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In the Echo of No Towers

The artist Stephen Vitiello talks about sense memory, 9/11, and his landmark World Trade Center recordings

By Marc Weidenbaum

Silent Witness: Stephen Vitiello’s recording equipment during his 1999 residency on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One in Lower Manhattan

It’s quite possible that the most moving memorial to the World Trade Center was created two years prior to the events of September 11, 2001.

This would be “World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd,” a highly detailed audio document made by the artist Stephen Vitiello of the creak and motion of one of the Twin Towers in the winds of a rough storm. It was created in 1999 during a six-month residency that Vitiello was in the midst of, a residency that provided him with studio space on the 91st floor of Tower One.

There have been numerous works of art created since the events of 9/11, works that have drawn on the narrative, emotions, conflicts, and deaths — from Deborah Garrison’s reportage-cum-poem “I Saw You Walking”; to Ground Zero’s startling appearance as a backdrop to a largely unrelated drama in Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour; to Art Spiegelman’s fierce In the Shadow of No Towers; to Don DeLillo’s stoic novella Falling Man, which served as a kind of sequel to the image on the cover of his earlier book, Underworld; to Steve Reich’s recent album, WTC 9/11, the cover art to which was altered by its record label in apparent response to criticism; to the use of the Twin Towers as a hopeful totem of alternate universes in the TV series Fringe.

What distinguishes Vitiello’s work, even putting aside the facts of its eerie prescience, is that it treats the inhuman structure of the World Trade Center as its subject. To hear the building twist in the wind is to hear it revealed as fragile, unguarded, susceptible — if not sentient, then still certainly sensitive.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approached, I contacted Vitiello to see if he’d be interested in discussing how the work came to be, and how perception of it has changed in the dozen years since it was created. He agreed, and that conversation, conducted as a series of emails, appears below. He talks about the work, its creation and initial inception, and the changing perception more broadly of sound art. Also discussed are some recent pieces, like a new large-scale effort at MASS MoCA and his contribution to a project here at Disquiet.com, Lowlands: A Sigh Collective, late last year.

Stephen Vitiello is an Associate Professor of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). “World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd” is in the collection at the Whitney Museum (whitney.org). It is part of the exhibit September 11, which opens on Septmember 11, 2011, at MoMA PS1 (ps1.org) in Long Island City. The work can be heard in part in an excellent recent interview with Vitiello at studio360.org.


Marc Weidenbaum: What is the longest in the decade since 9/11 you have gone without listening to the piece?

Stephen Vitiello: There’s a handful of recordings that I don’t listen to more than once in a year or two. The one that’s called “Winds After Hurricane Floyd” I end up hearing every couple of months. I give a lot of artist talks and I generally play an excerpt from that one as it helps introduce people to my work. It is also something that was really important in the transition of my focus going from being a musician to identifying as a sound artist. I had a studio, along with a number of other artists, in the World Trade Center in 1999 as part of the WorldViews Residency program. When the residency began, I imagined I’d have the sounds from outside streaming in at all times, and sometimes would use those in music I would be working on. As the residency progressed, I realized that the sounds from outside and the sounds of the building were stronger than anything I could add. I became much more aware of the site-specific nature of being there and of listening to an ever-changing sound world.

Weidenbaum: The piece’s timing, its role, as a personal milestone for you, helping to mark the move from musician to sound artist — is that timing, is your transition, in any way tied up with the impact of 9/11? Or was the transition already complete by the time the events occurred?

Vitiello: The transition was definitely in the past by the time the events of 9/11 happened. In fall of 1999 there was an open studio exhibition which allowed me to present my work and meet with curators and gallerists for the first time. There were a couple of things the year before — a concert series in Cologne where I performed alongside Pauline Oliveros, Scanner, and Frances-Marie Uitti in a church with a massive multi-channel sound system, designed by Andres Bosshard, and a small installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon — but the residency in 1999 really helped solidify things. On September 10, 2001, I gave a talk at Brooklyn College about my work as a sound artist and focused primarily on the World Trade Center recordings. Fittingly, I was visiting a class taught by the artist Jennifer McCoy. When I was in the World Trade Center, I shared a suite with Kevin and Jennifer McCoy.

Weidenbaum: Art objects stand still while time progresses. You’d yourself made this transition from, as you’ve described it, musician to sound artist by the time 9/11 occurred. Last December you contributed to a sound-art compilation project I curated, Lowlands: A Sigh Collective, that implicitly asked whether or not the world at large had become more accustomed to, more accepting of, sound art. Where do you think we’re at, culturally, in that regard? What have you seen change from your own experience in the past 10 years in terms of how museums and galleries and other institutions, for example, deal with sound art.

Vitiello: I don’t know if I have a confident answer. There was a period where so many institutions had the same idea, organizing sound-based group shows. I rarely felt there was enough commitment to presenting works properly — in terms of controlled spaces, adequate and flexible access to equipment. But still, it was great to have that potential for visibility — sonically speaking, too! Ideally, that would lead to an awareness of artists who use sound and they/we would start to get programmed into more shows as artists, with a connection to theme rather than technology, for example. I haven’t seen that happen often enough. I have also had the privilege of gallery representation for many years but have found very very few collectors or collecting institutions who can get their heads around, or make the commitment to invest in, sound works as Art. Video was able to break through the market and areas of critical thinking and writing but I don’t think sound has made it there yet.

Weidenbaum: Listening to field recordings is always a process of discovery, especially on the second and third listen, but so too on the tenth and hundredth. What have you learned the more you have listened to your World Trade Center recordings?

Vitiello: I hear different details and get more sense of depth of what I’m hearing — wind, creaking and cracking, traffic, thunder. Listening to the recordings can also place me back visually at times.

Weidenbaum: This idea of sounds taking you back visually is particularly interesting — are these visual memories of the residency space, of the view from the window? To switch senses, do you hear ghost memories of the recording when you are near Ground Zero?

Vitiello: I have general memories of watching planes and helicopters go by. The strangest of them was an afternoon when this massive bird was floating outside my window. I think it was the only time I ever saw a bird but there was this one time when it must have been coasting on an air current, or pocket, that was just outside my window. In terms of Ground Zero, I can’t say that I hear anything of the past. I just experience it as this massive construction site with an unusual presence of tourists on the perimeters watching the way little kids do — with their noses glued to a fence or observation window.

Weidenbaum: Your work from the World Trade Center residency has become this unintentional memorial, like the way the cover to Don DeLillo’s Underworld has subsequently informed its reading. Is that timeline something you feel the need to exert effort to firm up, to remind people of — or did you at some point give the piece over to its received public utility as a memorial?

Vitiello: I don’t think I’ve ever felt a claim in that way. I’m happy the piece is acknowledged and I feel a deep connection to it, but I also give it over in any way people want to receive it. It’s really a footnote to your question but Don Delillo has long been my favorite author. The same way Bruce Nauman is my favorite artist. There’s a cold precision to the work of both of them that I don’t see in what I do but somehow it has always made me want to be better at what I do, and those are the figures whose interviews I’ll seek out when I’m out of ideas.

Weidenbaum: How is it that the piece came to be part of the new PS1 exhibit, which is titled September 11?

Vitiello: The exhibition’s curator contact me to include the piece. He said that it would probably be the only work in the show made in the World Trade Center. To pull a quote from the press release: “the exhibition provides a subjective framework within which to reflect upon the attacks in New York and their aftermath, and explores the ways that they have altered how we see and experience the world in their wake.” I liked the idea that it would be a poetic reading of September 11 and memories of the World Trade Center without being an explicitly graphic exhibition about the destruction of the towers. My recordings were made two years before 9/11. They’re only September 11 specific because anything related to the World Trade Center took on a very different context after the buildings were destroyed. Outside of the residency, my piece was first presented at Diapason Gallery in October 2001 and then later, as a spatialized 5.1 mix at the Whitney Biennial in 2002.

Weidenbaum: Have you ever been approached for use of the “Hurricane Floyd” piece in a manner that you turned down — for example, as sound design in a Hollywood film or a political advertisement?

Vitiello: I’ve had a number of people ask to integrate it into projects both commercial and artistic, but I’ve almost always said no. I had one person get angry at me and say I was just lucky to have the recording and it easily could have been her. I think she was a playwright? It’s strange and usually rare when someone wants to deny you something like that.

Weidenbaum: Man, that’s quite an uncomfortable exchange. One might think that photography, after all these years, had laid the groundwork for “audio field-recording document as art” but there are, certainly, holdouts to accepting such a thing. When you speak or lecture about your work, do you address this changing mindset?

Vitiello: I talk about it all the time, in class and in lectures. I’m teaching a graduate sound class at the moment and have a number of photographers in it. It’s still early in the semester so they’re not saying much but I do see heads bobbing in agreement or understanding when I raise some of these issues.

Weidenbaum: To stay with the photography comparison for a moment: Some photographers of the natural world seem to serve as ambassadors for the natural world, while others seem more like artists, essentially urban creatures, who exist in a world of art galleries. If you accept such a continuum, where along it do you see yourself?

Vitiello: I definitely grew up as an urban creature but then became more aware of the natural world and maybe becoming — with certain projects — an ambassador. The recordings I did in the World Trade Center resulted in my being invited to be in a show at the Cartier Foundation curated by Paul Virilio in 2002. My being in that show gave them the idea to put me in the next show, which was artists engaging with a Yanomami group in the Brazilian Amazon. Suddenly I was entering a very different world of field recording and gathering and archiving. Through that thread, some people have said my artist talks sound more like a connection to anthropology than art (theory). The eldest shaman in the Yanomami village did tell me that now that I had seen his world and captured these sounds I had a responsibility to tell the rest of the world about the beauty of it — and an implication that his culture should be allowed to keep their land and be left alone.

Weidenbaum: One thing that the everyday listener can take away from the Twin Towers work, and from that uncomfortable exchange you’ve mentioned, is the idea that the sounds we hear at one moment can take on a very different meaning — can have “value” — at a later moment. In the case of the Twin Towers work, there is the gap from 1999 to late 2001, and then again to a decade later. A siren can be a frightening thing out of the blue, unless the listener is eagerly awaiting an ambulance to rush a loved one to a hospital. A radio playing even a favorite love song can be very annoying if heard at 2:30am from a neighboring apartment. This idea goes as much for your images — like the ones that combine music paper with images of the natural environment — as for your recordings. Which in a very roundabout way leads to the question: Is there a pedagogical aspect to your art along these lines? Are you asking people to learn to frame the world as art themselves?

Vitiello: If I am asking people to frame the world that way, it is only through my own reading and learning from John Cage.

Weidenbaum: After 9/11, as had been the case during and after the Gulf Wars, there was inevitable talk about when it was “appropriate” for “art” — and, by extension, “entertainment” — to draw on them as subject matter. Have you found yourself at any point on the receiving end of negative feedback?

Vitiello: I hope not. If so, I’ve already forgotten or buried that. After 9/11, a number of artists who had been in residence spoke at the Kitchen about our experience. I said that I didn’t plan to play the recordings again. The feedback I got from the audience was that I had to keep them accessible but just to be careful about how they were contextualized. I took that to heart.

Weidenbaum: About Hurricane Floyd: Was that storm on your mind at all as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approached and Hurricane Irene was looming? September 11, 2001, is remembered as an especially bright and clear day, but your piece, which dates from two years prior, was recorded in the flux of a particularly bad storm. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 seems to have compacted, in the imagination, the two years between when you had your residency and when the World Trade Center was brought down.

Vitiello: I have thought about the connection to Irene and the present timing. I live in Richmond, Virginia, and we were hit pretty hard. Many people lost power for a week. There’s a gigantic tree that was pulled from the ground and smashed through a neighbor’s roof. It’s been there for well over a week now like a sad silent memory of a really noisy frightening event for the people who lived there.

Weidenbaum: You have a new large-scale work as MASS MoCA (massmoca.org) that you’ve said will be up for half a decade, if not longer. Have you ever had anything sit in place for that long? Does the experience of watching the understanding of your Twin Towers work change over the past dozen years prepare you in any way for how you might, five years down the road, look back at the MASS MoCA piece?

Vitiello: I’ve never had anything up for years, but my piece that was installed on the High Line was up for a year (thehighline.org). This is the fourth project that I’ve done on such a large scale. I feel really lucky to get to work in such a way — with larger, non-tradition exhibition spaces. With the exception of this one at MASS MoCA, they’ve also been in parks or other public spaces, so it opened up my audiences. Working this way forces an engagement with architecture, and often working with an architect to develop plans and engage the space not just formally but structurally. I think that interest in sound and architecture was definitely nurtured through the residency at the World Trade Center.

Weidenbaum: You worked with Paul Park, a science fiction and fantasy author, on the MASS MoCA piece. Has working with a storyteller in any way influenced your own thinking about time-based art, such as sound — about the narrative component of listening, whether that narrative is initiated by the artist or introduced to the work by the listener?

Vitiello: When I approached Paul, I was thinking about how to move away from field recording as the dominant part of my practice. I was thinking about how much I love to read literature and am drawn to characters that go through some sort of transformation. Maybe that connects, too, to taking a field recording, introducing it, and then changing it through the timeline of a piece. Anyway, I asked Paul to write the story and to address the building as an instrument or a holder of some sort of sound history. I then recorded the story and laid sound around the events that were described. From there, I took out some of the spoken language, leaving the sound itself to convey the narrative. As I describe it, it sounds more like an assignment than I think the piece becomes. I guess another way to put it is that I used the text as a score to describe events in time and then mixed those sounds in the space to create the spatial component of installation and engagement with the space itself.


More on Vitiello at his website, stephenvitiello.com, and at his regularly updated soundcloud.com/stephenvitiello page, where he posts audio recordings.

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