New York

Stephen Vitiello

The Project

In Stephen Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd, 1999–2002, developed during a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency, the eerie creaks emitted by the twin towers as they swayed in the breeze recall the tortured contractions of a sixteenth-century galleon as much as the constrained flexing of a modern skyscraper. And while the work’s emotional impact has undoubtedly been amplified by the buildings’ fate, it does not depend on that catastrophe for its continued resonance. For if recording sound might be considered a rather passive method of observational documentation, and the associated technology has been around for more than a century, Vitiello’s deceptively straightforward approach to the representation of a vast structure effectively implies the complexity of the whole by focusing on one minor characteristic.

The Smallest of Wings, 2005, Vitiello’s newest “environmental experience” and the centerpiece of his recent exhibition at the Project, does something similar but shifts the focus from the built to the natural world. In purely visual terms, all that distinguishes it from an empty room are six small white speakers, mounted at ceiling height, and a bench in the middle of the floor. What really inhabit and energize the space are six channels of sound, assembled from the low thrum of beating moth wings (recorded in upstate New York) and the higher-pitched buzzing of hummingbirds (tracked down a little farther from home, in the Brazilian Amazon). In this new work, Vitiello again transports us from the physical and psychological here and now while making sly reference to the inherent imperfections of his technical means (the insect and bird sounds often seeming to imitate the crackle of static).

Vitiello’s work is strongest when least visual: The Smallest of Wings functions precisely by encouraging us to conjure up imagery of our own rather than handing it to us on a platter. Whenever he introduces objects—even, as is usually the case, objects explicitly associated with the reproduction of sound—the results feel limited by comparison. So it is with Noisy World, 2005, in which a pair of speakers have been built into the pages of an old book about the problem of noise pollution, turning it into the kind of self-consciously self-defeating one-liner that might be charming from a younger artist but feels too cute for one of Vitiello’s experience. Having the speakers broadcast a song by the Christian indie-rock band Danielson Famile also seems an odd way to add heft. Speaker Shooting (cannon) and the related Speaker Shooting (cannon pieces) (both 2002–2005) suffer from the same problem: Despite a list of venerable ancestors including Nam June Paik, Gustav Metzger, the Who, and Einstürzende Neubauten, destroying an item of sound equipment and documenting the results, as Vitiello does here in the form of four large photographs and, uh, charred bits of speaker, now seems a less-than-vital activity.

Crazy Wall Thing, 2005, a “wall drawing” produced in collaboration with Tony Oursler, also makes use of partially disassembled speakers but avoids the dead ends of the previous examples. Here, the massed circular forms of twenty-eight small, uncased speakers—each painted with a crude smiley face—create an abstract connect-the-dots design. Those that are linked to a floor-bound CD player and amplifier emit unidentifiable squawks and twitters that flit unpredictably from spot to spot. While meditative, immersive works like World Trade Center Recordings and The Smallest of Wings succeed by exploiting the format’s capacity to effortlessly collapse grand scale or negate far-flung diversity, rougher, more abstract projects like Crazy Wall Thing generate an altogether different, manic energy.

Michael Wilson