I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Like a lot of people, I first heard about Stephen Vitiello’s work in 2000, in relation to his residency at the World Trade Center where he was using light sensors to generate sound. In 2004 we were both in the exhibition Treble at SculptureCenter. Regine Basha, the show’s curator, kept telling me that Stephen and I needed to meet, so we did, over lunch. Our respective works in the show were indicative of where we collide and separate in relation to sound. I’d spent several days in the basement using ice cubes and candles to trim the tops and bottoms off of 100 wine bottles that would eventually amplify the sound of 100 tiny speakers—as usual, my process was messy and far from precise. Stephen, on the other hand, had hung several speakers from long wires in an absolutely elegant formation—his piece felt like it would fit comfortably in a Brunelleschi dome. When I got close to his speakers, I could see them moving, and I realized that while I couldn’t hear sound, it was definitely moving through the speakers. I was blown away by the fact that his work put me in the situation of looking at sound rather than listening to it. Sound is simply one of many ingredients in my practice, but it is generally the focus and the primary material of Stephen’s work. Since we met, sound has played an enormous role in the conversations, performances, recordings, and installations we have worked on together, but most importantly, it’s what we have geeked out on together in hundreds of conversations like this one.
Steve Roden We both came to music and art via the punk scenes on opposite coasts—you on the East, and me on the West.
Stephen Vitiello Did your interest in music and art begin with punk rock or before that?
SR When I was 12, I was into Jimmy Hendrix. His was the first music I became obsessed with—my mom actually made me a Hendrix birthday cake! I scoured flea markets for bootlegs and rare releases. I was also into German Expressionism, particularly George Grosz, for his combination of cartooning and heavy-duty violence. (My dark angst settled in at age 13.) I’ve been infected by everything I’ve paid attention to, no matter how obscure. One strong memory is of a group of flying bees in the early Gumby animations called the Groobees. They were a riff on carpenter bees and would build crates around everything: people, cars, dogs… the forms were like that Magritte painting of a coffin sitting upright. While working on Bowrain(2010), a large-scale installation involving hundreds of pieces of wood wired together, I realized that my aesthetic is pretty close to the Groobees’: visual decisions arise out of necessity or limitation, rather than vision. How about yourself?
SV I was obsessed with the Rolling Stones. My mother took me to see them when I was 11. My best friend and I would listen to side three of Hot Rocks over and over. As I got older, there were other rock bands, but things changed most dramatically (at least in my memory) when I started listening to the Ramones and the Dead Boys, and then British punk bands like the Buzzcocks and the Clash. The one record from that era that I still go back to and enjoy just as much as I did back then is Television’s Marquee Moon. I started learning to play guitar with friends when I was 12 and then met The Stimulators, whose band members lived in that infamous building on East 12th Street. I’d go over for guitar lessons and could sometimes stay overnight if Allen Ginsberg, their roommate, was out of town.
SR Both of us managed to enter the punk scene at a relatively young age. At 14, I rode my bike to the Whiskey a Go-Go expecting to see a Hendrix impersonator and happened upon The Screamers. When I got home that evening I painted a “No Left Turn” sign on my Hendrix shirt and cut off my long hair—a few days later, I dyed it black. Then I started a band with some friends, half of whom could not play instruments. We called the band Seditionaries after Malcolm McLaren’s shop, where the Sex Pistols met. We never met anyone like Allen Ginsberg, but we did get to hang out with The Damned!
The early punk scene was positive and full of idealism. In many ways we were a cliché, being critical of the government, society, the army, and religion—I wrote a song called “Jesus Needs a Haircut!” Certainly we were naive, but for us there was value in making music that had no commercial relevance. Value for us was dependent upon integrity rather than the market.
SV For me, between the Stones and the Ramones there were lots of the predictable groups: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy. I always responded to texture and an impression of sound and production, and almost never knew the lyrics, even if I listened to a record until it was scratched beyond use. By the way, so cool that you met The Damned. I remember meeting them as well; I was sitting in their dressing room until they finally, and very politely, asked me to leave. There’s another flash memory of playing pinball with two of The Cramps. Being 14 or 15 made it easier for people to be nice to us. The first band I played in was called the Offals. Our first show was reviewed in the New York Times. The reviewer said we were either “Awful or funny, depending on your tolerance level.” I just came across two scrapbooks from that time filled with photos, flyers, and newspaper ads that I’d passionately collected and assembled. It feels like more than a lifetime ago, but I recognize a part of who I am in those books.
So while most of my references before my early twenties were musical, it seems like art was important to you from a much earlier age. Did you have any vision at the time that your future might be laced with both?
SR As a kid I always wanted to be an artist. On the other hand, I probably never would’ve started working with sound (or text, performance, video, and film) had I not been part of the punk scene. Starting a band without any technical knowledge of music offered us the freedom to just dive into a medium. When I made my first film in 1988, or released my first CD in 1993, So Delicate and Strangely Made, I didn’t feel that I was unqualified to work in these mediums. It wasn’t about being a genius as much as about being comfortable experimenting. I still can’t read music or play an instrument. When I was the lead singer of Seditionaries, all I needed to know was how to yell very loudly into a microphone.
SV I identify with punk leading to a future in art. Also, working with Nam June Paik gave me the sense that I could step out in any number of directions. In 1994, Nam June asked me to document a month of Fluxus performances at Anthology Film Archives. I told him I was a musician, not a video artist, and he replied, “It’ll make you a better musician.” That exposure did. It also suggested a much more interesting future.
When you and I first met, I proposed a fairly simple (maybe mediocre) idea: that we each record a mono track in our own spaces on the West and East coasts and then combine them into a stereo recording, with your sounds on the left (West) and mine on the right (East). Often starting with a simple idea leads to some better discovery along the way. We never made the piece, but we’ve definitely managed to find parallel moments. We got involved with performing music at a young age and have evolved into artists who function in-between music and art.
SR I talk a lot about the burden of a good idea when I teach. A good idea is complex and exciting, and generally better in your head than in its realization. Dumb ideas—or as you say, simple ideas—need to be mulled over, reinterpreted, redefined, and continually expanded upon until they begin to offer you multiple paths. A few years ago I taught a two-day workshop using La Monte Young’s 1961 Composition No. 1, a score with the single direction: “Draw a straight line and follow it.” It was fantastic to spend so much time trying to figure out how many ways one could follow the instruction.
SV I’m pretty sure I told you that at a collector’s dinner in Austin last summer, three different people congratulated me on pieces that were actually yours. Yet in fact we’re quite different. You work primarily with systems (for sound and for painting) and tend to begin with a clear idea of where you’re headed, whereas I often come to the conceptual elements of my work through experience. Also, the visual part of your practice is as important as the sound, while in my work, the visual component is a smaller part—and often an artifact—of the sound work. For example, photographs that come out of the experience of field recording, or the speaker drawings that were my attempt at a form of automatic drawing (and were inspired by William Anastasi’s Subway Drawings in particular). Or the visual frames I design around the sound, such as lighting for sound installations where I hope people will listen first and look second.
SR Brian Eno was an early influence, partially because he offered me a kind of primer for John Cage through his use of limitations, chance operations, and the “Oblique Strategies” to prompt creative thinking. This was before I knew anything about Fluxus, Steve Reich, Sol LeWitt, or text scores. Anastasi’s Subway Drawings were a big part of an aha moment for me as well, along with the discovery of Tom Marioni’s drum brush drawings from the 1970s and Terry Fox’s Children’s Tapes videos. After these discoveries, I made an early attempt to combine performance, process, and artifact: it was a painting for Eric Dolphy called Mouthpiece (1992) done by holding the brush in my mouth instead of my hands.
I arrived at Cage on my first day of undergrad art theory class. Wanda Westcoast, the teacher, played three long reels of Cage talking. All I remember was that they were impossible to follow. Over time, the words had no meaning, and we all sat there listening to words as sound. She didn’t give us any context. Talk about immersion!
SV Amazing, a teacher named Wanda Westcoast! Back in college, I also had those moments, like soft jolts of electricity that opened up future thinking for me. In a film studies class, my professor Tom Gunning was talking about the pre-cinematic “phantasmagoria,” a form of spook show with distant voices and magic-lantern slides projected onto moving surfaces. As he described it, I could see and hear glimpses of something wonderful. Four years later I did sound for an installation by Tony Oursler called Crypt Craft (1989), which was a mix of images and voices in a dark room. Tony Conrad’s voice came out of the mouth of a dragon, children trapped in small monitors hung from a chandelier, and a pirate sang songs about toxicity. In many of my installations I have strived for the immersive experience that I imagine the phantasmagoria performances offered. Hopefully they’re not as kitsch, and they create a space outside of everyday experience.
Another memory from French literature class: We read Friday by Michel Tournier, a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story. There’s a scene where Friday wrestles with a goat and the goat dies. In the following passages, he is treating the goatskin, but we don’t know what’s coming. Then Crusoe is walking through the forest and hears what sounds like beautiful choral music. Every sound of the forest comes to life, amplified in his consciousness. When he emerges onto the beach, he sees that Friday has turned the goatskin into a kite: it has holes in it and has become an instrument being played by the wind. I was so emotionally struck by that section. It set something in motion that I still connect to many years later when I’m doing field recordings in incredible places.
As a teacher (at Virginia Commonwealth University), I bring to class a lot of the films, videos, and audio works that have inspired me. I plan classes as a form of curating to trigger sets of connections that will excite students. Every once in a while I recognize that someone is listening or looking in a new way for the first time.
SR Yes, probably the best part of my education was the things that people shared, rather than said. I mean, nothing really happens when you talk about Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou … You have to be confronted by its presence so it can really mess you up!
A required English class with Bernard Cooper, which I initially tried very hard to get out of since I had very little interest in reading and writing, absolutely changed my life. On the first day we read short stories by Kafka and Calvino, and we were assigned to write surrealist poems. Suddenly there was this huge connection between literature and the visual art I was interested in. When I did my third year of undergrad in Paris I didn’t speak any French, so I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and moved on to Thomas Mann, Hesse, Kafka, Borges, and Cocteau. Those books became my friends as well as my inspirations, eventually leading me to explore writing as a medium. My biggest writing project so far is called 365 × 433. For the entire year of 2011, I performed Cage’s 4’33” every day and wrote about each performance. It started as a listening experience, but very quickly became a daily writing project. Each entry is treated in a different way, ranging from concrete poetry to essays, descriptions, and so on. So every time I run into Bernard I embarrass the hell out of him because I tell him that he changed my life.
I was also lucky to work with Mike Kelley and Stephen Prina in grad school. At the time, Prina was working on a project that involved making a watercolor for every one of Manet’s paintings to actual size. The way he conversed with his sources had an enormous impact on my practice. Mike I had known since undergrad; we connected because of the punk scene and our crazy taste in music. I’m pretty sure he had little interest in my work and was probably aghast at the things I was reading (Rilke, Lagerkvist, Hamsun). I wrote my grad thesis in the form of an early 20th-century German parable, and at my final committee meeting, the first thing Mike said was, “I don’t know why you didn’t write it in surfer talk.” It pissed me off. But he was good at making a snide comment that would haunt you for days, and once you dug beneath the juvenile veneer, you’d realize he was offering brilliant advice. He was kicking my ass for being too precious.
SV I didn’t study art in college. I was in the band Crazy Sunday with Gregory Crewdson and Tom Burkhardt, and almost all of my friends were artists, but I didn’t envision myself as an artist at the time. I think I ended up with a gallery—The Project, in 2000—because I wasn’t looking for one. After years of creating soundtracks for other artists, in the late ’90s I started to present installations and apply for studio residencies. Still, I wasn’t moving with any definite vision; I was just feeling my way forward. When Christian Haye from The Project came for my first studio visit, he was three hours late.
I was so mad when he finally arrived that I told him I had nothing to show or play for him anyway. Weirdly, that dysfunctional beginning led to nine years of representation. How did you first start to show in galleries?
SR I had my first solo show in 1985, while still an undergrad, in a record store called Texas in Santa Monica, CA. After grad school, I was in several artist-curated shows in places like empty storefronts or people’s living rooms. Representation came maybe five years later through a friend who knew someone who was opening a gallery. I was with them from 1994–1997 but I left under very bad circumstances. I thought I’d never work within a commercial gallery context again. I didn’t show for five years and no one in LA would touch my work. Then, in 2003, I was invited by Rebecca McGrew to do a show at the Pomona College Museum of Art. At the same time, I was offered a very small project show with Susanne Vielmetter, whom I’ve been working with ever since. Both shows were reviewed, and while my career didn’t really change at that moment, it was the first time that critics and the “in crowd” started to look more seriously at my work. More importantly, it was the beginning of my relationship with Susanne’s gallery, and that certainly changed the course of my career.
SV The first New York solo show I was offered was at a tiny gallery in the East Village called Gaga. Beverly Semmes introduced me to the gallery owner. He said he couldn’t spend a month listening to a sound piece, but I could have a show if I’d also be the gallery sitter. I said no.
I had my first solo show at the Texas Gallery in Houston. Fredericka Hunter, who runs the gallery, encouraged me to step carefully into the art world and suggested I stay as far as possible from making things that could easily be commodified. Soon after, someone at Creative Capital encouraged me to look to non-art spaces and avoid the gallery world altogether. It was smart advice, but back then I wasn’t sure how to make such a thing happen. That said, I was excited when I started to show with The Project, partly because it seemed to suggest a career path, but even more so because they had such great artists: Julie Mehretu, Paul Pfeiffer, María Elena González, and William Pope L., to name a few. It was like entering into a long-term, well-curated group show. But those early suggestions had a lot of value because the projects I’ve felt most fulfilled by in the last four years—at the High Line, MASSMoCA, and a project with John Kaldor in Australia—have been commissions about sound’s engagement with architecture. They still end up connecting to an art audience, but through a relationship with structures, rather than by my making things that fit into white boxes. I’m not critical of that way of working; it just hasn’t been the most successful for me. I favor unusual or problematic spaces. I feel most inspired when there’s something to respond to—it can be a room’s strange acoustic quality, for example. When faced with the clean slate of a traditional gallery or museum space, I find less to speak to than when given a triangular-shaped room or a place where sound needs to engage not only with a public but also with the potentially unpredictable interactions of nature or machines. Now I work with American Contemporary, but it’s been years since I did a show there.
I generally connect with your gallery work but it’s also often the ephemeral pieces that excite me most—the small speakers, cardboard, and paint. I’m thinking of when books are like butterflies (2008) and fulgurites (2004), or the architectural model where you crafted something from paper or cardboard and sticks as a sketch for a larger piece. Some of those works will probably be a nightmare for future registrars, but one feels and hears their fragility and experiencing that is important.
SR I don’t really see these materials—cardboard, plaster wrap, or cheap speakers—as ephemeral, but rather as coming out of things like Arte Povera.
It is much more appealing to tinker with scotch tape and cardboard, since they are immediate. I want to be able to make work with whatever is at hand. I paint in oils on linen with aluminum stretchers too, and that stuff is not cheap. It’s more about which materials will function best in each situation. I want the work to feel human and vulnerable, so the materials should reflect that. In your case, the materials are truly ephemeral—light and sound—and therefore relatively unconventional for a commercial gallery. I have the opposite problem; the breadth of my practice has caused some confusion. My first painting show outside of the US was in Italy, but because in Europe I work with sound a lot more, the opening was packed with sound geeks. Some people were convinced that a different Steve Roden had made the paintings!
I’m still very excited about how each medium offers me a different experience as a maker. The ideas, resonances, or conceptual processes are not medium-specific. In 2008 I had a breakthrough when I used a musical score that I found in a box in my grandmother’s garage to develop an entire body of work. I figured out various ways in which the score might generate paintings, collages, a film, sculpture, several sound pieces, and new scores. My process is really about interpretation—I am constantly reinterpreting seemingly finite information. In this case, the seven notes of the scale and the order of those notes in the score determined color choices, lengths of lines, the visual application of collage elements, the number of parts and their colors and lengths, the speed of a hand-drawn film, etcetera. It’s not as rigid as it sounds … I’m using the score or rules as triggers for intuitive actions, and I break my own rules.
SV We were both in the Silence show at the Menil Collection (and then at the Berkeley Art Museum). We’ve both been in lots of sound shows where the common thread is technology. This show was based on Cage’s notions of silence and its connection to the visual arts. My piece translated light frequencies into sound, and used audible frequencies of light and occasional sounds from the environment outside the museum, to generate a very quiet ongoing composition. It’s my only interactive work. At the Menil, there were two solar cells mounted in homemade parabolas on the wall. On the opposite wall and in the floorboards, there were speakers. The piece was positioned next to a wonderful window. The sunlight affected the sound of the piece, as did the 120-cycle hum from the gallery lighting. As visitors came into the field of the solar cells’ vision, they also cast audible shadows: flutters and sonic bumps. An added factor was a Bruce Nauman neon piece in an adjoining room that would turn on and off. The reflection of light and the rhythm of the Nauman became co-opted by my system and added a buzz of electricity to the mix.
SR One of the best aspects of the show was that silence was very present—even in works like your own, which generated sound. It moved away from a white monochrome model to a much more interesting conversation. That I was able to show large colorful paintings, a sculpture with fluorescent Plexiglas, and 365 × 433 suggests that silence can be complicated and sometimes messy.
SV I used to try to cover so much when someone would ask, “What do you do?” Now, I just focus on one part of what I do, so that I’ll keep the person’s interest, and so my response might meet social conventions. Once a doctor asked me what I did and I said I was a sound artist. He misheard me, as often happens, and talked for the longest time with great enthusiasm about why he loved “sand art.” It was sad to have to finally interrupt and correct him. Then there’s the issue of visual consistency. I remember a gallery owner visiting me in the World Trade Center and asking, “What’s your thing? Christian Marclay does records. What do you do?” I was very proud to say, “I listen to buildings.” She wasn’t impressed.
I think of what our friend in Ireland, Mick O’Shea, once told me. He said that if he brings his gallery a drawing, they price it at 1000 Euros, but if it’s a drawing that comes with a sound element (a CD of sounds he created while drawing, for example), they price it at 400 Euros.
SR I might’ve told you before that every time I call my mom to tell her about an exhibition or event the first thing she asks is, “Is it art or music?” I keep telling her they’re the same thing.
SV The Silence show was a highlight, and also the concert with you at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. That was a case of listening to a building, listening to paintings, and also listening to each other. You initiated the discussions for that performance with the idea of playing with recordings of silence, and in particular, silence on vinyl records that would add the element of surface noise. In the end, the recordings we used varied from a recording of John Cage’s 4’33” to a record of a Marcel Marceau performance. We were both affected by the way those sounds functioned in the Rothko Chapel, but we were also very aware of how the physical presence of the paintings alters one’s emotional interaction with anything that goes on in that space.
Collaboration comes up fairly often for both of us. In music it’s not unusual to consider collaboration, but for someone with a studio practice it’s not the obvious choice.
SR When you work with people with whom you have a history, like we have done, there is a pretty clear understanding of each other’s sensibilities. Then there is the random adventure of suddenly working with folks you don’t know very well. In that case the value lies in the actual experience, and the results seem to be less important to me. Our collaboration at the Rothko Chapel was an entirely different animal. It was a dream gig, which made it feel a bit overwhelming from the get-go. It was not so much about learning as it was about simply being in the moment, since that experience will never happen again.
One of the most important collaborations for me consisted of meeting with Simone Forti, and at times Rae Shao-Lan Blum, once a week for nearly a year. We never planned ahead nor spoke much, but we improvised sound with acoustic objects, and moved around the space— sometimes like animals, sometimes like dancers, and sometimes like people.
I came to know Simone as a kind of Zen master—she would suggest a simple action or idea that would provoke me. She has a knack for talking about something that seems relatively insignificant but which then slowly begins to grow inside you.
One afternoon, at the end of one of these improvisations, we were talking about writing and Simone casually invited me to do a reading with her and Anne Tardos. I thought, Are you crazy? You want me to do my first public reading ever of my own writing with you and Anne Tardos? A few weeks later, there I was in front of a small audience at Beyond Baroque, reading for 15 minutes in a nervous wobbly voice while sweat rolled down my face. Later, writing became an integral part of my practice. We all need someone to provoke us.
SV I had a similar experience. In 1998, I met Pauline Oliveros in Germany and asked if I could study with her. She said, “No, you’ll perform with me and Joe McPhee next week in New York.” It was a scary way to perform one of my first improvised concerts. Pauline and Joe are both brilliant improvisers who are uniquely perceptive to all of the sounds around them. To perform with them encouraged me to trust in the potential of spontaneity.
I like collaborating when, as you describe with Simone, someone pushes you to take chances. I’m careful, though, and try to understand the terms from the beginning: Am I making something with someone, or for that person? In the past I did a lot of music for visual artists. Often the sound was for the image, and thus, secondary. Julie Mehretu asked me to collaborate on a project in 2006, and I was happy that she wanted to work as equals. We spent ten days together at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. I brought some unedited sound elements with me and started to play them for Julie. As she listened, she began a large wall drawing. As she drew, I modified the sounds in response to her drawing, which had elements of a graphic score for me. We had a sculptural element too—a line of speakers that were suspended throughout the space.
Collaboration is also a social outlet for me. I moved from NYC to Virginia nine years ago. It’s harder and harder to retain friendships, partly because of distance, and partly because of age and circumstance. Collaborating with someone will put us in touch.
Most of my concerts and CDs in recent years have been collaborative, while the majority of my installations have been solo projects. But you and I created an installation in Marfa in 2008 (for The Marfa Projects, organized by Ballroom Marfa), and now we’re working together on Governor’s Island. This installation involves a journey for those who take the ferry out to get to the chapel where the piece is installed. We’ve created sounds in the space and amplified what many might consider ambient or incidental sounds.
A lot of the installations I’ve made are site-specific and, generally, not repeated. So many considerations go into the design that they don’t usually fit into another box. When I created A Bell For Every Minute for the High Line in 2010, for instance, I didn’t know if it would ever be presented anywhere else. The piece was there for a year. Recently Barbara London approached me about presenting A Bell at MoMA, as part of the show Soundings: A Contemporary Score that opens in August, and although I was thrilled, I didn’t think it would work in a museum black box. We spoke about various spaces and agreed on the Sculpture Garden. I’m hoping that there will be a similar harmony between the bells and the sculptures, the noise of 54th Street, and the timed interruptions of the bells ringing every minute.
You have two solo shows opening in September. Do you want to talk about them some?
SR Everything I’m working on now began in 2006 during a visit to Berlin. A friend invited me to see an exhibition of Walter Benjamin’s notebooks. Since I don’t speak or read German, the notebooks felt like drawings. As I began to notice various graphic decisions—symbols, colors, notations—the whole thing resonated deeply. I wouldn’t let my friend decipher what we were looking at, and I felt a need to spend time with this material. Initially, my research proposals caused a bit of anger because I wanted to work with the notes of one of the most important philosophers of the last century, and I was unable to read them. Amazingly, in 2011, the DAAD and Singuhr–Hörgalerie managed to get me a research residency for five weeks at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where the Benjamin archives are housed. I ended up looking at a lot of scribbly lines and built an archive of Benjamin’s various graphic decisions—the way he crossed out his mistakes or how he used colored ticks as a system and organizational principle, for instance. I looked at what was left of his childhood postcard collection and also the theme symbols from the Arcades Project notes. In early 2012, I created my first works from that research: an eight-channel sound work using the theme symbols as a graphic score, shown in Berlin, and a large three-channel video/sound projection at LACE in Los Angeles. The works for the upcoming shows are an attempt to continue to reinterpret that information and generate paintings, drawings, sound, and sculpture.
SV We began talking about the music we listened to when we were younger and how it’s informed the work that we each do now. I had an emotional connection to the bands and songs that I loved; they meant so much to me at the time.
I still seek out new music constantly, but the emotional connection comes more often from environmental sounds and the process of recording, often with friends. You and I shared an experience last week on the ferry back from Governor’s Island: as the ferry was idling, I had my recorder out. I was hoping I could get the sound of the ship’s horn when leaving port. The moment came and the sound was beautiful—loud and clear and resonant. We could hear the sound reflect off the water. Then a second ship surprised us by responding from somewhere else in the harbor. The call and response made the moment magical.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee