Five Questions (+2) with Stephen Vitiello: Sound Advice
July 31, 2014
In honor of the Nam June Paik birthday celebration, electronic musician and sound artist Stephen Vitiello will speak in American Art's Lincoln Gallery (3rd floor, East Wing) on August 1 at 5:30 p.m. Eye Level had a chance to check in with him and ask him about art, sound, and his interactions with Nam June Paik.
Eye Level: We're delighted that you'll be speaking at the museum for the Nam June Paik birthday celebration on August 1. What role has Paik played in your own life and art?
Stephen Vitiello: Paik was an inspiration and guide to me in many ways, some of which he may have realized and some of which I'm sure he didn't. Paik taught me through example more than any direct lesson. He was inclusive to his collaborators, his mentors and to a younger circle of artists he worked with on a daily basis. I think it was Pauline Oliveros who suggested that my relationship to Paik was a kind of apprenticeship. Paik had a staff of assistants and then he had a second circle of people he would call on for various tasks, support or information. I see myself has having been in that secondary group. I still find it (satisfyingly) amusing that he left my name off of projects that I worked on and then credited me for projects I really didn't work on.
EL: How did you and Paik meet, and how did your impressions of him change after that?
SV: I started working at Electronic Arts Intermix (the leading distributor of artists' videos) in 1988. It was only a year later or so when Paik realized that I was a musician that he decided he wanted me to assist him in an organizing a concert that he would do with the great hardcore band the Bad Brains, along with projections of Joseph Beuys. After that, I would get phone calls at all times of day or night with assignments (such as bring 3 big Buddha statues to Coney Island and videotape them in the water or videotape a month of Fluxus performances). It was clear that Paik was like no one else I had met. He was charismatic, brilliant and sometimes confusing. He spoke in a language that I could only understand once he had decided to bring me into his world but it was still like his videos—layered with meaning and bits of abstraction.
EL: Can you tell us a bit about what you'll be speaking about at the museum?
SV: When I spoke about Paik as part of a series of presentations at the Smithsonian Art Museum last April, Steina Vasulka (a contemporary of Paik's and one of the great ones in the history of video art) commented that she enjoyed how I brought Paik's "voice" into the room through my stories. I'm thinking about some audio recordings that I can bring to the museum of Paik's actual voice, including a very long answering machine message from Paik that he left for me at one point that felt a bit like a mantra in its determined repetition.
EL: What exactly does it mean to "listen with intent?"
SV: It just means to consciously listen and to pay attention to what you are hearing and how it is effecting your experience of the world around you. In general, we are always hearing things happening around us but it's not until you tell yourself to really listen that you hear sounds in richer detail, focus on the layers of sound and perhaps train yourself to seek out what is beautiful in the everyday mix. In saying that, I'm certainly referencing all that I've learned from reading John Cage, as well as having worked with Pauline Oliveros, listened to Alvin Lucier and many others who taught us to listen to the world more carefully. Paik started out as a musician but migrated to a more visual practice. I know that his training in experimental music had a great affect on how he came to work with images, and to process and edit images and to treat time in a very musically inspired fashion.
EL: When did you first try and capture sound?
SV: I started to play in bands around 1978 or 1979. I started creating tape collages and soundtracks for experimental videos around 1986 when I got my first 4-track cassette recorder. Perhaps the more significant process of field recording in my work really began with my recordings of the World Trade Center in 1999 and then when the Cartier Foundation in Paris sent me to the Amazon in 2003 to record sounds in a Yanomami village.
EL: What role can a soundscape play in museums today?
SV:There are a lot of ways to answer that. What occurs to me immediately is that the art world has encountered soundcapes, sound installations and experimental soundtracks for film and video for many years but museums still struggle with issues of presenting sound. Part of this has to do with the acoustics of rooms and buildings that were not necessarily designed for sound as much as they were for visuals. Part of this has to do with sound bleed and part has to do with what an audience expects and can accept. I just heard that a museum in upstate New York has been turning off the sound for a video that I scored because there have been audience complaints. In my mind, it's a fairly mild piece of electronic music. I think part of this has to do with conditioning: bringing audiences in to understand the role that sound plays in contemporary art. It also needs a long-term dedication. In my mind, great works of sound, be it a multi-channel sound installation by the great field recordist Chris Watson, a quadrophonic concert by the French composer Eliane Radigue, or a work coming out of conceptual art by Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman can make experience space in a way that is really comparable to sculpture. Sound fills space it connects to us emotionally and intellectually. I think everyone has experienced sound emotionally. Maybe they haven't paid attention to how much literature and teaching there is currently about the intellectual aspects of sound art and related fields (including sound design for film, television and theater).
EL: In today's world where people are so often listening to music or podcasts on their earbuds, have we lost the ability to hear the world around us? Or, is it more complicated than that?
SV: I don't think we've lost the ability to hear the world around us but culturally, we are definitely closing the sound space in (or perhaps out...) by controlling what we hear through low-fi, perhaps ear damaging, earbuds. I just returned from a residency at Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia. The audience was primarily biologists and biology students along with a small group of artists. I got so many comments in the days that followed my talk about how people, influenced by my talk, were paying more attention as they walked through the woods or thinking about their specialty in science and the relationship to sound. I think we just need more and more people who are working with sound to be given a chance to share their sounds, ideas and inspiration and hopefully, our audiences will grow and hopefully too that will spill out into further ways of not just listening to soundworks but how the world offers us an endless possibility for listening pleasure.