Stephen Vitiello: The Sound of Silence

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Stephen Vitiello performing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. (Photo: Anna Lee Campbell)
Stephen Vitiello performing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. (Photo: Anna Lee Campbell)

Mention the term “sound art” and Stephen Vitiello’s name usually falls into the conversation: as a teacher, artist, curator, and archivist, Vitiello has been working with sound for nearly half-a-century. Now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Vitiello began as a punk rock musician in the 1970s, learned through collaborations with people like Nam June Paik and Tony Oursler, and eventually emerged in the late 1990s with his own sound work after a fortuitous artist residency at the World Trade Center. Since then, Vitiello’s work has been exhibited at MoMA, the Whitney Museum, MASS MoCA, the High Line, and the Sydney Biennial. Vitiello’s newest project, You Are the Sweet Spot (2015), made in collaboration with Bob Bielecki, is on view through November 1 in the group show “In the Garden of Sonic Delights” at Caramoor in Westchester County, New York.

Amanda Adams: Tell me about your most recent work at the Frieze Art Fair.

Stephen Vitiello: Recent is always relative because I’m always in the midst of three things. I contributed to this project called Daata Editions. The curator commissioned a number of people to create works that could be sold purely as visual works. There were video pieces, web pieces, and sound pieces. The art world is giving visual street cred to digital-based works but they don’t know how to put an economic or commodity value on it. Often the best pieces I do are site specific or there is no material – the building is the sound, the building holds the sound, or it’s just a two-channel piece on stereo headphones. It’s much harder to give a specific value to this thing, but there’s always a certificate of authenticity.

Stephen Vitiello, installation de
Stephen Vitiello, installation detail of Frogs in Feedback, 2014.

With the Daata project, they wanted things that could be streamed online so people at the art fair could sit with an iPad and listen on headphones. Part of me resisted that because I like the work to be a little bit more complex in terms of how I present it. But I also don’t want to deny that the market is a strange thing and I need to find where I fit in as a sound artist. Their request was six pieces, no more than three minutes each. The formula was an assignment, although the content wasn’t. I ended up doing individual pieces. Each one came from a book and each one referenced sound. I used my voice to speak parts of the text through a modular synthesizer and set the synthesizer to connect somehow to an essence of the text. Basically, my voice is used to process the sounds. In the end, all you hear are synthetic sounds, not actual words. Like with the text from Virginia Woolf, there are these two tones that really do feel like waves. There’s a kind of electricity that’s a third element. It’s all coming from my voices into the synth. It’s picking up this language from Virginia Woolf–a sound presence–and asking, how can I recreate this through synthetic tones? It’s not that you listen to it and think, oh, I know that passage, because you don’t actually hear the words. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job, I created something that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the source.

So there’s a digital file of a photograph, showing a little excerpt of the book, and then there’s an audio piece that comes from the reading. There’s Virginia Woolf, Samuel Delany, Don DeLillo–I tried Borges and it didn’t quite work. I chose things that felt very contemporary and things that were on my bookshelf. When I first emerged as an artist, after many years as a musician, and was offered gallery presentation to sell my own work, two different people offered me two pieces of advice. One was a gallery owner in Texas, who worked with Bruce Nauman and Sol LeWitt. She said, “Go out of your way not to make object-based work–don’t give in to the idea of market space, but just make work that is seemingly impossible to sell. Don’t consciously make anything that’s sellable, because if the work is good enough, people will come to it and figure out how to archive it, how to sell it.” On the other side, Tony Oursler said to me, “Practically speaking, you got to make work that is sellable. Figure out how to make objects that show how you make sound.”

In many ways, for the last 15 years I’ve been keeping those two voices in my head, sometimes going one way or the other, trying to see what happens if I make something marketable, and then sometimes being disappointed in myself for having a gallery show and having to make something hang on the wall. I often feel most proud of the pieces that are the hardest to document, the hardest to move, like A Bell for Every Minute (2010), which went to MoMA and then the High Line. It wasn’t nearly as good after it left the High Line.