In conversation with Christine Sun Kim: Part 1
Since Christine Sun Kim's first language is American Sign Language (ASL), much of her earlier works paid homage to her personal experiences as a Deaf individual - Kim channelled ASL, body language, and graphic and musical notations as mediums by which she communicated her Deaf ideas and relationship with languages. Her art has become distinguishable by the black-and-white sketch-style murals that use direction to emulate movement and sound.
In recent years, Kim has been graduating from sound artwork and delving into new areas of interest, demonstrating her boundless nature. Whilst her work might begin to transform visually, what remains core is the theme of language, posing questions such as: How do we communicate with one another? And more importantly, how can we do that better?
Keen to find out more, we caught up with Kim and interpreter Denise Kahler-Braaten at the end of January to talk about residency expectations, unexpected Berlin love stories and what it means to “own a space”.
By Lucy Rowan
We are really excited to welcome you as our second participant of this joint residency programme. Without sounding too interview-like, what motivated you to accept this residency and what are your expectations?
Well, first of all, I'm not exactly a big fan of residencies and the reason for that is it's hard to get additional support if you have a family or a disability. Typically, I've denied different residencies because I really couldn't leave my family for a month or two months. And here in London with the Goethe Institute and Somerset House, the two of them worked together as a team. So I was like, “Whoa! Why not go ahead and give it a try?” And I was so excited. And since I've been here, I'd say the past two weeks, I received a really warm welcome. Everyone's been trying their best to help your kid. “What can we do?” “How can we make you more comfortable?” I really, really appreciate that. I haven't really felt this way in a while. Um, except maybe in America. But I've been living in Berlin where, you know, childcare is great, but I see a big difference in that area.
To answer the other part of your question. I have one idea that I've been trying to develop, but I've never fully been in the right place or had the resources or the time to do it. So I think now might be the perfect time. You know, sometimes I leave Berlin for a short period of time, and it helps me to focus more - I’m far less distracted by everyday life - having to get all of your errands done. So I'm really thrilled to be here and have that time to focus. And having my family here is amazing. It's even better!
This residency intends to connect artists currently based in Germany with the cultural scene here in Britain - besides your residency in 2008 - what made you choose Berlin as a home? Why did you decide to stay?
So Thomas (my partner) is German. When I was in Berlin in 2008, I didn't meet him. But the second time I went to Berlin, they invited me to do a performance. I met him and we hit it off, and I decided that I wanted to kind of make this change in my life. So I left my life in New York and went to Berlin. I'm usually not a big fan of leaving for love. But it happens sometimes. Good thing it worked out, right? *laughs*
How are you enjoying working and living in London so far? Particularly in terms of accessibility, how does it compare to the US and Europe?
I was lucky. In Europe, there are very few qualified ASL interpreters. But a fair amount are based in London. So it was easier for me to envision doing a residency here. I knew here I would have the ability and the opportunity based on the resources that I could use during my residency. So I thought London would be the perfect fit in the right place.
And at the right time - I felt a little bit like I needed a break from life in Berlin. It's good to change it up. It's also nice that people speak English here so it's easy for me to write back and forth to ask questions or communicate. We’ve already signed Roux up to so many classes such as Brazilian Jiu jItsu - she loves it!
We’ve been traveling as a family since she was born. Now that she is five, I think maybe that's around the age when she'll start to be able to retain these memories and look back on these moments. It’s such an exciting experience for her, she's like, “Can we go on the double decker bus? Can we do this? Can we do that?” It's like she wants to take advantage of everything that's offered here. We're going to the London Zoo in March to sleep there overnight and look at the animals at night. I am looking forward to that trip.
It’s nice to hear that despite working in London before, you are constantly discovering new things. Back in 2019, we supported your Art Night Commission “We Mean Business”. During the project, you created a series of site specific commissions. Was it your first time working with children? Did you encounter any difficulties along the way?
That was one of my favourite projects to this day! I often don't get to work with a group of Deaf children, and that long banner that was created at the school for the Deaf was just around the corner from where that was installed.
Also, I think London happens to have quite a few pretty good ASL interpreters, which is rare to find in Europe! It's not easy to secure a qualified ASL interpreter, so it was nice to have access to that resource. Another thing was that London was the first city I traveled to outside of America when I was eighteen. I attempted to learn British Sign Language (BSL) and meet other folks. In 2019, I met with the children at Frank Barnes school with an ASL/BSL interpreter and learned that they share a space with another school and during recess time they're out playing in the same area. And the kids were like, “Oh, you know, we like to play but they don't know how to sign!”
That's when it really struck me and I thought back to when I was young - I had that same feeling when I was their age. I thought to myself, “It really hasn't changed in all these years?” Thirty five years later or so. I remember thinking “If they knew sign language it would be more fun, we could play together”. That’s when it hit me hard and it gave me a lot to consider. I worked that idea down into one phrase - I was thinking, “How can we make it not too cute, but at the same time kind of in people's faces?” I needed to find the right space to do that. And I think it was a success!
In your 2015 TedTalk “The enchanting music of sign language”, you mentioned how you “reclaimed ownership of sound and put it into your art practice” - eight years later, what does that look like now? How has that idea developed within your artistry?
So I guess at that time it was pretty straightforward and simple. How I was trying to find my space and navigate myself in the world. There was really no room for me. Absolutely none. I was thinking, how do I put my experience - my Deaf experience - forward? But that was eight years ago, now I feel I’ve moved past that.
I'm at a place where I’ve found my space. I clearly know what I want, I’m not worrying about ownership. But a lot of it is still about my narrative - a lot about negotiating. Working with interpreters is a part of that. It’s still underlying but it’s also like, “Hey, hello. I'm here! I own this space!” So I am focusing now on other topics that I find interesting.
What type of topics are those?
I actually wanted to focus a little bit more on family as a theme. I feel like as an artist, motherhood in general is not well documented. There are a lot of mothers who have exhausted the system - there's not enough support so they can't afford to make time to work and they just lose opportunities.
I should say it doesn't have to just be motherhood. Growing up I felt like I was facing the same limitations and maybe it’s a bit cheesy, however now I see people are making some smart work about it. So I'd like to be able to bring more of that experience to the community. My kid is five now and I feel like a lot of these issues are coming up - like language, culture, and visiting a new city. I feel like I need to delve further into all of those experiences, and that I'm going to explore that more in some work.
Talking of family, your daughter Roux and you are designing a new flag for us to hang outside the Goethe-Institut London - How did that come about? What do you two have planned for us?
Right now, I have a solo show: Cues on Point, which opens in February at Secession in Vienna and will also do a publication with them. When I started graduate school in 2010-2011, I had this idea but I never felt like it was the right place for it to come to fruition. The idea was to make a book with my friends and family and have them draw on the empty musical sheets where buyers can compose the notes on the bars.
I spoke to my kid about it and explained how it works and she quickly made her own staff lines and added musical notes. Some of these are heart shaped, some have flowers… And then I arrived here two weeks ago, packed away our stuff and Tom and I noticed the flag pole outside and we looked at each other, and that’s when we thought: “Wow, this would be really cool if we could make that musical sheet into a flag!” I like the idea of shifting. You know, typically, a flag is nationalistic or is involved in some kind of competition that makes it political in a way. But what about a happy flag linked to this residency? When I asked Roux what the drawing is about, she said: “This song is about family.”
So we proposed it to Julia and Mario in the programme department, and they were fine with it! So we're going to see how the final product comes out. We can’t wait to see Roux’s work up there. Maybe this is like her first solo piece?