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Sense Objects: The work of Leah Beeferman and Stephen Vitiello, viewed and heard together
Stephen Vitiello, Captiva Polaroids (Large View) Bob’s Chair and Sunset. Unique archival inkjet print, 2013, 19.5 x 36.25 inches.

By: Regine Basha

NEW YORK, NY.- ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, would it still make a sound?’ points to one of the greatest scientific and philosophical conundrums of our time-and hence the value of understanding the realms of sound. Does sound produce our sense of hearing or does our sense of hearing produce sound? In Eastern thought, particularly the Indian Vedas, the element of Ether carries sound frequencies and it is only the object of 'sound' when it is perceived by the instrument of the ear. (1) As a sense object, not only does sound deliver information, but also affects our inner compass and orientation to space. How might we consider the faculty of hearing as a vantage point unto the world?

Sense Objects features the visual work of Leah Beeferman and Stephen Vitiello: two artists who have, in varying degrees, worked with sound and who first met one another in the academic environment (Vitiello was Beeferman’s professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009). This parallel pairing brings together their shared interest in producing art from a sonic perspective. The exhibition foregrounds two series of visual works, one by each artist, which are influenced by listening to and working with natural soundscapes; it also features two new four-channel sonic compositions made independently of the visual work. This vinyl record, available at the gallery as an artwork and as the show catalogue, presents two new sound pieces and a printed dialogue with the artists about their working processes with sound, specifically. The record/catalogue is produced with Textual Records and Everything Studio.

Sound art need not be exclusive to art with sound; active listening may also be the guiding principle through and by which art in other media is conceived. From this position, we may learn of new conceptual renderings of space and place, hidden qualities of the natural and industrial world, and notions of the expanded space of our body.

Stephen Vitiello has worked formally with Polaroids as a format for over ten years as part of his field recording practice—which took off in 2003 with a seminal trip to the Brazilian Amazon. Field recordings—or as R. Murray Schafer articulated in the 1970s, listening to ‘soundscapes’(2)—heightens awareness of what Schafer called ‘acoustic ecology’. The practice of field recording has since produced a spectrum of trajectories including activist, scientific and avant-garde music or sound art approaches. In the case of many contemporary artists today, as with Stephen Vitiello and Leah Beeferman, a mingling of investigations and intentions is felt.

Vitiello’s Polaroids, depicting his position within a natural place and coupled with a text that shares the sonic moment at the moment of capture, are in themselves fleeting objects of reception. As visual documents of nature, they are both as curiously mundane as they are mysteriously beguiling. Simple texts that read ‘Near silent evening’ or ‘Early evening, an owl tucked away’ accompany the image discreetly. Vitiello considers the doubling of time: the instantaneous moment of capture followed by the performativity of the Polaroid—a very slow growing and then dissolving breath of the image. Through their insistent modesty, the Polaroids bear witness to the poignant impossibility to stop time. Like On Kawara’s postcards, they are his own ‘I was here’ note.

Sense organs, we are reminded here, are always, relentlessly, receiving. Oftentimes Vitiello will intentionally interrupt the Polaroids’ development process as a notational device of his intervention into that space and time. Much like his sonic compositions, Vitiello often works by generating a call and response within a given context and space, meaning his physical presence is registered through a dialogue with the given locale. It becomes important for the artist to involve himself in natural systems that might have a poetic quality beyond their source. Hovering between field reportage and captures of meditative states, the Polaroid film becomes, for Vitiello, a proxy for his own sensual mechanisms.

Leah Beeferman makes sound and visual work simultaneously and arrived at her current series of image-making by learning from the structure of her sonic compositions. Her primary conceptual drive lies in exploring the formal and narrative potential of density and emptiness. Her keen interest in quantum physics (her father was a physicist) informs her overall research and experimental approach, yet Beeferman is well aware of the ‘unpicturability’ of this theoretical scientific inquiry. For her, it becomes a valuable point of departure to create parallel inquiries in order to work through certain problems of artmaking.

In her sound compositions, field recordings are taken out of context and layered with digitally-created sound in modalities that speak to ‘an internal abstract narrative,’ as she puts it. Similarly, her current digital images, which incorporate photographs made while on residencies in the Arctic and subsequently in Finland, are highly colored digital collages that seem to evoke various emotional registers. Like loose puzzles incorporating shaped fragments of nature, images are suspended alongside various digital markings or scans of ambiguous surfaces. Intermittently, a digitally drawn shape is pushed to appear natural, while an image of water evolves as flat and graphic. In proximity, these hot and cold abstractions produce highly ambiguous spaces and surfaces that push and pull our perceptual reception of them, as they might if we were to hear their sound.

Beeferman sometimes calls the process of making these works ‘reverse-drawings’ since there are both building and erasing actions happening simultaneously. Viewing them produces some kind of subtle, yet optically challenging exercise in navigating the simultaneous intake of the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ realms, not unlike an acceleration of our daily sensory lives both in the physical world and online. They beg the question, ‘where are we located?’ in this unpicturable scientific space.

For both Vitiello and Beeferman, the performative process of making these works is as meaning-laden as is the final image. They remind us that nothing observed or heard is unaffected by the observer/listener.

The exhibition is on view at Fridman Gallery through June 2, 2014.


(1) ‘Akash’ is the Sanskrit term for Ether, ‘Shabda’ for the sense object of sound. See Lad, Vasant. Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda. Vol 1 P.28
(2) See Schafer, Raymond Murray (1977). The Tuning of the World. Random House Inc. for a discussion of ‘acoustic ecology’ and soundscapes.



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