They gave him a key, and 24-hour access.
He walked into the abandoned Macy’s building at CityPlace with microphones and a camera attached to his baseball cap. He wandered around the cavernous, empty space for days at a time.
He recorded the sound of squeaking dressing room doors and grinding electrical transformers. He created tones by running his finger along lampshades, or striking objects with a mallet. He took pictures of corporate affirmations left behind in employee lounges — slogans such as “You Are The Magic” and “Find Your Way.”
He looked. But, mostly, he listened.
And from it all, internationally renowned sound artist Stephen Vitiello, whose work has ranged from the World Trade Center to the Australian outback, created a multimedia exhibition unlike any other in Palm Beach County. And in the most unlikely place — smack in the middle of a West Palm Beach shopping complex.
That’s the idea behind Culture Lab, a new experiment in which the owners of CityPlace are betting that arts and culture can be just as crucial to their business model as retail and restaurants. They want to brand CityPlace as a re-imagined urban entertainment district, a city-within-a-city, tied to the destination glamour of the new Restoration Hardware and nearby Hilton hotel.
Decades ago, retailers looked for tentpole stores like Macy’s to form their identity. “I think we’re pivoting into a new world,” said Gopal Rajegowda, senior vice president for Related Companies, which owns and operates CityPlace. “Arts and culture is the new anchor.”
So, for the next year, the 110,000-square-foot Macy’s space will be home to Vitiello’s sprawling exhibit on the second floor, with plans for more national and local artists to come. And the outside of the Culture Lab boasts a second exhibit, a bright Pop Art mural called “Palm Beach Parade” by British artist Michael Craig Martin.
What happens if another big flagship store wants to move in? Rajegowda said the Macy’s property will eventually be re-developed. But, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, some 8,600 stores were expected to close in 2017, and a quarter of all shopping centers will shut down within five years. A lot of retail hubs are likely to remain vacant.
Related hopes culture can fill those gaps and stimulate new interest from visitors, providing an enhanced experience along with going to a restaurant, movie or store. “It’s the combination of all these things that make a place,” said Rajegowda. “Urban districts have a lot of surprise and delight.”
And nothing may surprise you more than the work of Stephen Vitiello.
Vitiello wasn’t sure. The idea was pitched through Culture Corps, a New York non-profit that links up the corporate and artistic worlds.
A shuttered department store in West Palm Beach?
“I came there skeptically,” he admitted in a phone interview from Richmond, where he is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Both a musician and sound artist, Vitiello’s got a serious, cutting-edge resume. Shows in New York, Sydney, London and Paris. A recording of city bells along Manhattan’s High Line walkway. A Guggenheim fellowship. An Australian television documentary. Collaborations with artists Ryuichi Sakamoto and Nam June Paik. A musical score for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dance troupe.
This didn’t seem like his kind of thing.
“In my head, I thought it would be an old department store from the 1950s, like that ‘Twilight Zone’ episode with all the mannequins,” Vitiello said in a soft-spoken voice. “I was way more excited when I got there. The (ceiling) dome, the light, the strange acoustics. I treated it more like an archaeological find.”
His installation, called “You Are The Magic,” is mostly about the ears. That’s why he calls his art “listening with intent.”
But the exhibit does have an unusual visual component: the former Macy’s itself. Rajegowda says it looks much like it did when the retailer left: two vacant floors, randomly strewn with empty display cases. Brand names without the brands. Old signs with missing letters. Exposed ceilings. Directions to non-existent departments.
There is an otherworldly feel in riding an escalator to nowhere, or wandering through a palace of lost commerce. Vitiello’s three-part exhibit builds on this offbeat vibe.
In the first segment, called “Only Traces Remain,” you sit on low gray couches in the former men’s apparel section and listen to a monologue written by sci-fi author Paul Park, based on photographs of the empty building. It’s like a fanciful podcast, with characters discussing everything from relationships to the environment, all set to Vitiello’s seductive, percussive rhythms.
Across the floor is “Soundtrack From The Luggage Chapel.” In a curved window corner where Macy’s once displayed suitcases, there is now an empty floor with oversized pillows, bathed in an eerie blue light. Here the sounds turn chilly and industrial, a drone of noise manipulated from the building’s power grid.
“I went into the electrical room and I’m already prone to migraines,” Vitiello recalled. “And I thought, ‘I hate this sound. It hurts my head.’ So I thought, ‘How do I transform this into something pleasing?’”
The final segment, “Find Your Way,” a video collaboration with artist Andrew Deutsch, is a bit of subliminal commentary, as motivational quotes that Vitiello discovered in the employee areas pop up on a video screen of fluidly changing images. It’s placed in the former “intimate apparel” section, which proves that Vitiello has a subtle sense of humor.
Vitiello also piped in an ambient soundtrack through the store’s original speakers that makes the entire floor reverberate with sound. In his visits to the space last fall, he captured nearly 15 hours of the building’s noises and rhythms that he used to create four 5 to 15-minute loops.
So, what’s it all mean? Vitiello doesn’t like to explain his work. But he’s clearly juxtaposing the present state of the building with echoes of its physical past. He did emphasize that it’s not meant to be a message about the rise or fall of consumerism.
“I don’t tend to make work that’s cynical,” he said.
And it’s not the first time he’s recorded a building.
A native New Yorker, Vitiello’s obsession with sound began in wild abandon, when he played guitar in late ’70s punk bands. He gradually moved into making records, art installations and finally cemented his life calling when he spent a six-month residency in 1999 on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center.
His recording of the Twin Towers, especially the buildings’ creaking noises as they swayed and stressed during Hurricane Floyd, got the attention of museums and galleries. “It opened mental pathways and also career pathways,” he said.
And two years later, on Sept. 11, he was residing in the shadow of the Twin Towers with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old daughter when the planes hit. “We watched it, heard it, lived it for many months,” he said quietly.
The night before, he had been lecturing at Brooklyn College, where he played his Twin Towers recording and talked about the experience of being in the trade center. “I said, ‘You become aware of your own vulnerability, being that high up.’”
Suddenly, along with those twisted steel beams that cities have erected to mark that terrible day, Vitiello’s recording became freighted with new meaning. His sound installation was featured at the Whitney Museum’s 2002 biennial, with the museum’s web site saying it has “assumed the status of an unwitting memorial to a lost site.”
Over the years, and projects, Vitiello has gathered the equivalent of four terrabytes of recorded sound on hard drives. But he’s always searching for the one he hasn’t heard. He hopes soon to capture a freight train-like wind phenomenon in the Appalachian mountains, and is starting to record the sounds of insects through vibrations off the stems of plants.
Needless to say, Vitiello is not the kind of artist you’d expect CityPlace to choose. Rajegowda, of Related, said they considered more traditional visual artists, who wanted to boldly make over the space. But Related liked how Vitiello wanted to comment on what was already there.
“We were in awe of how the space was an installation in its own right,” Rajegowda said.
He’s already heard some feedback that it’s “a bit avant-garde.” But he says he’s “excited about the notion of experimentation.” Rajegowda believes the show, paid for by Related and presented for free, will pique the interest of everybody from Dreyfoos students to retirees. He’s intrigued by the idea that challenging art doesn’t have to be in a museum setting.
As for Vitiello, he’s satisfied when visitors walk out of his works and become aware of a sense beyond sight.
“I get inspired by people saying they are hearing sounds that they had (previously) tuned out. That makes me happy.”
IF YOU GO
“You Are The Magic” by Stephen Vitiello
Culture Lab, the former Macy’s building, CityPlace, West Palm Beach
Open Friday-Sunday, 11 am-6 pm