Christine Sun Kim: Composing in ASL

If you, like me, are privileged enough hear the world around you, then you probably don’t think much about what artist Christine Sun Kim calls “sound etiquette.” While we don’t think about the sounds we make while doing everyday things, Kim, who was born deaf, grew up learning the rules of “sound etiquette.” If you’re hearing, you also probably don’t understand what it means to experience sound. If someone asked you to describe what sound is, you would could confidently answer with what you’ve learned in middle school physics about sound waves and frequencies, but how would you answer if someone who can’t hear the world around them asked you to describe the sound of rain? As hearing people, we’re often oblivious to the meaning that sound has in our lives. We are so familiar with its pretense in our everyday lives that it begins to become monotone. Sun Kim is on a mission to redefine sound for everyone from hearing to deaf using visual representations and auditory experiencing, giving people the opportunity to discover the magic of sound.  Until she discovered art, Sun Kim thought that she lived in two worlds: the world of English and the world of American Sign Language (ASL). However, she didn’t feel like she could Express herself using either language and also felt disconnected. Growing up deaf in a world filled with sound, she was taught the sound would never be a part of her life, that she would forever be sequestered in a world of silence. Then, she realized that although she can’t hear, sound is a prominent part of her life. Sound is the reasoning behind lots of everyone’s behaviors like being aware of how loud you chew your bubble gum, tiptoeing in the middle of the night on the way to the fridge, or laughing at the sound effects in cartoons.

For hearing people, sound also gives us signals on how to interact with people and react in a dangerous situation. It’s the difference in whether the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up when our mother’s scold us between our cheeks and ears getting warm when she brags about us to relatives. People with deafness don’t have that though. Instead, their social cues come from facial expressions and other things that they can observe. Movement is their equivalent to words and facial expressions are their equivalent to tone and dictation. Sun Kim draws out the parallels between sound and silence parallels by comparing sound and silence through music.  One of the parallels she draws is about her “voice.” Although she uses American Sign Language to communicate, at times she uses another person to be her voice. She connects this to composers who write the music which is then played by musicians and conducted by conductors. Even though the work belongs to her, the performance belongs to someone else. She also shows these parallels artistically through her canvases, specifically a series she calls Scores and Transcripts. In this work, Sforzandos of Mind Touch, she uses musical notation to describe how to sign “mind touch.” Notice how there are no notes, because no sound is made, but how there are dynamic markings to show how loud or soft the silence should be. To Sun Kim, silence is its own genre of music and sound is something to be experimented with. For an example, watch this video of Sun Kim’s face opera ii, in which “singers sing” without using their voices or their hands. According to Sun Kim, “In my opinion, roughly 30-40% of American Sign Language is a manual production, while the rest is expressed on the face and through body movement, a highly spatial aspect.” Through the piece, their facial expressions are a representation of the dynamics, or the volume or sound of a note.  Another example is Game of Skill 2.0, an interactive piece that allows participants to deconstruct and reconstruct sound. In the piece, participants have to walk at a specific speed while holding the game’s console to a wire strung from wall to wall. When moving at the correct speed, they are able to hear a Sun Kim’s text about the future from the lips of a museum intern. She describes this as being “a human turntable needle.”             

She also uses musical notation to describe silence in her series the sound of non-sounds. In her drawings, she shows what different things from obsession to climate change to waiting rooms “sound like.” Below is a drawing titled The Sound of Obsessing. Notice how the ps, a musical notation for piano or softly, start off with lots of space between them and gradually become closer and closer together. This represents the obsession taking over and becoming someone’s complete focus. The smudges show that this is all the pardoning is thinking about and conveys how the person is almost silent.            She also uses this technique in her series sound diet, which follows the decisions she made about spoken and signed languages in the household after having a hearing baby girl. In this piece, she uses the ps to represent her waving to get the baby’s attention and a four quick eighth notes to represent her stomping on the floor. Try to imagine what this might look and sound like based on the notation. In all of her art, Sun Kim proves that sound is universal, that music is universal. She challenges people to question what they know about sound, and to unlearn the labels that we attach to people who may experience sound differently than we do. All in all, sound does not discriminate, and it is more than vibrations in the air. It’s an experience, something that shapes our world whether we realize it or not. More than that, she has made it clear that the silence of music is just as important as the melody.           

Along with the incredible and unique work that she produces, what really amazes me is the impact that she’s made in the artworld as an Asian woman. In the art world about 51% of visual artists are women, but only 30% are gallery represented and a mere 25% of New York gallery exhibitions feature women according to Nine Dot Arts of Denver, Colorado. Now imagine how much smaller those percentages get when you break look into the field of sound in the art world, female artists of Asin descent, and female artists with deafness. Despite this, Sun Kim is a highly respectable artist with a litany of exhibitions and performances and galleries in White Space Beijing and Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles. To fully appreciate the work she produces, I strongly suggest that you look deeper into her works by watching her Ted Talk “The Enchanting Music of Sign Language” to learn more about the musicality of sign language and “Exploring The Sound Of Silence With Christine Sun Kim” to learn more about her process. You can also see more of her art and performances at her website. I hope this inspires you to think about the world of sound around you and maybe even learn some ASL.

Aria Mallare is a writer and creative residing in Chicago. Her poem “Chicken Scratch of my Mother Tongue” will be performed as a part of THE LIGHT, Collaboraction’s Chicago Youth Theatre Festival. She wants to live in a world where people actually listen to each other, and hopes to spread love and light through her art.

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