Sound and Silence

Christine Sun Kim, Calibration Room, Installation shots, 2015.
Images courtesy of the Visual Arts Center.
Photos by Lily Brooks.

Inside the World of Christine Sun Kim

On July 9th MIT announced its prestigious Media Lab Director’s fellows for 2015 including sound artist and recent University of Texas Visual Arts Center resident Christine Sun Kim among a wildly varied list of other beguiling creatives. Earlier this year Kim produced well-received experience-based works for Austin’s Fusebox Festival as well as the VAC.   Arts+Culture Texas contributor Seth Orion Schwaiger spoke with the artist (voiced by Austin Andrews) during that residency about her practice, her unique auditory perspective, and her future plans within the realms of sound and visual art.

kim-2A+C:   I googled “the experience of sound by the deaf” in my sophisticated preparation for this interview, and one of the articles that came up was an interview of yours by PBS about your residency at Artisphere. What I didn’t find in that interview was what your specific experience of sound is like. Before we get into talking about your work I’m hoping you can provide us with a sense of your own experience of sound.

CHRISTINE SUN KIM:  Sure, but that’s a really big question. Maybe we can start with something more specific.

I understand that it’s definitely a conceptual experience for you, but can you describe your personal sense experience of sound, and whether this is something you understand through physical feelings or whether you understand sound more through a visual representation that something like technology can provide?

I started with sound back in 2008, before then I was painting. (You don’t want to know about that. I suck at that) My first step was working with lower frequency sounds. I was playing with direct translationary sounds. Then I realized that playing with the tactile aspect of sounds was very limiting, because there is such a broad universe of music, speech, spoken language, etc. etc., so I felt like that tactile aspect was too narrow. Also, working with something that I can feel physically, that’s good, but it almost becomes like a fetish, like people are fetishizing or romanticizing the idea of a deaf sound artist working with something you feel, and it being this very physical thing. When I started that work I divorced myself from that process and I started working with the concept of borrowing people’s voices, leasing people’s voices. I became obsessed with how my voice as an artist is expanded throughworking with other people. Look, I depend on this interpreter to become my voice. I depend on many people in my life in fact to be my voice and that’s how I keep myself relevant in this society.

So now I’ve brought myself a little bit back over to the tactile. I have a love hate relationship with the tactile. Maybe it’s because of those societal perceptions that I’m trying to avoid, that novelty, that sort of gimmicky view of deafness. But to answer your question, working with sound, it really depends on — for example frequencies that are so low that you can’t even hear it, but you can see how your body reacts to it, even weeks later. How sometimes those low low decibels of sound can make you feel “off”. Like in New York; I used to live in a very busy part of New York City and I always felt like I didn’t sleep well, always a bit unsettled, but then I moved to a new place. Behind the building there’s a very quite area, and I slept a lot! I love sleep and I wonder if perhaps the noise was affecting me in ways I couldn’t see, you know?

Sound itself has a lot of dimensions to it that I would like to explore, that I would like to experience and recognize. I think that I experience everything, but do I? I’d like to look at it more objectively.

kim-1I had hoped to ask you about the concept of silence next, but it seems like you’ve already described what silence means to you.

Actually I’d love to talk about silence. I’m so excited about that! I’ll try not to take over the conversation, but I’m so excited that you brought it up.

Silence. Okay. Sometimes people associate deaf art with the concept of silence, and even the word “silence.” I’ve always found it strange because I was born deaf, but I was brought up with the hearing world’s definition of silence, which is not my definition of silence. It’s like people think “oh, she must know what silence truly means,” and I don’t. It means nothing to me, the hearing world’s definition of silence, because what I use to define everything around me — I feel like silence itself is full of noise. I understand the idea of visible silence, or spatial silence, but the core of silence as the hearing world defines it, I don’t understand that. I’m still trying to find my silence.

Some people look at me and they’re like “You can’t hear sound, but you work with sound. It blows my mind.” It’s this romanticizing that I mentioned earlier. I feel like, no, it’s already there, all I’m doing is merely looking into it. [The deaf] community does have that conversation about sound and silence, but as of yet that has not been more widely discussed and remains largely undocumented.

I’m not sure if that answers your question, but basically, I do work with silence, just not your silence.

With that as a backdrop, could you tell me about your project at the Visual Arts Center?

Yes, I’m very excited about this project and the one with Fusebox. I did one project in Tokyo in 2003. They invited me to go perform in this festival called Sound Live Tokyo, and there was an outdoor stage. They had just one rule in this sound environment: I could not produce any sounds above 85 decibels, because that would affect the neighboring buildings. I thought, “well I don’t really know what 85 decibels is. I’ve had hearing tests and I’ve got a 115­decibel loss  in the left ear and 95 in the right — thats the only way I understood decibels, so I went online to better understand what decibels meant. I found that sounds occurring between 75­95 decibels are very machine­like sounds, like washing machines or urban business streets and things of that nature, so I thought “Okay, I’m gonna take a list of things that make noises between 75 and 95 decibels and make a score out of that and give it to two hundred participants in the audience to vocalize.” I passed out these papers to them and I guided them into becoming my voice. Their vocalizations became the “music”. At that point I began to really like that idea. I’ve worked in many ways: with interpreters, technical people, I’ve used the app Big Words, which led me through this series of developments which has brought me to the VAC.

The zero level decibel is the beginning of hearing, as they call it. Sixty decibels is the level of conversation, and then above that decibels get louder and louder until you get into the 120 range which becomes unbearable. Hearing people are actually really diverse; one person’s baseline for decibel sensitivity might be what we consider to be negative 15 decibels, another’s will be above that. It’s just like vision. Everybody who wears glasses has a different prescription. Why wouldn’t the same be true for hearing? Why do we have this collectivist view that “ah, this is zero decibels and that’s how everybody is.” What I’m trying to do is get us away from that standard idea of starting at zero. What I do here at the VAC in the Calibration Room is perform a quick and dirty hearing test. People will indicate at which point they start hearing things. Let’s say it’s 15 decibels, so that’s your baseline decibel level. I would set the Calibration Room to [a baseline of] 15 decibels and [set the max at] 50 above that, so, 65 [decibels]. You would hear everything from 15 decibels to 65 decibels. It’s tailored to fit your individual baseline of hearing. It becomes an individual experience. Here’s the concept: if I have a baseline of 95 decibels I’m considered unhearing, but if I tailor everything to be above 95, then I’m no longer deaf in that room.

kim-3Is that the capacity of that room? How high of decibel can you take it?

Well, I’ve only stayed on my decibel list — a group of friends of mine who are deaf compiled a list of sounds like, say, TV static or anything that might be interesting, “violent vomiting”, for example. We compiled a list of sounds we would like to hear, and it goes all the way up to 124 decibels, though I have noticed that 105 decibels seems to be the point at which it becomes uncomfortable for most people. But again, depending on people’s baseline, I’m going to subject them to sounds that are within their range.

We have three different ways that I collect these sounds. It’s important for me to view sound as something that is not thrust upon me. I want to make sure that the sounds I collect don’t diminish my work. It should be something that’s empowering to my work. So, I didn’t ask other people to collect these sounds, instead I collected them from three different sources: (1) producing sounds with my own voice, (2) making sounds with objects, (3) the internet! I collected sounds from YouTube, Soundcloud, whatever it might be. I collected those sounds and gave them to technicians who have assigned the appropriate decibel levels to each sound. Now, if the sound doesn’t come off in the exact way that a hearing person expects it to, I’ve directed the technicians to not alter them because these are sounds that I’ve personally collected, and that’s how I want them to be.

You can see a list of those sounds here: [Christine Sun Kim passes her smart phone] What does loud mean? I want to keep that subjective definition of “sound,” or “loud,” intact. People are so fixated, “loud means this.” It’s a very binary way of interpreting sound, “This is sound, that’s not.”  And I think that’s bullshit.

[After reading the list] These sounds have very different positive and negative connotations. Nails on a chalkboard all the way to the sound of a gumball machine. In one of your older works, Fingertap Quartet, you asked others to differentiate between good sounds and bad sounds, and separately what sounds they liked and didn’t like. I’m wondering which sounds you are most interested in, which sounds you like and don’t like, and why.

Yes. Let me show you one thing in relation to Fingertap Quartet. [passes her phone again] Just read that part there.

[reading from the phone] “So I was reading this book called Draw it with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment by Paper Monument. There was one assignment in particular by Harry Roseman that asks four questions about art objects, but I replaced the word ‘art’ with ‘sound.’ (1) A sound that you like, and think is good.(2) A sound that you don’t like, and don’t think is good. (3) A sound that you like, but suspect might not be good. (4) A sound that you don’t like, but have to admit it is good.” Can you answer these questions?

I do have my list… but I don’t know if I want to tell it to you.

Here’s why. Basically, I’ve made a list of voice samples. So, I’ve got whatever they are, good or bad, and I gave them to my musician friend Devonté Hynes who performs as Blood Orange. I gave them to him, he spoke them out, and I trusted him enough to give me these sounds. The audience would look at the phrase like “#1: A sound that you like and think is good.” I’d explain the concept to the deaf in the audience and let them take in visually what the rest of the audience is taking in through sound.

The reason why I was borrowing Devonté’s voice is because his voice has social value. When I ride the wave of his social value, people say, “oh, you’re working with him, well that’s significant, I want to hear his voice,” and his voice actually gives a voice to me. He was really just following my instructions, and I find this fascinating. Does that make sense?

I think so?

Maybe… not so much? [laughter]

Well, I just feel like maybe your work has a lot to do with privilege.

It goes in many directions. Yes, Yes, I play the game too. I don’t want to get on stage and have nothing to bring to the table. Like, I get on stage and I think, “alright, how can I increase my value? How can I use the avenues that are available to me?” And I want to be smart about my art. It’s not like I’m helpless. It all depends on how I approach this.

In this interview, I feel like I’m becoming aware of the reverse of the expected situation, where there’s information and experiences that you have, and that your community has, that I don’t have access to, and might never have access to. Do you feel that way? Do you feel that there are some experiences that aren’t going to translate to your audience?

It’s difficult to approach that because the deaf community — well it’s not only hearing and deaf. This can become so political: speech therapy, cochlear implants, trying to get deaf people into the mainstream. Whereas the deaf community is already so political that they almost don’t even want to discuss this, as if it’s taboo. However, I see the behaviors and knowledge within the deaf community, and I know they are aware of this: sound can be used as a mirror, and you can see people reacting to it. [Kim shakes and crushes a small bag of potato chips] I know, for example, that this is such a huge noise, but visibly it’s just a tiny little thing. I know, because I’ve learned from people’s reactions, what noises things make. I know how to manipulate objects based on certain places, certain times of day, certain rules. In church: no no; in classrooms: forbidden. My cousin explained it this way: he said that it seems like I live in another country, and I’m basically just following along with that country’s norms. I do find that that’s a nice metaphor. I do see rules around me, and I do follow them. But I think it’s interesting, as people view this as “Oh, you have something we don’t know. You are bringing new sounds to us.” Like there’s a brand new color I’ve discovered — it’s not really about that. It’s about what already exists, what was already there that perhaps we all take for granted.

I know you asked me not to dwell too much on the idea of you being a deaf artist.

[laughter] I’m just aware that some people in the press will say “A deaf artist who works with sound — who can’t even hear!” and it’s that “who can’t even hear” thing that I find distasteful. With your questions, though, I don’t find them at all to be so.

Well let me ask this then: I’m wondering if through your work you feel like you are conquering sound, or colonizing sound. I’m wondering if you have any sense of victory in what you are doing.

Now that’s an interesting question. I just don’t know. I find that interesting because I feel like the work that I’m doing, I do because I’m curious and I enjoy it, but it seems like my work itself has some kind of truth or message to everyone else. My work isn’t only limited to my specific group. I believe it to be all­encompassing. I’m fascinated with that aspect of it. But I’m not sure of what my work is trying to do. That is to say there’s no big picture necessarily, just an ongoing work of art for the sake of pleasure in art. I don’t want to lose that fun.

And maybe what I’m suggesting now might make it seem like it’s not just about that sense of fun, but — how do I say this — you have such a wonderful twitter feed, and in that feed you occasionally address issues like feminism and race relations. I’m interested in your thoughts on intersectionality, and if any of that becomes an element in your work.

I do think a lot about racial issues, especially lately, because from the beginning I’ve always studied a lot of art history and I’ve found myself drawn to work by black artists. I

always find it to be so compelling. Black art has a lot of research, documentation, and history informing and surrounding it, but deaf art, I find, is struggling with the idea of being. It’s still stuck in this almost folk art set of standards. I want to venture out beyond that, because I find so many parallel experiences and many similarities that draw me to black art and the history in it.

Now, my upbringing had a lot of different influences. My parents moved here from Korea one year before I was born. I, myself, am deaf. I’m female. But I see myself as deaf first, because I’m a sign language being. I don’t mean to completely put my identities in order, but I do look at myself through the lens of being a woman more so recently. Our culture is just full of men. In sound art it’s staggering. It blows my mind how male dominated it is.

Do you consider addressing those issues in the work you do? Have you in the past?

Maybe I have without realizing it. Time will tell. Looking back over my work as the years progress it may be easier to see. It’s hard for me to look at my artwork as it currently is and identify discrete themes within it. It will take a few years before I will be able to analyze this body of work and tell if such themes exist or not.

Getting back to the work you did in Austin, do you feel like Austin is a unique sound environment? It has a history of sound, music, and audiophile festivals. Do you think people will experience sound differently here than in other locations?

South by Southwest of course, is one big thing. But I just found out it ended the day before I came here! I’m just not in that world. That’s not something that’s on my radar. I just realized recently that, wow, Austin is a big music town. I did think that Austin is very open-minded when it comes to experimenting with art. My experience here with UT is that Austin is very progressive. I don’t know if I know enough to answer that though.

Do you want to tell us about your work with Fusebox?

Oh, yes. You know the VAC is collaborating with Fusebox. My work here at the VAC is a very individualized experience. Bounce House though, my work at Fusebox, is experimental in a much more playful way. I’m looking for a lot of people to give me their sense of rhythm.

It’s not about the specific nuances of sound, no, it’s just straight forward beat. I’m working with local people, about 30 contributors who’ve sent me sound files. The team is helping me shift all their files down to a very very low frequency (between 20 to 10 hertz), and the intention is to send that out through the speakers. They’re going to have a very specific bass speaker orientation, and you may hear the results of very different kind of sounds, like the walls shaking, as a result of the original low noise, so there are secondary sounds that will be experienced. I want to focus on rhythm itself.

Will these be pitched below the level of hearing?

CSK:   There is an understanding that you kind of stop hearing (perceiving) at 20 hertz, but the ear canal still receives information and your brain doesn’t process it. If it is much below, it could actually make you vomit. You can literally have that physical reaction. So I’m going to pitch it down, not exactly out of hearing range, but low enough for you to physically feel it. It’s interesting how many people actually don’t consider this way of sensing sound.

It seems like much of your work includes participants, but rather than much of visual art that can be received very passively, your participants are actively engaged, and usually in a joyful way — much like a game.

I do view that as an important part of my work, because I feel it’s more about how I want people to be involved with something so that they can walk away from the experience, they can take away something from my work. My artwork isn’t really for display. I do a lot of artwork that is separate from this aspect of my practice, like drawings. I love drawings. The drawing aspect of my work has made me realize one important thing: when people look at sound and music and then they look at American Sign Language (ASL), they’re like apples and oranges — you can’t really compare them. But I find that there are more similarities than differences as I go on. Both music and ASL are very highly inflectional forms, music can be inflected, the slightest bit, to get an entirely different meaning just as sign language can be inflected. Also, they are similar in that you can’t fully notate one sound or one concept in sign language on paper. You can’t fully do that. You can’t capture that. I see that parallel, and there are others. But I’m very fascinated with ASL, music, body movement, the different systems that we have in our minds, the different layers and spaces that are created. I like to put all of that into my drawings. It finds its expression there.

I can see that connection with John Cage’s explorations of indeterminacy in written music.

Yes, exactly. Let me tell you what I’m working on right now. I’m developing something with my technician. I would like the pace at which you walk, whether it’s backward or forward, I would like that to affect a recorded sound. I would like to make a very analog experience.

For example, let’s say my technician and I are working on a sound file that says “Hi, my name is Christine.” So I want to have velcro set up on the ceiling with magnets attached. You’ve got a device that you’re playing sound through, that has a long antenna. The antenna would touch the velcro strip. If it was removed you’d hear nothing, but if it was touching you’d hear sound.

If you’d walk quickly, you’d hear “HmynmisChrstn,” and if you walk backwards you’d here “enitsirhC si mean ym, iH.” So you’d have to master the pace of your walking so you can hear what is being said. That would circle the room, and that physical experience of having to work to receive the message in the way in which you’d like to, that’s something that interests me.

I understand that my work isn’t necessarily completely accessible. I understand that.

My work is not made for the deaf specifically or exclusively. I’m fascinated with your relationship with how you hear, and how you recognize yourself as a being. When you produce a sound it enters your own sensory system and that confirms your existence. I’d like to play with that sense of existence. I’d like to see how you play with that piece to make a record of your own existence. I might like for this project to play once, and then that be the end of that utterance. So maybe at the beginning, you work with the system to master it, but then when the audio is done, it’s done. You can’t play with it again. That sort of finality to it, that concept itself is very important to me.

In that way the project is much like unrecorded sound? It happens once, and then it’s gone?

Exactly. It was here, and then it left. That’s why I’m very careful with my process of recording.  I tried to field record before and I hated it, but there’s some work that’s really relevant in field recording that I feel is important to use. I remember I was standing in one street in Chinatown in New York City. I was doing some field recording. I would record for about thirty seconds, people going by, cars going by, I would take in the smell, the temperature, I’d make notes of everything I was experiencing at that point, and I’d stop after thirty seconds. But if I lost my notes than this audio file means nothing. Its value would be discarded. I was recording things over which I had no control, and then that became an issue because it’s more like a blind photographer, and what I’m doing is more than that. It’s more than that. I want to make the concept accessible, and I want to have accountability. I’m the one who makes the score. I’m the one who conducts. It’s not that the end product is for it to be heard or the sound accessed, thats not what it’s about.

In the beginning, in graduate school, I was working with sound and there was a critique. I asked my professor, I said “my deaf friend in the audience can’t access this work.” As a deaf person I wanted everyone to have access and I felt like I was denying access to information, and my professor says, “so your artwork is about them, or is it about you?” Touché. That’s when I realized, if deaf people come up to me and say, “I don’t understand,” well, I’ll take the time to explain the concepts and explain how the work unfolds. For other persons, maybe not, but for the deaf, yes. As long as you have access to the concept, that’s what’s important.