Forget how sound works: when is it right? A composer intrigued by the ownership, infringement and assimilation of sound, Christine Sun Kim has spent her career wondering this. Through a series of works raising eyebrows at the expectations placed on listening, the New York artist has created responses to how things are supposed to be – and how our personal relationship to sound is tied up with obligation. There is so much room for sound, so why do we end up talking about it in such a small number of ways?

Born deaf, Kim has spent her artistic career fighting to keep her experience of sound at the centre of things. In 2017, she told the Quietus of the conflict in her communication: ‘I have to grapple every day with giving up my own voice to get voice. I rely on the mediation of an interpreter or an electronic device to be able to then take ownership of my voice’. It’s a concern that lies at the heart of (LISTEN), a project she conceived in 2016. A sound walk that explored the New York neighbourhood she grew up in, (LISTEN) invited participants to experience the sounds of her local area. On this journey, they experienced the discrepancies found in an acoustic environment. They created their own score and experienced their own music – all in a space defined by Kim’s personal history. (LISTEN) encourages us to rethink where sound belongs, and who has the power for it to belong to them.

Much of Kim’s work is concerned with ‘hearing etiquette’, the way listening changes through actions and circumstances. When placed in a precarious situation, we are expected to ‘sound’ the right way; to be quiet on entering a house at night, or to sing young people the appropriate songs with the right melodies and rhymes. For Kim, these loaded applications of sound are experienced differently; her pieces consider how it might be harder to perform these social mores, and harder for others to understand the disconnect they encourage. Her compositions have considered the unique way circumstances confer sound, amassing the feeling of an anthology on the process of listening. As she told Art In America: ‘My practice offers different possibilities of listening: listening while napping, listening while watching movies, listening while playing games, listening while walking, and so on. Listening can mean so many things, and can encompass many other sensory experiences’.

‘Etiquette’ is something beyond us: a model of socialisation, it instills order and cuts out contingencies. Talking to Lincoln, Kim notes that her deafness made her ‘grow accustomed to the way people behave around sound’. The concept of ownership reared its head, and Kim noticed that listeners develop an instinctive sense of social order, keeping sound for themselves and excluding those forced outside of it. In her early work, Kim started to develop performance pieces that challenged these ideas, rewriting social relations through music and illustration. Game of Skill 2.0 was an intriguing sound installation that demanded physical inputs from all visitors; held on a conveyer, boxes could be moved to alter the sound, moving it back and forth in its timeframe. The piece stressed sound at its most human regulated – the opposite of passive, purposeless experience.

With nap disturbance, Kim juxtaposed sound ‘etiquette’ with the sound of the self. The piece recreates the hushed movements we try and make when someone is sleeping upstairs. Kim feels that her actions become louder the more worried she becomes about out making noise – her personal volume changes on the basis of anxiety and misunderstanding. Here, Kim suggests that we become stereos and speakers – that sound is a quality of within. As an artist interested in reclaiming sound for the deaf community, Kim makes the case that sound is a sensation of the body, of the mind – as well as one between the ears.

The way Kim talks about music, it seems obvious that it can exist in the absence of acoustics. It is a quality of whatever: we can talk about colours being ‘loud’, of nights-in ‘quiet’. For nap disturbance, Kim choreographed performers in uniform green hoodies, describing the very design of a hoodie to Art In America as offering the ‘maximum quietness –  in terms of visibility – that we can achieve’. The sounds made in nap disturbance are made by the performer’s movements: whether at tip-toe or tantrum, they come from a wide range of bodily functions, running the spectrum of aural decorum. For her recently composed the grid of prefixed acousmatics, she was inspired by the sound of ‘anticipation’, the visceral experience of music ‘waiting to be heard’, an idea inspired by the philosophy of sound artist Pierre Schaeffer.

In thinking of these extra tangible, often unacknowledged sensations, Kim breaks down some of the barriers that sit between listener and composer. Her ideas make areas that generally require learned, worked-up knowledge seem clear and accessible, already found in our thoughts, or our pulse. Kim illustrates her work with sketches of scores or snippets of American Sign Language, drawing parallels between the work of learning a language and the work of music as academia – her work, though, is built out of free, unlimited experiment. Talking to 15 Questions, she described this process: ‘I often start with empty ideas that I need to experiment with until I finally reach the core to see what I was trying to achieve.’ Through this, sound as an institution comes crumbling down. Kim examines our quest to contain what we hear, and finds the reality of sound within.

Photo (C) Christine Sun Kim