A 'Silent Night' That Speaks of Deafness

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society sings Christmas carols in two versions for the video exhibit.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society sings Christmas carols in two versions for the video exhibit. (By Dan Meyers)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

BALTIMORE -- Sing the following, to the tune of "Silent Night":

Cy licks light, holy fright

Call his mom, call his bride

Round old Fergie's mother and child

Oil shivers so send her a smile

Tell me everything please

Tell me everything please.

Now imagine someone reading your lips as you sing. Would they be able to tell your new carol from the traditional one? A video installation by artist Joseph Grigely, who has been deaf since he was 10, suggests that they might not.

Grigely, a well-established figure in the art world, is showing his new piece, titled "St. Cecilia" (after the patron saint of music) at the Contemporary Museum. Like many of his works, it looks at the breaks in culture and communication that happen when the deaf and the hearing come into contact, and when vision and audition collide.

As you walk into the darkened room that houses "St. Cecilia," you see two large screens, side by side, showing members of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society singing their hearts out in church. At first, they seem to be singing the same Christmas carol in each projection, and you hear a blurred echo of its tune bouncing around the room. Stand right in front of either screen, however, and a speaker overhead gives you the soundtrack particular to its image. In one, the choir sings a carol with its standard lyrics. (Grigely's nine-minute loop runs through three carols.) In the other, it's singing the lyrics you might get if someone lip-read from the first video, then wrote down the words they thought the singers' mouths had formed. It turns out that even something as central to our culture as a Christmas song can underline the rift between its hearing majority and the deaf minority.

The distinctions that might matter to the choir's hearing audience -- between sense and nonsense, the traditional and the new -- are leveled for the profoundly deaf, to whom only the image can appeal. Grigely has said how surprised he was that even after he lost his hearing he still enjoyed going to concerts, just for the sight of what was going on. For a deaf visitor, "St. Cecilia" might present that kind of pleasing visual experience, repeated on both screens. A hearing visitor right beside the deaf one might encounter something very different: an experience of profound disjunction between the two projections, with sense becoming nonsense as their different words are heard.

Those in the majority tend to imagine that the meanings in our art and culture are at least marginally stable -- especially when it comes to as modest and hidebound an art form as the Christmas carol. But that's only because our imaginations rarely stretch to include audiences extremely different from ourselves.

Art has always been used to present pictures of some interesting corner of the world: 17th-century Amsterdam, or maybe 19th-century Montmartre. Grigely simply uses the techniques and media of contemporary art to continue that tradition, while heading even further afield. The picture he presents isn't so much of the corner lived in by the deaf themselves; it's of the much stranger corner where the deaf bump against the hearing world. The two cultures work fine when they're on their own. It's only when they meet that communication starts to suffer. Grigely uses lip reading, which, unlike sign language, is most often used between the deaf and the hearing, as a symbol of that troubled meeting.

"Symbol" is the right word, because like almost every artist, Grigely tweaks the reality he shows to give it extra meaning. He did not in fact get deaf people to lip-read those carols. He got hearing people to mouth single lines from the songs, silently, then had other non-deaf volunteers do their best to lip-read those mouthings, jotting down their interpretations. The strange results were then assembled by Grigely into the peculiar simulations of lip-read carols presented on screen in "St. Cecilia."

So Grigely isn't really giving an image of how the deaf experience things. He's coming closer to presenting the hearing majority with a comic scene from its own expectations, where deaf people go to church and get the words wrong. It's hard for hearing people not to laugh at Grigely's altered lyrics. But maybe the joke's on us: Would a deaf person really think that a church choir would be singing "Cy licks light, holy fright"? Real lip-reading depends on figuring out the words most likely to be spoken in a given context, not guessing at a bunch of foolish ones. It's only us hearing fools who visit "St. Cecilia" and take it as the gospel truth.

Joseph Grigely: St. Cecilia is on view through Aug. 22 at the Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St., Baltimore. Call 410-783-5720 or visit

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