Eulogy to the pitch darkness: The power of secrecy in performance documentation.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2016

Eulogy to Pitch Darkness

The wind messes up a few strands of hair. But it's impossible to brush them away from the face - hands are tied behind the back. The darkness brought to the eyes by the black strip of cloth. Not knowing where one's going. Tied up, blindfolded and with earplugs that block his hearing, Vito Acconci appears vulnerable in the image of his performance Security Zone (1971). Deprived of his senses, a few steps away from falling into the river. And he's not alone. 

To guide him in this game of blind risk, the artist arranged a meeting at pier 18 in New York City with a person whom he knows but does not trust. The pier, the one that has appeared so many times in film noirs . A place for chance meetings, where wanderers sneak through the shadows. The kind of place one goes to without the certainty of ever returning home. The city doesn't know what happens in the abysses of the murky waters at its edges.

Figure 01: Security Zone (1971) - Vito Acconci. 41 x 48.5 cm  © Shunk-Kender. Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

As with many performance works, Security Zone is presented to the public through its records. Inside a dark frame that encloses a black mat with writing and a black-and-white photograph, the piece becomes known (Figure 01). Reflecting on the various possible ways of creation, reception, and formal engagement Professor Philip Auslander (2013) makes a distinction between two possibilities for registering performance artwork : the documentary and the theatrical. 

The former pertains to art pieces made for a live audience, for which artists create documents that take on the character of proof that the actions really happened and in what way they took place. The performance, in this case, is autonomous in respect to its documentary product. Such product, besides functioning as evidence and description, also gives indications based on which the piece could be reconstructed, even if incompletely, by those who observe its residues in a given moment after the act itself.

The latter possibility, to which the encounter at the pier belongs, pertains to works that aren’t made for an audience that witnesses what is happening in the moment; instead, these performance works are presented to the photographic camera, to a video camera or an audio-recorder, etc. The audience will encounter the work only through the resulting material, among which the image- sound- and textual production of the experience stand out.

Like many other pieces by Vito Acconci, this performance could only happen in the absence of observers, and could only become known through the documents generated by the experience with the man he distrusts. In the theatricality of the documentation there is the partial revelation of the events of the tacit negotiation between the artist’s vulnerable body and the only one who could have saved him from falling over the edge into the dark water. At the same time, the outcome of those events remains enshrouded in mysterious shades of grey.


The man whom Acconci doesn’t trust stands in front of him and touches him at the waist. The spread hands and the position of the bodies, frozen in the moment by the act of photography, reinforce the dubious character of what Security Zone proposes. The slicing of time, the cutting of this photographic instant, leaves the spectator abandoned in a state of not knowing. The modern photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the Decisive Moment (2015) fits very well in the perspective of this ambiguity. He stressed the importance of using the device to capture a fleeting moment, where the one pressing the camera’s button waits for the best situation to make the image happen. The curtain of the shutter should make way for the negative to burn at the exact time when the image has all the elements needed for a perfect balance, composition and narrative.

In the photograph, the man’s movement can either be interpreted as protective of Acconci, so that he doesn’t fall back into the water, or as an attack, a push or a threat to throw him into the deep, into a situation of extreme risk. Professor Angela Materno, commenting on the relation between Walter Benjamin’s thought and the theatre of Bertold Brecht, points out that the method of the cut, so present in the work of Brecht, is the source material of the philosopher’s reflection on the question of gesture. For Benjamin, the gesture is a tiny moment, separated from the continuous flow of actions, that has its own body, difficult to falsify, and that has a determined beginning and end (MATERNO, 2004). The image that Acconci selected is replete with the materiality of the gestural and photographic interruption of the performative act.  The gesture creates tension. What’s left is the observer, the rapture before the dramaturgical power of this frozen moment. Even though what is framed shows itself to us, for it contains the photographic element as an index of what happened (KRAUSS, 1977), we are unable to know the details of the event. The image, together with the text, creates a very particular narrative framework, far from an objective and clarifying account. Acconci makes use of an interesting writing strategy to maintain the secretive character of the past events on the pier. He doesn’t describe his action to the public. He directs his words to the man he met, the only person[1] who knew exactly what took place on that afternoon in 1971. This decision works in a double way, installing an enigma and tensioning the atmosphere of the piece.

The conflictual nature of the relationship between the two people involved in the performance is made explicit in the text. “You know I don’t trust you”. I do not trust you. And you know this. Acconci poses the problem of trust (and of the lack of it) to the other. The man knows that he has no credibility with the artist and, precisely because of that, he’s chosen to be the guide during the sense deprivation experience on the pier. The invitation is audacious and posits this relationship with otherness in a candid and direct way, highlighting the potential discomfort of the dismal situation that the helplessly blindfolded man is experiencing.

But the text not only serves to provoke his opponent, but above all, to establish a strange complicity with him. By describing the action to a person who was there and lived through it all, Acconci avoids going into details. He writes that some trust was built, but makes it clear that he doesn’t know if this newfound relationship will extend beyond the performance, retaining the obscurity of the reason for this uncertainty. By denying the public the minutiae of the exchanges that took place between those two subjects, he creates a connivance between them from which everyone else is excluded. The Stimmung, the atmospheres and ambiences inherent to writing which “affect the ‘state of mind’ of the readers” (GUMBRECHT, 2014. p. 14), of the Security Zone text, is the secret between the men, that raises concerns to those who, blind to the facts, have access only to the framed image-text.

For the person that comes across the work by way of this document, there are some uncomfortable questions left. What could the man have done to deserve Acconci’s distrust? Does the distrust only pertain to Acconci for the man, or does the man also have his doubts about Acconci’s honesty? Did the artist really feel threatened at some point during the action? What really happened to the bodies involved in that confrontation and in what way were they transformed by the experience? According to the proposition of Security Zone, the two men, in the moment following the action, share more than the memory: they share a pact. They keep the memory, while all the other people in the world are outside of it, trying to catch a glimpse from behind the wall of estrangement built out of the aura of secrecy.

Less than fifteen years after the meeting on the pier, the city of New York was the stage for another encounter of subjectivities that marked performance art. One man, one woman. A Taiwanese illegal immigrant, a white American. He, with his wish to know, through his body, the philosophical aspects of the experience of life. She, with the power of framing that words have, transforming daily life into art. He, with the determination of the atheist monk. She, surrounded by the disciplinary images of a youth immersed in Catholic spiritualism. Two, until then unknown to each other. Two, who from then on shared rooms and sidewalks (HSIEH; MONTANO, 2012).

Figure 02: Document that legally attests to the performative programme of Rope Piece. © 1984 Tehching Hsieh, Linda Montano | Courtesy of the artists and of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

The performative programme (FABIÃO, 2013) of Rope Piece (Figure 02) by Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano prescribes that both must remain attached to each other by the waist for a year. The performance started on 4 July 1983 and ended on the same day and month in 1984. Each one at its own work table, each one in its own bed. A little more than two meters of rope separated them. Never any doors.

While affirming their individualities, they went on together. In the struggle of learning to deal with otherness, they occupied the same space, sharing a whole year. They didn’t touch each other, but they groaned, whispered and whimpered in the middle of the night, gestured with their hands, changed one another’s direction with jerky tugs at the rope. And they talked. The artists produced a collection of cassette tapes with conversations that took up to six hours of their day (HEATHFIELD, 2012). The intense exchanges between a person who needs to stop what he or she is doing to walk to the kitchen, and the other, who is thirsty. Abstaining from sexual intercourse. The problems of daily life. The friendship built. The confessions shared. What was said between them is recorded, composing, together with the texts and photographs, the archive of the performance.

Figure 03: Rope Piece (July 1983) © 1984 Tehching Hsieh, Linda Montano | Courtesy of the artists and of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

In the theory of the archive, this is not composed only by its materiality and its function of registering. It’s replete with a “symbolic aura” of its own, it’s a place of memory where we reconstruct events and write history (NORA, 1993). The archive has the function of revealing an absence. When we come across a document, it’s known that many other records about the same thing no longer exist or are in a zone of inaccessibility. All information that has been lost and will keep its obscurity about a fact shows itself in a negative manner. If this feature of the archive as index of absence (ROUSSO, 1996) currently applies to open documents, in relation to which the imagination is already put to work to give meaning to the meandering of accessible data, the documents that are kept secret are even more powerful triggers for the reverie of those who try to unveil the dim essence of events.

In order to preserve the intimacy of the intense and delicate relationship built up in the performance, Hsieh and Montano chose to keep the contents of the recordings secret. In an interview to Adrian Heathfield, the artist confirmed that the tapes, which were sealed to make listening impossible, are to the work what the black box is to the plane. Taking the seals off, revealing its contents, listening to the words that are recorded there would be like opening a Pandora’s box of the darkness that privacy contains in its essence (Heathfield, 2012). However, by calling attention to the impossibility of accessing the real work of art through its registration, secret or not, Tehching Hsieh encourages the people who have contact with the documentation of his works to contribute with dimensions of their own history, perhaps composing for themselves an idea of what his pieces were about. In the case of the covert register of Rope Piece, the observer is even more provoked. It is up to the imagination to fabricate the content of the conversations, to mentally forge the phrases, noises and affections that fill up the countless meters of secrecy laid down on the magnetic tapes. The document must therefore be seen by an audience as a performance in itself, and not only as indexical evidence that the piece took place (AUSLANDER, 2013).  The philosopher Jacques Derrida very much reflected on the importance of the secret in literature, especially in his books Passions and The Gift of Death. Scholar of his work Carla Rodrigues (2010) offers a close reading of the concept of the secret in Derrida, which can be a good tool for thinking about the dramaturgical potential that the hidden brings to the works Security Zone and Rope Piece.

The biblical passage about Abraham’s sacrifice, ordered by God to offer up his son Isaac as a demonstration of his loyalty, is taken up many times in the philosophical tradition as a trigger for questions of thought. A double secret occurs in this context: Abraham hides the divine command from his family members, while God hides from Abraham his motivations for the request. The abyss of secrecy is the source of the ethical dilemma in which the character of Genesis 22 is trapped. And in this moment of mysterium tremendum, when God can see the subject but the latter isn’t capable of unveiling the divine intention, in the sensation of being pulled out of the shadows into the vulnerability of being watched, in the moment of “He sees me” or “He knows all”, Derrida points out that Abraham is possessed by the imperative of infinite responsibility, which is the disillusionment brought by the recognition of heteronomy (RODRIGUES, 2010).

In the disproportionate measure between the divine vision that reaches everything and the obscure finitude of human experience, an immediate confrontation occurs with the unknown, the external. Derrida claims that this mysterium tremendum is represented in Christianity under the aegis of the figure of God, but that its structural form is the same in all contact with any other. “Even if God were to be taken out of these phrases - and substituted by the word otherness - we would still end up with an experience of trembling” (ibd. p. 172). The trembling is, therefore, that which happens when one faces the inaccessible and what one can’t control. The other is an abyss. Everything is secret.

The measure of responsibility would therefore be to ethically assume the dimension of not-knowing. The subject, bound to wander through the shadows bordering human knowledge, must incorporate other paradigms than that of certainty in order to enjoy existence. It becomes necessary to intertwine oneself with the nature of doubt, the maybe and the as if (DERRIDA, 2004) at the structural foundation of one’s mode of thought.

This infinite responsibility, in Derrida’s philosophy, is directly tied to the field of secrecy. What is hidden is always present in the relationship with otherness and it’s necessary for the subject to stay outside of the translation of that real, which appears metaphorized in divine intervention, to language. There is violence in the demand for a break with this fundamental secret, summoned by Kant by his constant call to bring everything to light, to present justifications to all acts and gestures of the human being (RODRIGUES, 2010). If he revealed the nature of his secrets to his family members, Abraham would be taking responsibility for the decision and passing it on to the other. The choice of the patriarch for the sacrifice should be kept silent to avoid that the singularity of the real inside the intricacies of the system of enunciations is rarefied, which would occur at the moment of discourse. Speaking of an experience is a translation. Translating is twisting, modifying reality so that it conforms to the proper paradigms of language.

It is in this ethical dilemma, presented in the biblical passage, that Derrida synthesizes his manner of conceptualizing the secret in literature. As opposed to rationalist philosophy, the literary, conditioned by the fictional in its ontology, would be the habitat of all secrets. This mode of meaning to say, particular to literature, embraces the enigmatic condition of its own way of making that, without the commitment to a search for truth, escapes objectivity and is always in negotiation with otherness (RODRIGUES, 2013).

Security Zone and Rope Piece possess the trembling vibration of the experience that is the contact with the other. Both pieces present a “deconstruction of representation”, characteristic of performance art, that occurs in the objective positioning of enunciations that trigger acts of experimentation (FABIÃO, 2013). They are proposals for making things happen in the world, directly and without any allegorical connotation. However, both works have much of the literary in their constitution. This isn’t only located in the observer’s possibilities to inscribe meaning, with the potential of shifting any practice to a place of instituting theatricality, from a certain kind of intentional framing of the gaze, creating a rupture in the everyday (LEONARDELLI, 2011). But, beyond the meaning given by theatricality, the literary is effectively present in the dramaturgical constitution of the pieces, that is permeated by the atmosphere of the secret. By introducing the secret to the documentation of performance works, the artists invest them with the potential of fabulation inherent to literature, so that the semantic possibilities for creation branch out from those who enter into contact with the narratives triggered by the enigma’s intangibility. In the performance that keeps its secrets, this space of memory of the archive can be a literary space, a spark of creation, open information that allows for the creation of meanings and a way to keep the work alive beyond the temporality of its realization.

If the live performance plants itself in memory like a spur, one knows that soon after the act it will disappear and that its documentary registration will never be sufficient to account for the breadth of the experience (PHELAN, 1998). The secret of the performance archive operates semantically with a similar restlessness, because it highlights to the public its impotence, the impossibility of knowing. We, the audience of Security Zone and Rope Piece, are like Abraham, doomed to the blindness of an infinite wait. Overwhelmed by a constant urge for revelation to emerge, even if we already know beforehand that what we want to know so much will remain in the dark. The certainty of the impossibility of uncovering the secret makes the knowledge of its existence appear to us at irregular intervals, touching the surface of memory, but without ever fixating itself to anything. In the impossibility of grasping the thought-matter of what was, we are held hostage to the volatile images of what may have been, always scrounging the fleeting dark corners of the mystery.


1 It is possible to perceive, by observing the framing and angle of the image, that the photographer was positioned at a significant distance from Vito Acconci and his alleged antagonist.



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