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His father was an Italian immigrant who took him to museums and opera houses and gave him his first arts education. He received a B.A. in literature from the College of the Holy Cross in 1962 and an M.F.A. in literature and poetry from the University of Iowa.
Acconci began his career as a poet, editing 0 TO 9 with Bernadette Mayer in the late 1960s. In the late 1960s, Acconci transformed himself into a performance and video artist using his own body as a subject for photography, film, video, and performance. His performance and video work was marked heavily by confrontation and Situationism. In the mid 1970s, Acconci expanded his metier into the world of audio/visual installations.
One noted installation/performance piece from this period is Seedbed (January 1972). In Seedbed Acconci lay hidden underneath a gallery-wide ramp installed at the Sonnabend Gallery, masturbating while vocalizing into a loudspeaker his fantasies about the visitors walking above him on the ramp. One motivation behind Seedbed was to involve the public in the work's production by creating a situation of reciprocal interchange between artist and viewer.
During the 1980s he invited viewers to create artwork by activating machinery that erected shelters and signs. He also turned to the creation of furniture and to prototypes of houses and gardens in the late 1980s.
More recently, the artist has worked with the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, and has focused on architecture and landscape design that integrates public and private space. One example of this is "Walkways Through the Wall," which flow through structural boundaries of the Midwest Airlines Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and provide seating at both ends.
He has taught at many institutions, including the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax; California Institute of the Arts, Valencia; Cooper Union; School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Yale University; and the Parsons School of Design.