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[ Stephen Vitiello ]


Stephen Vitiello

Paul Laster interviews Stephen Vitiello, an artist and curator who works with sound as his primary medium.

AK: What is sound art and how does it relate to or differ from music and performance art?

SV: I was just watching a videotape of a lecture by a German curator who defined sound art as something that falls between music and visual art. I used to think that it was easy to define, but it seems to be a hotly contested issue when brought up with other artists in the field. For my own work, I make the distinction that the work I do as sound art is generally less concerned with time and more concerned with space. Sometimes I make work that has a visual component but not always. When I work on a CD I am very conscious of time as it connects to form. I am making a CD that is 62 minutes long, working on pieces that are "x" number of minutes and have a conscious connection to a linear form. With the work I do in galleries or museums, I try to work with a system that is more open. A visitor could come in for a few minutes or seconds or an hour and (hopefully) get something out of the experience.

AK: Who are the most seminal artists working in the medium?

SV: There are several histories that lead up to the work a number of artists and composers are now doing. From the more pure concepts of sound art there are many important figures coming out of the last 45 years — Max Neuhaus, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, David Tudor, Maryanne Amacher, Takehisa Kosugi. Europeans including Christina Kubisch, Rolf Julius, etc. When people write historic overviews they seem to always go back to Luigi Russolo's manifesto The Art of Noises, Marcel Duchamp's piece With Hidden Noise, and then from John Cage to Fluxus and on. There are conceptual and performative artists such as Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci who have incorporated sound into their work, sometimes putting it front and center and sometimes more in the background. There are some good reading lists around, for example on, with references to recent books, monographs, catalogs... UbuWeb is also an invaluable site for finding otherwise impossible-to-hear historic recordings as well as texts and scores for sound art, concrete poetry, and experimental music.

AK: How do you construct your work? Does it need a visual form to be collected as art?

SV: I don't follow any one model. I make pieces that are sound played from a multichannel system in an otherwise empty room, but I also make more sculptural and photographic pieces. Sound is always the central concern even if the work is "silent." In the last two years I've done a number of pieces that are architecturally based with speakers suspended from the ceiling. The sound source is a very low bass frequency that is below our threshold of hearing but works in such a way that it makes the surface of the speakers move, flutter, and vibrate. I've created interactive works where the light in the gallery space is being translated into sound frequencies by solar cells. I try not to go out of my way to make work that fits into a "market" conception, but I do hope that there is some point of access for a certain percentage of people who might come in contact with the work. I'm working with the Project in New York as well as Galerie Almine Rech in Paris (and then Museum 52 in London next fall), and there is always some hope that pieces will sell, but when they do it is always a surprise. The Project has sold some of the more object-based pieces. From my show at Almine Rech last winter, the gallery sold the complete edition of a sound-only work but not the more "gallery-friendly" sculptures or photographs.

AK: Who are some of your collaborators, and what have you created with them that you might not have made on your own?

SV: In the '90s I worked mostly as a composer for visual artists, including Tony Oursler, Nam June Paik, Jem Cohen, and Eder Santos. By the end of the '90s in particular, with my residency at the World Trade Center as part of the World Views studio program, I started to emerge as my own artist rather than part of the support team. In the '90s I worked on a series of collaborative pieces with Oursler and Constance De Jong through the Dia Center for the Arts. We created Dia's first web commission and then moved on to a series of performances and a CD-ROM. We always agreed that we would treat sound, video, and language as equal components. In the last six years or so I have continued to collaborate, if less often, with artists, including performing with Joan Jonas and, at the moment, working with Julie Mehretu on a collaborative piece for the 2006 Biennale of Sydney but the focus on collaboration has taken somewhat of a backseat to my own solo body of work. There are also a few electronic musicians/sound artists — including Scanner, Pauline Oliveros, and Andrew Deutsch — with whom I work from time to time. I'm very excited about the piece with Julie. We are really working toward creating an environment in which a large wall drawing, a sound piece, and a sound sculpture will co-exist in some sort of dialogue — rather than one being in support of another.

AK: What are some of your favorite sound exhibitions from the past decade, and what made them special?

SV: There are all sorts of good ones that I missed. I wanted to include Eliane Radigue's show at Diapason Gallery in New York, for example, as one of my favorites from 2004 on a Top Ten I did for Artforum, but I listed it as number 11, noting that I hadn't actually heard it, so it got cut. I've heard a number of pieces that I really loved at Diapason as well as at the short-lived Engine 27 in NYC. Steve Roden made a piece for Engine 27 that I heard there, but I'm not sure if it was ever presented publicly. In spring of 2004 there were a number of shows in New York that fell under the umbrella banner of New Sound New York. Regine Basha curated an excellent show as part of that series called Treble at the Sculpture Center. Ron Kuivila also put together a beautiful group show at Art in General. Charlie Morrow presented his Sound Cube at the Kitchen. All of these shows were forums for a number of interesting artists, including Michael J. Schumacher, Olivia Block, Scanner, Roden, and Pamela Z. I know there have been important shows internationally that I missed, in Australia, in Japan, in Germany. David Toop is an excellent writer, composer, and curator who has put together some outstanding shows in the UK. (Toop's book Haunted Weather is also a great resource for anyone interested in sound art, electronic music, Japanese movie soundtracks...) These are all shows in which sound was somehow a central thematic connection. I'm just as interested in shows that have integrated sound as one of a number of mediums, rather than making it sound-specific. The 2002 Whitney Biennial is a good example of that, I think. Going back to Diapason. That is a space in New York City that is below the radar of most. It's a nonprofit gallery only open on Saturday nights. It is a great environment for listening to sound art. There is a large room with six speakers and then a small room with six or eight or 10 speakers, depending on the project. It is somewhat modeled on La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House but is obviously much more contemporary and with diverse programming. P.S.1's Volume: Bed of Sound was also a good one.

AK: Where are the best places to experience the medium today?

SV: There aren't that many places that are dedicated to sound work only. Diapason is still there, thankfully. I just heard that Issue Project Room in NY has installed what sounds like a very interesting multichannel sound system with unique speakers. In Berlin there is Singhur-Hörgalerie in the Parochial Church. I know there are spaces in San Francisco and in other corners of the globe, but there really are not many... I know there are more, but I'm just not thinking of them at the moment.

AK: How does sound art play in cyberspace?

SV: In the case of, for example, the web serves as an excellent space to find things you might not hear otherwise. On the other hand, people play things back from the web on speakers that are below the standards that most of the artists would have hoped for. Thinking about the portion of sound art that is focused on sound in space (rather than time) and multichannel sound, the web can offer very little. MP3s are compressed and below the quality of CDs, and many artists and composers are hoping to look to 24-bit sound, which is far better than CD quality. That said, the web still provides invaluable access to a form that might be thought of by many as inaccessible. I put MP3s on my site of pieces that I think can stand up to the format of compression and loss of control over speaker setup, etc. For me, they are really there so people can get some idea of what I do. Hopefully, if they enjoy it, they'll hear the work somewhere later on at a higher quality.

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