field, Vito Acconci is considered a major figure, and in 1997 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Sculpture Center. In later years, Acconci appeared in Yvonne Rainer's Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980) and in the documentary film Chelsea on the Rocks (2008). ~ David Lewis, Rovi