MASS MoCA is currently installing a new project in the former Boiler Plant (the building that contains the stairway to Michael Oatmanâ€™s all utopias fell installation). This early 20th century building, which early on produced steam for heat and manufacturing processes, has stood on the grounds here for nearly 100 years.
On September 24, (though you will be able to hear it by late August) we will open sound artist Stephen Vitielloâ€™s newest work All Those Vanished Engines.
The narrative (and title) for this work comes from a commissioned text by local novelist Paul Park. The story and concept re-imagines the Boiler Plant as cover for a secret, experimental project exploring the industrial production of sound. I did an interview with Stephen Vitiello that follows:
Denise Markonish: I remember when I first saw the Boiler Plant at MASS MoCA; I was struck by how musical it looked, almost like a rusted old pipe organ.
It is so visually rich that I thought sound would be perfect in there, not competing with the strong visuals. I knew your past work and invited you out here to take a look, it must have been about three years ago now. Do you recall any of those first impressions you had when you came to the space?
Stephen Vitiello: I remember I was excited for sure. I love spaces that reveal â€śproblemsâ€ť to work with, spaces with unusual acoustic properties and spaces that resonate with a history. I also love spaces that are open to natural light (which changes throughout the day). For all of those reasons and those that you describe above, I was eager to work with the building at MASS MoCA.Â When you brought me there, I believe it was just after I had performed in Composers Inside Electronics present David Tudorâ€™s Rainforest IV, a performance/installation that amplifies sound through everyday objects and small-scale sculptures. I thought the building was calling out for some sort of related treatment.
DM: A lot of your work responds to the specifics of place â€“ early on you recorded of the World Trade Center building creaking during hurricane Floyd or worked with a tribe in the Amazon, to more recent works recorded in your back yard in Richmond, VA or of bells in New York, and birds in Australia. Can you discuss your approach place, how much you let its story influence you as opposed to creating new narratives?
SV: I try to begin with a pure emotional, intuitive response and then move on to the intellectual part, later considering concept and research. I think about what I already hear and then imagine what I might add. In the World Trade Center, I put contact microphones on the windows and amplified the sound from outside and brought it inside
With the trip to the Amazon, working with the Yanomami, I created field recordings. I asked a Yanomami shaman questions about sound in his world. I then brought those recordings to the Cartier Foundation and created a listening space that reflected on what I had heard and what I had experienced emotionally.Â
With the space at MASS MoCA, it wasnâ€™t so much what I heard there as what I imagined hearing â€“ the voice I could imagine the building might have and how the structures (tanks, pipes, tubes) might uniquely resonate when certain sounds were played from within them.
DM: You have collaborated with many sound artist/musicians (Pauline Oliveros, Scanner, Steve Roden etc) as well as visual artists (Nam June Paik, Tony Oursler, Julie Mehretu, Joan Jonas, etc.) but for your project All Those Vanished Engines at MASS MoCA you worked with Paul Park, a local novelist. Is this the first time you have worked with a writer? What about this project called for a more established narrative?
SV: I have collaborated a lot over the years but as you say, itâ€™s generally been with sound or visual artists. In the 90s, I worked on a multi-tiered project with the artist, Tony Oursler and the writer, Constance DeJong. The project was called Fantastic Prayers. It was a commission from the Dia Art Foundation that took the forms of a performance, an installation, a website and a CD ROM. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve worked with another writer since then.
With the project for MASS MoCA, I was at a point where I wanted to make a shift from the consistency of projects based on field recordings. I teach during the school year but as soon as the semesters end, I rush to bookstores to grab summer and winter reading. I tend to be drawn to genre-based writers and often to experimental narrative formats. I was thinking about how much reading influences me and thought to foreground the relationship to narrative with this next project. I was at St. Markâ€™s Books in NY and found Paul Parkâ€™s quartet that starts with A Princess of Roumania.
I had no idea that he lived minutes from the museum or that he was â€ślocal.â€ť There was just something about how the story went through twists and turns that I identified with â€“ like taking a field recording and giving a listener something they recognize and then transforming it in a way that takes them somewhere else, a morphing or metamorphosis. There was a sense of music at times in the books. There was also a kind of archeology that I loved â€“ a feeling that if you scratched through the surface of one world or one character, you could discover another hidden beneath it.
DM: You are currently on site at MASS MoCA this first week of August to install your work in the Boiler Plant. Can you tell me about what you are doing, from recording elements of the work, to sound engineering and testing? What will our visitors find after you have left?
SV: I try to always create my final mixes on-site. Iâ€™ve already created a good deal of content for the project but I want to hear how it sounds in the space. Weâ€™ll have sounds coming from 20 sources throughout the building. Iâ€™ve been mixing at home (and at a residency at the Ucross Foundation) on a smaller scale so I donâ€™t know if everything will work, or where each sound should come from until I hear it in place .
Iâ€™ve already recorded Paulâ€™s text myself. In North Adams, Iâ€™ll also record John Sprague recording the story. Mr. Sprague had a long history with the buildings that are now MASS MoCA before they were an art museum. What I donâ€™t know is the extent that the voices will be heard or perhaps mixed in a way that they occasionally come from parts of the building and then fade back into the background or memory.
DM: One last question, since MASS MoCA is known for both its visual and performing arts, I wonder if you could talk about how both of those fields factor into your work. I know you perform in bands as well as work as an artist employing sound. How does your approach to both activities differ from or inform one another?
SV: I did perform in bands for a long time and it taught me a great deal about music but also collaboration. After playing in bands, my focus changed in the late ’80s to creating music for video artists. Creating soundtracks was a form of responseÂ – to the images and concepts in the work. Over the years, Iâ€™ve realized that my site-specific installations are just another stage in that development. I am responding to the building and concepts that I have discovered or imposed onto that structure. When I perform these days, it is often in the form of a dialog â€“ a duet with another musician, or a duet with a place. I think my approach to installation is very similar.