Sound artist sculpts forest sounds

by Amy Kingsley

The interior of the Tannenbaum Gallery, one of the exhibition spaces inside the Weatherspoon Art Museum, is littered with ladders, drop cloths, hand tools and other supplies commonly found at the site of an installation in progress.

Visitors relying on their eyes might not notice anything amiss until they scan the space’s walls. Three days before the opening of the show, the surfaces lack not only illumination (the room is as dim as a sarcophagus) but also art. In its place hang several speakers, each about the size of a jewelry box, linked by a continuous strand of speaker cable.

The difference between Stephen Vitiello’s “Night Chatter” and most other art exhibitions is audible. And audibility is not just the difference, but also the substance of this piece and Vitiello’s others. Crickets, warblers, owls and bullfrogs prattle over a bed of extended analog tones. The experience is three-dimensional since the speakers are wired for surround sound.

In the center of the room sits a large bed covered in black bed sheets and throw pillows. Curator of exhibitions Xandra Eden settles on the end.

“I think of it as a sculpture,” Eden says.

“Night Chatter” opens on June 17, and it will, to Eden’s knowledge, be the first sound installation exhibited at the Weatherspoon. Eden, who has held her post at the local museum for a little less than two years, can say unequivocally that the show is the first sound piece she has curated.

“I’m excited about it,” she said. “Stephen is just such an exceptional artist and so well respected. And I’m excited that we are just going to focus on sound.”

Eden first encountered Vitiello’s work in 2002 at the Whitney Biennial in New York City. The artist presented a piece titled “Hurricane Floyd, Twin Towers,” that combined tones with recordings of hurricane winds buffeting the World Trade Center’s highest windows captured during a 1999 residency.

“The composition of it was just kind of powerful,” Eden says. “I had heard a lot of sound pieces, but I had never been moved by one before.” Eden logged Vitiello’s name in the back of her brain and followed the course of his career. It took off juggernaut-style, carrying Vitiello across the world to do installations in London, Vienna, Rio, Antwerp and Beijing.

Then, a couple years ago, he took at faculty position in a small department of Virginia Commonwealth University’s art program – the department of kinetic imaging, home only to Vitiello and a half dozen other artists. Eden scheduled a studio visit.

Vitiello told Eden about some recordings he’d been working with from the James River State Park and Cypress Bridge Forest, an ancient cypress grove recently discovered on private property. The artist said he was fascinated by the persistent babble he heard during his outings. The untranslatable animal dialogue reminded him of the term “chatter,” a word then most often deployed in the context of terrorist surveillance.

After Eden told Vitiello that she wanted to show his work, the two set about trying to figure out a way to present such a nontraditional piece.

“We want people to spend time with it,” Eden said. “But the challenge is: How do you create a space that’s comfortable for people?”

The idea for the bed came from another sound piece called “Bed of Sound” that Eden had experienced. At that exhibit, visitors had lounged on a giant bed ringed with 100 pairs of headphones while they listened to the pieces.

Eden said she imagines museum goers will retreat from the summer heat in the dim room where they can relax with recordings from natural areas not too far from Greensboro. Every so often the volume of the ominous undertone rises. Eden nearly pauses mid-sentence to let the loudest moment pass.

“The natural sounds are sort of a frustration of knowing these animals are trying to communicate something,” she says. “Maybe they’re even warning each other of Stephen’s arrival. But with people nowadays, the communication is all electronic.”

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