Deaf Artist Christine Sun Kim Is Reinventing Sound


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Deaf Artist Christine Sun Kim Is Reinventing Sound

Through sound art, performance, installations, drawings, and videos, Senior TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim is challenging "hearing culture" and our limited definition of sound, and electrifying the art world in the process.

Photo by Sirio Magnabosco. Vibrotactile devices donated by Deborah C. Egloff / McGill University. All photos courtesy of the artist

For artist Christine Sun Kim, sound is a "ghost." The multiple-MFA-holding Senior TED Fellow who has had a Whitney Museum residency and exhibited at MoMA, has been profoundly deaf since birth. The sonic hush in which she lives has pushed her towards exploring sound through her work in a varied oeuvre of performance, installation, drawing, and video.

Initially, Kim strove to translate sound into direct visual terms. She experimented with vibrations, placing coated paintbrushes and inked quills on wooden boards atop subwoofers and speakers pulsing with ambient noise. Her process resulted in lovely minimalist paintings, audibles turned objets d'art. But the project felt like translating a text using only half the alphabet. "Low frequency sounds—vibrations—only make up a very small fraction of the sound world," she explains. When it came to capturing the rich tapestry of Kim's lived experience with sound, this approach fell short.


Recognizing that facilitating paint-stained traces of vibrations was only one component of making the sonic visible, Kim tried a different tack. The artist produced her own semiotics of sound by piecing together a tangle of overlapping languages and systems, including musical notation, body language, and American Sign Language (ASL), which she describes as similar to sound in its intrinsic spatiality.

Her information system make the rigid definition of sound as anesthetized vibrations meeting a hearing ear feel nothing short of antiquated. It does this by capturing life in a world where sound is funneled more through social interactions than through ears. Because of this, experiencing her work is similar to the moment when one realizes listening to the same song in the dark is different than hearing it in the light.

Photo by Artisphere

Kim spent much of her life mirroring others' relationships to sound in an effort to follow a culturally dominant "sound etiquette." Growing up animated in a less effusive Korean family (a facet, she points out, of both Korean and hearing cultures), Kim learned quietness—"to tone it down"—in response to eyes upon her. "At first I thought I experience sound mostly through vibrations, but I realized it's much more than that," she explains. "I'm mostly informed by the way people react and behave around it and then I in turn mirror them, sometimes out of good manners." In her artistic practice, Kim strives to reclaim sound, to carve out a space where sound doesn't revolve around some borrowed etiquette, but instead around her own distinct experience.


Avant-garde composer John Cage declared sound to be the most public of senses, and it hasn't been a private experience for Kim. To the contrary, she describes the deaf community as a "collective culture." Built through a shared experience of sound and language, the deaf community has its own sound etiquette: for example, the artist explains, if someone joins a table, it is customary that people move back their chairs to let the newcomer in without looking up, so those at the table can continue to watch whomever is signing. Regardless of her audience, a predilection for the communal is in Kim's nature, and her art is frequently collaborative and participatory. "I often collaborate with others in order to make my voice known or relevant," she says. "People are almost an extension of myself, namely sign language interpreters."

Collaboration was integral to Kim's recent sonic performance piece Fingertap Quartet. In putting together the piece, the artist provided a list of 12 specific sounds to her musician friend, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange (a later version featured voice samples by Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu). Kim remarks: "I trusted [Dev] enough to make voice samples based on my instructions and I did not ask anyone to double-check for me. Conceptually, I leased his voice." Using the voice samples, an audio recorder, a laptop, and transducers, Kim created four sound files. With projected text, she communicated the concept underlying each sound file to her audience: "Like/Good," a sound you like and think is good; the converse sound, "No Like/No Good"; "Like/No Good," a sound you like but suspect might not be good; and a sound you don't like but suspect might not be good, "No Like/Good."


Photo by Conrado Johns

Kim's participatory performances "have a lot to do with the social value of each person's voice," she explains. In Subjective Loudness, 200 Tokyo residents helped Kim convert a list of 85-decibel noises into a score, effectively "becoming her voice." For 4x4, Kim invited four individuals whose voices she respects—an entrepreneur, an artist, a designer, and a musician—to sing her lyrics. Kim then distorted the voices by playing them at a frequency below human hearing range; for a night, a Stockholm gallery space was filled with her inaudible song as its low frequencies rattled the gallery's windows and doors. In Face Opera, one of Kim's favorite works (interestingly, her preference is for her performances), the artist and a group of her friends—all prelingually deaf—formed an unconventional choir. Upon Kim's cues, a "conductor" moved his or her eyebrows, mouth, cheeks, and eyes to convey a concept. To perform Kim's score—which was separated into acts like "I want to trust you" and "Grass"— the "singers" echoed and responded to the nuances of the conductor's facial markers. Kim estimates that 30 to 40 percent of ASL is manual production while the rest is expressed through the face and body movements. Face Opera alluded to the extent to which ASL relies upon facial expression and implied that attention to the nuances of facial expression can constitute hearing.

Kim's work is conceptually strong, but its real power comes from the way it honors and dignifies her own experience. In the perceptual regime that is hearing culture, Kim tells dominant sonic norms to go screw themselves. They represent a limiting etiquette, not her actual relationship with sound. As Kim pointed out in a past TED interview: "It was not like society gave me a clear, safe space to do whatever I wanted. I had to learn how to integrate their ways."

Kim's art doesn't acquiesce. It makes its own rules, taking sound on her own terms. And yet, even though she doesn't aim to be political and is more focused on expressing her personal trajectory, when reflecting on her art, one could point to that rallying cry of second-wave feminism: "The personal is political."

Photo by Sara Linderoth

The mentality that imbues Kim's work came front and center at a recent TED2015 conference. At the conference, Kim tried on a prototype of a vest—both a vest in the traditional sense and a handy abbreviation for Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer—that translates sound into vibration patterns. The vest is intended for the deaf as an alternative to the invasive cochlear implant. Kim thinks that the vest could be useful. With it, she could localize sound in space, which would help her plan and develop future sound installations. But in a recent interview with TED Fellow Renée Hlozek, Kim made an apt point, asking: "Why should I receive training on how to recognize speech through vibration patterns? I'm falling into the same behavioral trap again. The vest is mediating communication, but the problem is it's only mediating it one way, making the hearing people understood by me." Kim's art represents one small chip in that normative block.

Check out more of Christine's Christine Sun Kim's work here.