View of “Christine Sun Kim,” 2015–16. Foreground: Viewers interacting with Game of Skill 1.0, 2015. Photo: Robin Reeve.

View of “Christine Sun Kim,” 2015–16. Foreground: Viewers interacting with Game of Skill 1.0, 2015. Photo: Robin Reeve.

Christine Sun Kim

Carroll / Fletcher

View of “Christine Sun Kim,” 2015–16. Foreground: Viewers interacting with Game of Skill 1.0, 2015. Photo: Robin Reeve.

In a recent TED Talk, Christine Sun Kim commented that, “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.” She went on to explain that she used to make paintings, but when she noticed that nearly every exhibition she visited displayed a work incorporating an element of sound, she began to wonder if she was now going to be excluded from contemporary art. She therefore decided to reclaim her “ownership of sound” via her work—something that, as a deaf child, she had been taught was not part of her life. Since then, Kim’s art has explored her relationship to sound, which she has described as “like money, power, control—a social currency,” a thing that is “so powerful that it could either disempower me and my artwork, or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered.” By doing so, she is also addressing how sound and language—both spoken and sign—function at large in the social network of communication.

Several walls in Kim’s exhibition “Rustle Tustle” were covered by multiple drawings hung in grids. These drawings represent the relationship between sign language, movement, and musical notation. They are formed from straight, swooping, and curving lines and staves, with accompanying textual annotations that often detail elements of the artist’s experiences trying to communicate—for instance, ARGUING IN ASL (American Sign Language). Alongside these was the participatory sound installation Game of Skill 1.0 (all works cited, 2015), comprising three Velcro strips that ran wall to wall across the gallery space, creating a triangle approximately six feet high. These strips house sensors that, when brushed by the viewer with the fat, foot-long antenna of a custom-built electronic speaker device, play a recorded sound track of a woman talking. This might seem straightforward, but in practice it was difficult. As the artist said in a recent interview with Artforum, the piece is “meant to make your listening feel unfamiliar and like you’re learning a skill.” Walk too slowly and you only hear sporadic words—too fast, and you miss the Velcro. The third time around, I managed to moderate my speed-touch coordination so as to hear more text—“In my head it’s the artists’ voice . . . but in the same place . . . it’s like a game . . . relationships with another person . . . As an artist I always feel I am possessed to . . . .”—presumably representing Kim’s thoughts on her role as an artist. The action of walking to operate the device emphasizes the fact that in deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound.

Close Readings is a four-channel video work displayed on small flat-screens. Each contains a series of partially blurred excerpts—from films such as Ghost, The Little Mermaid, The Addams Family, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dogtooth—that relate to a moment in which a voice or sound plays a leading role in the narrative. Kim invited four deaf friends to add further on-screen subtitles that run above the existing subtitles. In The Little Mermaid, for instance, as the main character Ariel sings to her human prince in order to bring him back to life, Kim’s friend adds: “The sound of something beautiful coming out of the beautiful woman’s mouth.” The indeterminacy of translation is something Kim has emphasized in relation to working with ASL interpreters; the nuances of expression and language become theirs, she believes, rather than hers. Perhaps the artist’s use, in her TED Talk, of self-help clichés such as “empowerment” and “ownership” reflects her sense of that particular audience. Kim emphasizes that communication is more than just words or sounds; it is embodied in all our actions and relations.

Kathy Noble