A visceral exploration of Kathy Acker’s pleasure-filled world, in collaboration with the ICA

Kathy Acker is one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she used her uncommonly sharp and erudite mind to experiment with form and substance in fiction, poetry, plays, spoken word and performance.

Often referred to as William Burroughs’s literary daughter, and heir to the avant-garde prose throne, Acker openly plagiarised great works such as Don Quixote and Great Expectations, playing with intentionally ‘bad’ writing and genre fiction. Her books were Greek myth, soft-core porn, secret diary and brilliant literary supernova at once.

Featuring contributors to I,I,I,I,I,I, Kathy, a major exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, director Amy Gwatkin presents a portrait of the literary luminary via some of the show’s contributing artists, writers and musicians—Bhanu Kapil, Katy Jalili, Linda Stupart, Carl Gent, Noel Anderson, and Deniz Unal—channelling the spirit of the creative iconoclast who died in 1997 at the age of 50 after battling cancer.

“One of the strongest aspects of the ICA show is how it brings together these diverse voices,” says Gwatkin. “Connections are made to Acker and her work, while also presenting a snapshot of New York, San Francisco and London at the times she lived in these cities.”

“Each protagonist in the film comes to Acker’s work from a different angle,” the London-based photographer and filmmaker continues. “Each chose their own reading, so it was their response, or particular interest which led the project. Similarly, I started by reading a lot of Acker’s work, as well as a lot about her, and also around her. Every time I got stuck or had a question I would just open a book. She became a personal I Ching.”

Banned and censored, lionised and adored, Acker was intelligent, fearless post-modernism manifested. Polite and charming, she wore her strong New York accent like a well-chosen accessory. A highly educated woman from a good (albeit neglectful) Jewish family, she was obsessed with weightlifting and covered in tattoos – an extension of her seductive, queer-inspired style. She was notoriously sexually liberal, enjoying casual, obsessive and long-term relationships at once.

“The portrait that emerged was of a very disciplined, complex, and sometimes difficult artist,” says Gwatkin. “Themes of her reinvention of self and persona were really appealing. Her emphasis on pleasure, feeling an urgency to own that pleasure, and to express it, really captivated me.”

“I used her as an activation portal,” Gwatkin continues. “Lines, images and passages in her writing would remind me of imagery that is important to my visual pleasure. It became an index or a canon of gratifying images that takes in period costume, overhead lighting, slimy substances, the promise of a stranger’s crotch…we tried to fit it all in.”

For a period during the 1980s when Acker lived in London, she was a regular presence in the ICA programme: holding conversations with other writers, giving readings, performing with musicians and writing a script for the play Lulu Unchained, presented at the institute in 1985. The current show celebrates her life, legacy and relationship to this cultural institution.

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