By Sabina Holzer

Kathy Acker (April 18, 1947 – November 30, 1997) was an American experimental novelist, prose stylist, playwright, essayist, and feminist. She was a cult figure of the punk movement and one of the leading experimental writers of her generation. She was strongly influenced by the Black Mountain School, William S. Burroughs, David Antin, French critical theory, philosophy and pornography.

Kathy Acker is considered among the most significant proponents of radical feminism and the postmodern literary aesthetics. Associated with the discordant, irreverent music of punk rock her iconoclastic meta-fiction rejects conventional morality and traditional modes of literary expression.

During the laboratory the question was raised whether it would be possible to define an „avant-garde body“. If „body“ is not just meant in terms of „physical body“, but in a way that an artistic work, be it painting, film, text, or performance formulates „a body of work“ – what could an avant-garde body of work be? And in continuation of this line of thinking: Why is the term choreography so attractive? What is the promise of dance in this sense?

In relation to these questions I chose to present two extracts of texts from two of Kathy Acker’s novels: „My Death, my Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini“ and „Don Quixote“. [1]

I chose Kathy Acker because she combines different uses and different functions of language in her texts. Her fiction is woven from sensationalized autobiography, political tract, pornography, and appropriated texts, in which characters – often famous literary or historical figures – easily move through time and space while frequently changing personalities and genders.

For instance, her novel „My Death, my Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini“ starts with the question: „Did I ask to die? Was my murder a suicide by proxy?“ and she continues by paraphrasing Pasolini: „In 1973 I wrote: ‘Up until the 1970s the ancient world, the world which is daily life and thinking and loving existed – but it was swept away. From the age of innocence we’ve passed to the age of corruption.'“ [2]

In the first pages she describes the murder of Pasolini from different viewpoints: a diary note by Pasolini himself, a witness of the murder and thorough reports from newspapers. This first chapter is called „My Death“. The second one, „Nominalism“, which is subdivided into three parts: Sex, Language, and Violence.

In this chapter she for instance adapts literary dialogs from „Hamlet“ and „Romeo and Juliet“. The third chapter is „My Life“, divided into: Childhood – 1 Catholic Blatherings; 2 Teenage Macbeth; 3 Adult Now.
In „Catholic Blatherings“ she appropriates a correspondence between Emily and Charlotte Bronté. The novel ends with „This book is for Pier Paolo Pasolini. THE END.“

The reason for this brief structural sketch is to give an idea of the highly multiple body of text Kathy Acker creates by incorporating fantasy, personal statement and the juxtaposition of excerpted texts from various sources.
Her bodies of text are multiple not just in terms of identity, but also in the way of function / effect / performativity.

The base of her writings is the appropriation and reworking of existing texts. She talked openly about appropriation as a way of putting existing texts into a new context, revealing subtle meanings that were inherent but hidden in the original. Pirates and parrots were favorite figures of hers.

The „I“, the subject of the text is constructed as a political act

I like to look at this as a multitude, an utterance of different voices which implicate that there is no dominant discourse or style that represents a certain system. The structure is horizontal. There is no center and therefore no centralized power. And in Acker’s case it is especially appealing to me that she tries to show that all those different languages, and especially the female language, are the political body.

Her main effort is how to show the speaking. Who is the „I“, the fatal „I“, the „I“ as subject which speaks from the text? It is not just a decision of a person who has a poetic idea and says: „Now I will give you a person, figure or character“. Her writings are poly-genre. She works in different genres at the same time and tries to construct a net of discourses which are going to produce the „I“ or „subject“. This „I“, the subject constructed by Kathy Acker, is a political act. And it is constructed in relation with her own existence.

Born in New York City, Acker was raised by her mother and stepfather. Her biological father, whom she never met, abandoned her mother before she was born. Her mother committed suicide when Kathy Acker was thirty. Acker attended Brandeis University and the University of California, San Diego, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968. Twice wed – first to Robert Acker in 1966, then to the composer Peter Gordon in 1976 – and twice divorced. During the 1970s she worked as a secretary, stripper, and performer in live sex shows and pornographic films while promoting her fiction in small press publications. She began a combined doctoral program in classics and philosophy at the City University of New York, but left after two years. She began to write reviews in connection with conceptual art. In the 80s she became one of the prominent figures of postmodern writing in arts and film productions.

When she was diagnosed cancer in the 90s, she refused western traditional medicine and went for alternative treatment to Mexico. She died in 1997.

Language and the human condition

The physical body is always an issue in her texts. It is made an issue by infiltrating the text with sexual desire and physical violence as a way to talk about language in relation to the human condition. Her writing about sex and pain is not like Tolstoy’s or Dostoievsky’s. It is the reconstruction of a space and some kind of the textual performance happening in this space.

In „My Death, my Life …“ Kathy Acker uses formal Wittgenstein analysis to approach pain. She takes the philosophical investigation, but she puts it in female écriture. How can she write about pain, her pain. How can she do it for others? She uses different modes of expression like Wittgenstein’s.
This process of operating is quite the opposite of expressionism. She constructs an empty place of pain, but not from the inside. It is the surface which constructs the world. Through this analytical approach she knows exactly the position she is writing from.

„We teach each other languages, we don’t teach each other to cry out.“ [3]

The issue of pain was one linked to a few things we talked about during these days, like seeing Christian Marclay’s videos „Guitar Drag“ and „Record Players“ when we discussed the destruction of the artist’s material (musical instruments).
What are our ideas of the body of a dancer? What happens if we think about the destruction of the dancer’s body (the artist’s material, the dancer’s instrument)? How is pain described and constructed in relation to dance practice and choreography?

Pain seems to be something to be rejected. E.g., Yvonne Rainer rejected the pain inflicted on the body through classical dance training. (Yet the formation and representation of the body is always an issue in dance.) Pain is something which tells you what is right or wrong. There is good and bad pain. Dancers try to look at their bodies as an instrument which has to stay tuned in order to keep up a longer career. This is also related to a certain ideology: Why shouldn’t dancers waste their body?

Other Performance Art and Body Art deals with the material of the body, its vulnerability. Abramović cutting herself. Gina Pane, Viennese Actionism, and others. What kind of choreography is it? What are the dancing elements? What are the politics of kinesthetic empathy?

The difference between listening and making

Kathy Acker states that text works in a triangular relation between writer, reader and text. This triangular relationship in a bourgeois narrative is very different from the triangular relationship in a non-bourgeois narrative.
„This idea, which is basically impossible after Roland Barthes is, that you can know, that you can read a text, that you can learn something, that you can in a way possess knowledge: you are a centralized identity, and you as this centralized ‚I‘ are capable of knowing it. I mean it’s based on Descartes. I don’t live in that kind of world.“ [4]

She says: „I am reading and reading is part of my art production.“ (As Sachiko M [5] says „listening is my part of art production.“) How can I apply my (reading) practice in my art? This is an approach to doing art and the reflection of yourself on art different from saying: „I am a writer like Marcel Proust was a writer“.

A sign signifies something, but it also has its own aspects of sound and sight – its own materiality. Acker always negotiates between its materiality and what it signifies. In this regard it is also interesting to mention that Kathy Acker stated that she always was reading her texts for herself several times. She read it for sound, for rhythm, in front of the mirror, etc.
Another aspect which is an implication of her art practice is experimenting with identity. She would for instance use reports of serial killers, work with the texts and replace the personal pronoun with „I“. She would use this practice in order to get rid of personal moral preconditions, and as a way to slip inside another discourse, another text skin. She developed „eating another mind“ to a high degree, taking over the pragmatics and syntax of different persons, like Artaud, Caravaggio and others.
„It’s the difference between listening and making. When you listen to something you’re not imposing your shit on whatever you’re making. For me, it’s like writing, using other texts the way I do now. It’s changed over the years. To learn to work a text is partly to learn to listen, so that it’s not just me having my little autobiographical story, and stamping it on everything that comes along, but it’s me going into to Faulkner or Rimbaud and trying to listen to them. When I emerge, I’m some kind of conglomeration between them and me. It only works as kind of a challenge.“ [6]

Fiction and Performance

Kathy Acker emphasizes that she never talks through theory but through the fictional process. And that the use of language of theory is very different from its fictional use. Through the use of fiction she creates a discourse for those who cannot speak, are not heard. – „For those who live in silence“ is a statement which comes back again and again in her novels.

Performative space is similar to fictional space in terms of the potential freedom and choice one can recuperate. To think about choreographic strategies in terms of activities, behavior, gestures, and different modes of operation in relation to the subject-material, and to appropriate Ackers art practice seems a great pirate map for future dances.

[This text has been created through the appropriation of statements and thoughts of the people attending the laboratory „Versehen“ on March 7, 2008.]


[1] Look at „9. EX ANTE: Kalkulierte und improvisierte Spuren“
[2] Kathy Acker, „Literal Madness“, 1988, p.175
[3] Kathy Acker, „My Death, my Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini“, 1988, p.322
[4] Apparatus and Memory; http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/~nideffer/_SPEED_/1.1/acker.html [5] http://www.japanimprov.com/sachikom/
[6] Apparatus and Memory; http://proxy.arts.uci.edu/~nideffer/_SPEED_/1.1/acker.html