Kathy Acker was a plagiarist, a pirate, an emblem of postmodernism, a fascinating and complicated person, but most importantly, she was a writer. A literary exhibition is a challenging project, and so fuelled by a desire to see what curatorial decisions would locate writing visually, I went to see ‘I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker’ at the ICA - surely if any writer can sustain an exhibition it would be Acker, a person with such gravitational pull that it obscures the distinction between writer and writing almost entirely.
The didactic panel welcomes me to a “polyvocal” and “expansive” exhibition, a florid expression for “overwhelming” and “congested”. The exhibition is organised around a dizzying eight key novels. Already a vast quantity of information to process, it is supplemented to the extent of drowning both the original novel and serial structure it attempts to establish. There is so much Acker it’s almost hard to find her amidst walls and walls of her own text, documentation of her performances, vitrines of letters and heavily annotated books from her archive and library, not to mention the extensive programme of artists, writers and musicians who may not necessarily be directly Acker inspired, but are still Acker inspired, if you know what I mean. They ‘offer points of connection and resistance to Acker’s linguistic practice’ but Acker’s practice was always a practice of inspiration so direct it was plagiarism, a practice that conveyed an openness to a story moving through her as if she were a medium. She did not inhabit identities as the exhibition title suggests, but was voluntarily haunted by them, in a constant shifting conversation. Her handwritten notes in her copy of William S. Burroughs ‘The Adding Machine’ references plagiarism as ‘talking to the dead’ – and I wanted to talk to Acker.
Studying the admittedly absorbing documents from her archive, I wondered if the overwhelming nature of the show is a nod to the overwhelming style of Acker’s writing? Is her loose referencing format mirrored in the inclusion of many other artists working with similar spirit? Or is ‘I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker’ really just ‘Kathy Acker vs. the ICA’? The inclusion of documentation of ‘Lulu Unchained’ (1985) performed at the ICA is an interesting point of discord. Chris Kraus’ literary biography ‘After Kathy Acker’ details Acker’s unsuccessful attempt to have her name removed from the credits of this production. Surely, that particular ‘I’ is not a comfortable one.
Perhaps approaching literature in an exhibition is impossible to accomplish without overwhelming the viewer. It certainly solidified that any real encounter with Acker’s work needs a more sufficient buffer, as any moments of transgression that didn’t feel outdated got lost in the staging. Rather than projecting Acker forwards onto a veritable army of contemporary artists and writers, I would rather spend some time working backwards through her myriad of references, to delve into the ghosts that Acker was communicating with.