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Meet The 'Deaf Artist' Who Plays With Sound

03/05/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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2015 Hideto Maezawa / Clubberia

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Photo Credit: 2015 Hideto Maezawa / Clubberia

Artist Christine Sun Kim explores the materiality of sound, connecting it to drawing, painting, and performance, in her work. A TED fellow, she has exhibited and performed in worldwide venues such as Tokyo, Berlin, London, Oslo, San Francisco, New York. She has collaborated on sound projects with artists such as Devonté Hynes, Thomas Benno Mader, Wolfgang Müller and Alison O'Daniel. She has also been deaf since birth.

This interview was taken right after TED 2014, when I met Christine for the first time.

Can you tell a bit about yourself so that readers can understand what you actually do?

Christine: Sure. I'm 34 and I'm an artist that employs sound as a tool and medium in my art. I grew up in California and have been in NY for years, but right now I'm sort of homeless and always on the way to a place. I left my day job and moved out of my apartment last year to go full time with art. (Update: She now lives in Berlin.)

Deafness does not define my work, but it does inform my practice. It's hard to stay away from the stigma of deafness (and disability) everywhere.

What's your feeling about being described as a "deaf" artist?

Christine: Depends on the circumstances; sometimes, it's good to acknowledge the big white elephant in the room so that the viewers can get that out of the way right away and focus on the concept of my work. However, there are other times where I'd rather be called as an artist without any of those labels. Deafness does not define my work, but it does inform my practice. It's hard to stay away from the stigma of deafness (and disability) everywhere.

Why sound and paint? Why not something else?

Christine: I used to draw and paint for a long time, but clearly, I totally sucked at it. I was never really into it until I realized that I treated sound like a taboo and that I often mindlessly accepted people's behaviour around it. Sound comes with so much social capital that it's actually fascinating to play with it as a tool in my work. When I started putting my ideas into the vehicle of sound, I learnt that it really communicates with society very well--it's like playing with their game. It's important that I do not limit my art to specific communities.

How that you experience sound without hearing it?

Christine: Experiencing is subjective and everyone listens (hearing with attention) differently. The answer that comes to everybody's mind is vibration, but there's more than that. I am starting to be more aware of how some of the sounds have a psychological impact on me--like playing with high-pitch sounds for a length of time often makes me feel sleep deprived or anxious.

When I started putting my ideas into the vehicle of sound, I learnt that it really communicates with society very well--it's like playing with their game.

What inspired you to be who you are today?

Christine: I don't have one answer to that and its pretty much everything combined: my family and friends, my everyday communication, my curiosity, and so on. I think I'll point out this specific reason as you are a translator--I have so much respect for American Sign Language that it actually shapes who I am, it has a lot to do with my underlying interest in art.

What was the biggest challenge for you as a person with deafness at early age?

Christine: Understanding some of my teachers or interpreters. Most of them weren't fluent in sign language (even though they claim to be), so the access to education was severely compromised. Also, I had difficulty learning English and couldn't articulate some of my ideas, thoughts, and feelings for a long time.

I come from Bangladesh, where we neglect kids with disability. What would you suggest for such kids or parents? To make you understand the situation, the parents sometimes do not even understand that their child may have disability, so they kind of push them to enter mainstream education rather than giving them special attention. How do you see this?

Christine: Dealing with disabilities requires a different kind of understanding, attention and effort. Unfortunately, the world isn't designed for disabled people (... yet), so the best thing is to have a good relationship with your own children by communicating, making their opinions count, and being their great supporters. Having a strong personal identity at an early age is so critical; it is often delayed or sometimes never cemented for most of the kids. This isn't easy, but small steps will lead to bigger ones. As for parents with deaf kids, I cannot emphasize how important it is to have full communication with them and it's critical to make some adjustments at home and at their school to make them feel their presence counts.

Sound comes with so much social capital that it's actually fascinating to play with it as a tool in my work.

What's the biggest challenge you feel ahead of you?

Christine: I am always facing big and small challenges and I have no idea what's next for me. I just want to maintain my new freedom of being a full-time artist.

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Photo Credit: 2015 Hideto Maezawa / Clubberia

What's your future plan of work?

Christine: I am working on a bunch of new ideas in different formats. It's very process oriented and I love it when my projects lead me to unexpected places such as my online project with my collaborator, Thomas Benno Mader, called "Busy Day" -- it will be shared with the public as an installation in Iceland and Brazil!

Last time we met, I saw you with an interpreter, and from what I understood, you worked together for a long time. How does that work out, what difficulties did you face with translators/interpreters?

Christine: It's great to work with someone who knows me so well because that would mean I have so much trust in her skills and I can sign at ease knowing that my voice is being clearly interpreted. American Sign Language is very spatial and nuanced, so it requires high collaboration and trust between two people.

I also work with other interpreters, not only Denise. I have seen that it can be challenging at times when it comes to certain situations such as socializing. Some interpreters are just better suited for some situations, some for others. It's all about skills, compatibility and trust.

What makes you most happy in life?

Christine: Many little things. This morning I looked at the drawings I recently made and found that they moved me -- that's when I knew I did them so well. That's one of those things that make me incredibly pleased.

... and damn good chocolate.

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