In this episode, Cathy Byrd connects on Skype with sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Stephen shares recordings he made during residencies in New York, Australia, and on the island of Captiva, and talks about the challenges of archiving new media. Stephen’s 2010 project A Bell for Every Minute is currently installed in the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden as part of Soundings: A Contemporary Score. Curated by Barbara London, this is MoMA’s first exhibition dedicated exclusively to sound art.
Sound Editor: Eric Schwartz | Photos and Episode Sound: Courtesy Stephen Vitiello
CATHY BYRD: Stephen Vitiello is an electronic musician and sound artist who transforms atmospheric noises into soundscapes. One of his installations is now featured in Soundings: A Contemporary Score at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Curated by Barbara London, this is MoMA’s first-ever exhibition dedicated exclusively to sound art. A lot of museums have been exhibiting sound art. Why is it suddenly in the news?
STEPHEN VITIELLO: Because it’s at the Museum of Modern Art, that puts a much larger stamp of validation on it. It also puts it under a microscope. Even the little bits of press that I was looking at today are already questioning: is it really all that good? Or, is it going to succeed or fail? But this is what happens with major surveys, like the Whitney Biennial. People are usually ready to knock it down before they even take it all in. Ideally, sound art will infiltrate the art world. Now, a large group exhibition might have one or two video works. My wish is that in the future there will also be a sound work. Sound art often gets bunched into these shows with the common technology of sound, but is not necessarily thematically connected.
CB: Now installed in MoMA’s sculpture garden, A Bell for Every Minute was originally commissioned in 2010 for a year-long installation on the Highline in New York. I loved how you described it as a cultural soundscape when it all comes together. Tell me about that.
SV: I recorded bells all over, every bell I could think of, and then I chose 59 of them. At the beginning of the hour, all the bells ring together: the cat’s collar bell, the Hare Krishna temple bell, the New York Stock Exchange, etc. They are all ringing together on one even plane. After that, one bell rings each minute individually. There’s also an aluminum 5-foot engraved sound map that traces what you hear on each minute, and allows you to follow where I recorded it.
CB: So your installation at MoMA is outdoors?
SV: It is, yes. The rest of the exhibition is on the third floor, but this is not a piece that belongs in a black box. I make other pieces where I want an immersive space, but this piece should be in harmony and in concert with the city. So I asked for the sculpture garden, where there’s five speakers and the sound map.
CB: How does that differ from the installation on the Highline?
SV: There, you have people who know what they’re going for, but you also have people who stumble upon it. They are surprised about reorienting their senses so that they’re listening rather than looking. Sometimes they find they can listen for a much longer time than they might have looked if they were standing in front of a single work of art.
CB: I can see that would be the case for the Highline installation.
SV: It’s interesting, you know. Sometimes I get feedback, like somebody who I didn’t know emailed me saying that they jogged there every day. It took them a few days to even notice the bells, but then they stopped and read the sign. After that, they started to look forward to running by there each day, wondering what they were going to hear tomorrow. Somebody sent me a novel, a Wall Street thriller, in which the character goes up onto the Highline to listen to his favorite work of art, A Bell for Every Minute. One of the beauties of going into larger public spaces is that you open yourself up to a wider audience and sometimes that audience that can catch you by surprise. I got a larger audience for that piece than probably anything I’ve ever done. The appreciation surprised me, because it came from children, joggers, art people, grandmas, and it seemed that the bells could speak to them. It didn’t have to be my language. It didn’t have to be an art language or an academic or a conceptual thing. They could interpret it in any number of meaningful ways, which is great.
CB: In 1999, Stephen recorded winds after Hurricane Floyd. That year, he was artist in residence on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center.
SV: That piece ended up representing that whole residency. It’s called World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd. It was the second-strongest hurricane to hit New York in the decade.We couldn’t go in the building during the hurricane, but the morning after it peaked, I went in. The building was still so wet, and the winds were still strong enough that you felt, and heard, the physicality of movement. I was told that this is called “beeping” in architecture. In the recording of mine, it’s often said that the building sounds like an old ship, creaking and cracking in the wind.
CB: That’s a haunting thought, really.
SV: It is. It wasn’t until I could hear up there that I became a little afraid of heights. Everything felt very artificial until I got those microphones working. And then once you got the microphones working, you realized you were on the 91st floor and you were way up—in some cases above the clouds, above planes and helicopters, above people. There was a real vulnerability and fragility of being there. I’m not saying that in any way had anything to do with predicting the terrible things that came, but the physicality of being becomes much more sensitized when you can hear.
CB: You became aware that the building was actually a fragile being, in a way.
SV: Exactly, exactly. And I was often there at night. I don’t know how many thousands of people occupied the World Trade Center, so it’s not to say that I was alone, but in many ways I did feel alone because I was isolated in my studio. Most of the building’s lights were off. And that fragility was amplified by that feeling of being in this weird little black box studio looking out over the city.
CB: During his 2013 residency at Robert Rauschenberg’s island home on Captiva in Florida, Stephen made a profound discovery: Rauschenberg had recorded sound, too, with cassette recorders and an underwater microphone.
SV: I used my own audio recorders and microphones, but I loved being able to open up a closet and go, wow—there are Robert Rauschenberg’s cassette recorders. I’d open up another drawer and there were these underwater speakers that were not fully functional. I dreamed of using my underwater microphone and his underwater speaker.
CB: And now you maybe have an awareness of what your own artifacts are going to be.
SV: I think that’s true. One of my many backgrounds was working as an archivist. While I was in New York, I worked for Electronic Arts Intermix, which is a video art distributor. I worked for The Kitchen as an archivist. I worked for Nam June Paik over 12 years in all sorts of capacities. I’m not ever going to claim to put myself on the plane of some of the artists I’ve worked with, but I do try to value the work that I do and keep track of it, keep good records, keep formats migrated. Going back to that World Trade Center piece, the Whitney bought it in 2002 and I came in and I handed them a DVD disc. And they said oh, we don’t accept digital media for acquisitions. But I said it is a digital work. And we had to then negotiate what they were going to get. The format I was giving them, DVD audio, is actually now an obsolete format, so I also gave them data backup of the files that make up the six channels of that work. It made me think, for future acquisitions, as other people buy pieces, who is going to take care of them? What are they allowed to do? What kind of backup files or equipment should go with the piece?
CB: You said that you are emotionally attached to sound. What do you mean by that?
SV: In film, for example, a lot of the emotional content is often created with sound. You can take a scene and make it happy, scary, sexy, sad, by changing the soundtrack. I have found that the connection I have to the world comes through listening. The physical impact of sound is very emotional to me. I have found that in installations I can really play with the psyche of the visitor, or at least play to it, by the manipulation of sound in space. If it’s done right, you will end up feeling first and thinking second. I think that with visual art you often look, you intellectually process, and then you might be moved or not. With sound, I think it’s the opposite. That feeling hits you physically, the vibrations of sound into your body, and then maybe you process what you are thinking. But I don’t have a super visual eye the way so many of my friends do. I don’t always notice colors and design problems. I listen first and look second. If you close your eyes, sound suddenly seems much louder and richer and more finely detailed. Probably my favorite photograph that represents my work is from Australia, a piece called The Sound of Red Earth, 2010. I told a group of schoolchildren, whose brilliance and sensitivity I’d underestimated, a little about my installation and then sent them into it. One thing I said was if you could close your eyes when you get in there, tell me if you hear the piece differently. They had all sorts of incredible questions after that. Someone later gave me a photograph of one of the girls in the class with her eyes closed, listening to the piece. It seemed like she was listening with her entire being. That picture makes me feel like I’ve done something for one moment that mattered.