Vito Acconci’s ‘Seedbed’: Art and Pornography
On the 29th of January 1971, the American performance artist, mostly known for his landscapes and architectural designs, Vito Acconci, finished his installation/performance piece, Seedbed. The installation took place in the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, where a special floor was constructed in the form of a ramp, over which the viewers walked. For two weeks, each day – for the duration of the gallery day – Acconci lay hidden underneath the floor masturbating and expressing his fantasies about the people above him through the system of specially installed speakers. This is how Acconci later recalled the experience: “I could hear visitors’ footsteps on top of me, I could build sexual fantasies on those footsteps, those sexual fantasies could keep my activity going, keep my masturbation going – but the visitors had to know what I was doing, so, just as I heard visitors’ footsteps on top of me, they had to hear me under them – so I spoke my fantasies aloud: I came, a visitor might think I was doing it just for her, just for him – my goal of producing seed led to my interaction with visitors and their interaction, like it or not, with me…” (www.myartspace.com).
The idea behind Seedbed was to involve the viewers in the production of the work by creating a situation of mutual interaction, even though the artist remained invisible. “Seedbed,” Acconci said, “turns the viewer into a sexual object who becomes part of the artist’s sexual fantasy.” (Vito Acconci, Notes on Illegality in Art, Art Journal, Vol. 50, No. 3, Censorship I, Autumn, 1991). However, the process of objectification, through the aforementioned mutual interaction, applied equally to the artist himself. By exposing his fantasies, Acconci turned the viewers into recipients of a certain aesthetic experience; on the other hand, by accepting his stimuli, the viewers turned Acconci into an object of artistic expression, or simply into a part of the installation.
As much as the idea for this installation/performance might have seemed original or shocking at the time, by remaining invisible to the public, Acconci claimed certain autonomy, which enabled him to create this aesthetic experience through the stimulation of consciousness. However, the performance was also filmed, which inevitably changed the context of the work. By filming himself, meandering underneath the floor, performing a continuous sexual act, Acconci demystified his performance. Looking for a relevant comparison, one may say that through filming the whole experience Acconci committed an act comparable to opening one of Piero Manzoni’s cans of the Artist’s Shit. This poses the question of whether performance art should be documented at all, be it via photography or film? And another question is: can the medium of photography or film turn a performance like this into pornography?
“In the existing literature one finds roughly four ways of marking the difference between artistic and pornographic representations. The line is drawn either on the basis of (1) representational content, (2) moral status, (3) artistic qualities, or (4) prescribed response.” (Hans Maes, Jerrold Levinson, Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays). It seems that Acconci’s performance, defined by these four principles, escapes pornographic connotations. (1) By remaining hidden underneath the floor Acconci’s sexual act was purely representational; the focus of the viewers was not directed on the act as such but on the idea of the invisible artist performing it. (2) The act was performed consciously and on the artist himself, giving the viewers a chance to either connect to the whole experience or, in case of possible discomfort felt by them, to leave the gallery. (3) Seedbed as a piece of art was definitely complex, original – in a sense that it had not been done before, and aimed at the viewers’ imagination rather than stimulation of arousal. (4) It invited the viewers to certain collaboration, treating them as contributors to, rather than consumers of the experience.
Yet, can the same be said about Acconci’s documentary record of the performance? Even though the intention of the artist remains the same, the visual impact of the film is most likely to provoke a different reaction from the viewer. It changes the viewer’s attitude both to the artist and the viewer themselves; from a contributor to the whole experience, the viewer turns into a mere observer of the act which, by making the artist’s genitals the focal point of this observation, distorts contemplation of the artistic qualities of the whole piece. And according to Kenneth Clark, contemplation is the major determinant of the distinction between art and pornography: “To my mind art exists in the realm of contemplation… the moment art becomes an incentive to action it loses its true character. That is my objection to painting with a communist programme, and it would apply to pornography” (Amis, Kingsley, and Howard, E.J., Pornography: The Longford Report).
The question of art and pornography, or pornography in art, is very complex. Is there a line we could draw between the two? And should we draw such line at all? After all, art is about breaking certain boundaries, whether they are social, cultural or moral, or, as Vito Acconci said, about expanding them: “by bringing into it [art] that which, outside the realm of art, breaks the boundaries of convention and law.” (Vito Acconci, Notes on Illegality in Art)