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Senior TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim (CK) is an American artist based in Berlin. As a Deaf artist, she explores the interplay of sound and sight, often by using the visual experience of American Sign Language. Her work breaks down the boundary between these two sensory experiences—what is seen and what is heard—showing that both of these types of perception are highly interconnected when we view and hear language and art, a fascinating area of cutting-edge linguistic, psychological, and neurocognitive research. This work often treats language as a complex but measurable brain function, but language is so much more than that: it is one of our most powerful vehicles for culture, artistic expression, and social connections, it is the bedrock of our human community. CK unites the science and the art by using the study of ASL structure as the actual topic of her artistry; her rich understanding and interpretation of the language itself forces us to take a step back and fundamentally reconsider how we understand language, vision, sound, and ourselves.
This April, I had the incredible opportunity to work with the TED Fellows team and attend the TED2018 conference as a Senior Bezos Scholar. As a PhD student at Yale University doing research in the cognitive neuroscience of language, and as a newly-minted ASL student, I was thrilled to get a chance to talk with CK about her work in language and art, her intersecting identities, and her plans for the future. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
I’d like to recognize Denise Kahler-Braaten and Pilar Marsh, who interpreted for us, and Ryan Lash, who photographed us.
Conceptualizing sound without sound
AZ: I’m really fascinated by how you work with sound. From a psychological perspective, metaphor is this really powerful cognitive tool we can use to conceptualize different domains of meaning, so for example, we can understand and talk about the dimension of time using spatial vocabulary, because space is something we do get to see and interact with physically. I’m wondering, is that how you as a sound artist, use visual representations? As a metaphor for sound?
CK: Many signs for sound are just the same one sign, but that’s not the way we experience it. The sign for a phone ringing borrows a hearing world perception; some Deaf people conceive of phones ringing as a vibration in their pockets, as opposed to seeing the handle of the phone ringing. Sometimes I try to figure out new signs, and that becomes a visual metaphor for sound, I suppose, on how we experience sound physically. ‘Loud’ should be all attention on this point, because people are gravitated toward this loud sound, whereas the sign for ‘loud’ now is just this shaking movement. Instead, one possible sign is to have all the heads turning in the same direction to where the loudness is coming from. Say at a restaurant, if I see a lot of attention elsewhere, then it’s like, ‘oh, somebody dropped a glass.’ Or there might be a tiff by a couple somewhere, but if everyone looks, I look too: ‘where is that something happening? It’s big, and I’ve gotta see it.’
AZ: That’s really interesting! So in a sense, you, as a Deaf sound artist, could be like a psychologist in that you’re observing all these effects, and working with and experiencing sound indirectly, using indirect traces to deduce and manipulate this thing that you can’t see or feel.
CK: Yeah, I think it’s fascinating how the Deaf community seems to understand that so well, but there’s not enough dialogue about it. Because we do that, we do know that. It’s become a political gesture--you don’t want to talk about sound because you think it’s not part of the Deaf world, but if you are more open to thinking about it and talking about it, I think we could learn a lot from each other. If I asked a Deaf person, how would they explain sound to me? I’d see that there’s an implantation of a hearing person behind the explanation, that that’s not really their perception. To know what it sound means requires so much more. You know what? Silence means nothing to me. Many Deaf people have just accepted that silence is how it is, they know that silence is cool, clean, and still, but that’s not true. As a hearing person, you have access to sound, and so you can compare that to silence. You have those opposites to work with, and that’s how you measure things. Whereas in the Deaf community, what is silence? How do we have anything to compare that to? Where’s the measure? In fact, I often think that silence is noisy, it’s blurred, it’s never really silent. I want to understand visual and physical silence, and I know that there are a whole host of different types of silence. We live in a world that has taught us an explanation of sound and of silence, but to truly understand the experience of silence versus the experience of sound? We don’t have a definition or a way to explain that.
Balancing the communicative demands of linguistics and art
AZ: Not even trying to conceptualize sound through other means, simply translating between languages is so hard; I feel like there’s so much more meaning conveyed with each sign when you use it, than when I, as an ASL student, recognize like ‘oh that’s the sign for x’. For language, the whole point is to communicate clearly and explicitly, so since your art develops ideas from language, do you just kind of let go, trust that different perceivers—hearing or Deaf--will take from it what they want?
CK: It really all depends. With my work, it depends on how much is actually explained. If I go into detail, someone might take away more. If some of the work is already accessible, then I don’t add much in terms of description. There's this theory by W. E. B. Du Bois called ‘double consciousness’ through which I can see my work: I can see it from a Deaf perspective, and because I grew up in a hearing world, I can see it from a hearing perspective. I try to incorporate this balance in communicating my art. In my new piece, the billboard, ‘TOO MUCH FUTURE’ there’s no grammar, there’s nothing there, because it’s already there on its face. I’ve just wrapped the face with a visual line, instead of the text. I really love, the thickness, the mass of the line--it’s heavy--and you don’t have to know ASL to understand that concept. I feel, from a linguistics perspective, there’s this need to explain everything in detail-- I have this itch, I just want to scratch it, I just want to tell them--but I have to put that academic part of me aside. Do I want to teach? Do I want to be an activist? Do I want to make art? That’s the question. And as a Deaf person, I feel like I don’t have the privilege to be misunderstood, or to not be understood at all. As a Deaf person, I can’t afford that. But as an artist, I can. If they don’t understand, that’s fine. I walk that line, and it’s a fine line, and it’s my personal struggle.
Social responsibility in the Deaf community
AZ: So, as a really prominent Deaf artist, you have the privilege and responsibility getting to make a lot of decisions, as you’re creating the types of media that Deaf languages and cultures are transmitted through. How does that intersect with your activism?
CK: In the Deaf community growing up, we were always required to take English, every year in school. But there should’ve been also room for us to take classes on ASL. To be taught the rules of grammar! Often, I look at the two interpreters and I ask, oh how do you explain that? And they know how to do that because they’ve had that training, but I couldn’t explain it even though it’s my own language! Interestingly, I’ve gotten trained better in language through doing art. Traveling to other countries, often I say ask: that’s a different sign? How does that work? How does that work with interpreters, can you write it? So like I have feel like I have the responsibility to say that ASL is a true natural language but to find the words to explain it--sometimes I feel like I struggle with finding the right words and language to educate people. We need to explain ASL in a way where it can be ‘hearing-friendly’ so hearing people can understand where we’re coming from. Often our arguments are too much from the Deaf perspective, and I struggle with that! Yes, I understand the goal, but the hearing people don’t get it, so some type of cultural mediation is missing, somewhere.
How much future?
AZ: What do you think your role in that mediation is? Your work is already in so many big galleries, so well-known in the hearing world, but do you have any plans of making a gallery or organizing a space for Deaf artists, or for Deaf sound artists?
CK: No, that’s not in the plans yet. I was invited to go to Greece to give a workshop for both Deaf and hearing audiences related to sound. A mixed audience? I thought, let me try, and you know what? Never again. Because as a Deaf audience, they say, ‘this space is not safe because of the mixed grouping.’ Also, working with Deaf people in relation to sound requires years and years to really let go of what you’ve been taught. It takes years of exposure. And even myself, I’m still wrangling with that. I have a better handle on it now, but before, I was anxious--working with sound is intimidating. When Deaf people ask me what I do, I say I work with sound, and people are like why? I guess I thought I knew why and now I might not. Setting up a center or gallery open to any type of art? Maybe in the future. But working with sound? That’s a serious long term goal.