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Joseph Grigely: In What Way Wham? (White Noise and Other Works, 1996-2023)


  • Current Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • On view through June 30, 2024
  • Building 4

In In What Way Wham? (White Noise and Other Works, 1996-2023) artist Joseph Grigely explores the visual representation of speech and sound in the form of installations, sculptures, photographs, films, and books.

A native of Western Massachusetts, Grigely was born and raised in East Longmeadow, where at the age of ten he fell down a hill and became completely deaf. At this point, he began a journey that he describes as “watching the world with the sound turned off,” paying close attention to language, communication, and the vagaries of human interaction.

In the mid-1990s Grigely first exhibited his ongoing series, Conversations With the Hearing, composed of notes written during conversations with people who do not know sign language. They are conversations from daily encounters with family, friends, and strangers. These notes are central to the new commission White Noise which consists of two intersecting oval rooms that surround the viewer with thousands of handwritten conversation papers. The rooms, each roughly twenty-five feet across, in the triple-height space of the museum’s first-floor gallery showcases three decades of conversational exchanges. The phrase “White Noise” is used by audiologists to describe a noise that occupies a wide bandwidth of random frequencies. For his own White Noise, Grigely provides a visual equivalent of this experience, immersing viewers in the space between speech and writing with floor-to-ceiling notes; one room in shades of white and the other in a cacophony of color.

Other works in the exhibition look at the slow accumulation of material in the form of archival collections, and using this archive as resource material for serial projects such as the series Songs without Words and Craptions, the first of which deals with images of people singing and performing music from paper copies of The New York Times with the captions removed; and the latter investigates the use of AI and auto-captioning, and the surprisingly convoluted relationship between speech and text. Also on view is Blueberry Surprise (2003), a work drawn from Grigely’s archive of conversations that consists of a carefully edited narrative of thousands of utterances, the speaker of each utterance distinguished by a shift in text color, from orange to red to black. Presented at MASS MoCA as a wall frieze, a print, a book, and an audio play for three voices, Blueberry Surprise reveals Grigely’s deft way of reshaping ordinary conversation into a creative form that folds art and literature into each other. This audio performance is available to listen to on our website.

Grigely’s exhibition asks us to think deeply about human communication, about the formal and informal qualities of language, and about what happens when language is rendered inaudible. He states: “Part of my interest is to convey in some sense the experience of being deaf.” And while much of the exhibition explores the enabling side of being deaf, two new sculptures speak to the disabling side of the experience. Between the Walls and Me and What the Stress Amounts To (both 2023) are essentially archives of social contact, where the frustrations and complications of disability cannot be ignored, and where they have deeply unsettling consequences.

This exhibition strives to provide accessibility resources for the deaf and blind, including audio descriptions and Deaf Experience Tours. Please check MASS MoCA’s accessibility page for information: massmoca.org/visit/accessibility/.

Download a PDF version of the gallery guide.

About the artist:
Joseph Grigely (b. 1956, lives and works in Chicago) has exhibited extensively in Europe and the U.S.. His work is in collections that include the Tate Modern, London; The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; SMAK, Ghent, Belgium; the MCA, Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Recent exhibitions and projects took place at Grazer Kunstverein, Graz; the Serpentine, London; FRAC Île-de-France/ Le Plateau, Paris; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Foundation Serralves, Porto; and the Centre Pompidou, Metz. His work has been shown in the Whitney, Berlin, Venice, Istanbul, Liverpool, and Sydney Biennials. In 2007, the Baltimore Contemporary and Tang Museum published a monograph on his work, Joseph Grigely: St. Cecilia. His books include Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism (1995), Conversation Pieces (1998). Blueberry Surprise (2006), Exhibition Prosthetics (2010) and Oceans of Love: The Uncontainable Gregory Battcock (2016). Grigely is represented by Krakow Witkin, Boston, and Air de Paris, Paris.

Joseph Grigely,
People Are Overhearing Us
(detail), 2012
Pigment print, 44” x 148″, edition of 3
Courtesy of the artist, Krakow Witkin, Boston, MA and Air de Paris, France.
Photo: James Prinz