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Unsafe building : coming and reading into Vito Acconci’s ’The Red Tapes’ Szewczyk, Monika

Abstract

In the United States, the transition between the early and the mid to late seventies is perhaps best understood as the before and after of a series of shocks: the shootings of anti- Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University following Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, the removal of US currency from the gold-standard in 1971 to pay for increasing war debts, the 1973 OPEC Oil Crisis, Watergate and Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, and the embarrassing withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. The invasion of news into the domestic sphere may be understood as a kind of sustained shock of the period between 1963 and 1976. Following the televised moon landing that briefly made the United States seem frontier-less and invincible, a stream of traumatic 'television events,' which harked back to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, eventually turned television into a key agent of the erosion of American hubris. While the United States continued to emerge as the most powerful nation in the world, this condition was becoming increasingly problematic for its citizens. The American bicentennial in 1976 was thus marked by a historic ambivalence regarding national identity. The role of video art within this cultural shift was unresolved. In the case of Vito Acconci, the eve of the American bicentennial seems to have provoked a confrontation with American myth through a critical reenactment of national hubris and the reassessment of video as a medium. Judging by its length - two hundred and twenty minutes – "The Red Tapes" may be said to be a hubristic tape; and it feels infinite due to the lack of conventional plot or character. But this hubris is highly self-conscious. Not only does :"The Red Tapes" bulge in length, it is also impossible to contain thematically. With this expansiveness, the work deviates from the notions of narcissism or self-encapsulation that were leveled at video art in the mid 1970s, including Acconci's earlier work. Unlike the earlier video work, which most often involved a single take of the artist facing the camera/viewer talking directly to the viewer (and himself) and enacting psychological exercises in pursuit of self-definition, "The Red Tapes" combines a number of vignettes, which are intertwined with disparate references to the constitution of a community or nation. The result may be described as a Humpty Dumpty America - a broken up nation/narration that Acconci and the audience try in vain to put together again. In order to offer another model of looking at Acconci's last video work, the notion of video as a separate system needs to be discarded. My contention is that "The Red Tapes" is based on incremental, imperfect, constantly reformulated action which effects its cultural subject as much as its status as an art object. In other words, the interrogation of Americanism in "The Red Tapes" proceeds through a parallel questioning of late-modern aesthetic models which stood for the dominance of American culture abroad. It poses a labyrinth in relation to the abstract monoliths and meta-theories of Minimalism and conceptual art, which arrived at an impasse by the mid-1970s. I will demonstrate that, despite its grandiose subject, "The Red Tapes" seems to substitute distance with intimacy as a mode of critical engagement and conjures a multitude in place of the hermit who interprets a work to gain a solidified sense of self. The constant revisions to actions and plotlines, a kind of improvisation of the work before the eyes of the audience, continually defer a finalized portrait of America. Instead, there is evidence of building a heterogeneous, transforming community with the historical consciousness to confront the limits of the present. Importantly, Acconci posits collective subjectivity as a question, perhaps the question.

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