The story about how I became deaf is a story I tell often, because people always want to know what happened. It started when I was a year old, when I lost my hearing in one ear from a fever. Then when I was ten years old, in 1967, I was playing “King of the Hill” with some friends. I fell maybe fifteen feet, rolling over the ground, and when I reached the bottom of the hill things seemed strange: the commotion around me was silent. As I staggered around, the faces of my friends were anxious, and their mouths moved, but nothing came out. A policeman came and drove me to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed the problem: a twig lying on the ground had poked its way into my ear, destroying the eardrum and the middle ear. In the months afterwards, the doctors who examined me all reported the same thing: “Sorry, Joe. Your hearing is completely gone.” As a deaf friend later said to me, what I lost in my hearing I gained in my deafness.
One of those things I gained was a different way of communicating with the world. I tried lipreading; I was pretty bad at it. I learned sign language, but not many people sign. After a while, I settled on asking people to write down for me what they were saying. It was simple, practical, and accessible—I just had to make sure I had a pencil and paper with me. For years I discarded the papers, but once, after dinner with a friend in my studio in Jersey City, I was suddenly aware of the plethora of conversations around us: they were in the kitchen, on the dining table, on the couch, on the floor.
The next day I stacked them up and put them aside. And for a month or so I saved my conversation notes, and one day laid them all out on the floor of my studio—hundreds of scraps of conversations. At first it wasn’t clear how unusual, special, or even remarkable these little notes were. Over time I realized that people did not so much write on paper, as talk on paper. The defining element was discontinuity. The content was largely unexceptional: they were just ordinary conversations. There were conversations about food, art, sex, conversations with friends and strangers, conversations with bakery clerks and police officers, conversations on buses and airplanes, conversations that took place when sitting and walking—encompassing all the usual topics people might talk about on any given day—except they were all written down. Instead of just drifting off into the air. Beethoven’s conversations were a lot like this, too. In his surviving “conversation books” there’s a curious history of his everyday life—in one conversation with a friend he talks about perspiration, enemas, bellyaches, wine, and bedbugs.
Over the years, I saved conversation notes, albeit in a haphazard way. Some were organized based on the people who wrote them. Some were organized by trips I took—a confluence of people, places, and time. Some were organized more formally, based on the color of the paper, or the direction of the writing, or the content, or whether there were drawings as part of the content. In my thirties, when I was living in New York, the archive grew fast—from a thousand papers to ten thousand to a hundred thousand. Somewhere around 120,000 papers I got married to someone who spoke sign language, so the archive grew much more slowly after that. It now consists of around 200,000 papers.
Over the years, this archive of conversation papers became many things for me. Most essentially they were the raw material from which I made my art—wall pieces and table-top tableaux that explored ways we might see sound in the absence of sound. But they also worked as formal abstract grids of colored papers, inflected with a materialized form of speech. And finally, they were speech itself: an archive of everyday life inscribed on paper. The late John Bayley, a mentor of mine during my Oxford days, once told me about Paul Klee’s painting Ein Fetzen Gemeinschaft, describing it as “a scrap of commonness.”1 It’s a good way to think about almost any archive: as scraps entrusted to the safety of someone’s care.
While being deaf has been disabling, and a source of endless challenges, it has also been enabling as well. The enabling part is complicated to explain, it doesn’t come easily. It’s not about “overcoming” difference; it’s about intercoming, of working with a given situation, and reshaping and realigning yourself as you go. Once, when I was having tea with a friend, she told me a story about a friend’s blind baby who could imitate—-perfectly—the sound of a refrigerator—and the sound of the car coming up the driveway over the gravel. After a long pause in which we both considered the situation, she turned to me and said, “Beauty is difficult. Never Forget that.”