MAKING SENSE

How Christine Sun Kim, Deaf Sound Artist, Hears Everything

Christine Sun Kim’s work is an expression of the spaces between sound and silence—the many dimensions that are overlooked simply because no one can hear them.

06.01.15 9:15 AM ET

For artist Christine Sun Kim, sound has many personalities.

The MFA-holding TED fellow, who has exhibited at MOMA, held residencies at the Whitney Museum and most recently was guest artist at the MIT Media Lab, is challenging conventional ideas about sound through her art.

On a sleepy Sunday in Moabit, Berlin, I meet Kim, a petite 34-year-old with dyed blond hair tightly pulled back. Deaf since she was born, Kim exudes an energy that belies her silence, greeting me with a hug and kiss, before darting into the kitchen to make tea. We sit down and Skype to communicate, but there’s no need for video.

For the past seven years, Kim has lived between New York City and Berlin. But it was not until 2008, during an arts residency in gritty Berlin, that she began to consider sound as her next medium.

“I noticed how sound art was a thing and became intrigued about the concept. I am always drawn to conceptual art and the ideas behind a piece or installation,” she said.

“For me, sound had always been an idea—an intangible space that separated me from others—so I was curious about how art could transcend sound and vice versa.”

Kim, who was a visual artist at the time, gradually realized that she wanted to explore sound. And it totally freaked her out.

Her first jab at sound art occurred in New York City with a musician friend or, as Kim notes, “My only musician friend.” He showed her his subwoofers, which she tinkered around with, not knowing what she was doing.

As she was playing, her friend kept telling her “that’s a good sound” or “that’s a bad sound.” Childhood memories flooded back to Kim, who was raised in a Korean-American household in California, with a deaf sister.

While her parents were acclimating to their new American home, they had to learn both English and sign language. Communication could be confusing, and often frustrating. Amid the confusion, Kim was often told she was too loud. She notes that her sister is considered the quiet one, laughing.

“I was constantly being told not to make this or that sound or that I was making too much noise. I always had to adopt to people’s ideas about sound.”

Kim’s sound art is not about adapting. It’s about creating and ranges from “seismic calligraphy” drawings, which she creates with subwoofer vibrations that make sketches on canvases—an illustrative interpretation of sound.

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Sometimes, she will record different sounds or her own voice - whether it’s street noise or the pop of a balloon or the wind blowing, and later use it in a performance or a canvas.

When she performs or showcases any of her work, like the seismic canvases, she never uses an interpreter—in an effort to show how the audience how much we need to hear or have language to feel comfortable.

Last fall in Berlin, Kim presented the Fingertap Quartet, which explored “the ownership of sound”—an underlying theme of her work.

The quartet presented four different sounds, which came from four sound files that Kim prepared using an audio recorder and her laptop.

Throughout her performance, she highlighted the concept of each sound, by typing up a large text, which was then projected onto the wall for the audience to read and also experience.

“Fingertap” is one of Kim’s more recent performances and lies at the core of her work’s mission—to question the “ownership of sound” and the social values and rules attached to it, which she believes otherwise goes unnoticed.

Kim said she notices how some members of the audience are uncomfortable with the silent spaces between her sounds.

That mute space automatically separates her from the audience. It’s as if they need confirmation that she’s deaf to understand why it’s silent, and sometimes, Kim uses her voice, which is raw, to show that she’s deaf and why she’s not talking.

But the point is made. Sound dictates much of a person’s identity. For Kim, she wants to challenge commonly held notions about ownership of sound—which is why she records street noises, the quotidian hum of everyday life that most people take for granted.

In her six years as a sound artist, Kim has coined the term “sonic identity,” which refers to the space between a person and their voice. People with normal hearing need sound to access a person’s “sonic identity.”

For Kim, it is through visuals that she accesses a person’s identity. Her work is an expression of the spaces between sound and silence—the many dimensions that are often overlooked, simply because no one can hear it.

The same way people need to hear sound, Kim needs to see visuals, which is why she connects vibrations to visuals with her seismic calligraphy creations. Art is a way for Kim to bridge distances borne of silence, to illustrate the absence of sound and in the process possibly create new ideas about sound.

On how she defines her oeuvre, she said although it’s mainly performance-based, that “Drawing is performing, vocalizing is performing, and conducting is performing. I am often called a performer or composer or sound artist. I guess I’m all of these.”

What she’s not is a deaf artist—or at least she does not want to be framed that way. “It’s so much more than just our struggles,” she says. “American Sign Language is way too literal, and if the deaf community had full access to language and education everywhere, there would be a large group of fantastic artists.”

Kim bemoans society’s attitudes toward the deaf community, starting with poor selection of career opportunities: The deaf are usually counselors, translators or teachers of other deaf people. (Her sister is a counselor. And a great one, Kim adds.)

Being an artist in the deaf community is considered more of a hobby than a profession, she believes. There’s a stigma that a disability will impair you from being a fully formed artist, like one needs all of their faculties. Kim feels her lack of knowledge about sound gives her a different perspective on it. Isn’t that what art is all about?

“Sound has always been a ghost to me, but not in the haunting sense. It was more like I knew something was there, I could visualize the reactions sparked by sounds, and then try to determine why A caused B.”

But, oddly this ghost has become her artistic medium, where she feels secure. It is space that was once closed to her, that she has come to inhabit through her work as an artist.

Kim would like to keep making big works. “I’m really into making big scale drawings. I just tried rice paper for the first time here in China and I have a good feeling about it.”

She hopes to keep executing sound installations where people hear the result of sounds—or what she refers to as secondary sounds.

“I’d like to make a ‘music’ and ‘ASL’ video, but I’m not sure exactly and how. And in the future, I would love to work with musicians that work as artists, like Kraftwerk and Taylor Swift—well, maybe i just want to be in her bff club. Ha!”

In 1934, Virginia Woolf wrote, “Painting and writing have much to tell each other and though painting and writing must part in the end, they have much in common, because the novelist after all wants to make us see. The novelist is always saying to himself how can I bring the sun onto my page? How can I show the night and the moon rising?”

Woolf might not have foreseen the emergence of sound art. But, perhaps she would have recognized Kim’s work as another way to make us see. Or hear.