Kathy Acker was an experimental, postmodern feminist writer, often associated with the 1970s & 80s punk culture in New York. Her influences included William S. Burroughs, and she occasionally employed his “cut-up” technique in her writing. Acker also utilized elements of philosophy, autobiography, pornography, and outright plagiarism in her work, creating controversial novels that included large doses of sexuality and violence, both praised and condemned by feminist critics.
Acker left New York for London in the 1980s, returning to New York towards the end of the decade. During this period, she began collecting and wearing high fashion, including examples from designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, considered among the most avant-garde designers of the time. Acker’s selections included simple, pretty dresses as well as more extreme experimental garments rarely seen on the street.
Acker died in 1997, after being diagnosed with breast cancer and having a double mastectomy. In her last years, she rejected the attitude of Western medicine and more intensively investigated Eastern philosophy and writings, an influence seen in her final work.
In 2006, the executor of Kathy Acker’s estate, Matias Viegener made her clothing collction available to Dodie Bellamy, who installed twenty-five pieces at the New Langton Arts Center in San Francisco under the title Kathy Forest. Hung midway from the ceiling, the clothes hovered in the room like ghosts, size medium, simultaneously evoking the owner’s presence and signaling her absence.
One observer described the installation as Acker’s dream shopping spree…a window display hanging in San Francisco that she might happen upon, with everything in her style and size. Indeed, for some visitors, the conversation was centered around shopping and fashion labels like Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garcons, and less about Acker’s own life and work. This perhaps indicates why such avant-garde fashion has such a small audience, even among those with money to burn, for the clothes can be overpowering for anyone without a larger-than-life personality and they require a certain amount of temerity to wear on the street. Certainly, Acker fitted those requirements, and the clothes suited her taste. One colleague saw the wardrobe as a device for Acker to garner more attention, who sometimes complained she ‘wasn’t famous enough’ for her work. Undeniably, these are the types of outfits that can guarantee being photographed, but the collection is an appropriate extension of Acker’s own provocative writing style.
Though Acker viewed fashion as a kind of “art for the poor people” who couldn’t afford a painting, she did not maintain her clothes in pristine condition, but wore them and lived in them vigorously. Viegener noted that food stains and other signs of wear and tear were found on many of the garments, making her aura among the collection even stronger.
Photographer Kaucyila Brooke was invited to utilize the collection as well, and she documented over a hundred of Acker’s pieces, animating the garments with invisible wire for her series of photographs. While working with the collection, Brooke imagined how these clothes would move and what they would look like if Acker was actually in them.
I should also mention Hans-Peter Feldmann’s photographic series, All the Clothes of a Woman, 1973-2002, though in Feldmann’s case he was not documenting the wardrobe of a specific person.