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Christine Sun Kim: Your Work Is a Product of Your Experience

About this talk

The work of Christine Sun Kim is inspired and informed by her experience of the world as a deaf woman, artist, mother, and partner. This 99U talk, delivered in ASL and interpreted live at Alice Tully Hall by Beth Staehle, asks all creatives to consider how their outputs are colored by their own experiences, abilities, and empathy. She reflects on how empathy for her hearing partner and baby informs her work, how she better understands sound through illustrated diagrams and why a framework of “house rules” is essential to any creative process.

Christine Sun Kim, Artist

Christine Sun Kim harnesses the medium of sound in performance and drawing works to investigate her relationship with spoken languages and her aural environment as a deaf woman and artist. Through her practice, she challenges and deconstructs the politics of sound, and explores oral languages as social currency. 

She is a Directors Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, and her exhibitions and performances have been held at the Berlin Biennale, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Rubin Museum, PS1, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Full Transcript

Hello. How’s everyone doing tonight?

House Rules. So to me, house rules are rules that you establish to have inside your house. Obviously, the rules in the outside world are different, but the rules that you have inside your home can help us create the personal space we wish to live in. I feel like it responds to the human need to feel safe. I guess I should give you a little information about my background. I was born deaf and I lived in a household with hearing parents. Growing up I never had full control of sound. And it wasn’t until I’ve become an adult, I’ve become more aware of my deaf identity. I work. I pay rent #adulting. And I’m more in charge. I want to have more control of my space. So, I’ve set up my own house rules. And I find that this combines two seemingly opposed elements. Part of it is that I don’t want sound to come into my space at home. The other part of it I want to be able to make sound as I wish and not worry about how those sounds affect others.

House rules can also mean other things. It’s about who’s doing what chores, who’s paying what bills, what schedule for cleaning do you have? How are you going to communicate updates? And if one does not abide by house rules, my space gets invaded.

I’m going to show three different situations that have ultimately turned themselves into projects.

This is project number one: Nap Disturbance. I invade someone’s space. The subject: my partner’s afternoon naps. This is my living room. You can see our mustard couch. That’s where my partner likes to take his naps in the afternoon. It looks a little bit like a crime scene in this photo.

So my partner used to work the night shift and he would work throughout the night, come home in the morning, run errands and, come the afternoon, he’d need to take a nap. And I’m not talking about 20-minute power naps, I’m talking about hour-long afternoon naps. And what I found really interesting in these experiences is that, during the day, I could make my noises as I wished and it didn’t seem to have any effect, but when he took a nap it seemed like my noises were amplified. I thought daytime noises were fine, but I noticed that when he fell asleep I would have to get quiet, as if I was creeping around the house at night. Once he woke up I could go back to making my sounds as usual. And it was interesting. I wanted to follow his rules, I wanted to let him get a good nap, but it irritated me a little bit because I couldn’t figure it out.

But then I got intrigued and I decided to turn that into a performance. I asked a few deaf friends of mine and a hearing friend to help me do performance basically for an art fair. So the first step in coordinating this performance is to find the costume. And I wanted to think of something that would allow the expectation of visually fading into the background to take place, the same that you expect when a person is sleeping to have noise fade into the background. I wanted to become invisible. So, I thought about the greenscreen fabric the way that Hollywood uses to create special effects to make things disappear into the background. Well, I would use that same fabric to create a costume. Now, at the art fair we didn’t use Hollywood greenscreen technology, so the fabric that was supposed to help us fade into the background ended up making us stand out very brightly. Here’s me having a little fun with my costume. Now there’s an app actually, like a Chrome green app that lets you play with greenscreen technology so I used my mustard yellow couch to see if I would fade into the background and it’s not bad but I didn’t really disappear into a couch enough.

The next step in planning the performance was choreography. So we decided to choreograph our moves and gestures that come from our everyday experiences growing up as a deaf person. And we also wanted experiences that we could have our audience relate to. So we set up different schemes of domestic activities using different props that you would find in the house such as trash cans, dishes, cups, newspaper. And in those actions, we wanted to make sure that we could create a range for these actions. There would be the polite movements where noises would be quiet and then movements that were not so polite, noises that were heavy and loud. And so, we had all of these movements go along this scale. And so, the simple act of moving a chair at home would be politely picking it up and putting it down from one place to another. A not so polite example is dragging that chair across the floor. An example of using your plate at home eating would be to gently pick up food from your plate. The not so polite example is scraping your fork across the plate. We had two days to rehearse for this performance and we wanted to make sure we had the choreography in place, and so we made sure to practice the different movements. And it was interesting as a deaf person we’ve always had to be mindful to make polite noises, but for the performance, we had to let that go and decolonize what we’ve learned about sound. Eventually, throughout the rehearsals we got so confident and made such strong movements that some chairs broke, some plates broke, but come time for the performance the vendors actually got quite scared because our movements made the floor vibrate so hard that the temporary walls where the art was hanging could fall. The tables started to shake and so they kind of asked us to be a little bit more gentle in our physical movements. Additionally, before the fair, the organizer had asked us to not be too loud. They were concerned. They wanted to set rules for our sound so that we weren’t too loud. Come time for the performance as we were performing I thought we were loud enough and the organizers were telling us that we were performing too quiet. And it’s ironic because we’re trying to figure out when is loud too loud. Don’t be too loud while being loud.

As a result, my partner, his rules became a score. Here we are. So we chose to wear Crocs because they’re considered quiet shoes, you know they have that foam insole, but visually they are loud AF.

This is project number two: LAUTPLAN. My space being invaded. The subject: church bells on my block. So this is the view from my living room. At home in Berlin, I’m the kind of person who likes all of my personal rules to be in place, which means I like ambient sound to be off. So the TV, the laptop is on mute. If my partner gets a phone call he tells me who he’s speaking to and then leaves the room so that the room is quiet. For me, home is where my deaf identity and deafness is one and the same, so I don’t feel like it becomes an obstacle.

Now, these church bells I can see from my living room, I guess I should explain my floor plan first. I live in a railroad apartment so as I’ve said this is my view from my living room. From my bedroom, I can see these bells off in a distance. From the guest bedroom next door I can see these bells off in a distance. From my bathroom, I can see these bells off in a distance. From my kitchen, I can see these bells off in a distance. So I see them everywhere I go.

And I sometimes would find myself on FaceTime talking to a hearing friend telling me that they can hear bells in the background. My partner and I would be in bed and he would tell me, “The bells are ringing.” And I can see them moving myself and there was no predictability to them. There wasn’t a schedule that I could identify and figure out. And it felt like the feeling of ‘out of sight out of mind’ no longer could be the case. This is in sight, on my mind, ringing all the time. And it became in a sense a symbol of a nuisance for me.

This is sound that is invading my space without my permission, without me even knowing. It feels like these bells have gone behind my back. I got annoyed by this. I couldn’t figure out when they would ring. And I feel like my internal sense of house rules crumbled. I got passive aggressive about these bells. These bells were ringing and I couldn’t figure it out. So after months of looking, reacting, thinking, obsessing I decided, “I’ve gotta stop doing this and act.” So I reached out to the church and asked if I could get some more information about the bells. So, the German word roughly for ring schedule is LAUTPLAN. Mind you, I was trying to translate myself English into German and so I had accidentally typed this word here LAUTPLAN, which roughly translates as loud schedule. Well I thought that fit. So I’ve used that as the name of my project. And so I asked the church if they wouldn’t mind maybe sending me a schedule of their bells because the times were so unpredictable. And they said, “Of course, we’ve got a PDF.” And I was thrilled. So they emailed it to me. I was a little excited to get a PDF. I couldn’t believe it. So you can see that they have days of the week numbered one through seven under the word wochentag, and it seems like some days of the week bells ring twice, sometimes they ring three times a day. And then you can see the times that the bells ring, they’re not even the same duration nor are they in a normal typical timely schedule. And then the word glocke indicates which bells are ringing at what time. And I thought, “Wow, okay there is a schedule so now I can predict when the bells are ringing. What’s next?”

So then I thought I’d contact the church and ask if I could visit. They said, “Sure”. So, I was excited. They invited me to come Thursday morning at 8:25 in the morning. Have you noticed there’s no sound? That’s because guess who’s house you’re in now? It was such a surreal experience being able to see these bells ring. This is something I’ve spent months looking at as a small singular object but now I am standing right next to them and I see my apartment small and off into the distance. So I actually made multiple visits. I talked to people who work with the bells. I found out that there were four different bells, and I wanted to get more information. And so the church sent me another PDF, my best friend. So this is what they emailed me. The blue English words are my translation, but you can see the bells have names. You can see what notes they ring at, you can see their weight, their width, their height, the inscription. I thought that was so cool. This is Sunday morning with the bells in all of their glory.

So, as a result, my rules became a performance. So, with all of this information that I collected, all the video and audio recordings I had made, and the PDF’s I was trying to figure out what to do with them. Additionally, I was researching into my understanding of bells from youth to adulthood and the history of bells, and I turned all of that into a performance. So I played some of the video recordings that I had made. And that experience of learning everything from A to Z about these bells made me feel better. I knew when the bells would ring. I know what they look like in person. I visited them. And I felt like I could let go. It became clear to me the more structure I developed, the more control I had, the calmer I felt about those bells. Now, when I see them from my living room they don’t bother me. I feel like my internal sense of house rules have been restored. I’m back to my old OCD self.

As you can see here I’m quite pregnant. I was about eight months pregnant at this point. I had a month to go, which brings me to my final project. Sound Diet, curbing the invasion of our space. Subject: everyone and everything, so you, you, you, and you. So this is maybe one of my mommy moments for the books. I was at The Great Wall of China with my partner and I think our baby was about four or five months old. We were so worried about the crowds at The Great Wall of China that we arrived as early as could be, roughly 7:00 in the morning and there was no one there. So when it came time to breastfeed her I was able to just sit there and feed her, it was really an amazing moment.

I should say my partner is hearing. My baby is hearing. And so I found that I became a little overly concerned about how we would raise her. My partner speaks German. There’s also German Sign Language. I use American Sign Language. There’s her need to have some access to English and so we weren’t sure what to do. Part of my concern came from the reality that we live in a world that follows the power of spoken language. So it’s easy to see households favor spoken languages over sign languages, and I’ve seen couples who are deaf and hearing and they raise a hearing child. And if they don’t set rules for communication in their household to make sure that there’s an equal balance between sign and spoken languages their childw ends up speaking more than signing and I didn’t want that.

So that’s how we came up with the idea of a sound diet. And mind you this doesn’t just apply to babies this could be for adults as well. I started imagining myself as a doctor prescribing different suggested amounts of listening, of sounds, and I wanted to provide a good diet for my baby. And I’ve turned this into different drawings. But before I show the drawings, I want to introduce some musical symbols that come up a lot in my illustration work.

You might be familiar if you’ve taken a music class but this pmeans piano. So, if a person is playing an instrument on the musical score, if a pis by the note that means you play that note quietly. Two p‘s stand for pianissimo and that means you play that note even quieter. So that means the more p‘s employed the quieter one plays.

This is the suggested amount of watching Netflix with the volume up when a baby is in close proximity. So my partner has the morning shift with the baby. I’m a night person so I like to sleep in. He wakes up plays some music, watches TV, makes noise and watches Netflix with the volume on. When I wake up it’s time to turn the volume in the house down. You might notice that by the amount of p‘s used after. And I feel like the outside world has so much sound. There’s so much sound available, what’s the harm in watching a Netflix movie with just the captions on?

This is the suggested amount of listening to Spotify on laptop when a baby is in close proximity, and also this score is the measure of one day, so the first pis the beginning of the day maybe 5:00, 6:00 in the morning and that last pis the end of the day maybe 7:30 or 8:00. And so this score shows the full measure of a day. When you have a baby, the days just get longer. This is the suggested amount of getting a baby’s attention by waving hands or stomping on floor instead of using voice. So, I feel like I’ve established my visual identity quite clearly and have my voice there, but my sonic identity is something I don’t really have, but I don’t use speech either and I’d like to avoid that with my baby. It could become too much of an issue, and so, instead of using my voice I stomp my foot, or I clap my hands, or I wave my hands, or I tap my baby’s shoulder to get her attention instead of calling her name. And I prefer it that way.

This is the suggested amount of allowing friends to sing songs to a baby. Now I’m a sound artist so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that a lot of my friends are musicians. A lot of them are very familiar with my practice and so they ask if they’re allowed to sing to my baby. Quite frankly I never thought about that, it’s a nice gesture that they ask for my permission so I wanted to put that as part of the diet.

This is the suggested amount of sound toys for a baby to play with. Any new parent knows you get showered with gifts. I mean at home we have a giant box filled to the brim with toys. And I find that a lot of these toys make noise. Whether it’s a horse that neighs, or a duck that quacks, or a song that plays from a button, and I think about the fact that my baby is already taking in so much sound, and these toys do as well so I want to try to minimize that.

This is the suggested amount of spoken language with a baby whose parents communicate in sign language. Going back to my personal space and house rules in our house we’ve established rules for communication and we sign when we communicate with each other. So any guest who comes into our house we’ve asked that they follow our house rules instead of us communicating the way they like to. So I should say that these drawings are more a strategy of how to better control how much sound my baby consumes. Obviously, we don’t strictly adhere to these drawings, it’s a project to mostly help us stay mindful of how much sound everyone produces and consumes on a daily basis.

As a result, the rules for my baby become a series of drawings. Oh, maybe my baby doesn’t like her diet.

So my experience with the rules for afternoon naps have become a score. The rules of my personal space being invaded by church bells have turned into a performance. And the rules of communication that become a sound diet become drawings. I feel like rules can be perceived as a challenge or a limitation or restriction, but rules are also a good place to get great ideas, especially at home. So I encourage everyone after this conference is done and when you get home, I challenge you to set some rules for yourself and see what happens.

Thank you.

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