In conjunction with the International Masturbation Month of May, we decided feature an artist with a notorious approach to masturbation in the art space.
Masturbation, as many would know, is the act of self love or self pleasure. There are plenty of stigmas surrounding the act but it is commonly agreed upon that people of varying ages tend to do it because it feels good – also that it releases endorphins that help block pain and let the body relax. Though there are religious restrictions when on the topic of masturbation and there are even bigger misconceptions that masturbation is something unhealthy, that your genitals might shrink, or causes infertility – none of it is true.
When I thought of an artist who used masturbation as a means of transforming the art space and the boundaries of intimacy, I remembered Vito Acconci who passed away recently last year (April 2017)
‘Pioneer of Performance’, ‘Godfather of Transgression’, and ‘Master of Conceptualism’
Vito Acconci was an influential and diverse American artist, who moved from the practice of poetry into video, performance, and photography not simply to document an ephemeral event but within an exploration of his body’s “occupancy” of public space. His foundational work was characterized and marked by “existential unease,” exhibitionism, discomfort, transgression and provocation, often involved crossing boundaries and the inbetweens, such as the public–private, consensual–nonconsensual, and real world–art world.
According to the MetMuseum Blog on Body/ Landscape; photography and reconfiguration of the sculptural object, Acconci created his perhaps best-known work over the course of three weeks in October 1969. He followed a stranger until that person entered a private space; the artist recorded these pursuits in photographs (made by a third party) and a written log. By keying his own movements to the perambulations of randomly chosen pedestrians, Acconci attempted to reconceive the role of the artist as a keenly attentive mirror to the world; as Acconci described it,
“I am almost not an ‘I’ anymore; I put myself in the service of [the] scheme.”
It’s an act that borderline falls between creepy and stalker-esq, and while he is no longer “the artist” anymore, he plays the role of mirror, in service of the art. But perhaps, pursuing strangers is not as transgressive as masturbating right under them – right as they can hear you. I’m referring to his 1972 work titled, “Seedbed”
What is “Seedbed”?
It’s perhaps one of the most notorious performance pieces from Acconci. Gallery visitors entered to find the space empty except for a low wood ramp inclining upwards. Hidden below the ramp, out of sight from the world, Acconci masturbated, basing his fantasies on the movements of the people walking above him. He narrated these fantasies aloud, his voice projected through speakers into the gallery: “you’re on my left . . . you’re moving away but I’m pushing my body against you, into the corner . . . you’re bending your head down, over me . . . I’m pressing my eyes into your hair.” If you’ve ever heard your partner in bed moaning aloud and imagine how embarrassing it would be if someone were to hear that, well, everyone can hear it now. Seedbed was an exemplary work that transformed the physical space of the gallery through minimal intervention “to create an intimate connection between artist and audience, even as they remained invisible to one another.” as described by The Met.
Here is a video documenting his performance. I would warn that this video is NSFW
The “seed” in “Seedbed” is lingo for his sperm of course.This tiny and low space under the ramps is his bed, and he wants to cover it, cover it with as much seed as possible, each one an intimate connection with another visitor. In an interview with Brian Sherwin from MyArtSpace blog in 2008, Acconci talks extensively about his work process on “Seedbed”, except as documented,
In the case of Seedbed: I didn’t want to be a point, a target, a focal-point in front of visitors to the gallery – so I would disappear into the architecture of the room, I would become part of the floor – therefore a ramp was built, so that I could be under the floor, under the space where visitors walked – I crawled around this space, it’s highest point was two, two and a half feet high, I crawled around under visitors’ feet — once I had titled the piece Seedbed (a synonym for floor, under current, sub-structure), I knew what my goal had to be: I had to produce seed, the space I was in should become a bed of seed, a field of seed – in order to produce seed, I had to masturbate – in order to masturbate, I had to excite myself.
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…