Joseph Grigely's Art of Conversation

Deaf since the age of ten, Joseph Grigely has long relied on writing as a surrogate for speech, inviting his interlocutors to jot down their questions on cocktail napkins, hotel stationery, gallery announcements—whatever they find at hand. In 1994, Grigely began employing these once discarded notes to create a series of witty, wry installations and mixed-media assemblages that explore the potential—as well as the limits—of human communication.
Grigely’s works composed of bits of talk and conversation call to mind the work of French philosopher Michel Serres, who looked to the reality of everyday life to combat the reductive tendencies of institutional and philosophical systems. In describing his work, Grigely himself invokes the tradition of still life, long considered the most mundane of painterly genres. Combining his interest in the experience of the everyday with the use of such classic formalist tropes as the monochrome and the grid, Grigely revitalizes modernism’s creative potential, even as he sidesteps its ideological restrictions—without putting forth yet one more new “movement” or “ism.”
Collectively entitled “Conversations with the Hearing,” Grigely’s ongoing projects have been shown at such notable venues as the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the MIT List Center for the Visual Arts, and the Center for Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu, Japan. A standout in the Whitney’s 2000 Biennial, he was also recently chosen to launch the Contemporary Series—the Whitney’s new showcase for emerging and midcareer artists—with White Noise, a specially designed oval gallery covered floor to ceiling with over 2,500 missives ranging from banal observations (“I smoked a cigarette”) to bitchy fantasies (“I want to make the dean crawl”), and everything in between. Throughout the month of August, Grigely and I met online, conducting a series of exchanges via e-mail—a medium that, like his own work, hovers strangely between writing and speech.
—Margaret Sundell

MARGARET SUNDELL: White Noise contains over 2,500 pieces of paper. That’s a lot. How big is your total archive, and how do you organize it?

JOSEPH GRIGELY: The White Noise archive consists of about 8,000 sheets of paper. There’s also a version in which all of the conversations are written on colored papers. That one is a little smaller—about 6,500 pieces—and it hasn’t been exhibited yet. They’re both evolving archives. I can’t quite imagine them ever being “complete.” There’s another part of the overall “Conversations with the Hearing” archive—about 4,000 additional papers—organized in terms of certain distinctive features of the paper, the writing, or the writer—or even the occasion on which the exchange took place. Most of these papers eventually find their way into smaller works.

MS: Another thing that interests me about White Noise is its use of installation, which is something of a departure from your previous work. You’ve created environmental works before, but they functioned more as contextualizing mise-en-scènes.

JG: In the past, many of my installations with the “Conversations” worked around conventional places for conversational exchanges: dinner tables (table talk); fireplaces (fireside chat); Christmas trees (tree-trimming parties). With White Noise I wanted to try something much more formal. The oval room evolved out of the nature of the conversations themselves. They have no real beginning, no real end, being, as they are all in medias res, conversations captured in the middle. In this sense, you could look at the room as a big grid painting.

MS: That’s definitely how I saw it—as an extension of your grid pieces, like the one in the last Whitney Biennial. In addition to being a grid, White Noise is also a monochrome.

JG: Good point. Sometimes the monochrome and the grid come together in a compelling way. Here, I’m thinking of Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series, which is quintessentially modernist in so many ways. Albers’s grids, like those of Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, work by repressing language: They take a certain familiar form, twist it, tweak it, and defamiliarize it. In a way, you could say they take us inside it. Between Malevich’s White on White and Reinhardt’s Black on Black there’s a long history of explorations such as these. About a year ago I started working on a series of monochromes that comprise papers of different shades of a single color—say, blue or green. There might be eight or nine papers arranged into a larger rectangle. It sounds relatively simple, but it’s usually a very complicated activity, because two distinct narratives have to work together: a formal narrative measured by optical experience and a verbal narrative measured by linguistic experience.

MS: By bringing in a verbal narrative, you’re introducing language, precisely the thing that, as you just mentioned, modernism works to repress. Do you think of your work as a critique of modernism?

JG: Oh, I don’t know—I’d prefer to think I’m expanding the mechanisms of modernism, rather than simply criticizing its ostensible limitations. It’s hard to keep growing as an artist without simultaneously unmaking and remaking prior conventions. And because so many conventions are involved—not just those of modernism—this remaking process is a conflation of many genres. One involves still life, in particular what Norman Bryson calls “rhopography”—the throwaway bits of everyday life. The notion is derived from the Greek rhopos, meaning trivial objects, odds and ends, the sorts of mundane things that, in composing a still-life painting, compose our lives as human beings. Everyday language is about as mundane as we can get. Imagine if every word we spoke took on material form—every simple ordinary word. Can you imagine domestic interiors? Tables covered with words, drawers full of sentences, pillows piled with whispers. The “Conversations with the Hearing” work to accomplish something like that—the materialization of everyday life.

MS: Are there other genres that you think about besides the still life?

JG: Yes, the eighteenth-century conversation piece, which attempts to provide a visual representation of auditory activity. In paintings like these, there’s always some kind of implied conversation taking place. You can see it in the gestures of the people represented, and in how their bodies are oriented in relation to one another. Think of Hogarth, or even Watteau. Musicologist and historian Richard Leppert calls this the “sight of sound,” which points to the complexity of translating an auditory experience into a visual one. I once had the opportunity to explore all of these operations in a single exhibition, a project I did at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in 1999 called The Pleasure of Conversing. Nicholas Baume, the curator, let me plunder the museum’s permanent collection and juxtapose my selections with pieces from the “Conversations” series to draw out these issues. In one room there were Canaletto’s characters chatting in the Piazza San Marco, a Kensett with two figures walking—I presume they were also talking—alongside a breaking seashore wave. There was so much implied noise in the show. And then there were some Agnes Martin grids lined up beside a grid of napkins on which airline attendants had written questions about what I wanted to eat: “CHICKEN OR FISH?” or “FISH OR CHICKEN?” The funny thing about these is that after you see ten or twelve of them lined up on a wall, they start to look really pathetic. This is good, I think, because I want to take people inside the experience of being deaf and share it with them. At the same time, I want to conflate it with various historical conventions.

MS: I don’t want to push the “modernist critique” reading of your work too hard. Your project clearly exceeds that somewhat limiting description. Critique may even be the wrong word. There’s something affectionate, even tender, in your use of modernist conventions in the way you put together these homey, ragtag grids. But I do think your grid pieces, like White Noise, articulate a particularly interesting aspect of the modernist project—the idea that it might be possible to delineate different forms of sensory perception in an absolute manner, that there might be, say, a purely “optical” experience. By alluding to the conventions of modernism, I think you set that expectation up as a ground to work against.

JG: Yes, you’re right when you say that I frame all of this activity with modernist paradigms.

MS: In a way, you counterpose modernism’s aesthetic of pure self-realization with what might be called an aesthetic of “making do,” which inevitably involves the need for some form of translation.

JG: Another aspect of that is the fact that I never really know where a specific piece will go, since the whole process is organic and evolving—you simply go where the words go. I love it when people write “bye,” for example. There are all sorts of variations in how people write the word—which is special, because it’s one phrase that really doesn’t need to be written down. A wave of the hand will do the same thing. But the fact that it does get written, and written in so many different ways is very interesting—how people will make an effort to explore the possibilities of communication, even at the risk of redundancy.

MS: In doing this conversation with you online, I've really been struck by the connection between e-mail and the notes that form the basis of “Conversations with the Hearing.” They both hover between speech and writing in a similar way. Have you ever thought of doing a project using e-mail?

JG: Many times, but it’s never quite come together in a way I liked. I’ve been using e-mail since 1987, back in the days of bitnet, and have come to rely on it as my primary mode of “distance” communication. It works beautifully for that. But e-mail is also very disembodied. It lacks the idiosyncratic inflections of speech or handwriting. Also, e-mail tends to be “complete,” in the sense that you have a full linear record of an exchange. In the “conversations” that I have with hearing people, my voice is missing, the nods and gestures are missing, the little lip-read bits are missing. What’s left is just this mass of fragments—like in White Noise—and the discontinuity somehow creates a sense of desire. I think this desire is fundamental for all art; it gives the viewer only so much. The trick for an e-mail project would be to find a way to create that kind of desire—not just to provide a trail of exchanges for people to follow but to generate a situation where they could take some pleasure in being lost.