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Christine Sun Kim: Silence as Discipline and Mediated Viewings of Art

Sarah's picture

Christine Sun Kim: Silence as Discipline and Mediated Viewings of Art

“Hold your tongue”.  “Use your inside voice”.  “Don’t talk back”.  These common phrases all refer to controlling your silence/voice as a way of demonstrating control and discipline.    From a young age, children are taught rules of silence and quietness at home and at school, to varying degrees given that culture of their environment.  Many of my classmates have talked about being silence in their homes growing up as a sign of respect.  But what does it mean when a deaf person is expected to control their voice or to be aware of the noises they make? Christine Sun Kim, who was born deaf was still expected to lives within the conventional norms of sound.  She states, as a child, “They would tell me: be quiet.  Don’t burp, drag your feet, make loud noises.  I learned to be respectful of their sound.” (Selby)  This experience led Kim to question what it meant to have control over sound and explore this through the avenue of art.

Kim states, “While growing up, I constantly questioned the ownership of sound. People who have access to sound naturally own it and have a say in it.  There were all these conventions for what was proper sound” (Selby).  Kim has struggled with these constraints and questions all her life, but is now using her art, which explores physical aspects of sound, to take ownership over it:  “I saw it [sound] as their possession.  Now I am reclaiming sound as my property” (Selby).  In watching the ten minute video about Kim’s art, the most intriguing part is not the art itself, but the process behind it.  As mentioned above Kim describes her desire to create as a way to have property over sound.  Her motivation for her creation is the richest aspect of her work, the aspect pushes one to reflect on issues of ownership, authority, and conventional understanding of our senses (sight, sound, etc).  Watching the video was a great introduction to Kim and her work, but seeing a live performance was truly what displayed Kim’s “unlearning of sound etiquette”.

In the ten minute video clip Kim describes her art as a way for her to understand sound without mediation (i.e.: without a translator).  In class, Kim talked about one of the constant dilemmas of hoping what she signs is being expressed properly by the people translating.  In contrasting the video and the live performance, even the video itself mediates the experience for the viewer and loses some of the authenticity.  In assuming that some key people who worked on the film, like the director or producer, were not deaf, this mediates/alters the experience.  For example, the video had some background music at points, and I wonder how much Kim was involved in deciding that.  I wasn’t until I saw the live performance that I realized overall message of the video was being filtered through several people and that I might be losing some primary information from Kim due to others input. 

The biggest difference between the video and the live performance though was the volume of sound and the level of discomfort in watching at times.  For instance, in the video Kim describes why feedback is one of her favorite sounds, but the volume of feedback heard in the film is pretty minimal.  During her live performance there were many times the feedback got so loud, audience members covered their ears or made uncomfortable facial expressions.  In the video, one of the ways Kim created art was by blowing into a microphone to make brightly colored string vibrate.  The in person performance was generally much louder.  In the beginning of the performance, Kim used her voice box to create a sound that, for me, sounded like something between anxious humming and screaming.  The sound made me feel nervous; I could imagine hearing it from another room and wanting to run in and check if everyone was okay.  I felt on edge at this point in the performance because the sounds that were being created evoked panicky feelings in me; as an audience member I was experiencing stress.  I question if Kim intended to make us feel this way, or if she had gotten feedback like this about her performances before.  I also question what it felt like for Kim to use her voice, given that she has said “I am never truly at ease nor in complete control of the sound I make” (Kim, Partial Thesis Statement). 

I realize, however, that in using her own voice to create sound Kim is defying social norms and stretching both herself and the audience outside of their comfort zones.  She defies social norms by using her voice as a deaf person, and one might perhaps describe her performance as deviant in that she is making these loud sounds and making the audience uncomfortable at times.  In thinking about the differences between the live performance and the video, I began to draw these conclusions: Kim’s art is about her own search for ownership over sound, and the reason some of this may be lost in the video is because the video is not created for Kim alone, but directed at a hearing audience.  I don’t think the audience is disregarded in the live performance, or the Kim is being selfish, but rather than performing her work for us, Kim shows her work to us.  It is not as if one experience, the video or the live performance, is better than the other, but what you take away may be different.  For me, the video was mostly about explaining Christine’s art to people and then the performance demonstrated just exactly what it meant to “unlearn sound etiquette,” and that would not have happened had I not felt a certain level of discomfort in watching the performance.  Because I knew the purpose of the performance, I was okay with feeling discomfort, because I believe what Christine Sun Kim is gaining and giving people through her art is worth a little bit of discomfort.  Kim grew up learning the conventional ways of sounds and silence and felt oppressed by that, but now she is working towards moving outside these norms and gaining ownership over sound, and sometimes that process is slightly uncomfortable for both Kim and her audience because our norms are being challenged.  As I referenced earlier, being outside of your comfort zone is always a little uncomfortable, but that is where learning occurs.

Works Cited
Is Unlearning Sound Etiquette. Dir. The Selby. Perf. Christine Sun Kim. 2012.
Kim, Christine Sun. Partial Thesis Statement. n.d.






Anne Dalke's picture

"Reclaiming sound"

This is really a paper about etiquette--how we all learn it (teaching children how to control their voices, to discipline their behavior) and how, in reaction to that socialization, Christine Sun Kim' is "unlearning" it, and inviting you to interrogate it as well.

What I like about this web event is the way it advances a theme that has been constant throughout your written work for this course, which has moved from an account of being silent in return for a paycheck (in the terms of this paper, you were following conventional etiquette/codes for appropriate social behavior),  to an exploration of what it might mean to represent a friend, attempting to "speak for" her in a way that cannot do her "justice" (and that again, in terms of this paper, violates some deep etiquette about allowing everyone to speak for themselves).

Here, though, you explore the even more complicated question of what happens when a Deaf person decides to claim ownership over sound, to make it her property--paradoxically, this is sound that Christine Sun Kim cannot hear, although she creates it herself. You describe how uncomfortable these "unmediated" sounds make you--how they are less controlled, less "artful" in person than those manipulated in the video.

I'd love to see you go a little further in your exploration of this intriguing dynamic. You end with the conventional wisdom that being made uncomfortable is how we learn….but I'd like to prod you to go on learning a little more, and to articulate what that learning is. For example (or for starters!), can one individual really "own" a sound, especially if (like the tree falling in the forest) it's only "sound" if it's actually "received" by someone else? And if that someone else (like you) is made uncomfortable/nervous/panicky by those noises (note that each time you describe your reaction, it becomes more agitated…), then where does "ownership" lie? Wouldn't it have to be shared, in the exchange that has happened between you?

Christine is making the sorts of sounds she was taught not to make; these violate the social conventions about appropriate sound-making that you were taught, and so of course they agitate you. But who owns what in such an exchange? Is ownership even possible? When we speak, are we 'selling' or 'giving away' what we own? When we listen, are we 'buying' or 'borrowing' what is offered?  Or is the language of economics entirely the wrong sort of language for describing what goes on when people communicate with one another (or fail to communicate, or offend, or agitate….)?

We'd talked, a month ago, about your wanting to work more deliberately on your writing. So if you'd like to re-work this project, or expand it in response to these questions, for your next one, I'm game!

P.S. You might want to look @ the other web events reflecting on Christine's visit; see  couldntthinkofanoriginalname's upholding the norms, Sharaai's What Can a Body Do?, and Dan's Frustration with the Word…