On ViewMass Moca
In What Way Wham? (White Noise and Other Works, 1996–2023)
May 28, 2023–March 31, 2024
North Adams, MA
In the tradition of such artists as On Kawara, Stanley Brouwn, James Lee Byars, and Ray Johnson, whose work extensively consisted of ephemera—postcards, hand-drawn maps, notes, and collages—the conceptualist Joseph Grigely presents images and texts as artifice, evidence, and commentary. There is something almost anthropological about Grigely’s work, though methodologically its presentation is neither dependent on historical discourse nor formal categories. Instead, it is organized in accord with how it is to be comprehended. Given this, it appears to be rooted in Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic, with its emphasis on the dynamic exchange of ideas and meanings that occur within a work of art or literature. Bakhtin suggests that artistic creations are not static, isolated entities, but rather are engaged in ongoing conversations with their cultural, historical, and social contexts. When applied to Grigely’s work, viewers seem to facilitate these dialogues, for they are not just witnesses or passive recipients but participants; their personal experiences and cultural backgrounds come to bear on how they interact with the artwork’s multi-layered themes.
Given the complexity of Grigely’s strategies, his varied subjects and forms (installation, sculpture, video, etc.), if we were not informed that Grigely has been deaf since the age of ten, it would seem nonsensical to attribute his work to his deafness. Yet, from this biographical fact we can draw the conclusion that it was the catalyst that led him to contemplate how communications—the exchange of information—consist of flawed systems. Subsequently, from this he intuited his subject, his condition offering him a unique perspective on how humans communicate with each other and the means to explore it. The resulting works revolve around issues of communicability, and his main strategy is to highlight how gaps, absences, and the dissolution of context reduce the reception and interpretation of a message’s content to speculation.
As a deaf person, Grigely navigates the world of communication primarily through spoken and written language, supplemented by lip-reading, facial expressions, and bodily gestures. Utilizing materials ranging from words handwritten onto scraps of paper or post-its, screen grabs of text messages, photos and articles clipped from newspaper, and imagery from mass-media, Grigely demonstrates how modes of presentation and media-specific habits of reception effect not only the ways in which we communicate but also how meaning is conveyed and constructed. For instance, in the absence of any other evidence, we may try to determine from someone’s handwriting and word choices their attitude and tone of voice; Grigely, by making the private public, invites everyone to eavesdrop on half of a conversation. Grigely’s portion of these exchanges, one must remember, goes unrecorded—undocumented. Through the written notes he does present, Grigely shares with us snippets of exchanges, full of breaks and omissions, some poignant, others banal. The open-endedness of these texts foster an understanding of the intricacies of interpersonal exchanges in a culture where linearity and the expository are giving way to the mash-up of all manner of word and image texts.
Another aspect that has to be taken into account in Grigely’s oeuvre is the fact that there is an aesthetic sensibility at work. It is important to note the specific ways in which he participates in each dialogue, and its presentation requires a closer examination of Grigely’s intentions. We must remember he is not merely a collaborator in the generation of these documents, he is also their editor: he decides which things are to go unsaid, unseen. He establishes the criteria upon which he determines what will be included in the historical record of his social interactions and opinions. It is apparent that in doing this, he gives attention not only to their content but also their physicality, which seemingly conveys the other histories embodied within his artwork. Through such choices he provokes varied speculative understandings as to what is being intentionally communicated and what is not. This serves as an incentive for a self-reflective questioning of what kinds of information is exchanged in his recorded conversations, discussions, dialogues, arguments, or the jokes told.
In the installation of In What Way Wham? at MASS MoCa, Grigely displays work consisting of individual items or sets of items that are conventionally mounted in frames or placed in vitrines. These are assembled logically, though not necessarily rationally: some are ordered by subject matter, others by the size or color of the paper they are on, still others to evoke the ethos of concrete poetry—in most cases, the resulting narratives are associative or the result of conjecture. Beyond these works, in the large main gallery, Grigely has constructed White Noise (polychrome) (2023) a two-story-high structure, which viewers may enter. There is one doorway for entrance, one for egress, another that connects the two interior chambers, which are approximately twenty-five feet across. The number of occupants permitted into these spaces at any time is limited. These interior chambers are lined from floor to ceiling with a mosaic of the handwritten texts, collected over the years, that others have used to communicate with Grigely. While the notes displayed in White Noise incorporate references and narratives from differing time periods, they are installed indifferent to this fact: in one room, the notes are on papers of different colors, while in the other the notes are on differing shades of white paper. This makes us aware of the inordinate amount of preparation and labor that goes into arranging and installing the various scraps of paper, each of varied dimensions, that make up Grigely’s archive.
The height of White Noise’s massive structure prohibits access to the majority of the materials on display—one can barely read any of those that are a foot overhead. This prohibition heightens our appreciation for how temporal and spatial issues affect not only Grigely but also our own daily exchanges. Likewise, questions arise: is there a hierarchy we are not privy to? Yet, by being ordered in this manner, each note also comes to be a part of another dialogue, one that we are also part of. Stepping into the structure, one is confronted with the sheer mass of notes that Grigely and his interlocutors have generated. This considerable accumulation makes palpable the cacophony of communications and interactions generated regularly by each of us. Here, the relevance of the title White Noise becomes apparent; the term references a noise that contains all frequencies across the spectrum, often identified as static. In information theory, static contains the most potential information, in tuning into a specific station what we are doing is filtering out all the other un-decoded signals. Likewise, as we immerse ourselves in the labyrinth of White Noise’s structures, we come to realize that each note, no matter how random or irretrievable its content, plays an integral role in generating a sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of how meanings are constructed.