Listening in Absence with Stephen Vitiello

21 years after the fall of the Twin Towers

If you spent a lot of time in New York City, especially Manhattan, prior to September 11, 2001, the loss of the Twin Towers was literally disorienting, in a very basic way — beyond matters of global destabilization, war, the loss of human life, and impacts on society, it was disorienting at a simple, practical level. Streets are just far enough apart in Manhattan that you can’t quite make out the one above or below you from a given corner. When they were still standing, the Twin Towers meant that when you emerged from the subway, you often had a very clear sense of which way was south. In the hustle and bustle of that very busy city, knowing where you are offers a primal comfort.

Stephen Vitiello’s recordings of the creak and motion of Tower One were made in 1999 during an artist residency there. They contained very simple sounds that offered a primal discomfort, one that spoke to innate anxiety about vertiginousness and the fragility of human life.

His audio documented a different sort of critical moment from 9/11, recorded as it was amid the impact of Hurricane Floyd. Two years later, the sounds would take on a new meaning, as they provided an unforeseen, unintended homage to a suddenly imaginary quadrant of air — what was once a room 91 floors up from Wall Street was now just empty space. In the years since, Vitiello’s recording is often more associated with 9/11 than with Floyd.

I spoke with Vitiello in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the towers, and when the occasion occurs each year, I think to mention it here. The article is titled “In the Echo of No Towers,” a nod to Art Spiegelman’s comics.

Following the events of 9/11, Vitiello initially said he had no intention of ever playing the audio again. In our conversation, he explained how he was encouraged during a subsequent event at the Kitchen to reconsider: “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.”

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