Vito Acconci was an artist most well known for his performance art in the 1960s, despite the fact that he began his career as a poet. His performance art dealt with the kind of conceptual premises that are common in conceptual literature. Though no explicit product was made, Vito would record himself following people for long periods of time or standing too close to people to comment on his idea that each person has a zone of personal energetic space that can be invaded. The purpose of “Removal” is far less obvious, but it does have a method and a structure that is stated in the work’s subtitle. Here is an image of what that subtitle describes and what the premise produces:
J12 G13 G12 B11 K9 B11 F11 F14 D13 C6 C14 F2 A9 A9 B10 A9 C14 J9 B12 B12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D14 D14 C5 C14 C14 C14 H13 G2 B6 F14 G4 J9 F3 F6 F6 J7 H14 D14 K12 G4 B10 C12 K11 A9 D5 F14 E6 L7 F3 E9 H13 H13 E12 D9 J7 F14 H5 A9 F15 D15 D5 G4 H4 E14 E6 E13 E13 D15 C6
What Acconci has produced here appears initially quite trivial, repetitive, and, if no introduction or subtitle was given, seems to be complete gibberish. The result of the text, however, would be, according to the introduction given in Goldsmith’s anthology Against Expresssion, “an inverse projection of Manhattan roadways, itself largely a grid, in which the roughly regular series of frequently numerical names . . . encode a geographic and social account of the island’s historical development” (22). Hence, this alphabetical organization yields a fairly complex and interesting result, and acts as a means to a theoretical end of a mapping of the Manhattan borough. This is chiefly what makes the work so unique, because it does not only exist as an appropriation of grid locations from Hagstrom’s Maps, but is itself a possible source for later copying to create the image of the Manhattan grid.
Beyond its visual significance, Acconci’s collection of grid locations also presents a sort of commentary on urban planning. If one takes the time to read through the approximately five pages of fairly dry grid locations that are given in Against Expression, one gets the sense of the cold, calculated nature of urban structure, as the text is akin to a sort of program for organization of a city. Even more can be said of the work if it is read out loud, which it was meant to be, and was in a recording by Craig Dworkin, the link to which is given below (be warned, the site is terribly made, and the recordings’s a little bit down the page).
There is a sort of bare, minimalist poetry to this oral reading which Goldsmith likens to “the contemporaneous minimalist music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass” (22). Because so many sections of the text contain the same letters and sometimes long repetitions of the same letter with the same number as its pair, there is a possibly accidental rhythm to the reading that does make it sound like something composed musically and takes a lot of the boredom out of reading the text non-orally. The oral reading, as rhythmic as it is, nonetheless retains much of the aforementioned hollowness of the grid locations, sounding particularly robotic when it is read out loud. This hollowness results from the fact that the structure of Manhattan has been stripped down so much, concentrated to the point where everything but pure structure has been deleted, hence the use of the word “Removal” in the Acconci’s title. The deletion of masses of material to emphasize structural elements is quite common in conceptual literature, some examples being Monica Aasprong’s Soldatmarket and Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, both of which are featured in Against Expression.
As many literary, visual, and auditory results as Acconci’s work has to offer, it is still important to note that, on the page, the text of “Removal” is unappealing and seemingly meaningless. The fact that such a repetitive collection of numbers and letters meant so much underneath was what made Acconci’s work stand out to me, as it reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” In particular, Borges’ line “Those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical ‘reading’ . . . There is no combination of characters one can make . . . that in one or more of its secrets tongues does not hide a terrible significance” (117) seemed to describe fairly perfectly Acconci’s work here. Behind Acconci’s utterly dry combinations of letters and numbers is the entire street structure Manhattan, but at the same time it is looks like the kind of thing that could be randomly typed by a monkey, albeit one with a very consistent and organized agenda. This is also what interests me about conceptual literature and art in general. Though the product is rarely impressive or noticeable in conceptual art, the amazing thing about it is that it packs so much significance and, in many cases, labor, into a work that appears to be gibberish, the kind of thing occupants of the Library of Babel might toss aside as nonsense.