I’m afraid that, if I listened to silence,
I would probably become a writer again.

Vito Acconci



It was 1969 when Vito decided to give up writing. He’d done a master’s degree in literature at The University of Iowa and, until that moment, had seen himself as an author. Shortly before the decision to abandon writing, he’d moved from fiction to poetry. Obsessed by Mallarmé and Queneau, his mind blown by Faulkner in his adolescence, and by Robbe-Grillet and Hawkes at university, he initiated a series of exercises linked to the practices of concrete poetry because he’d had enough of recounting things and writing on them. He wanted to touch words, use their holes as the mold for a sculpture that would make it possible to reduce the vast, awful distance between a man and what he writes. To arrive at the reader, reach the reader; each letter had to rise from the page and go into exile to dispel the terrifying void produced by what is read.


I have made my point

I make it again


Now you get the point



He thought about the spatial possibilities of the sheet of paper on which he was writing; sought a way of converting a word into an object, making it concrete, real, defined. He wanted to grasp it the way you take the things you need to make a morning coffee. Vito’s poetry was, above all, an invitation to the reader to move, an assault on the sheet of paper in order to convert it into a surface capable of being crossed; he placed words like spheres in a model of a solar system: bodies traversing a fixed orbit; here lies the relationship to the modernism of Mallarmé, for whom the blank sheet was a pure space, the silence from which the word can set out on its journey, and to which it will necessarily return.

I am going from one side to the other











Let’s face it, once a writer, always a writer, he kept repeating to himself, and in that repetition his voice endowed the phrase with a strange rhythm, until the utterance eventually lost its meaning. The page as field, he thought; the page, that wide-open landscape we see when flying over the outskirts of a snow-covered city, each of its parcels of land now defined by different shades of white. The page, a dimension of activity. Well, if I’m writing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the page, he continued. And the fact is that he’d begun to distance himself from his texts in his poetry readings, converting them into happenings—he would walk from the back of the room to the front, reading a word with every step. A way of fusing the surfaces of his body, the paper, and the words. My poems are already performances: the page is a field over which I as a writer, and then you as a reader, travel.

It was on that morning, while repeating a spiel that was by then a growl, that he looked in the mirror: he feinted a left hook at his image, desperate to cross through it, just as he’d attempted to pierce the sheet of paper with his pen; he danced before the looking glass like a pugilist dodging himself. He punched the flat silvered surface now in the boxing ring of his own reflection, thinking of writing as a failure, as absolute as the sound of his fist. And he punched on until the mirror shattered. He stood facing the smooth, bare, white wall, which was again the surface of the paper (See Through, 1970, Super 8, 5 mins, color, silent). His body had become a blueprint: his skin, like the sheets of paper, a fine coating of superimposed fibers. His body in action had to move smoothly across space as the pen does across words. He then sparred with his own shadow, projected in a corner. With each oscillation, he drew and wrote a word of discouragement in the air. Each hook was no more than the opaque flip side of himself. The shadow boxing an innocuous monologue. In a one-sided conversation, Vito had begun a new project: writing outside the sheet of paper (Three Relationship Studies, Shadow-Play, 1970, Super 8, 15 mins, silent).



It wasn’t the blank sheet that terrified him, but the words, their interstices empty of objects, their blurred time, the way they caused pain in thought, those transparent scabs of dried blood. He drove himself crazy thinking of all the images produced in his head, in their prophetic power. He’d been snared by reading. Every one of the stories, without exception, happened to him in the first person.

When to stop writing the novel and become a character?

How many more times would he resist reading the final page for fear of departing from a parallel life that kept him absent from, but functioning in, a world of living beings?

Vito found himself in this disjuncture. He had no wish to plan or read any more stories, he deeply desired his writing to be an event displaced from the imagination into the real world. He wanted to feint a well-aimed blow, scratch his scabs and observe his body hurrying along thought as writing. His body, a distant place, far from the writer who tends to dissolve before the screen and live in doubt before the page—barely possible to conceive it as anything more than an 8 by 11 inch rectangle. That was how Vito decided to convert himself into the silent U.S. Letter sheet on which the words ski. He bit his arms and legs, his forearms, thighs, elbows, and knees. He left tooth marks. He inked those dents and printed them onto paper (Trademarks, 1970, photographed activity, ink prints).

Clearly defining the ambiguous frontier between the character and the one who writes had separated him from the world in which he too happened beyond the typewriter. His body, an intervened surface, a viable object, a word pasted in the margin, reverberating on the sheet of paper; the reflection of a paragraph in just a few letters. He always ran the risk of error: becoming a fictional character, writing and unwriting himself between four walls without pen or paper. He added soap to water in a glass bowl and stirred the mixture with his hands. With eyes wide open, he submerged his face in the liquid. Despite the burning sensation, he held it there, unflinching. He blinked repeatedly until his vision returned. Next he tried to put his whole fist into his mouth until he tired, until it was impossible for him to keep his mouth open or his first closed. Finally, he stood with his back against the wall and tied a black blindfold over his eyes. One by one, he attempted to catch each of the rubber balls thrown at him (Adaptation Studies: 2. Soap & Eyes, 3. Hand & Mouth, 1. Blindfold Catching, 1970, Super 8, 3 mins, silent).



While he was distancing himself from the literary world, each of his episodes gained meaning in a parallel world where his games were conceptual and minimalist actions; that is, focused on the primacy of language over the image and the search for simple, clean-edged geometric forms. But his work was located on a different rung of the ladder: a writer using narrative to produce hybrids, the deep reflection of a solitary, isolated character who cancels out the impeccable hermetic superficiality of conceptualism and minimalism. His work confronted the white cube with actions that initially had no meaning beyond the absurd; actions like those of other 1970s performance artists in New York and Los Angeles: Dennis Oppenheim hung by his feet and hands between two breezeblock walls to make himself into the Brooklyn Bridge; Bruce Nauman spewed out water like a fountain, he had been through art school, and anything he did in his studio became art; Bas Jan Ader rode a bicycle very close to the edge of a river until he lost his balance and fell in; and Chris Burden asked a friend to fire a gun directly at his arm because sculpture is the impact of a tool on a material.

For his first exhibition in New York’s Grail Ground Gallery, Vito decided to move the contents of a different room in his apartment to the gallery for a week at a time, extending his living space by 80 blocks. Whenever he needed his toothbrush, for example, he had to cross the city, find it in the gallery, return to his bathroom, use the toothbrush, take it back to the gallery, as if it had been borrowed, and, finally make his way home, where his need for some other object would have him on the move again. In addition to being the best way of wasting time, his action signaled the tacit difference between filling a city with adjectives and articles, and traversing it again and again; between thinking the page and moving through the continuum. Just as he’d looked for a way of moving the reader from the left margin to the right or from top to bottom in his poems, he crossed the city as one draws a line across a page, repeated the same journey in a pile of short sentences. He was neither the character in a novel packed with absurd adventures, nor the person who wrote dramatic scenes with no audience, and not even, by then, strictly speaking, a writer (Room Piece, 1970, installation/action, 3 weeks).

He also experimented with long sentences. He went out into the street and followed a randomly chosen pedestrian, walking until the person entered some place he didn’t have access to. Each person was a long, sustained path, an utterance that ended in a new paragraph. He went to galleries, stopped to inspect the paintings, standing very close to other visitors, much closer than normal. He lay in wait, as colons lie in wait for the following phrase; he himself was a phrase glued to the preceding one, and he stayed there until the other person, feeling uncomfortable, completely detached himself (Following Piece, 1969, action, 23 days, varying durations, and Proximity Piece, 1970, 52 days, 8 hours a day).



For Vito, poetry was the synthetic resonance of evocative words, the surprise of a detachment that filled him with sadness, and he’d chosen performance because it was neither an outcome, nor an alluded to or remembered past. From there, everything happens in the same place, at the same instant. The landscape is not a suggestion but a given; just as the poem is an act, a decision. As if spit out by an irascible sea, he threw himself on the shore and allowed the waves to cover him. He rolled forward toward the water, and back as the wave receded, while the writer he’d been sank in the anguish of words that are never enough, in the space that only names and has effect insofar as it is memory of what has already been lived. That same writer kicked up sand on the beach until he’d made a hole deep enough to contain his body. I’m digging myself into the sand, he thought, making links between language and the event. He wasn’t only digging a hole in the sand. He himself was the hole he was making with his body, his own void, his disappearance, his end point (Drifts I and II, 1970, action and photographic record; Digging Piece, 1970, Super 8, 15 mins, silent).



According to an ancient Japanese practice, a sheet of paper can, with the exercise of patience, lose its flatness. The paper moves back and forth, making lines, complex series of folds that become media, paths, labyrinths. Step by step, it loses its one-dimensionality. Each fold, a transparent, intangible writing. Although his body was the word on the sheet of paper—dancing, fighting, moving, walking, searching—the sheet remained intact and the space of his body was single, indivisible; there was nothing for it but to come out. He began to plan a series of constructions, simple architectural forms. If his body failed as word, perhaps the paper could become what he’d been searching for.

The imagined forms utilized recycled materials, primitively configured as car-houses, tents, seats, benches, walls crossing through floors, tunnels, connectors, bridges. Each project was a pause in the bustle of the city, a place of rest and waiting where time was isolated, bubbles, spaces recovered from urban oblivion. The performances gradually disappeared, the narrative paragraphs dwindled to circumstantial complements of place. Those architectural approaches were simply explorations within the broad extension of writing; the result of a long process, a cycle that finally returns to its beginning: write, activate what is written, rehearse, reflect, become a surface, look for space within the body and outside it, construct objects as if they were the pages of a text, write with the page outside the page, the way a person folds paper to make a house, writes the word house and imagines it, the way someone draws the house and constructs it. The sheet of paper that ends by being pulverized into cement, the sheet of paper that travels from the notebook to the white cube.


Verónica Gerber Bicecci

Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist who writes. She has published the books: Mudanza (2010/2017), Empty Set (2018, translated by Christina MacSweeney), which won the 3rd International Aura Estrada Literature prize and the Otra Mirada Cálamo prize, and Migrant Words (2019, bilingual, translated by Christina MacSweeney). Her most recent projects in other media include: vocabulary b (2019) in muca-Roma, Mexico City and The Dystopian Machine (www.lamaquinadistopica.xyz, 2018) in the Museo de Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez, Zacatecas. She was an editor at the Mexican publishing cooperative Tumbona Ediciones (2010–2017) and tutor of the Photography Production Seminar (2016-2018) at Centro de la Imagen. To learn more, visit: www.veronicagerberbicecci.net.

Christina MacSweeney

Christina MacSweeney was awarded the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize for Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and her translation of Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims was a finalist in the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Her translations of works by Elvira Navarro (A Working Woman), Verónica Gerber Bicecci (Empty Set), and Julián Herbert (Tomb Song and The House of the Pain of Others) have received critical acclaim. She has also contributed to four anthologies of Latin American literature and has published short translations, interviews, and articles on a wide variety of platforms. She also collaborated with Verónica Gerber Bicecci on the translation with commentary of an audio guide for the exhibition Migrant Words in 2017. Her translations of the short story collections by Julián Herbert and Elvira Navarro, plus a novel by Daniel Saldaña París and book-length essay by Jazmina Barrera are forthcoming in 2020.

“Papiroflexia,” from Mudanza. Copyright (c) Verónica Gerber Bicecci, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Christina MacSweeney, 2019.