Why Vito Acconci’s seduction tape is a video art classic
Channelling pop music allowed this video artist to stay ahead of the pack, says Barbara London in our new book
Theme Song, a 1973 video by the American artist Vito Acconci, is a partly funny, partly endearing, partly creepy, seduction monologue. It was notable at the time for its use of not one, but two tape decks. There’s a video cassette player that relays the 33-minute monologue featuring Acconci, flat out on the floor and staring into the camera; then there’s the audio tape deck in the film itself, beside Acconci but just off screen, which plays pop and rock hits of the day, as a kind of comforting sound bed for the artist’s not-so-sweet-talk.
“He lies cozily on the floor of a well-appointed living room at night,” writes Barbara London in her new book, Video/Art: The First Fifty Years. “He attempts to turn the anonymous viewer into a partner. It is quiet, the perfect setting for a come-on. Gazing with anticipation at the camera, he looms large, entreating the viewer to come close and join him. A small tape recorder, filled with up-to-date music, sits on the floor within reach. He punches a button and Jim Morrison moans, ‘I can’t see your face in my mind.’ Acconci brings up another song, and Bob Dylan croons, ‘I’ll be your baby tonight.’ Acconci sweet-talks with ‘We’ll have a dream love, an ideal love—but I won’t control things; you’ll have your say.’”
The video features the kind of sleazy come-ons best consigned to the 1970s. “We don’t have to kid ourselves that this is going to last,” Acconci says to the viewer at one point, “all that counts is now, right?”
Yet, at other junctures, the video conjures up some of the best of that period’s output. Acconci was a pioneering artist, who began his career as a poet, before moving on to create performances, photographs and architectural works, all the while drawing on ideas from the popular mainstream, particularly via music.
“Acconci consistently picked up on trends; as a voracious consumer of pop music, he paid attention to its connections to visual art,” writes London. “The film critic Amy Taubin would often say to me that Acconci stayed a step ahead of his peers, who eagerly followed his next moves.”
Some of Acconci’s collection contains the cutting edge, artsy influences of that period, such as the Velvet Underground. Yet other cherished recordings are a little more hushed, folksy and familiar.
“The music I loved then was Van Morrison, Neil Young; the tone was rural, the voice was solo, the songs were long - twenty-minutes,” London quotes Acconci as saying in her new book. “There was room enough to drift through the country and find where you were, find out who you were — there was all the time in the world to build a cocoon for yourself and the person you sang to.”
Viewed with this perspective in mind, it’s easier to see how Theme Song, with its drifting, poppy monologue is less some sleazy seduction exercise, and more a video evocation of that late, hushed golden age of rock that gave us such seminal albums such as After the Gold Rush and Astral Weeks.
London, the founding curator of MoMA’s video art programme, singles Theme Song out for special praise in her new book, and remembers Acconci, who died in 2017 aged 77, not as an arch seducer, but as an important, innovative artist.
“His sharp mind and bold ideas were always a welcome pleasure,” she writes. “Few were able to match his command of time and space or his verbal prowess as expressed in a videotape, an installation, a lecture, or simply words on a page. His voice still reverberates in my head.”
To appreciate that verbal prowess a little more deeply buy a copy of Video/Art: The First Fifty Years here. There’s plenty on Acconci and much more besides.