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Signs and Misdemeanors

Deaf Artists Work Slyly And Cogently Explore How Everyday Communication Breaks Down

POST NO ILLS: A detail of "We're Drunken Bantering About What's Important In Life."

By Jason Hughes | Posted 8/15/2007

Joseph Grigely: St. Cecilia

At the Contemporary Museum through Aug. 22

Named after the patron saint of music, Joseph Grigely's solo exhibition at the Contemporary Museum, St. Cecilia, explores the idiosyncrasies of language and communication between the hearing and nonhearing worlds. His use of sound, video, written word, and drawing illustrates the subtleties of how people try to relate to one another, yet reinforces the challenges that arise due to misunderstandings. According to the exhibition catalog, "When a word is misspoken, a tone misconstrued, or meaning misinterpreted, slips in communication can trigger responses ranging from laughter to confusion to anger. The likelihood of a misunderstanding becomes greater and communication further complicated when a common language is not shared, or, as is the case with Joseph Grigely, when someone is deaf."

Often when communication proves to be difficult either because the hearing does not know sign language or the deaf has trouble reading lips, written word is the only reliable means to convey what is being said. These fragments of communication scribbled down on any piece of paper available are what makes up Grigely's installation "We're Drunken Bantering About What's Important in Life." Consisting of dozens and dozens of scraps of paper pinned to the wall and arranged in a way similar to a message board at a grocery store, the collage of dialogue is testimony to the ways in which people attempt to express their thoughts and the difficulty of understanding exactly what is being said. Each piece of paper has a question, a response, a brief story, or drawings that have been used to communicate to Grigely, yet absent of Grigely's own questions, answers, and stories. As a result, the conversation has no context other than the clues provided by the scraps of paper themselves; letterhead from hotels and airlines, a napkin from a restaurant, pages from a sketchbook, a flier for escort services, etc. What is most interesting about this installation isn't only "what a conversation looks like" but how the ability to communicate in this manner becomes even more complex to understand due to the misspellings and illegibility of what is being articulated.

Similarly, "You" (with Amy Vogel), a sound installation with accompanying framed pigment prints, plays on the notion of how people interpret written language along with the subtle intricacies of pronunciation. Each print is an enlarged version of an individual's name with the proper stresses that Grigely has asked them to write down upon meeting them for the first time so that he may be able to correctly pronounce their name. The accompanying sound installation is a collection of speakers dangling from the ceiling, each taking turns pronouncing the name of the famous artist Ed Ruscha. By asking random people to pronounce Ruscha's name--a name that is somewhat obscure for people not familiar with him--a range of interpretations becomes apparent, further articulating the trials of properly communicating what may be unfamiliar.

The seminal work of the exhibition, "St. Cecilia," is a two-channel video installation with sound commissioned by the Contemporary Museum, in collaboration with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. In this work, Grigely selects three very popular Christmas songs--"Silent Night," "My Favorite Things," and "Jolly Old St. Nicholas"-- for a fully assembled choir to perform. Grigely then transcribes the words of these songs into new lyrics based off of his ability to read the lips of the choir during the performance. The choir then re-performs the same tune but this time applying Grigely's interpretation of the lyrics.

The installation results in two large-scale projections side by side of the choir simultaneously performing both renditions of the music--on the left-hand side the original lyrics and on the right Grigely's adaptations. If you are situated to one side of the gallery space, you hear the original scores performed flawlessly; on the other side you hear Grigely's lyrics, each from separate overhead sound directional speakers. What happens at first is an overwhelming sense of confusion and misunderstanding. As you watch the videos and hear either one score or the other, it becomes obvious that something is amiss since it appears that the synchronization of the lyrics and the video are slightly off. However, once you pick up on Grigely's lyrics, what you quickly realize is that there are actually two tracks being performed. After being able to identify the subtle differences it becomes clear how the slightest misreading of someone's expression can contribute to an entirely different meaning and interpretation of what they are trying to communicate.

Overall, Grigely's exhibition is very satisfying, filled with wit, humor, charm, and irony. His ability to articulate his memories, experiences, frustrations, and triumphs is very poignant. By intentionally creating a bit of confusion and misunderstanding for the hearing world, Grigely's work conveys the need for people to make any effort they can in trying to understand one another.

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