We Can Also Hear With Our Eyes
Christine Sun Kim’s Sound Art

She has been deaf since birth. Nevertheless, Christine Sun Kim makes sound the subject of her drawings, performances, and interactive installations.  Her works can be seen and heard around the globe. Recently, a selection of her drawings was acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection. Achim Drucks on an artist who has found her own voice.
After finishing her studies at the New York School of Visual Arts, Christine Sun Kim had a kind of identity crisis. She regarded herself as a painter, but was not very happy with her pictures. Whether they were figurative or abstract, she felt her canvases were too similar to the works of other artists. The epiphany, as she put it, came to her when she was in Berlin on a scholarship. While visiting galleries there, she noticed that at some exhibitions there was hardly anything to see. Many artists relied on sound rather than the visual. For Kim, however, that was a problem. “I was born deaf, and I was taught to believe that sound wasn't a part of my life.” Due to her experiences in Berlin, she began to think intensely about sound, about its role in her life and in society as a whole.
“As a deaf person living in a world of sound, it's as if I was living in a foreign country, blindly following its rules, customs, behaviors, and norms without ever questioning them.” But then she began doing exactly that and put the medium from which she felt excluded at the center of her work. “Everything that I had been taught regarding sound, I decided to do away with and unlearn. I started creating a new body of work,” she explained in 2015 during her talk at the TED Innovation Conference in Monterey, where scientists, activists, and artists present innovation ideas every year. “I realized: sound is like money, power, control—social currency. And sound is so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork, or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.” Thanks to this empowerment she has been exhibited at MoMA, Tate Modern, the Shanghai Biennale—and Frieze London, where the curators of the Deutsche Bank Collection acquired a selection of her drawings.

Examples of Christine Sun Kim’s new works are currently on view at KINDL – Center for Contemporary Art in Berlin. The exhibition Up and Down features six of the reduced drawings that Kim calls scores. Indeed, they recall note sheets and represent the “sound” of different emotional states: the sound of anticipation or the sound of apathy. Kim visualizes these feelings with the help of abbreviations: p for piano, f for forte—signs that otherwise indicate to musicians the volume at which they should play their instruments. Kim groups the abbreviations and notes on the sheet in various rhythms, thus making the psychological dynamics of the different states visible. To visualize apathy, she repeatedly flashes an f, followed by many p’s: a simple yet apt depiction of futile attempts to overcome passivity and at last become active.
“There’s a massive culture around spoken language. And just because I don’t use my literal voice to communicate, in society’s eyes it’s as if I don’t have a voice at all.” But this impression is deceptive. This became apparent during Christine Sun Kim’s TED talk. It is fascinating to observe the presence of the artist, born in 1980, on the stage, how she speaks with her whole body. She communicates in American Sign Language. ASL, the world’s most widely used sign language, incorporates a complex mixture of gestures, facial expressions, and bodily postures. During her lectures, she is assisted by sign language interpreters who act as her audible voices.

The works on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection are also about different voices. My Voice Acts Like ROYGBIV alludes to the seven colors of the rainbow, R as in red to V as in violet. “I work with a large number of ASL interpreters, and that means my voice comes in different colorful characters,” the artist wrote about this work. “I have all different voices for specific situations—a blue voice for fancy talks, a purple voice for social settings, an orange voice for conferences, a red voice for therapy sessions and so on. Putting all my voices together looks like a rainbow … and that would be my ideal voice.” In her drawing, however, she transformed the colorful rainbow into a formation consisting of black linear constructions that conjure up gates through which Kim’s voice can penetrate the outer world. The drawing My Voice Thinks It’s a Novel, on the other hand, refers to the predilection of some interpreters to use flowery language. “She or he can easily make a novel out of one plain ‘yes’.”

Collaborations are an important part of Kim’s artistic work, above all performances for which she uses sound directly and which can be unpleasantly loud for listeners. At Frieze London in 2016, she was represented in the “Live” section with Nap Disturbance. The performance addresses what Kim terms “sound etiquette”: the social norms connected with sounds and volume. She was a vibrant child, and her parents, who had moved to California from Korea, continually told her to “tone it down.” Although Christine Sun Kim could not hear the disturbing sounds she made, she had to learn to avoid producing them so as not to stand out. 
Sound became a kind of ghost for Kim: “I knew something was there, I could visualize the reactions sparked by sounds, and then try to determine why A caused B.” She developed the performance at the Frieze from experiences with her partner, who often works at night and thus has to sleep during the day. “When someone takes a nap near me, I feel as if the volume goes up—my quiet noises become really loud.” At the art fair, she performed together with deaf and hearing performers. Wearing green jogging suits designed by the artist, the group performed a kind of synchronous sound ballet. In concentrated fashion, they investigated the potential of everyday items such as cups, books, and chairs to produce sound, with the spectrum ranging “from polite to not-so-polite sounds.” Nap Disturbance questions behavioral norms and at the same time seems absurdly comical and deadly serious. 
Whether Kim works with musicians such as Blood Orange, who wrote tracks for the Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue, or records an album with Wolfgang Müller, who as a member of the band Die Tödlichen Doris has since the 1980s dissolved the borders between music, art, and performance, Christine Sun Kim is always interested, among other things, in claiming a place in hearing society and giving expression to her voice with the help of the “social currency” sound. Although she views herself as an activist who calls for more participation of deaf people, Kim does not want to be classified as a “disabled artist.” “That’s not what I’m about. I want to focus on my art, not on the fact that I am deaf.”

One aim of art is to rethink matters that are taken for granted. And that is exactly what Christine Sun Kim does with her works, for it is likely that only a few hearing people have dealt with sound and its role in society as intensively she has. In doing so, Kim looks for her own voice, her own sound. The hearing audience’s ears might ring at times, but there is a simple remedy: earplugs. For we can also hear with our eyes.

Up and Down
Group show with Christine Sun Kim
Until August 6, 2017
KINDL – Center for Contemporary Art

BUSY DAYS with Christine Sun Kim
Until August 20, 2017
De Appel, Amsterdam