I suspect Stephen Vitiello was one of those kids who, when not dissecting bits and pieces of hi-fi equipment to find out how exactly they worked, spent hours listening to scratchy old sound effects records - trees falling in the forest, squeaky shoes shuffling in carpeted hallways, distant train whistles out on the acoustically illusory prairies. Just as 1970s artists such as Peter Campus and Michael Snow once used video as a sculptural medium and a destabilizing force within the gallery space, so in his first solo New York show Vitiello aimed at emphasizing the physical presence and materiality of sound.
Much of Vitiello's early career was spent collaborating with visual artists, making electronic scores for objects, films and environments. This may explain his direct reference to a masterwork of early video installations, Bruce Nauman's Spinning Spheres (1970), which featured four huge projections of rapidly rotating ball-bearings on each of four gallery walls. For his own quasi-homage Spinning Pheres (2002) Vitiello in effect removed the visual component of Nauman's ominously silent video, replacing it with an 'unauthorized' and equally ominous soundtrack. Emanating from a swiftly turning parabolic dish speaker mounted on the ceiling of the upstairs gallery, the shrill, amplified whine of twirling steel balls swept the room with sound like a lighthouse sweeping the sea with light. For the stationary listener momentarily trapped in the narrowly focused sonic beam like a deer in the headlights of a car, the sound became uncannily internalized, every bit as inescapable and spatially aggressive as Nauman's original installation.
Vitiello's relation to sound presents a formidable case of tough love. As with Christian Marclay, who once dragged a screeching electric guitar behind his pick-up truck on some dusty Texan byways, many of Vitiello's action-related recordings and objects are full of acoustic and physical violence trained against the stuff of sound. Like a Cagean juvenile delinquent torturing the hi-fi equipment he loves, Vitiello creeps up on audio equipment with a deconstructive zeal. In a trio of works executed outdoors in upstate New York he presents the damaged or destroyed remnants of stereo speakers which helplessly emit the recorded sounds of their own destruction. For Speaker Shooting (Arrow) (2002) Vitiello used a circular ten-inch speaker for target practice, and pierced its delicate convex membrane with an arrow shot from several paces away. Displayed on a wall with the projectile still embedded in its sonic bull's-eye, the object visibly shudders and reverberates every time it replays the sound of its impalement, forced to re-experience the moment with a precise Sisyphean circularity. Ax/Speakers/Mismatched Twins (2002) featured two butchered loudspeakers (one with a hatchet still stuck in its faux-pine veneer) continuously reiterating the methodical chopping noises that accompanied their inflicted injuries. The larger woofers and tweeters in Speaker Shooting (Canon) (after Pink Floyd) (2002) were less lucky, having been blasted apart by a cannon of the type more suited to signalling burials at sea.
Suspended in mid-air by transparent wires as if frozen in the first milliseconds of the speaker's explosive death, the charred and splintered components are rendered mute, while another speaker overhead blares the sounds of the artist's backyard fusillade.
Vitiello's high-end antics are not without precedent. One of Robert Morris' first works, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), integrated process and object by containing the recorded sawing and hammering noises of its three and a half hour construction, permanently conflating the walnut box's past and present. Marcel Duchamp's Ball of Twine (with Hidden Noise) (1916) also represented a model for this kind of conceptual game playing, as an assisted ready-made which implied that the viewer, in order to discover the actual source of its concealed rattlings, would be required to dismantle the object, and thus destroy it. Completing Vitiello's suite of sonic vandalism was a collection of melted gramophone records torched and twisted into a variety of tabletop sculptural shapes. The vinyl disks continued to store the trapped sounds of Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole and (not surprisingly) John Cage, on warped and waffled surfaces from which they could no longer escape, each doing time as a silent and stilled object.
But Vitiello's work is not all about wilful aural demolition. Elsewhere he has created intricate do-it-yourself sound collages for web projects, and in this year's Whitney Biennial he presented a work he made two years ago, as artist-in-residence on the 91st floor of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. One day he attached contact microphones to the inside of the tower's windows and discovered the otherwise imperceptible creaks and groans of the building as it swayed in the aftermath of a windstorm, sounding more like a wooden ship rolling on the high seas than a solid skyscraper looming above a city. Vitiello may like being loud and naughty on occasion, but he also knows when to step back and just listen.
First published in Issue 67