SITTING IN A ROOM WITH STEPHEN VITIELLO
By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 2000 New York Press

Last year, when The Whitney Museum of American Art took the unprecedented step of putting together a sound art portion of the museum’s "The American Century 1950-2000," they naturally, they turned to Stephen Vitiello, a curator with an interdisciplinary take on the arts; he’s not only been assiduously working in the video art field for the past decade and a half, but he’s also an experimental musician who’s released numerous CDs and performed with many legendary avant-garde figures. Through his various endeavors, Vitiello has managed to understand the dynamic that exists between various art forms. He harnessed all his powers to put together the massive "I Am Sitting In A Room: Sound Works by American Artists: 1950-2000," which included over 100 artists and just as many sound works from the past 50 years.

While "The American Century 1950-2000" as a whole received mixed reviews in the New York press, Vitiello’s portion received the prize: a splashy feature across the front page of The New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section. But by the time the feature ran, Vitiello’s show needed no help from the press: every portion of the sound program (which was run in the film and video theatre) was packed with a diverse and enthusiastic audience. Indeed, it seemed like the New York audience was hungry for what Vitiello had to offer.

Things, however, took an odd twist: as successful as the show was, the Whitney quickly reneged its support. There was no mention made of it in the official catalogue nor was there any permanent documentation of Vitiello’s endeavor; even his efforts to get the Whitney interested in travelling the show were met with apathy by the museum. As a result, "I Am Sitting In A Room" simply vanished into thin air.

I spoke to Vitiello about this dilemma and it lead us into an interesting discussion involving the often ambiguous relationship that American institutions have with the more ephemeral aspects of an artist’s production.

 

Kenneth Goldsmith: How did you become involved with the Whitney’s "The American Century 1950-2000?"

Stephen Vitiello: I was invited last year by Chrissie Isles, curator of film and video at the Whitney. Over a number of conversations we talked about sound as art and the way in which galleries and museums in the United States have failed to find a way to exhibit sound works.

When Chrissie asked me to act as curator of sound, her first proposal was that I would present a series of performances. It turns out that the Whitney didn’t have the space or budget to do this, so my counter-offer was to come up with a program of sound works that would be listened to in a dedicated, empty space without visual distractions.

I began by asking a series of advisors to list 5-10 milestones in the development of sound as an art form over the last 50 years. I then fleshed out the program with another 50% of my own selections. I tried to get works that were both known and commercially available as well as more obscure and unreleased material from the artist’s own collections.

KG: Can you comment on the American artworld’s relationship to sound works over the last half-century?

SV: I had the most trouble curating from the 1950s and the 1990s. In the 50s, the most adventurous work happening in Europe was just starting to seep into the United States. The earliest pieces I included were John Cage’s "Fontana Mix" from 1952 and a Ken Nordine work from 1957.

It wasn’t until the early 60s that some American sound works were recorded and began receiving academic attention. I see the 60s as an incubation period, giving birth to sound works as a genre in the 1970s, when a lot of artists were working in interdisciplinary ways.

By the 80s, however, the handmade, lo-tech, artist-produced works gave way to a more extravagant, polished product as best exemplified by Steve Reich or Philip Glass moving into large-scale pieces of contemporary music. Coupled with a non-committal attitude for these seemingly unsaleable works from both galleries and record labels, we witnessed the withering of a genre.

Things remained quiet until the late 90s when there seemed to be a resurgence of sound work activity in both the music and the art worlds.

KG: It’s an interesting distinction you make between artist-produced "sound works" and "large-scale musical compositions." In curating your show where did you draw the line?

SV: I started with the classic definition that music is sound in time and sound art is sound in space. I tried to look at pieces that used physical spaces--the use of the room, the use of speakers, the uses of performance and process as a foundation, rather than a more classical basis for composition.

KG: Are there any precedents for your show in the United States?

SV: No. Even the Whitney doesn’t have a sustained history of being involved in sound works; no Biennials have had the sort of sound presentation like I did in "The American Century 1950-2000." The only sound work in the Whitney’s permanent collection is Bruce Nauman’s Record, which I included in my show.

KG: Considering how successful the show was, it’s ironic that the Whitney didn’t include it in the "The American Century 1950-2000" catalog.

SV: Unfortunately I wasn’t acknowledged as part of the curatorial team. I don’t think that the larger part of the institution ever understood how the multimedia works would really bring the show to life. Even after an extraordinary amount of attention was paid to my show, they still weren’t willing to acknowledge it as being equal to, say, Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol’s visual contributions.

Their lack of support didn’t end there: As nice as a CD compilation of the show would have been, the Whitney is not interested in seeing it happen, nor were they interested in touring the show. It’s a shame because all the work has been done: it’s this incredible concept just waiting to be heard.

KG: You've curated a number of important non-object shows besides the Whitney's sound program. Another that comes to mind is the massive women's video show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, "Young and Restless." Was your experience any different at MOMA?

SV: With MOMA, since there's a tradition of doing film and video programming, I was already fitting into a pre-determined structure which by its nature is somewhat spontaneous and loose.

In the States, much of this non-object art falls into the Film and Video departments of large institutions which puts a curator at a disadvantage. If I was invited by the Painting or Sculpture Department in either of these museums to do the same show, my sense is that I would have been taken much more seriously; the Film and Video curators don't tend to get and equal amount of respect and resources relative to the other departments in the United States. Instead, they're treated as poor stepchildren.

KG: This attitude obviously stems from the infinitely reproducible nature of these media, thereby predetermining the economic value of the objects in question.

SV: Yes. Even though I often curate material that is unique, it's thought of as reproducible and therefore without a clear value. Let's take video as an example: if a Film and Video department purchases a tape, it's usually non-editioned and is purchased at a very low price. However, if a Sculpture department buys a tape from an artist, it's editioned–sometimes it's even sold as "unique"–and is regarded as a collectible and highly valued object.

KG: Your shows have travelled to museums all over the world. From a Stateside curator's point of view, do you feel European institutions tend to share American attitudes with regards to this sort of work?

SV: It's mixed: some do and some don't. In the end, it seems to have to do with funding. We have so little state funding in America and as a result, the market sets the rules. But thanks to the resurgence of video in the galleries, the private market is now learning how to absorb and collect this once seemingly-uncollecatble work. Suddenly, the American institutions are following suit. Hopefully this attitude will spill over into sound works.

The landscape looks promising: there seems to be a great deal of interest in sound exhibitions world as evidenced by recent shows at The Hayward Gallery in London and the ICC in Tokyo. If people embrace it and the press takes it seriously, I can imagine sound works and other non-object oriented artworks becoming a part of America's everyday programming.

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