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ICA Kathy Acker film
I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy

This short film delves into Kathy Acker’s hedonistic world

Premiering on NOWNESS, director Amy Gwatkin brings together artists to paint a visual portrait of the countercultural icon’s legacy

Though it’s been over 20 years since Kathy Acker’s death, today her writing is as radical as ever. Renowned for her disjointed prose, sexually explicit themes, and disorienting construction of identity, the countercultural figure’s influence transcends the world of literature. 

Exploring this expansive legacy, a new film – premiering on NOWNESS – brings together some of the artists, writers, and musicians from the ICA’s I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker exhibition. Directed by Amy Gwatkin, the short invited contributors to respond to Acker’s work, painting a visual portrait of the experimental writer’s riotous life.

“It’s a personal and subjective response to Acker’s writing and the ICA show itself,” Gwatkin tells Dazed. “Using all these voices was key to the theme of shape shifting, or refusing to be yolked to a single identity, which is something that feels relevant to Acker. She doesn’t present a definitive version of herself, and I didn’t want to either.”

Acker’s work consistently grappled with the idea of identity, explored via her fascination “with the relationship between language and body”, and the role of words in self-curation. Hugely influenced by Beat novelist William S. Burroughs, Acker’s intrigue with meticulously constructing her own anarchic worlds was also demonstrated through her cut and paste style of working (the writer regularly plagiarised other authors and poets), and her provocative determination to deliberately confuse the reader.

Gwatkin’s film plays on this chaotic confusion. Jumping from text to text – including snippets from My Mother: Demonology (1993), Great Expectations (1982), and Pussy, King of The Pirates (1996) – the visual brings together quintessential Acker references, including sexual imagery and bodybuilding.

“Using all these voices was key to the theme of shape shifting, or refusing to be yolked to a single identity” – Amy Gwatkin

“I shared the texts from the show, and asked the artists to choose which ones they wanted to read”, Gwatkin explains. “I would have been happy if they’d all wanted to read the same thing, but they each had these very specific parts of the texts that appealed to them, and each was revealing of what they found interesting in her writing, or in her self.”

Flitting between playful dress-up scenes, hallucinogenic clips of sexually scientific iconography, and close ups of people’s crotches, the film is a dreamy insight into Acker’s mind, demonstrating the diverse ways in which her writing continues to be interpreted.

Gwatkin reveals it’s Acker’s “sensory overload” that draws her to the writer’s work. “I find her a very visual writer”, the director muses. “The shifts and juxtapositions in the writing, the repetition, the reframing of the same story using different writing/writers as avatars – these feel like visual things to me.”

“She also really interests me as a person,” Gwatkin concludes, “people seem to have quite strong opinions about her.” There has always been a cultural fascination with Acker herself, as well as her work. 

Having risen to notoriety as part of New York’s literary underground in the mid-70s, Acker achieved cultural acclaim in London in the 80s. Despite garnering attention for her breakthrough novel Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Acker complained about her celebrity status in England. “The media has made this huge image of Kathy Acker,” she once remarked, “I’m very well known here and I get tons of work. But to say they like what I do? No, I wouldn’t say that. They fetishise what I do.”

Celebrating Acker’s extraordinary oeuvre, Gwatkin’s film features contributions from Bhanu Kapil, Katy Jalili, Linda Stupart, Carl Gent, Noel Anderson, and Deniz Unal. Watch the film below.

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, supported by NOWNESS, is now open at London’s ICA until August 4. Look back at Dazed’s Kathy Acker Day here.