Beyond its artistic offerings, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in the epicentre of Helsinki has established an identity as a laid-back public space during its 15-year history. Film screenings and performances are held on its lawn, and skateboarders fill the front yard with echoing sounds of wheels against concrete on sunny days. Kiasma’s spacious café is a popular lunch and meeting spot, and tall windows on all sides of the oblong, curvaceous building reveal the surrounding urban movement.
In November, Finnish sound artist Vladislav Delay (one of the pseudonyms of Sasu Ripatti) and U.S architect, writer and performance artist Vito Acconci co-created an installation in the Kiasma lobby. It spanned the duration of one November Saturday and blended Acconci’s readings from his own works, Ripatti’s electronic beats and projected images of urban design into a rhythmic, ambient whole.
Acconci and Ripatti began setting up the work when the museum opened, playing around the sounds and images, and built it up as the surrounding day processed from a faint blue morning into a deep blue afternoon. By the time darkness fell, a crowd had gathered near the entrance of Kiasma. Ripatti stood behind his mixing table while Acconci paced unhurriedly around the space, leaning into a handheld microphone.
In its most effective moments, Ripatti played back phrases Acconci had just read so that they echoed in a repeated loop in the space. Among these looped lines were “People tell architecture what to do” and “The city is public,” both ideas that Acconci advocates in his current work as an architect. In his nearly 50-year-long career he has garnered fame both for his provocative performances in the 1970s and for urban design projects such as the revamped Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City, on which he collaborated with architect Steven Holl. Acconci runs an architecture studio in Brooklyn and teaches at Pratt Institute and Brooklyn College.
I spoke with Acconci before the launch of the Kiasmainstallation, shortly after he had arrived to Helsinki on an overnight flight. The project would be his first live performance piece since the 1970s.Warm and quick-witted, Acconci spoke about his uneasy relationship with the word “art,” his take on Ripatti’s music and his hopes for the future of architecture.
How did you first meet Sasu Ripatti, and how did this project come about?
I became really interested in his stuff around the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, and went to a few concerts. I must have approached him, not with the idea of doing something [as a collaboration] but because I liked his work so much, especially his earlier stuff – an album called Entain and another called Anima. I really like his work as Vladislav Delay. Once he and I started to meet, I don’t remember who said first that we should do something together, but we seemed to be talking in similar ways.
What was it about Vladislav Delay that inspired you?
It’s music that has a structure. I haven’t thought of myself as an artist in a really long time; the stuff I’ve done since the 80s has been design and architecture. His music reminds me of the kinds of things that people who think of themselves as architects are involved in – pixels and particles. I think that’s what his music is.
What about these small structures appeals to you?
Right now pixels and particles are something you can get virtually, and so many people seem enamoured with the idea of these small units. Maybe sometime soon these units willgo from virtual to factual. I don’t know if people think of surfaces or planes much; if you start to break things up into smaller parts, I think you can do more with them. A surface, a plane, restricts you, but if something is broken up into millions of little parts, if that can be the future, it can be very interesting. It can be one cloud talking to another cloud.
You studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and have a long background in writing. What’s your relationship to writing today?
I never went to art school or architecture school. I still think that the only thing I know how to do is use words and put them together. It’s easier for me to write than to do a drawing. If I do a drawing I have to swallow that piece of paper before anyone sees it – that’s a slight exaggeration, of course.
How did you begin your writing career?
I started teaching English composition right out of graduate school in the 1960s. I came back to New York City, and as it happens to most people when they come out of school, I had no idea what to do. Iowa is a much quieter place than New York, and although I had thought of myself as a fiction writer there, I began to wonder if New York was too fast for fiction and more appropriate for poetry. Of course you can write a 150-page poem, but the conventional notion of a poem is that you can almost just look at it on the page.
So what approach did you take with your poetry?
I started to realize that I hated abstract words. I thought abstract words were something that either priests or politicians used because they were trying to convince other people of something. I wanted my own writing to be as specific and concrete as possible. I started with a blank page and began to think about what made me move from the left to the right margin, from one page to the next. It’s not that I didn’t want people to get meaning from my poems, but I didn’t want to tell them what to think. That has been the most important thing for me, from the beginning of my career to now. When I give talks I try to tell people what made me do something and why I made this decision and not another one. I don’t want people to obey something; I want them to think for themselves.
Abstract terminology tends to have a manipulative effect.
Yes. How can someone say that they don’t agree with the words“loyalty” or “fate?” But those words’ don’t mean anything
The act of writing – typing or moving a pen across the page – is a physical act. Is this idea of physicality something that made you tie words to art, architecture and structures?
During my early career in New York I started to wonder why I was limiting writing to an 8 ½ by 11-inch piece of paper. There was a tangible world out there – paper is tangible, of course, but it’s almost like a tangible abstraction – so I thought I needed to move in an actual space. At that point I hated the word “art” because in everyday language, if you approve of something or you think someone is beautiful, you compare [him or her] to “a work of art.” And that’s cheating. By saying “art” you are already praising something. Unlike the word “physics,” for example, you have approved something as soon as you have called it art. That has always bothered me.
How do your reservations with art show in your approach to it?
I’ve always disliked the fact that if you’re in a museum, there is a guard and you know you aren’t supposed to touch things. MoMa in New York owns some of my stuff, furniture-like pieces. Once when I was at the museum, theMoMa guard stopped me from touching them. I didn’t want to say anything or reveal who I was – the person probably wouldn’t have known anyway, and his or her job is to keep things from going bad. I understand what people mean when they say they don’t want to wear something out, but in a way it is a double blind. My stuff was meant to be used as furniture.
Is that something you prefer about architecture, that architecture deals with things you actually use?
Yes. The tangibility is so much more important than the visual. And it’s important to smell and taste things. Not that I want to go around tasting everything, especially on New York City subways – but you go through the city using your sense of touch. You don’t touch everything with your hands but you’re in the middle of so many senses at once. Maybe the closer you get to the things of the world, the more ideas you can have. I’m not saying you need to touch something to understand it, but you do need to touch something to get a feel of something.
In creating this performance installation, what are some of the things you and Sasu talked about?
We both wanted to use the entire downstairs space at Kiasmaand not have seats. I knew I would be providing words but they didn’t necessarily need to coincide with the non-words. I brought with me a lot of text, and a lot of images of my architecture projects, which would be projected. I wanted to make an attempt to turn the space into some kind of landscape, some kind of terrain.
You opened a design and architecture studio in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Tell me what inspired you to form the studio.
I didn’t want my work to come from just me. Stuff has to come from a group of people – a small group maybe, but a group talking together and disagreeing. The best new ideas come from disagreements. It’s exciting when you realize that none of us could have thought of this alone. What I really want architecture to be is changeable by persons. Until this happens, people will always be subjected to architecture. Architecture has to empower people. If a person comes to a space and a door happens to be this wide but they want it wider, they can change it. I would love to have a space that when you enter it, there is nothing inside. And then, when you start to feel tired, you lean against the wall, and the wall starts to shape itself into something resembling a seat, at least for the time being. Then you get up and the wall turns into a wall again.
What are the biggest differences you see between students and young architects today and people you collaborated with, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
One difference between now and when the studio formed in the late ‘80s was that although some people knew something about computers then, [the process was based] more on discussions. By the mid to late 1990s and 2000s, people were becoming much more private. They might be working on something and you would ask if you could take a look, and they would say that you couldn’t, that it wasn’t ready yet. I am from too old of a generation to really be free with a computer. I can write it with it but can’t reinvent computer programs. I can’t even use the programs that well – but I can talk with people. I’ve said to people that I wish I could use a computer the way they do, and they have said that you don’t have to, you think kind of like a computer. This is true; I don’t really think with intuition, I try to set up a method and carry it out in different directions.
Works from both Acconci and Ripatti are featured in Kiasma’s 15th anniversary Kiasma Hits exhibition, on display until next autumn.