Deaf since birth, artist and TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim learned the rules of what she calls “sound etiquette” by watching how hearing people behave and respond to sound. She knew, for example, not to slam the door or eat noisily from a potato chip bag. Now she’s ditching the rules in favour of creating her own.
While sound etiquette ensured that Kim was considerate, it often made her feel like a foreigner in another country. She blindly followed the customs and norms without ever questioning them.
Kim ultimately decided that instead of allowing sound to disempower her, she would reclaim it through art. Her music uses the audience’s voices as her own; her drawings interpret sound and put its meanings on paper. She’s exhibited at MoMA, held residencies at the Whitney Museum, and served as guest artist at the MIT Media Lab.
Earlier this year, Kim recounted her journey on stage at the TED Fellows Retreat in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California, where I met up with the burgeoning artist.
By reframing her relationship with sound, Kim hopes to open others’ eyes, and ears, too.
Growing up without the ability to hear, Kim was taught to believe sound wasn’t a part of her life. In fact, Kim probably thinks about sound more than most hearing people do.
“I know sound. I know it so well that it doesn’t have to be something that’s just experienced through the ears,” Kim says through her American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. “It can be felt naturally, or I can feel it as a visual or even an idea.”
She offered this analogy to explain the relationship: Image a musical score. If you see a small letter p, named for the piano, it means the artist should play softly. See two p’s, play even softer. Three p’s, extremely soft.
“This is my drawing of a p tree,” Kim says on stage, standing in front of a coarsely drawn illustration done in red ink. “[It] demonstrates no matter how many thousands upon thousands of p’s there may be, you’ll never reach complete silence. That’s my current definition of silence — a very obscure sound.”
In 2008, Kim journeyed to Berlin, Germany, where she met other artists who were experimenting with sound as an artistic medium. It encouraged her to be bold.
“Everything that I have been taught regarding sound, I decided to do away with and unlearn,” Kim says. “I started creating a new body of work.”
She first began tinkering with a friend’s subwoofers, making what he identified as “good sounds” and “bad sounds,” though she didn’t really understand the difference. She made abstract paintings by placing wet paintbrushes on top of the vibrating speakers.
Her projects quickly grew more conceptual.
Using marker, pastel, charcoal, and pencil on white paper, she drew her own visual interpretations of sounds and ideas — some of which were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s first major exhibit on sound art in 2013.
The illustration below, titled “All. Night.,” mimics the hand gestures you’d use to sign the phrase in ASL.
Kim’s work doesn’t end in the visual arts.
Two years ago, in a brick-faced gallery in New York, Kim led seven hearing presenters in a lecture on Isaac Newton’s design of the colour wheel. The speakers communicated to the audience using projected images, laptops, tablets, their bodies — nearly all modes of communication except the human voice.
She then gathered a group of friends, all deaf since birth or an early age, for a musical performance at the High Line Hotel. Members of the choir took turns acting as a singer or conductor, and could only use facial expressions “sing” words displayed on a tablet. They relied on visual nuances, such as furrowed brows or glaring eyes, to translate.
Kim says the performance, titled “face choir ii,” is one of her favourite projects to date.
Later, Kim attempted a similar feat by engaging hearing people in a silent choir workshop.
Earlier this month, Kim unveiled one of her most interactive and tech-savvy projects yet, The Game of Skill 2.0, which premiered at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibit.
The installation, a collaboration with electronic artist Levy Lorenzo, features an old-fashioned radio that attaches via magnets to an overhead cable. Museumgoers are invited to carry the radio along the line, altering the produced sound depending on their speed and direction.
“We’ve been fascinated by how people take listening for granted,” Kim tells Tech Insider. The goal with Game of Skill 2.0 is to affect how a person hears and interprets their hearing of sound.
Over the years, Kim’s artistic practice has allowed her to stretch and poke and twist her understanding of sound. The rules of sound etiquette don’t apply in her studio.
Still, she doesn’t plan to abandon sound etiquette all together. Kim honours her roommate’s right to sleep peacefully, and is mindful of scraping utensils against her plate in restaurants.
“I think what’s changed the most is my relationship with other people,” Kim says. “I used to let people restrict my use of sound has changed. Now I think about me first, rather than bowing down.”
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