Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

Shelley Jackson


talks with

Vito Acconci


Ways of connecting with the public:
Following strangers around the city
Designing buildings

Vito Acconci’s extraordinary career—poetry, art, architecture: a sort of triathlon of the arts—began in the Bronx, where as an aspiring author of seven years he wrote stories about cowboys and athletes. At his Catholic college, he published sexy stuff about priests and nuns that got the school magazine banned for three issues running. He went on to write fiction in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But when he came back to New York in the early ’60s, something changed, and he began writing poems. Highly conceptual constructions, they did not tell stories, express feelings, or evoke a fictional world. They were not representational. Maybe you could call them presentational: this is a word, this is a sentence, you are reading. (“READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW” is how one piece begins.) The page was a space around which the reader navigated. Words were obstacles, lures, street signs, prompts. Instead of describing the actions of a fictional character, they provoked the actions of a real one: the reader.

Before long, a page began to seem too small to contain all this movement. Poetry readings gave Acconci an opportunity to ease words out into three dimensions. On one occasion, he dealt out letters of the alphabet on tables, using them to prompt readings as he meandered through the room. But before long, with Following Piece, he had left the page behind, allowing a series of total strangers to lead him out into the city. Moving in real space meant using his own body, no longer a reader’s, and Acconci directed his attention at that body in a series of fiercely physical performances, biting himself, burning off his body hair, and most notoriously, in Seedbed, masturbating under a wooden ramp installed in the Sonnabend gallery, while fantasizing through a loudspeaker about the people walking above him. Despite the focus on the body, language played an essential role, both disclosing his activity, which would otherwise have remained private, and drawing the audience into complicity with it. Like the body, language is both utterly personal and the basic currency of public relations, and in the spoken-word monologues that accompany his later videos, Acconci plays with this paradox. Open Book, for instance, is a ten-minute, close-up video of Acconci’s wide-open mouth as he tries gamely to issue invitations to the viewer without ever closing his lips. The mouth becomes a book, but one that, precisely because it is open, cannot speak.

Later installations that combined spoken-word recordings with proto-architectural constructions brought words into closer relation to physical space and physical objects. They also brought them into closer relation to an audience. Acconci’s old interest in what readers did, alone, on the page, had become an interest in what they did, together, in a room. By sitting on a swing or a bicycle, for example, they could raise the walls of a tiny house. But that house was still stuck in a gallery, and gradually Acconci’s projects crept out of doors, into truly public space. Finally, in 1988, he formed Acconci Studio with a group of architects; collectively, they design fluid, multipurpose public buildings. Even these are tied to writing, Acconci says: every project starts with words on a page.

From the perspective of, say, his Mur Island—a floating island in Graz, Austria, that is simultaneously bridge, theater, café, and playground—Acconci’s early poems look like odd little landscapes, with corridors and columns, through which the reader can stroll. Mur Island, in turn, looks like a poem. As a writer whose own words have a way of wandering off the page, I often ask myself why writing, of all the arts, is so narrowly defined. What new books might we write, if we could learn to use objects and spaces, buildings and bodies—the way Acconci learned to make architecture from words on a page?

—Shelley Jackson

SHELLEY JACKSON: You began as a writer, moved to performance art, then architecture. I’d like to follow the traces of writing through your career, and see whether your late work could be rethought as a radically materialist practice of writing. What made you want to write?

VITO ACCONCI: I wanted to be involved with the making of some kind of parallel world. I thought, there’s no reason to go to different parts of our world, because you can write them. You can stay home, stay in a little room, and imagine all these worlds. And I wanted to do that. Why did I want to do that, I’m not sure if I can tell.

SJ: Maybe you didn’t like the world the way it was?

VA: I was relatively shy, withdrawn. But I also was a kind of student. I thought if I studied hard, I should reveal the results of this in some way. I always thought of writing as public, I never thought of writing a diary. I had been struck by, jolted by things I had read, and I wanted to do the same to others. I don’t think it ever was the notion of an autobiography; I skipped that phase totally, I think.

SJ: What writers jolted you?

VA: Faulkner, as a teenager. I was obsessed by Mallarmé. I was obsessed by this Raymond Queneau book called Exercises in Style. When I was entering graduate school, Robbe-Grillet was the writer I was most interested in. And I loved John Hawkes. Maybe I wanted to do something more like Robbe-Grillet, but I loved John Hawkes. At one time, when I was in high school and college, I loved the New Yorker and the New Yorker kind of writing, but I knew I could never do that, and I was jealous of it. Writing was always a laborious thing for me. I never wrote fluently, I never wrote fluidly, there was something very awkward in my writing. But it seemed to me purposely awkward. It’s almost as if I made the labor part of writing. This is an exaggerated example, but it would be very hard for me to write, “He went to the store.” I would find some tortured way of saying this: “The person who, the being who might be referred to as ‘he’ went through the act of going, directed toward…” I wanted a sentence to have, as part of its parameters, every possible system of cause and effect, rather than just a summary. I didn’t want a summary, I wanted to go through all the steps.

SJ: You went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a fiction writer. How did you get from wanting to make an alternate world to the kind of writing that—

VA: —was almost the opposite? Well, when I came back to New York from Iowa at the end of ’64, it was probably the first time I had seen in real life, in real space, a Jasper Johns painting. And I thought, I want to do something like that.

SJ: The inspiration crossed over from another genre.

VA: Yeah, it’s not that I wanted to do a painting, I wanted to do writing like that. What jolted me about Jasper Johns was how important it is to start with a convention, how important it is to start with what everybody knows and everybody takes for granted, whether it’s a number, an alphabet letter, a set of alphabet letters, a target… I came from the time of so-called New Criticism—the poem in itself, the writing in itself—but around that time I had come across a critic called Kenneth Burke, who wrote a book called A Rhetoric of Motives, and it seemed to talk about another way, and gradually I realized that other way was that the reader made a difference.

So the notion of a recipient—and maybe that’s related to what I said earlier, that I always thought of my writing being public. If something’s public then it seems like the important thing is the person in that public. And the notion of rhetoric. I went to Jesuit schools that focused on first there’s grammar, then there’s rhetoric, and rhetoric’s usually seen as a kind of degraded method, because you’re trying to persuade. But—I don’t know if I loved the idea of persuasion, but I loved the idea that you’re concentrating on the reader’s perception. So when I saw Johns, it clarified for me that you have to start with something that everybody knows. Then you can have any kind of little abstract expressionist brushstroke you want, because the viewer now has a ground to be on. And I wanted that. I wanted to work with conventions, and play with conventions. But thinking that, I started to think, I’m not sure if this is a means for fiction. It probably is a means for poetry. Maybe I was thinking something so simple as, if Jasper Johns has a painting that you can see in one look, well, most poems are one page, so maybe you could do something like he’s doing in painting on something that’s a page long. Probably can’t do it in something that’s 450 pages.

SJ: Those paintings of Johns’s almost collapse the gap between representation and the thing represented, because a painting of a number is also a number—

VA: Yeah, because a number is something that doesn’t exist until it’s drawn. And now, he’s drawn it.

SJ: —and it seems to me that in a lot of your early work you were trying to do the same thing with language.

VA: Exactly. I wanted it to be matter.

SJ: And that led you away from the idea of a represented world.

VA: It totally did. It was almost like a jolt. Suddenly I couldn’t write fiction anymore.

SJ: So there was this materialization of the word. But also of the page.

VA: Yes. The way Johns had a canvas, the page started to seem really important to me. I came across this [Jean-Luc] Godard statement about how making a movie is the fear of a blank screen, the fear of projection, the fear—and then just listing: the fear of every movie element. And I don’t know if I wanted or felt that about the page—

SJ: The fear of the page?

VA: Yes, the fear of its blankness. At the same time, I kind of loved it. Mallarmé was trying to make the page a blank page. But if you’re going to make the page a blank page, it’s not just the absence of something, it has to become something else. It has to be material, it has to be this thing. I wanted to turn a page into a thing.

SJ: A blank page by itself is hard to present as a work, you have to do something to it…

VA: It’s like you have to fill the page with words, and then painstakingly erase them.


SJ: That’s one way of looking at your piece that samples just the margin of the thesaurus, leaving a line of letters down the side. There’s still a residue of text, but you’re shifting the focus of attention onto the page itself.

VA: On the one hand, I was shifting the focus onto the page, on the other hand, I was starting to feel very desperate. Even though I always claimed that I didn’t want to write about something—once I wasn’t writing fiction, anyway; I think for me the change from fiction to poetry was that in fiction I was writing about something, in poetry I was writing something—I was starting to recognize a corner I was driving myself into: that all writing could do was refer to things that had already been written. I’m making the margin, but the margin of a book that already exists. I was having this exhilaration at, but at the same time horror of this recognition that I’d driven myself into the world of only books. This is a world of the previously written, and maybe I don’t have to add to it, maybe all I can do is measure it.

SJ: However, you began to think that the work included the reader and the reader’s body, and necessarily existed in a world—that you could draw the outlines of your work a little larger to include the whole situation that you were setting in motion by writing in the first place. There’s one piece where you address the reader, saying, “Notice what position you’re sitting in as you read this, notice what clothes you’re wearing. What color are your eyes?” Other pieces acknowledge not just that the readers are sitting there, but that their eyes are engaged in this loomlike movement back and forth across the page, along your lines of type. On a very small scale, it was kind of architectural—you were using words to subdivide the space and create paths that the reader could move on.

VA: It was very definitely architectural. I was using the words on the page as some kind of equivalent of a physical model. But I never thought at that point that I wanted to move toward architecture. I wanted to move toward real space. Sure, that’s probably another way of saying, I want to move toward architecture. But I didn’t define real space in terms of architecture, then.

SJ: The first movement into real space seemed to occur in your readings, which gradually became more like performances.

VA: The beginning was to make words part of the space, or to use words as a way to traverse the space, whereas before it was traversing the page. I remember a poetry reading at a place called the Longview Country Club. The piece I did involved walking from one end of the space to the other, and with each step reading a word. Walking one direction, each word is an adverb. Walking back, each step is a prepositional phrase, as a way of—was I trying to explode words in space, or was I trying to traverse space by means of words? I think there was a back and forth. On the one hand, I obviously sensed I needed to get away from the page, so I would put words into the space, yet at the same time I was probably afraid, and could only traverse the space through means of words.

SJ: Writing for the page is a way of mapping language onto space, too, just a much smaller space, eight and a half by eleven, say. You were creating a system so that you could lay out language—even though it was temporal because you were reading it out loud—in a spatial arrangement.

VA: I was always fascinated by diagramming a sentence. Because that is going into a space, going into a world of language.

SJ: What is that fascination with language turned spatial? I have it too.

VA: Is it turned spatial? That’s too simple. It’s language as a kind of structural system. A diagram of a sentence, now that seems like a kind of architectural model. I don’t know how to explain it, but it would be nice to try. Why, why this fascination?

SJ: Well, one reason I’ve worked in electronic media is that it’s always bothered me that the book has to be in sequence. Even though the individual page has a spatial arrangement, as you go through it, you’re stuck in a linear progression, while online you can create what feels more like a space that you move around in. I think for me the fascination goes back to a childhood desire to create, like you, an alternate world, one that was made out of language, but felt as much like a real place as possible.

VA: Do you think online you can get away from linearity?

SJ: You can’t in a literal sense, because you still can’t read more than one thing at a time, but you can be aware of having multiple options, which feels more like a space than a path, a plot.

VA: I became much more interested in plot when I really didn’t consider myself a writer anymore. When I was in an art context and I started to do installations, that was when writing of mine almost returned to fiction. Earlier I felt like I didn’t have anything to write about, I could only concentrate on the page, I could only concentrate on words. Once I had some kind of physical presence in the space, I could write fictionally again. Maybe because whatever I wrote was going to on the one hand coincide with what was there, but also contradict it in some way. This was the first time I had felt free to write since I was writing short stories. Because when you’re working on the page, it’s something different than writing. You’re occupying the page with words.

SJ: In your early performances, you were still interested in the materiality of language, even though you were getting away from the page. I’m thinking of the event in which someone typed sentences rather than reading them aloud. It was almost like a musical performance.

VA: You could walk around behind the typist and read the text, which was about hearing, and what you heard was the sound of the typewriter. Of course, this was a pre-electric typewriter, a typewriter that made noise.

SJ: So you were doing the same thing you had done on the page, collapsing the gap between the word and what the word is telling you about—the story is about the experience you’re actually having.

VA: At that point I wanted everything to be about itself so much that it probably never occurred to me that you could lead to another space.

SJ: But any piece of writing lures you with the promise of another space, even if ultimately it returns you to this one. So that even though you were refusing narrative, it was still there as a tension or possibility.

VA: Especially once those poetry events began, because, yeah, the stuff was still on the page, but the page was starting to spill into real space, spill into air, once you could hear it, once there was a typewriter, once there was a body of a typist, it was getting rid of the confines of the page.

Following Piece, October 3-25, 1969.
NYC, various locations. Activity. 23 Days, varying times each day.
From “Street Works IV,” Architectural League of NY.

SJ: Gradually you abandoned the page altogether. You’ve said that when you started following people you had the desire to be nobody, to let their will take over. Was that a rebellion against the authorial position?

VA: Any time you do something, you make decisions about time and space. I wanted those decisions to be out of my hands. I could be dragged, carried along by another person, I could be a receiver. I could be the agent of the overall scheme, but I didn’t want to be the agent of the particular action. I could make the ultimate decision that my space is going to change now, but I don’t know where it’s going to go.

SJ: You were erasing yourself. And then suddenly your body became the center of attention. How did that happen?

VA: Sometimes I wonder if that was a misstep, in the sense that, if it hadn’t happened, the stuff might have gotten to architecture quicker. The way I thought of pieces like Following Piece was, there’s a city out there. I attend to this city. How do I key myself into this city. How do I tie myself into this city. I can pick out people in this city to follow. I can be in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, my space in the Museum of Modern Art is my mailbox, my mail is delivered there. Whenever I want mail, I have to go through this city to get my mail… I’m using my own person in pieces, but I’m trying to turn my person into a nonperson in the sense of a person without will, without volition. I’m subjecting myself to a scheme. (Of course it’s a scheme that I imposed!)

And I thought, if I’m going to go on using my own person in pieces, maybe I have to concentrate more on person. Rather than attend to a world considered as if it’s out there, I have to start to attend to me. That led to some things that I never wanted it to lead to, person as a sort of psychological miasma. I started to get wrapped up in self, and then, for the first time, self did become an autobiographical self. I said before that maybe stuff would have gone to architecture quicker if that hadn’t happened, but in retrospect, it made me think of architecture in a way I might not have thought of it before. It made me convinced that architecture was an occasion for people, for these bundles of neuroses and fears.

Trademarks, September 1970.
Photographed activity/Ink Prints.
Photos by Bill Beckley.

SJ: You’d long since left the page by this time, but in your piece Trademark you turn yourself into a printing press. You’re biting yourself, you smear the bites with ink, printer’s ink, specifically, and then you print them on—what?

VA: Anything. I could print them on a piece of paper, I could print them on the wall, I could print them on another person’s body…

SJ: So you were the writer, you were the printing press, you were also the page…

VA: Was I the page? I bit myself, but I didn’t make a bite print on myself. I used the bite to print something else.

SJ: I thought of the bite as itself a print on the page of your body.

VA: It’s a print, but it’s not a distributable print. It’s not a distributable print until the printer’s ink is applied. This was pre-Gutenberg Bible!

SJ: When I first heard about this project I didn’t realize you made prints. I thought you were just biting yourself and making marks that way—and the mouth is the place of speech, or language—so I thought of this project as the most self-referential writing loop, like you had taken your early interest in making writing refer only to itself about as far as it could go. But at the same time—

VA: At the same time there was this urge to publish! It’s like I wanted this ultimate privacy to then publish itself, then be public.

SJ: You said once that the bite mark was like a wound, but a wound that you wanted to infect other people with. That’s a strong metaphor for writing. A complicated one, because there’s this self-inflicted violence, or maybe it’s sexual, you can’t really tell… Maybe it’s hungry!

VA: Or maybe it’s very, very lonely, and there’s nothing else to do… An oral fixation seems to be operating in that piece. It’s not that you want to touch a part of your body, you want to ingest it.

SJ: You’ve said that at the time you thought of these activities as coolly systematic, but that looking back they seem pretty psychologically motivated.

VA: It was an art time in which psychological terms had been kind of abolished, so I don’t think I knew how to think that way. I was thinking I was doing a version of minimal art, except for the fact that I was using my body. But that “except for the fact that you’re using your body” makes a big difference! I remember I did a performance at the end of 1970, and also in the performance was Kathy Dillon, the person I was living with then, and Dennis Oppenheim—we were close friends then. I’m naked from the waist up. Kathy puts on very heavy lipstick and covers the front of my body with like a million kisses. Then I go over to Dennis, who’s standing at the wall, facing the wall, also naked from the waist up, and I rub the front of my body onto his back, so transferring Kathy’s kisses to him. And I remember Dennis afterward saying, “I had no idea the work was going in this direction!” We thought this was about color transfer. Wasn’t about color transfer.

SJ: It was another printing press! But a very sexy one.

VA: Can I say I just didn’t think about it? Or I forced myself not to think about it, because this wasn’t what people were thinking of as art then?

SJ: Well, in your writing you had refused the idea of expressing your feelings, or expressing yourself, so why would you want to do that in art?

VA: Exactly. When I was writing notes about those pieces they were all in the language of systems theory. I was trying to take a body, which is a kind of unbridled thing, and—was I trying to bridle it, into this system?—I’m not quite sure, but the interesting thing was that it couldn’t be bridled. After a while I had to face the fact that a person isn’t just a body, a person is a thinking, feeling, confused, worried, nervous, fearful being.

Seedbed, January 1972.
Sonnabend Gallery, New York. Performance/installation.
9 days, 8 hours a day, during a 3-week exhibition. Wood ramp 2' X 22' x 30.'

SJ: Let’s talk about Seedbed. How did Roget’s Thesaurus get you masturbating?

VA: I had done a number of performances in which when a person enters, I’m there, and I thought, there’s something wrong with that. I don’t want to be the prime point in the space. I wanted to be somewhere where I blended with the space. I could be behind the wall, I could be above the ceiling, I could be under the floor. Above the ceiling seemed wrong, because I would be too far above people. Behind the wall seemed possible, because I could be next to people, but I would only be next to people who were near that wall. What about a person who was in the center of the room, what about a person who was near another wall? Under the floor seemed to be the most fertile, because I could move under the floor, therefore I would be relatively coincident with viewers’ feet. Ideally we would have gone to the gallery downstairs from Sonnabend’s, which was Castelli’s, and I would make a false floor. Couldn’t be done. They were very low ceilings, nine feet or so, so I had to make a kind of ramp, and I would be under the ramp. But it still wasn’t clear to me at all what I would be doing there. I knew what my position should be in relation to viewers, but something has to come from my position, under the floor, to viewers’ position on the top of the floor.

So I’m stuck, and Roget’s Thesaurus sometimes is a kind of guide because it takes you from one word to another word that you might not have even known you were looking for. It’s—I don’t know if I can say it’s an idea-structuring system, but it’s an idea-loosening system. So I look up floor. Floor took me to expected words like structure, land, undercurrent. And then took me to the word, seedbed. Seedbed then clarified it that, OK, under the floor I could be making this seedbed, this bed of seed. How do I make the bed of seed? By masturbating. But it was important that the viewers have to, not necessarily know that I’m masturbating, but they have to hear me. Masturbating under the floor is a private activity. Moving around under the space where people are walking, concentrating on viewers’ footsteps, and using the footsteps as an impetus to a sexual fantasy, that maybe turns the private into public. I depend on you to be walking, so I can fantasize about you.

SJ: Could you find it sexy?

VA: It was more of a performance. It was like, this is my job, this is what I have to do.

SJ: Did you ever think, what kind of weirdo am I, masturbating under this floor?

VA: The first time I did it I thought, I can’t go through with this. But after a while, you have some fantasies, you’re masturbating, you come, and you think, well, I can’t turn back now!

SJ: How often did you do it?

VA: It was for a show that lasted three weeks, three days a week. Three days a week, for three weeks, so nine days, from ten to six, opening time of the gallery to closing time—that was important.

SJ: Ten to six, you were masturbating the entire time?

VA: I tried! I’m not saying every second, but the goal was, if I come, I just start doing it again, no time out. I did try to have a fantasy all the time. I thought maybe this would be difficult, and I remember bringing some pornlike magazines down, but then realizing, I can’t see a thing here, who am I kidding?

SJ: Is it a stretch for me to see the ramp as something like a page—or maybe more like a desk, actually, a slanted school desk—where you’re not present at all as figure, you’re all ground?

VA: You’re right. I obviously didn’t want to be figure, I wanted to be ground. And that was one of the reasons I had to move around. If this was a field, I had to traverse the field.

SJ: Male sexuality is supposed to be this directed and centralized thing and you’ve turned yourself into a fertile field, which is—

VA: —what the female is supposed to be. Yeah, that was important, a lot of that work occurred during the first feminist writings I was aware of. On the one hand I was trying to almost play this ultimate cartoon version of the male, but also to make it explode. I was under, I wasn’t on top.

SJ: It was unclear whether you were sexual predator or vulnerable object.

VA: Which is probably one of the reasons for even earlier stuff, like Following Piece. Of course I as artist am the agent, but can I be a receiver? I wanted that other side.

SJ: So if the Seedbed is the ground, do you think that the audience becomes the figure, or do you think they remain in the viewer position?

VA: It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I didn’t want a viewer, I wanted a participant, or at least an interactive agent. I wanted there to be some transaction between me and you, particular viewer. But the thing that made the project possible, that I’m under the floor, also made that interactive activity impossible. I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me, they didn’t know exactly where I was, I didn’t know…

SJ: So you started doing public art.

VA: Seedbed was a kind of beginning of architecture. But I didn’t realize it at the time, so for me it was the beginning of installations. The way I thought of installations, they would be places for people. A long table that people could sit around, my voice on audio addressing people, treating a gallery or museum as if it was a town square, as if it was a public space. But by the mid-’70s, I was convinced that the stuff shouldn’t be art anymore. I’m trying to pretend the gallery or museum is a public space. It’s not. I’ve got to find some way to get to public space.

Mur Island, Graz, Austria, 2003.
Steel, glass, rubber, asphalt, water, light 10,310 sq. ft.
Acconci Studio (Vito Acconci, Dario Nunez,
Stephen Roe, Peter Dorsey, Thomas Siegl, Gia Wolff).
Engineers: Zenckner & Handl; Kurt Kratzer Contractors: SFL.

SJ: In moving to architecture you created a much simpler solution to the problem of dissolving yourself as the prime figure. A lot of people might reject this idea, including you, but it’s interesting to me to think of one of your constructions as a piece of writing, one in which the material dimension, which is always there in anything you read, has overwhelmed the textual dimension.

VA: I don’t know if I can reject that. When I have a starting point for a project, it’s words, it’s not a drawing. They might not be very definitive words, but they’re words that act as a kind of impetus. After the starting point, it’s very much back and forth, but everybody else in the studio uses much more graphic means than I do. It’s not that I never make sketches, but my sketches are unreadable without words. I can’t even say, I use words to define my place in this project. I don’t really have a choice.

SJ: But it even seems to me that you think of the completed project as having parts that function like a piece of writing, as having paragraphs, for example.

VA: The difference might be like how maybe writing electronically is different than writing on a page: They might be paragraphs, but they could be simultaneous, or one within the other, rather than this paragraph, then this one, then this one, then this one. They’re hopefully allowing for a variety of different kinds of movements and actions through a space. Are we setting up a space as a kind of very big page? Maybe it’s a page that already has sentences, but now the reader can go from the first sentence way up there, can go on a diagonal down here… I don’t know if I would want to say now that I’m a writer, but I certainly want to admit that I think primarily, for better or worse, in terms of writing. Sometimes it worries me because I think, well, is all this there just to demonstrate or illustrate a piece of writing?

SJ: Demonstrate or illustrate, that sounds too reductive. All your texts perpetually undermine themselves and offer alternate ways of looking at the situation. If your constructions are built on a foundation of writing, it’s a very shifty foundation.

VA: Yeah, writing is a very, very watery thing. It can seem very definite, but it’s very… cloudy.

SJ: A lot of your architectural works do seem to be kind of suspended or floating… flying carpet-like.

VA: But sometimes it seems like, why waste the energy? You can probably suggest more possibilities in writing than you can when something’s physical. Doesn’t this physical presence necessarily imply, this is the way it is, this is a fact, whereas writing is constant potential? You can describe facts, but everybody can read those facts in a very different way. When they see it in real space, well! They’re fixed.

SJ: Yeah, but even in real space people interpret them in their own way. You can’t predict how your constructions will be used. They’re open to reading. To the users’ choice.

VA: I hope it’s choice. One thing I am obsessed by is to give viewers choices. Not to have only one entry, only one kind of path. Spin-offs are important. Spin-offs are like parenthetical phrases. There seems to be this main sentence, but then there are parentheses… I’m sure this idea started for me with writing. That’s why I loved Faulkner. There’s always a parenthesis, there’s always something that stops that sentence from going to its goal that is a period.

SJ: You could even think of that alternate world you wanted to create as a parenthetical world within our normal world.

VA: Exactly. When we do a project, this is this parenthesis. The rest of the sentence of the world still exists, but we make this parenthesis within it. Then maybe sometimes you start the parenthesis, but you forget to end it, and the clause instills itself into the real world.

SJ: So you’re still making alternate worlds.

VA: We are. Definitely. And probably more clearly now than before. We don’t know what a future space is going to be, but we want to at least try to anticipate it. We want to design a space that, ideally—though I don’t think we do this, I hope we just don’t do this yet—couldn’t have been built, couldn’t have been designed, couldn’t even have been imagined before the twenty-first century. No, we haven’t lived up to that, but I think that’s the only real choice for architecture. It should give you a possibility of a future.

Shelley Jackson is the author of Half Life, The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl, two children’s books, and Skin, a story published in tattoos on 2,095 volunteers, one word at a time. She lives in Brooklyn and at

Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

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