Theme Song, Vito Acconci (33", 1973)
Joan and Stephen, Monique Moumblow (12", 1996)
Fresh Acconci, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy (44", 1995).]
The first time I went to a public screening of artist's film or video was about twelve years ago at Toronto's now-defunct Funnel. I thought I was going to a lecture and presentation by Vito Acconci, but it turned out he didn't talk very much. He showed a few slides of his then-current work: mostly large public sculptures — junk cars remodeled into apartments, bright pink playground components shaped like football helmets. It wasn't what I'd expected. Acconci was famous then, as he largely is now, for his performance work of the seventies.
Then Acconci showed Theme Song. I was mesmerized — caught between the boredom and amazement that characterizes some of the best of black and white porta-pack performance video. The video is a single take, static camera placed, it seems, on the floor. And Vito himself is lying on the floor on his side, facing the camera, which results in a strange foreshortening effect — grotesquely large head on a diminishing body. And the head won't stop talking, pleading with the viewer — often referred to as "baby," but you know he means you — to come and join him on the floor. This seduction continues unabated till the tape runs out. Vito chain-smokes and plays pop songs on a cassette player. Occasionally he swings those foreshortened legs forward and creates a space which we would fit perfectly into, if only we could cross into the frame . . .
Now vintage performance video is back in style and videos like Theme Song are exhibited (and actually enjoyed) more than they ever were. At art schools all over students have been trying their hand at simple one-shot performance videos, which are invariably characterized as "smart" and "fresh." Some of these videos involve simple actions, others simple monologues. Vito, of course, could do both — and often at the same time.
Young art star Mike Kelley (most famous for the stuffed animals of Sonic Youth's Dirty cover, but actually a prolific artist of wide-ranging work) and Acconci-aged art star Paul McCarthy parody six of Acconci's seminal performance videos in Fresh Acconci. Ironically enough, McCarthy was producing performance video at the same time Acconci was. McCarthy's early performance videos were highly physical, gleefully violent, frenzied, child-like, intense and pre-verbal. His two earlier video collaborations with Mike Kelley — Family Tyranny (1987) and Heidi (1992) — feature Mike and Paul playing house. John G. Hanhardt in his article "Mike Kelley’s Puppet Show: The Postmodern Body on Video" (Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes, 1993) says: "These videotapes expose the dysfunctional family through the agonizing brutality of dolls and puppets" — as well as Kelley's perennially boyish body.
Fresh Acconci is different from their previous collaborations. For one thing, it doesn't feature either of the artists. Instead they employ a cast of beautiful naked models in a sun-drenched mansion on the California coast. The models re-create half a dozen of Acconci's video performances. Theme Song is one. Gone are the ratty couch and carpet — replaced by a bear-skin rug and crackling fire. The effect is disorienting. Because of the varied cast and luxuriously isolated location, disturbing narratives emerge from the proceedings, reminiscent perhaps of Pasolini's Salo> — young models trapped in a house of performance art, doomed to re-enact Acconci's performances forever.
Sandwiched between these two works is Monique Moumblow's Joan and Stephen. Moumblow is a young artist living in Montreal who does video and performance based on her precise, literary writing. Last year Pleasure Dome (as well as the Images Festival) showed her video Liabilities. In that video Monique played both "Monique" and her double "Anne Russel." In this video, Monique creates an imaginary boyfriend, conjuring him in a similar way Vito attempts to conjure/seduce a partner in Theme Song.