BY CARA VAN RHYN / “My art as my voice”

Born deaf, Christine Sun Kim grew up in California with hearing parents and a deaf sister. Pursuing her love of art she moved to New York, but on arrival in the loud and boisterous city, Kim began to take interest in the medium of sound.

She grew up believing that sound was not meant to be part of her world; that she would have no interaction with it. However, as time went on she began to question the ‘rules’ that society attaches to sound. In a recent TED Talk she discusses the ‘etiquette of sound’ and how she made it her mission to ‘unlearn’ these pre imposed regulations. In an interview with Nowness Kim stated that her definition of sound etiquette is that, ‘there are social norms surrounding sound that form our speech development and our way of handling sound with care. They’re so deeply ingrained that, in a sense, our identities cannot be complete without sound.’

She began to study the similarities between ASL (American Sign Language) and music. The sense of movement and physically expressive grammar of ASL is linked to basic musical notation in her exhibition Piano within Piano like a Lunch Sandwich and through it she conveys a humorous and poetic expression of her experience with sound.

For example, in an eponymously named piece, Kim takes musical notations for decrescendo (piano and pianissimo) and, using the principles of word-building, achieves an astonishing similarity to the concept of sound and whose visual form resembles rather playfully that of a sandwich.

Her sound installation Game of Skill invites audiences to listen to a recording of a text she wrote regarding the future, though the customised handheld listening device makes hearing difficult; her hope is that this intentionally difficult listening experience will lead each individual to be aware of the passivity implicit in this everyday behaviour.
Some of her favourite sounds, Kim states are “[her] own muffled scream, feedback, planes taking off, and anything rhythmic at 180 bpm.”

Sound to Kim is a ghostlike currency. ‘It’s there, but I don’t see it (well, unless it’s Slimer). And I am aware how much value  society puts on sound, music, and vocal languages. It’s a lot more interesting to explore a medium that I don’t have direct access to and yet has the most direct connection to society at large.”

Her work has since been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Hull House Museum in Chicago, and Art Basel in Hong Kong. She has also twice been named a TED Fellow.

Watch her TED Talk The Enchanting Music of Sign Language here.

– Cara van Rhyn

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