To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Philip Blackburn shares his perspective on Stephen Vitiello’s recent Sound Horizon performance in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Inviting an artist into a space and seeing what they come up with from a quick scavenger hunt can be tricky proposition. Visitors might marvel at the treasures they had never noticed before, transformed before their eyes and ears by a perceptive and inspiring artist. Or they might lament the impoverishment of the space in the first place, and wonder with dismay at the drab materials they live with every day. That is always the risk of shining a light under the kitchen cabinet. Or at least mine. It might reveal more than you bargained for.
The ambient soundscape of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, as visually impaired visitors and those of us with aural fixations know all too well, has long played second fiddle to its visual delights. The space is a crater into which noise from outside, even the skies above, pours in unimpeded. The proximity of busy roadways and flightpaths has long provided an invasively dull noise-band against which ears must compete for whatever gems they can find in the Garden itself. Some of these are sound generators themselves (leaves, grass, gravel, splashing water, birds), some accidental acoustic reflectors by virtue of their shape (such as those by Richard Serra, James Turrell, Theaster Gates, and the greenhouse roof). None is particularly noteworthy or intentional.
Given this neglected listening arena, apparently ignored by curators and developers over the years who must believe that all audio problems can be solved with a big enough PA system, there are tantalizing signs of a playful conceptual border with the neighbors across the street—sculptures that reference sound by its absence. Not one but two giant bells – one swinging conspicuously silently, its clapper castrated (Kris Martin’s For Whom…), the other dampened and leapt over by a gleeful bunny (Barry Flanagan’s Hare on Bell on Portland Stone Pillars)—seem to make dumb reference to the periodic (audible but not visible) chimes from the cathedral and basilica. Jenny Holzer’s benches with their permanently etched but ephemeral poetry play in your mind without ever making a sound. And now, surely no enormous Cock has ever been quieter than the new blue one that stands up prominently, perhaps crowing using his inside voice only. It remains to be heard whether any hens across the road will ever respond. This parametric transference, the wryly ironic displacement of intimate silence and audible distance, is at the heart of the Garden artistry; at once a conceptual provocation and an admission of defeat.
With the unveiling of the new design, still admittedly in its embryonic form, how has the art of sound been addressed? Not at all, as far as I can hear. The chimes still hang from a tree and add a metallic clang to the prevailing drone but don’t do much more than similar ones would in your neighbor’s back yard. We have lost the brick barrier wall and patio that formerly provided a shady spot of quiet, most of the tall trees that absorbed some rumbles, and the enclosed crystalline refuge of the greenhouse. Future prairie plants, when dry and windy, may one day add a new layer of sizzle to color the water droplets from the Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain, but the new visual and aural openness, nay the embrace of it, to Hennepin Avenue has made the signal-to-noise ratio more challenging than ever for artists and sensitive listeners.
Into this environment comes Stephen Vitiello, the first of three sound artists visiting for the Walker’s Sound Horizon series, on a quick reconnaissance mission from Virginia to excavate some of the ambient sonic treasures (by means of contact mics and scraping if all else fails) and transform them into something special. His experience exploring One World Trade Center and the remote Kimberly range and transporting his findings into richly evocative listening experiences stands him in good stead here for making aural silk out of sow’s ears. His art of sound is less about producing finely crafted compositions (though they are certainly that), than for revealing the living world around us, that we might become better listeners to it. In the farm-to-table movement, this is fresh and local sampling at its best, not to mention the recycling of materials with no soundwaves gone to waste.
Just as the boundaries of the Garden are permeable, so it was difficult to pinpoint where the performance began for each audience member (although each of three 20-minute sets was marked by the sounding of the hour on St. Mark’s clock chimes). Gravelly footsteps, bird and people conversations: the approach to the site was near, personal, specific, as I walked through the Garden. Navigating with my ears I could tell the distant traffic noise and chimes seemed oddly displaced at a certain point. That must be where the speakers were… What was normally an acoustic dead zone was now producing sound: the traffic drones and church bells now seemed to answer back from their usual locations, folding in on themselves and traversing the space.
In Alvin Lucier’s seminal work, I Am Sitting in a Room, the recorded sounds are played back and rerecorded in the same space, ad infinitum, until the acoustic quality of the room takes over the initial sound source. Similarly here, but without indoor reflective walls to change the timbre, the experience might have been I Am Sitting in a Garden. The processed sounds were always heard in juxtaposition to the live ones and the magic was in the difference. Sometimes there was a regular looping of higher frequency tones that gave periodicity to the sprawling textures. Sometimes the voice of a passing visitor would mix with the laughing shriek of a recorded one, almost in your head. Sometimes the richly rumbling traffic drone would blend with the real one then drop out leaving you as weightless as the first thirty seconds of any Omnimax movie where you suddenly go over a cliff. The electronically shaped soundscape was distilled and displaced in space and time suggesting an idealized version of the Garden brought to reality for a moment.
Each successive performance existed against a different aural backdrop; over the course of the warm and pleasant evening the rush hour rumbles diminished in favor of the overhead flight path between MSP and Edmonton, New Orleans, and points around the globe. With the receding drones more distant sounds emerged more clearly, as the reach of our ears (our personal sound horizon) expanded: conversations, security warnings, emergency vehicles, bicycle bells and more delicate edges on the edge of audibility. As the sun went down the birds changed their tune, occasionally seeming to respond to their taped companions. Near and far meant much more than loud and soft. Liminality became squishy. Space expanded as the city noise calmed down for dinner. The borders of traditional Japanese villages were determined by the reach of their largest Taiko drum. Here was the converse, the size of our stage determined by reach of listening.
Stephen Vitiello’s performance spot was set up in the junction of Dan Graham’s sculpture, Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth. The vertical surfaces served not only to shield some of the live background noise — a kind of audio-visual baffle — but also provided an elegant metaphor to the whole venture: we can see his reflection in the surfaces in much the same way as he was reflecting the sounds of the Garden back at us. Artists reflect, rearrange, and displace source materials all the time, inviting us to focus our attention for a while. One measure of success is how we pay attention to our senses once the show is over. I am sure I wasn’t the only one to notice the soundwalk to the parking lot more intensely after this Sound Horizon had officially ended, with imagination duly stimulated. I found myself imagining sounds that didn’t make it into this performance but might in the future: resonance from a storm drain and grating, a contact mic in a trash can, the focused reverberation of the greenhouse roof, the advent of sonically tantalizing mini golf holes. Still these are clutching at sonic straws for a space so visually well endowed. Now we have heard our beloved space in the sonic mirror and found it slim pickings and full of dust bunnies; now the Garden has multiplied its number of visual icons: isn’t it time to lobby for a signature sound sculpture?
Stephen Vitiello performed on June 15, 2017. Upcoming Sound Horizon performances in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden include Byron Westbrook (July 13) and Olivia Block (August 3).