Adriana Tranca visits artist Christine Sun Kim in her studio for an in-depth conversation about past and present works. They talk about motherhood and how that influenced her practice, on the history and present of Deaf Culture, the community behind it, and much more. Christine explains how important it is to scrutinize how everyday language is used, and why it is essential to further break down the representation of deafness and disability as ‘struggles’ to be overcome.
Christine Sun Kim is an American sound artist, born in 1980 in Orange County, California, and currently based in Berlin.
Christine was one of the first artists who called for the removal of their work from the 2019 Whitney Biennial, in protest of the museum’s vice chairman Warren Kanders - owner of the military-supply company Safariland. It was discovered that tear gas canisters produced by Safariland were used at the United States–Mexico border and in multiple protests across the country.
Since the ongoing waves of contestation eventually led to Kanders' resignation from the museum's board on July 25th 2019, the protesting artists have decided to allow for their work to continue being on view in the Biennial.
Adriana Tranca: The Whitney Biennial has generated quite a hype around you and your art practice; of course, very much deserved. I'm curious to learn more about why you, and the curators, have decided to show the Deaf Rage drawings.
Christine Sun Kim (interpreter Beth Staehle): I made the six Deaf Rages for a show at White Space gallery in Beijing. The exhibition went well but I wanted to show this work in the US as well. There are still a few pieces that are really important to me that I haven't had the opportunity to show in America yet, so when the curators came to visit my studio in Berlin, and they asked me to show them some of my work. I was like ‘look at these 10 Deaf Rage drawings I have’. They felt that this series was strong and genuine, and then they talked to me about what their idea was for the show and some of the politics behind it; everything just kind of aligned.
AT: In relation to the Biennial's curatorial aim - which is to reflect the way in which contemporary artists navigate the world - the Deaf Rage drawings make so much sense. Can you tell me more about this work?
CSK: People don't realize that Deaf Rage is a thing but in the Deaf community (we’re a cultural group, so I’m using the capital D), we know what this means. It's everywhere. I mean, I lose it sometimes just because I'm so frustrated in certain situations. And that kind of correlates to my experience of living in Berlin. Living here, in Germany, I've experienced micro-aggressions just based on how I look: being Asian. If I'm not signing, people don't know I'm deaf; my hands aren't moving. It's just based on how I look. It happened a few times and it really annoys me, I feel tight in my chest and I get a sense of rage. So when I decided to take it out of my body and inspect it, to take a look at it, I thought the best way to do it is to draw it. I started with a small piece of paper and I realized it wasn't big enough, then I went bigger and that wasn't enough either. Finally, I worked with the size that you know, 125 by 125 cm. And that felt enough. But just one drawing wasn’t enough. So I made six. That’s why I always have a series of drawings. I think whenever there's a question or a concept, one drawing is never enough because there are so many possibilities to answer one question. There's no one big answer. If there is a singular answer, it's not a singularity issue. And so, from my experiences here in Berlin, that kind of led me to unpack deaf rage.
AT: You are presenting a new vocabulary from the margins, one which references the excluded and ignored histories of Deaf people. You were critiquing, amongst others, the very institution you were showing in. How did that work for you?
CSK: At the Whitney Museum I helped start their American Sign Language (ASL) program. This museum is actually one of the best institutions in terms of their approach to American Sign Language and its users. They offered ASL tours and other educational programs, including video blogs, and, as I mentioned, I was part of the organizing team. Some institutions in New York are really quite terrible. I know this certain art museum that wouldn’t hire you as a deaf educator unless you have a Masters Degree in Arts. As the Deaf community is so small, you can't really find that many deaf people who have an MFA, that's just not really the space that our community is in. And I don't really understand why they put that restriction, it's exclusive. So the Whitney has been really great because they've made some adaptations in order to recognize the communities' landscape and how we look, in order to make it effective.
Also, something that makes my work clear is the fact that I use the language of mathematics. So I find different situations that I encounter on a daily basis and somehow turn them into a mathematical format. For some reason, that's easier to communicate. Let me show you something: (Christine showed me the 2019 Whitney Biennial Kids Activity Guide where she devised a game called 'What Makes You Mad?'. Using diagrams, children were asked to express different degrees of rage towards different situations they encounter in everyday life.)
AT: This is amazing: so you're introducing your new vocabulary to the kids as well, inviting them to reflect on situations they struggle with every day.
CSK: The education department at the Whitney asked me to contribute and I’m glad they did! It's interesting to hear people talk about some of the 'struggles' that they face every day. They could be perceived as ‘struggles’ but sometimes it feels like I 'encounter' them and have to let them go. To be struggling has a different sentiment than what I'm trying to express. When thinking about deafness and/or disability, this 'struggle' is a social construct. It is other people that make us have barriers and face issues. I’m still struggling to use ‘struggle’ in this context and I use ‘encounter’ instead but I know it’s not the best word. I just don’t want to render us as helpless--and the tension itself is systemic. This is part of the reason why I chose to use 'situations people encounter in everyday life' when describing the activity, rather than 'situations people struggle within everyday life.’ It grants us the respect we deserve as human beings, making it clear that being deaf is OK. It is a given, not something to be changed at any cost. The Whitney gave me the final editorial say in approving the text and language used in the activity guide. It’s so important that I use those opportunities to take a look at words because they can so easily shift in meaning and quickly go into some ableist vocabulary.
AT: Picking up on this thread, let's explore the term 'deaf' and the way it is used in the following two cases: a) deafness is a disability - in your case, you made it a beautiful ability to think about the world differently; b) deaf artist - is it reductive to describe an artist by referencing a traditionally marginalizing physical trait? Or is this juxtaposition essential?
CSK: I think nowadays the disability movement is really big in the UK and in the US. There are disability studies that are advancing so I think that there’s more awareness. The term disability itself has now become positive. For a long time, I kind of resisted saying that I'm disabled, but now being a person with disabilities doesn't feel as bad. I think disability in and of itself is a problematic word because it uses 'dis,' a prefix attached to being able, which is negative. In the US we have been somewhat successful in expanding the meaning of the word itself, so it doesn’t feel so reductive anymore. The word 'deaf' has also been expanded. Now it’s an exciting time to be around to see that change, and I do think that a lot of it comes down to media representation. If you start seeing more deaf characters in the media, people start looking at it in a more normalized way. I actually just watched 'The Society' on Netflix and I enjoyed it. There's an actor, Sean Berdy, who are not acting the deaf character, he is just a character who happens to be deaf. And then there's another show called 'Black Summer,’ a zombie movie, in which a deaf character is awfully portrayed, like a helpless character who was a liability for the other survivors in the series. And of course, he ends up dead. If this is how the mass media portrays us, it’s not a good look. The correct representation of deafness is that we're just people, we have clever remarks, and we have intellect. The truth is that if we are defined correctly through the media, then I'm also OK with being described as disabled. I'm a person with disabilities. I've been labeled as a female artist and as a deaf artist. Those things are OK. Or even if they call me an Asian artist. But I also just want to be myself first. Then you can find me in other ways as well.
Niels van Tomme was invited to do a show in Tallinn, Estonia, and he asked me to co-curate. It's my first curatorial project. It's going to be right by Tallinn Art Hall and it's funded by The Estonian Cultural Ministry. The intention of the show is to encourage higher visibility for artists with disabilities. That's part of the reason why I think I was invited, to bring in my experience and network. But I've never done curatorial work and I'm a little bit nervous. We finally decided on the list of artists and it looks really good. Admittedly a few of my friends are in the show but it's a good opportunity for me to be able to understand the word disability better and just see it get into that landscape. Being able to have a show about it will contribute to the dialogue, and so the word itself will become broader, wider, richer, and deeper.
AT: That is great news; experimenting and expanding your work with curatorial practices. Clearly, the everyday has a big impact on your practice. I'm wondering if and how your work is being transformed by the fact that you are a mother now. one week of lullabies for roux (2018) or sound diet (2018) are eloquent examples here.
CSK: At first, I was just so tired all the time, and because of that, I didn't work much. I couldn't believe that I'd had a baby and I didn't have any time or energy for art. But since then I’ve actually made some amazing projects, maybe some of my best work so far. Despite having a baby and having mommy brain, I'm still producing some of my best work. When you have a baby everything is a new experience; things like breastfeeding, figuring out your schedule, your relationship with your partner changes. And so, all those things, in and of themselves, have so much newness to them that puts you in an uncomfortable territory. But that's where you kind of get your best ideas. For me, doing art about motherhood means to be better documented. There are a lot of moms who are artists and who are sometimes too exhausted to document, too exhausted to finish the project or the piece that they're working on because motherhood is exhausting. I was lucky to have the support of my partner on paid parental leave, thus able to accompany me with the baby for the first year. So I was able to have those opportunities. Motherhood actually ends up being a lot about partner-hood. This is an aspect overlooked when speaking about ‘motherhood' - we also need to acknowledge the support of the partner. I find motherhood too singular, in reality, it's not how it works at all, there's so much teamwork involved and that needs to be addressed. I didn't expect being a mother would have such an impact on my work, I was sure I wasn't going down that road, but here I am, and I'm actually really enjoying this experience, even though there are times where I don’t enjoy being a mother. Google calendar is our best friend, that’s how you get shit done.
AT: You were part of the Resonance: Sound Art Festival, in May 2019, at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where you performed Caption America, a performance in which you used sound captions from Instagram, movies and TV shows, which you further combined with printed images and objects to create stories about sound. And Roux was also part of this. Could you unpack that piece?
CSK: That's right. After a long trip, with a really bad jet lag for Roux, she learned how to sign 'Instagram' and started to sign it frequently. We were like 'Okay, let's watch some dogs and cats hashtags’. Every time something would come up on the Instagram feed, I would always make sure to explain what she's seeing in sign language, so she watched me and the video at the same time. So I've become the ‘captionist’ of these videos. This is how I came up with the idea of doing a mixture of sound captions and objects, and putting images on top of each other. It made me think of the idea of the background noise, which is another added layer. Roux is now a big part of me, and so my work always ends up being a little bit about her. I'm sure you have noticed some of the ballpoint pen scratches on my drawings and, although the thought of keeping the studio door closed crosses my mind, I often keep it open.
AT: Children also play a big part in We Mean Business (2019), your contribution to Art Night in London this year. Can you tell me more about this work?
CSK: There are three parts to the project, all new to me since I've never done pieces of this scale. The Art Night team has been so cool, it's been such a joy to work with them. The site is at King's Cross, where it just so happens to be a deaf school around the corner, the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children. So I decided to pay them a visit. I knew the headteacher beforehand, so it was a relationship I could use. He introduced me to the kids, and as a result of this encounter I made these three projects. I was excited about their energy. For the first project I used an archival approach: I went to the school’s tiny library and took photographs of several British Sign Language alphabet sets (different illustrations). With the help of a videographer I animated the images to finger-spell simple sentences that came from the kids: 'I like apples,' or 'I like flying,' or 'I like my friends.' I feel like throughout history, deaf people have always been in nebulous spaces, and so I wanted better documentation of our presence and history, and I wanted it done with respect and care. For the second piece, I recorded the children's voices, but no words or actual pronunciations you'd recognize, but rather ‘mmmms’, laughter, or vocalizations. Then, I wrote a score based on those recordings and I gave it to Matt Karmil, a musician, and producer. He has taken the voice files that the kids have entrusted me with, and now, in turn, I'm trusting Matt with these because I know his work, so I know he'll follow my parameters and create the score. We'll be playing those at COS - the clothing store - that’s one block away from the school. I’m essentially using their voices to activate the space and the kids came and felt their voices in that space. It was my way to tell them that their voices have a lot of fucking value, and I don't want them to forget that, and I don't want them to let anyone tell them otherwise! I want people to walk into this space and feel the respect for these voices.
The third piece is a billboard. A lot of the kids said that if other children, who are in the other schools, could do sign language, they could all be friends. And I remember, looking back when I was young, being in a hearing world and feeling that way as well: ‘if this person knew sign language, we could be friends’. It’s like, things haven’t changed much after 30 years? So, I found a way to make that sentiment a little bit stronger, and a little bit more confrontational if you will. The billboard shows my handwriting that says “If sign language was considered equal, we’d already be friends.” Again, all these ideas came from the kids, so this happened thanks to them.
AT: Is there any advice, notes or comments you'd like to offer to early-career artists?
CSK: I would say that my journey has had elements of luck in it. I'm so fortunate to come from a small community where people can be quite supportive of each other. So I feel lucky to have had that because I know that not everyone does. One piece of advice I definitely have to all early-career artists is: ‘just apply’. Fucking apply for anything! Grants, residencies, anything. For years I was writing applications and not getting accepted. But then that led to other nominations or other opportunities. So I really do feel that the practice of writing, by itself, is a powerful tool to utilize as an artist. For me, writing all those applications have helped me develop my writing skills and writing is a political tool. It's a way to express your voice. This for me has had an important place in my career.
AT: So apply, apply, apply! But how to cope with the failure?
CSK: I don't even know if I consider it a failure, I just consider it part of the process. If you get it, you get it! If you don’t, it's OK, you go on, right? You just have to continue making new work. Rejection, honey, is OK! Everyone gets rejected, right? I just posted on Instagram all my rejection letters from the Whitney's Independent Study Program. And I have quite a few! I kept them and, what's funny, is that it's the exact letter every time. Just maybe with a different date and signature. I said fuck it! I took pictures of those letters and then I posted them online. Of course, it's easy for me to do that now, to make that kind of post because I'm in a position where I’ve had ample success, but I got a lot of responses--especially people thanking me for having shared the images in the post. I think that as artists we need to share more of our rejections. Rejection always causes big feelings that don't go away for a while, but when you experience that sensation more and more, you get used to it and you move on quicker.