Stephen Vitiello's Installation from his 1999 World Trade Center Residency
Photo by Johnna MacArthur
In 1999 I was awarded a studio for six months on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center's Tower One. The culmination of the residency was to exhibit work produced during the residency, ideally something site-specific. The space I was assigned was equally beautiful, ugly, awe-inspiring and sort of sad. It had been the office of a Japanese bank executive. It seemed like the company had left in a hurry. Phones had been pulled out of the walls. A mug and a pair of slippers were lying in the corner of the room. Most striking, of course was the view. My immediate reaction was that incredible feeling of looking out at all that was below me and in front of me, but also how it felt flat and unreal. It was only when I recognized the silence, shut-in by the windows that could not be opened that I found a clue of how I should proceed. The challenge was to bring the sound from outside in through very thick, sealed windows. I came onto two methods to bring sound into the space. The first was to affix inexpensive contact microphones to the windows, accentuating certain frequencies and taking out others until I started to hear life outside. The first sound I heard was bells ringing from somewhere in the city. I never heard them again but it was beautiful. The sounds heard and gathered each day varied, depending on wind conditions and work that might be going on or outside the building. At times there was a massed sound of everything at once that gave the effect of an orchestra tuning up into a large reverb chamber. At other moments, I could hear people on the streets below. The planes and helicopters buzzed or stormed by. The day after Hurricane Floyd the room was creaking like an old wooden ship. The second set of recordings was done with a technician and friend, Bob Bielecki. I wanted to find a way to create sound or respond with sound to the lights that we saw after dusk, when the buildings faded away leaving trails of white and colored lights across the sky. Bob wired a small photocell to one of my guitar cables. By pointing the photocell into the eye of a telescope, we were able to locate and transform light frequencies into sounds. Police cars and the Colgate Clock were heard as droning tones and rhythmic static. Most of the time, I would listen through headphones. A sort of stethoscope of the two mics fixed to the windows, sent through my board and into headphones. It is strange to imagine an intimate experience with this building that had felt so oppressive, but sitting, alone, late at night I often felt I was connecting to the building in a way that no one else was. For the exhibition, the sounds described were played back live and from pre-recorded CDs, on headphones and through speakers. The effect was that people who had formerly seen the view from my window as some sort of cinematic fabrication now were able to touch on an experience of the physicality of the space in and around the building and our own vulnerability.
Of course, artistic experiments of perception and an implied sense of vulnerability mean little in the face of what really happened two weeks ago. Like most of my friends, I still have trouble believing that the buildings are gone and only at rare moments and in dreams can I start to picture the people who have been lost. New York has always felt haunted. This disaster adds a whole new level to the need for real-estate by the increased population who will continue to haunt us.
[NOTE: On Tuesday, September 25, 2001, 6 P.M., please join The Kitchen and Thundergulch, the new media arts initiative for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), for "World Views: A Response to September 11, 2001." Speakers include former World Views resident artists Stephen Vitiello, Kevin McCoy, and Justine Cooper; critic/activist Robert Atkins; and others. Moderated by Kathy Brew, director of Thundergulch. Last week, LMCC lost its offices in World Trade Center Building 5, and Michael Richards, an artist participating in LMCC's World Views Residency Program located on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center Tower 1, lost his life. As LMCC regroups in its own version of rescue and recovery, the focus of the previously planned collaborative evening has shifted. Originally scheduled as a Digital H@ppy Hour focusing on artists affiliated with the Montréal-based Société des Arts et Technologiques (SAT), the evening now also includes a discussion on how the arts community can come together to reflect and respond to civic and global crisis. The event is free to the public, but there is limited seating. A reservation required: 212-255-5793 x11.]