Joseph Grigely’s exhibition, “In What Way Wham? (White Noise and Other Works, 1996-2023),” on view at MASS MoCA through March, is a visual conversation about deafness. The titular pieces, “White Noise (monochrome),” 2000, and “White Noise (polychrome),” 2023, are a pair of cylindrical rooms the insides of which are plastered with handwritten notes on white and colorful paper, respectively.
The conversations are fragmented, some in neat lettering and some quickly scrawled. The papers vary from stained napkins to notebook paper and the backs of paperwork. Visitors who hadn’t chosen to read the welcoming blurb tried to make sense of the fragments of writing, trying to eke out a narrative or overarching message from the scattered phrases but mostly remaining confused. The words in “White Noise” are not a logic puzzle to be solved or a book to be read chapter by chapter. They are, as the title suggests, simply white noise.
Handwritten notes work well enough as a quick communication method that doesn’t rely on hearing, usually as insignificant and temporary as speech. After all, how often can you remember the exact words you said in conversation with someone? Grigely’s collection of these notes preserves something that is normally incredibly fleeting and captures them as a tessellated monument to the mundane. Grigely is quoted in the exhibit brochure compiled by Denise Markonish as stating, “Imagine if every word we spoke became palpable and dropped from our lips… Think about what would happen and the places we would find the residue of our words. Imagine scraps of language lying on countertops. Drawers full of sentences. Peelings of words in the sink. Imagine the dashboards of our cars covered with everyday conversations. That is the one reason I find written conversations so compelling — they’re not so much writing as they are talking on paper. They could be described as drawings of speech.”