Stephen Vitiello – World Trade Center Recordings, 1999

Stephen Vitiello recording in the World Trade Center, 1999. Photograph by Johnna MacArthur

Formed with the goal of improving the quality of life in New York’s Financial District, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council was formed in 1973. The idea was that there should to be more to the area than the trading and leverage upon which the southernmost tip of Manhattan rested; that a cultural exchange was as important to the area’s vitality as the stock exchange. 

Between 1997 and 2001, the LMCC invited a group of artists to take up residency in unused office space on the 91st floor of Tower One in New York’s World Trade Center, the construction of which was completed the year before the LMCC began its activities. The LMCC’s programme was, appropriately, called World Views, and over 150 artists would participate in the residency until the destruction of the towers curtailed the project. The artists would occupy a coveted piece of lucrative, unused office space on the 91st floor of Tower One for half a year in order to produce a specific piece of art, while also having relatively free reign of the 110-storey tower and its inner workings – basements, car parks, stairwells, abandoned Subway tunnels deep beneath street level – and a discrete space in which to create art, high above the streets of New York. 

The result was a series of site-specific creations, very often inspired by the imposing, divisive form of Minoru Yamasaki’s twin towers, structures described by Olu Oguibe (a World Views resident in 2000) as having an “unmistakable authority”. These pieces reflected the towers’ physical properties as often as their metaphysical, cultural and psychological impact. Distinctive New Formalist architectural features – the narrow windows; the clean, infinitely repeated mullions stretching to the heavens; the resolute, boxy post-modernist silhouette – feature heavily in the works of many artists; still more were inspired by the views across New York and the pinch-yourself unreality of having dedicated studio space in a section of expensive real estate usually reserved for the late capitalist elite. 

One artist whose residency in the World Views programme was directly linked to the physicality and environments of the World Trade Center was New York-born Sound artist Stephen Vitiello, who occupied areas of the 91st floor from the summer of 1999 through to the early winter, making use of office space abandoned following the collapse of a Japanese bank. His residency resulted in three published works – Bright And Dusty Things (New Albion CD, 2001), Winds After Hurricane Floyd (installation of a sound recording and photograph, 1999/2002) and Sounds Building In The Fading Light (Creamgardens 10-inch, 2001). 

For Bright And Dusty Things (featuring collaborations with Pauline Oliveros), Vitiello used an amplified photocell device placed in the lens of a telescope to translate frequencies from the light streaming through the 91st floor windows into audible sound. The process had first been used for a piece, ‘World Trade Center Recordings’, that would appear five years after his residency, on Nicolas Collins’ A Call For Silence

Winds After Hurricane Floyd and Sounds Building In The Fading Light both arose out of recordings of the building and the sounds that could be heard from immediately outside the widows of the 91st floor, using two cheap contact microphones to feed atmospheric sounds into a mixer and DAT recorder. The anarchic Viennese group Gelitin (then known as Gelatin), residents on the 91st for the period after Vitiello was there, wrote of the World Trade Center towers: “Very amazing building outside; very depressing building inside.” Vitiello’s works broke down the barrier between the exterior – the powerful building itself; the world visible through the windows; life beyond the building – and its derivative interior; he literally brought the outside inside. 

Like any field recording, there is an element of chance and unpredictability in the sounds that Vitiello captured. What emerges are documents of the towers and their symbiotic-symbolic place in New York’s ever-mutable skyline and the memories of the city’s residents and its visitors; of sounds heard from a unique position high above the ground; of sounds frozen in sonic aspic at the very end of the century, two years before the world changed forever. 

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Wires above the Hudson River and World Financial Center. Photograph by Stephen Vitiello.

“After the first bombing attempt on the World Trade Center in 1993, there was suddenly a lot of real estate available in the towers. The thinking behind World Views was, I guess, something that happens often with artists: they put artists where there’s vacant space until that vacant space becomes valuable, and sometimes it becomes valuable because the artists have made it cool. 

“It was a really important programme for a lot of people. People used it differently, but the idea was that you should at least partially be doing something unique to that space. It certainly wasn’t just, ‘I am an artist, I need studio space and I can’t afford it.’ It’s more, ‘Here is a space that holds an opportunity for me to do something that I could imagine doing, but that I wouldn’t or couldn’t do anywhere else.’  

“At that time, I thought of myself mostly as experimental musician who created soundtracks for other artists, for video and dance. My introduction to spatialisation was through a festival in Cologne 1998 called Per/Son, a festival organised by Anthony Moore, who set up this idea of playing with the space itself. It was four people – me, Scanner, Pauline Oliveros, and Frances-Marie Uitti. All of us were playing with a 64-channel sound system, designed by Andres Bosshard. That opened a door to the world of installations for me, and from installations I ended up getting invited to do the residency in the World Trade Center. At that point, I had an interest in field recording, but I had done very, very little, except for a little bit of sound work for a film soundtrack with Jem Cohen. 

“When you were applying for the World Views residency, you had to make a note of something that you might do for the open studio, which would happen at the very end of the residency. I had just read an article in The Wire about Maryanne Amacher, and a piece that she had made where she had microphones pointing out of her studio window to the New England fisheries. Those sounds were constantly streaming into her studio and into her mixing board. I basically copied that idea, and I even said that at a public talk a few years later when Maryanne was in the audience. I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll be up at the top of the World Trade Center, if I’m given a place on the residency. I’ll open the windows, put microphones outside, and I’ll always have the sound streaming into my mixing board.’ 

“There were about 15 artists there on the 91st floor at a time, in these six-month cycles. Most of the artists were in one big open office with wooden barriers. It looked like grade school to me: a lot of artists, with cheap barriers giving them some sort of privacy. I was part of the same residency as the artists Kevin and Jennifer McCoy. Between us we had a lot of technology, so we were granted a separate suite of offices where we could each lock our doors.  

“So I had this idea which I copied from Maryanne, but when I got up to the studio I realised that you couldn’t actually open the windows. They actually did everything they could to block the outside sound, and to protect the person using this very expensive real estate from the sound outside. I started asking friends for advice. At some point, an engineer suggested contact mics, which I hadn’t used before, and told me to go to a drum shop. You could get store-bought contact mics to put on drums as MIDI triggers for about $20. I put those on the window and ran those through the mixing board. Lo and behold, the first sound I ever heard was church bells. I’ve had a couple of my career major works related to bells, as many sound artists do. But that moment was chilling, especially as I never heard them again after that. 

Stephen Vitiello recording in the World Trade Center, 1999. Photograph by Johnna MacArthur

“I suddenly heard the world outside. I could hear traffic. I could hear ships on the Hudson River. At one point I heard a car crash, but it all started with with church bells. And as the six months went on, I went from thinking about trying to add the sound to other things to realising that the sound was way more interesting than anything I could add to it. Every day was different. There were days that I could hear the building moving in the wind. I could hear the steel creaking and cracking. I could hear airplanes. I could hear helicopters. 

“Those contact mics became like a stethoscope: I was listening to the body of the building. In the end, it wasn’t exactly like Maryanne’s work. It wasn’t like having a microphone outside: it was a mic that listened through the glass and steel of the building. A contact mic is very focused, but it’s very limited. You don’t get a lot of high frequency. You don’t get a lot of low frequency. But things like airplanes would cut right through, so I would work with that, or with the wind. I had 24-hour access to the studio, and if I heard something interesting, I would turn on the DAT recorder and record what was happening. 

“Through the mixing board and pre-amplification certain kinds of strong sounds carry. Bells are a perfect example of a sound that cuts through city din, but I’m sure there’s a lot that I didn’t hear. It was the right technology for what I needed, and, miraculously, it was the only technology that would work. 

“One thing I regret is that there were days where I’d go up and think, ‘Oh, I’ve already got this kind of sound, so I’m going to tape over that’. In the end, I didn’t end up with a lot. But the recordings that I ended up with that are the most critical were made the day after Hurricane Floyd hit New York in September 1999, and the 10-inch record, Sounds Building In The Fading Light. The B-side of that – the Dense Mix – ends with an airplane passing. All the sound cuts out and I filtered everything out but the plane. That was done before 9/11, and it wasn’t meant to scare anybody. It was just meant to focus in on a specific detail.”

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“The night before 9/11, I was giving a talk at Brooklyn College, in a in a class taught by Jennifer McCoy. 

“I think most of us took the World Trade Center for granted. They were these big, ugly buildings, but there was something quite unique about being above the world, and there was something very distinctive about their architecture. I read an interview with Robert Ashley where he said that one original design of the World Trade Center was to make the buildings parallel, which would have turned them into a giant tuning fork. That’s why they were offset a little bit. Even these things that we take for granted, if you just stop, look, and listen, you can appreciate things in a different way. Everything has an opportunity. Whether you want it or not, or whether you can make something whether it’s true to your own interests, is to be determined.  

“At the class Jennifer invited me to, I remember talking about having gone from thinking of myself as a musician to now being a sound artist, and how much being up in the World Trade Center made me aware of listening in a new way. And even the vulnerability. You didn’t really feel like you were up on the 91st floor. When you were looking out the window it felt flat, and kind of artificial. But once the sound came up, you felt the presence of the building. And once you could hear it moving in there, or you heard the winds, your whole perception of space and a sense of self or the architecture – everything – everything changed. 

“But then the next morning happened, and the buildings were destroyed. And I felt almost embarrassed, almost foolish when people started to reach out to me about those recordings. I lived very close to the World Trade Center when it fell. I saw the smoke. An artist’s perception of vulnerability is one thing: thousands of people dying is something totally different. My initial reaction was to shelve the project, and not ever talk about it again. 

“A month or so later, there was a gathering at The Kitchen, the performing arts centre in New York where I later worked. It was a gathering of artists who had gone through the residency and who were talking about their projects after 9/11. I played a little bit of the sound. I mentioned that I felt truly conflicted and the feedback that I got from the audience and the other artists was, ‘You can’t shelve this. You can’t hide it. But you also shouldn’t exploit it.’ None of us wanted to exploit the situation. 

“I didn’t want to see it as a 9/11 piece, because it wasn’t a 9/11 piece. But it was also something that was now changed, because I couldn’t deny that 9/11 changed how people would read it. It was the sound of a building that no longer existed, and that could never exist in the same way. It was a sound that people who worked in the World Trade Center were attuned to. You couldn’t always hear that sound without microphones, but there were times when you could. And so I decided that it should remain a thing, but something that should be treated with sensitivity. 

“I called the 10-inch of those sound recordings, Sounds Building In The Fading Light. I loved – and still love – mystery books by James Lee Burke. Burke’s main book set of books are set in Louisiana. He writes about the landscape with this really rich sense of light and smell. With the title of the 10-inch, I think I was probably trying to emulate the kind of poetry that Burke uses when he speaks. Lou Reed once stopped me in an elevator because I had a James Lee Burke book sticking out my pocket, and I was totally embarrassed. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favourite writers,’ and I sort of blushed and spoke to him for the rest of the ride down about the best of them (he recommended Black Cherry Blues, which I bought the next day).  

Winds After Hurricane Floyd was a sound installation, which was presented around the world and went into a few museum collections. When the Whitney Museum purchased it, they acquired a six-channel sound piece and a large photo. When I went down to the archive, they said, ‘The photo is the artwork, and the sound is the document, right?’ It’s not – I see the sound work as the artwork, and the photo is a document. A lot of my work toes that line, especially where documentation has been part of it, and especially the works that relate to field recording.”

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“I guess what I did became one of the signature World Views projects that people remember, and it also established me in a different way as an artist, as well as leading me to become established with site-specific projects. It completely changed my whole career path and my whole creative approach to listening. 

“In some ways, I think the fact that it was audio, or primarily audio, allowed it to be evocative in a different way to photographs or video or sculpture. Each thing has its own power, and I’m not pretending that sound is better. But, at least to me, just listening with your eyes closed allows you to picture something and place yourself differently than the more intellectual process that happens when you look at a photograph.”

Photograph by Johnna MacArthur.

Interview: Mat Smith, August 2021 

Links: 
Stephen Vitiello website
Winds After Hurricane Floyd at the Whitney Museum collection
A Call For Silence
The September 11 Digital Archive – Winds After Hurricane Floyd and Sounds Building In The Fading Light 

(c) 2021 Further.  

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