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Wearing a periwinkle Opening Ceremony dress and her signature dark lipstick, multidisciplinary artist Christine Sun Kim captivated millions of viewers with her evocative performance of the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” at the 2020 Super Bowl.1 The California-born, Berlin-based artist had been invited by the National Association of the Deaf to sign both songs alongside singers Demi Lovato and Yolanda Adams. Instead of signing the English versions of the songs, a word-for-word translation that leaves Deaf viewers alienated and confused, Kim chose to translate the lyrics into American Sign Language (ASL), which, as she explained to ArtNet, has an “entirely different syntax and grammar compared to English.”2 Signed renditions that follow the English text end up warping ASL, making it seem as if the signs are an exact reproduction of English words. However, ASL, like Haitian Creole or African-American Vernacular English, is a distinct language with its own unique rules. ASL is a physical expression, one that turns the body into a visual palette. Ideas are conveyed through handshape, facial expression, speed, and posture. For example, English requires three different words to express “I ask her,” while one sign is used for the same phrase in ASL. Kim’s rendition signaled her intention to center ASL, a language unfairly maligned and misunderstood by the hearing world. (As with most cultures and languages that threaten the status quo, the United States has a shameful history of suppressing ASL in a bid to assimilate Deaf children and adults into a hearing frame of mind. For example, during the Progressive Era, schools were forbidden to teach sign language. Some organizations continue to falsely argue that ASL negatively impacts the acquisition of spoken language).3
What should have been a triumphant moment for the Deaf community and ASL was spoiled by Fox Sports’ decision to interrupt Kim’s performance with video footage of players on the sidelines. Even the “bonus” online feed on the Fox Sports website, which was supposed to be dedicated entirely to Kim, repeatedly cut away from her spirited signing. In an op-ed published the following day, Kim wrote that the broadcast was “a missed opportunity in the struggle for media inclusiveness on a large scale.”4 This incident succinctly distills neoliberal solutions to inclusion and difference—often symbolic olive branches that ultimately reify the supremacy of the status quo. Accordingly, Kim’s art practice seeks out these inflections of power and ambiguity, examining how they materialize across social settings and interactions by bending our conception of voice and collectivity.
In her work, which incorporates drawings, participatory performances, installation, text, and video, Kim often explores her expansive relationship to sound and spoken word. Unsatisfied with our perfunctory approach to communication, Kim urges viewers to recognize the fluidity of language, wherein meanings can shift and reorient depending on a rush of variables, from personal intention to physical space to historical legacy. Her charcoal drawings, in particular, have garnered breathless praise for their punkish observations inspired by her experiences as a Deaf woman navigating an audio-centric world. These drawings have addressed Deaf rage, personal decisions around lip reading and speech therapy, and the way sound infuses quotidian tasks (waiting at the doctor’s office, grocery shopping). One characteristic work, entitled Shit Hearing People Say to Me (2019), depicts a simple pie chart divided into 14 slices, each labeled with an offensive comment made to the artist by a hearing person. In other works, Kim has imagined the sounds emitted by nontraditional sources like obsession and climate change. While Kim provides meaningful insight into the nuances of her experience as a Deaf person, we would be mistaken to approach her practice as a one-way, voyeuristic window into Deafness, for doing so flattens the blissful swirl of provocative ideas animating the work. By retooling complex thoughts and emotions into pithy, meme-like sketches, Kim opens up the possibilities of spoken language and sound, revealing them to be a “multi-sensory phenomenon, one whose properties are auditory, visual, and spatial, as well as socially determined.”5
Kim taps into the frustration spurred by the Super Bowl performance—and, obliquely, other major 2020 events (the lockdown caused by Covid-19, the uprisings against anti-Blackness)—in her recent solo exhibition, Trauma, LOL, at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, the first to focus exclusively on her drawings.6 Upon entering the gallery, viewers were greeted by two works derived from her February 2020 Super Bowl performance, excerpts of the visual score based on her translation of the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” into ASL (America the Beautiful and The Star-Spangled Banner [Third Verse], all works 2020). Immediately, you are brought into Kim’s experience of language as a porous zone composed of overlapping grammars and creative gaps. The exhibition showcases her idiosyncratic communication styles, where clocks track psychological triggers and musical bar lines represent virtuosic fingers. (In Kim’s works, she alters her visualization of a musical score from the standard five lines to four, signifying the ASL sign for musical score in which the thumb is tucked and four fingers move horizontally from left to right). She appropriates symbols from various visual communication systems—Venn diagrams, the smiley faces from feeling charts, line graphs, musical notations—molding them into a score attuned to the multi-sensory properties of her perspective. Minimal and spiked with dry humor, the 22 drawings cover broad conceptual ground, from the meaning of United States patriotism for marginalized groups and the spatial dimensions of power to the influence of language on conceptions of self and belonging.
Kim began working with sound in 2008, shifting from a focus on painting to a liminal practice that joined all her interests. Though her mediums might change from project to project, her focus on aural environments remains a steadfast motif. Growing up, she had been taught to treat sound as separate from her, an out-of-reach quality that belonged only to hearing people. This false separation led her to “constantly [question] the ownership of sound.”7 She realized that her own visceral connection to sound had been severed by the limitations of the spoken world, and she sought to unlearn everything she was taught. When her artistic pivot led to more and more institutional support, she began thinking about the social dimensions of sound. “Sound is like money, power, control—a social currency,” she outlined during her 2015 TED Talk.8 Her work investigates this quality, attuned to the ways our society grossly underestimates the meanings of sound and silence, while implicitly guarding who has access to it.
Kim has compared signing to music in the past, noting how both depend on space and inflection.9 Meaning can be altered by delicate tweaks in pitch, tone, and volume. Using the piano as a metaphor to better visualize the textures of signing, Kim contrasts the “linearity” of English, where one key is played at a time, to the chord progressions of ASL: “All 10 fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept or idea.”10 If one key changes, the whole is affected. I’m reminded of a painting by Deaf artist Susan Dupor, Stream of Consciousness (2003). In it, a swimmer drifts serenely down a river, floating on a bed of disembodied hands. The work illustrates Dupor’s unending flow of thoughts, a literal and metaphorical translation of her relationship to language, a melding of body and mind that disrupts our conceptions of normative ability. Like Dupor, Kim has created a vocabulary that hews closer to her own process, rather than forcing it into preconceived notions of “proper” communication. Both artists’ renderings of thought as an embodied practice reveal the elasticity of sign language, and how its range can reinvigorate the audio-centric perspective for the better. Kim attempts to capture this dexterity. Poet M. NourbeSe Philip wrote that to speak another language is to “enter another consciousness,”11 and Kim delights in these overlaps between language and perception.
Several works in the exhibition wrestle with years of oppression and trauma caused by ableist norms, as in Three Tables III (AGB, HPA, DTS), which reimagines various social obstacles familiar to Deaf folks as a set of large wobbly tables stacked on top of each other at varying heights. The tables, which also resemble elongated musical staffs or unstable track and field hurdles, are each labeled with a trauma. The bottom two read “dinner table syndrome” and “hearing people anxiety” in reference to specific instances of exclusion: being in a space where the conversation is not signed and being expected to manage the outsized expectations of an audio-centric world. The top table in the drawing, rising above the others, is labeled “Alexander Graham Bell,” who is frequently celebrated as the inventor of the telephone at the expense of remembering his eugenics-informed crusade against sign language. Pairing Bell with the other two phrases provides a deft glimpse at a knotted web of disenfranchisement, from intimate to institutional (Bell played a major role in the banning of ASL in schools across the country.)12 The works Trauma as a Baby—which charts traumas across different stages of life on a graph of time versus impact—and Deaf Traumas—a circular arrangement of smiley faces that range from happy to sad based on Kim’s reaction to each situation notated—grapple with rage and personal boundaries in ways that are not new to Kim. She has used charts to express these realities before but in these drawings she excavates a history of exclusion that touches most environments and relationships. What is the best way to express an unimaginable situation or feeling? Similar to ASL or musical notes, Kim reminds us how difficult it is to capture on paper the essence of words, emotions, and memories. Slippages and misunderstandings will abound.
In “Critical Care,” an Artforum essay on artist Park McArthur, Colby Chamberlain cites Kim alongside Carolyn Lazard, Jesse Darling, and McArthur as examples of artists whose work takes “disability as praxis—as modes of thought, embodied knowledges, affective alliances.”13 Although the intentions behind their efforts shouldn’t be entirely yoked to academic theories, Chamberlain contends that the parallels between their practices and disability studies provide an extra layer of context for their destabilization of ability and identity. Moreover, their work enacts a reconsideration of the avant-garde in their commitment to “dispelling the myth of autonomy.”14 Disability studies trouble the “naturalness” of concepts of independence and normality, exposing them instead as strategies of social control and dispossession akin to race, gender, sexuality, and class. As scholar and professor Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes in her 1996 book Extraordinary Bodies, “stairs, for example, create a functional ‘impairment’ for wheelchair users that ramps do not. Printed information accommodates the sighted but ‘limits’ blind persons. Deafness is not a disabling condition in a community that communicates by signing as well as speaking.”15 Like the avant-garde, disability studies distrust the borders of normality, stretching them beyond recognition.
Kim continues this defiance of the status quo, disrupting the myth of ability with drawings that simultaneously poke fun while recoiling in horror at America’s authoritarian approach to difference. When Grammar Mood uses a Venn diagram to depict the slippery movement between ASL, Deaf English, and written English. While alluding to gaps of relations, the drawing signals the friction between languages—how the attempt to join two or more perspectives can lead to questions of power and agency. As someone fluent in a language that is deprioritized in the United States and who must forge an affirming bond with interpreters to translate her speaking voice, Kim is intimate with the fraught negotiations that mark Deafness in an audio-centric world. Rather than describe her experience as a narrative of deprivation, hers is a world of radical collaboration, one that stands in stark contrast to the superficial self-sufficiency hawked by mainstream society.
Turning Clock reflects upon this potential for partnership. The largest drawing in the show, rendered directly on the gallery wall, the mural borrows the repeating clock symbol, replacing the numbers with hands suspended in a familiar phrase: an L-shape created by extending the middle finger and thumb while tucking in the remaining fingers. Depending on the direction of the hand, the sign can either mean “your turn” or “my turn.” The sign rotates around in a sun-like arc, each sign gesturing toward a different viewer in the gallery’s imagined audience until eventually the circle is complete and all have been acknowledged. Like most of Kim’s work, the drawing doubles as a subtle call to action that, while rooted in her personal experience, presses for a broad language of collective reciprocity.
Allison Noelle Conner’s writing has appeared in Bitch, Hyperallergic, and Triangle House Review. She lives in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 23.