Feminist Interview Project: Christine Sun Kim in Conversation with Tabitha Jacques

Christine Sun Kim, Echo Trap, 2021, installation view, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, 2021 (artwork © Christine Sun Kim; photograph by Axel Schneider, provided by Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt)

Editor’s note: Throughout, the lowercase “deaf” is used when referring to a hearing loss condition; the uppercase “Deaf” is used when referring to someone who has a cultural affiliation to the Deaf community.

The Feminist Interview Project, organized by Katherine Guinness and Jocelyn Marshall on behalf of CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts, examines the practices of feminism by interviewing a range of scholars and artists, preserving oral histories while expanding the boundaries of what might be considered feminist. Throughout its interviews, this project reimagines the possibilities of feminist practice and feminist futures.

For our inaugural interview on Art Journal Open, the Feminist Interview Project is excited to present artist Christine Sun Kim in conversation with Tabitha Jacques, director of placemaking at Gallaudet University. The two met for a conversation over Zoom, spanning locales from New York to Berlin. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tabitha Jacques (via interpreter Kira Avery): Good morning. Christine Sun Kim and I are going to be having a conversation today, December 17th, 2021. I am here in Rochester, New York, and Christine is in Germany. We’re going to be talking about a variety of issues, but my first question is: What is feminism to you?

Christine Sun Kim (via interpreter Denise Kahler-Braaten): For me, feminism is a social movement that is connected with other movements, such as Black rights. So, feminism, the foundation of it, is really about equality, and our rights to be full members of society. And feminism is still a hard topic to broach even in society today.

TJ: What’s the relationship between feminism and your work—if there is one?

CSK: I often get asked that question, actually, and I struggle to have a clear answer because I feel like I’m made up of so many different identities, you know? I’m not just a woman. I’m also a mom, I’m Korean American, I’m Deaf. I have all these different identities that make up who I am as a whole. So, looking at what phase of life I’m in or where I am in my work or my career—some of those identities come more to the fore then others. I think with all of these identities the struggle is one for equality. And in my work, I deal with all different types of topics, and so I don’t really separate one out from the other.  

TJ: That makes me think. I’ve known you for quite some time and I feel so fortunate to have seen the evolution of who you are as a person and of your work. Perhaps you can expand a little bit more on this, how your work has evolved in terms of your identity, from when you started to now—how has that shifted, how is it different?

CSK: That’s a good question. Well, as you know, the two of us can relate to this on a really personal level. In the beginning—I’d say the beginning of my career when I first stepped into the art world—it was the first time that I really had to learn how to interact with hearing people, develop those kinds of hearing people skills. Especially interacting with individuals 24/7 for the first time in my life who didn’t know sign language. So, trying not to make it so obvious in these spaces that I was Deaf—I wanted to try to avoid that, and I was a little bit fearful that I might be in a place where, you know, being part of mainstream culture . . . I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into one certain framework. So, in the beginning of my career I tried to work with topics that interested me in my artwork, and I would avoid other topics until I felt that I had the appropriate platform to speak on these things. Then I was able to take that step and put out those larger issues, like, for example, Deaf Rage, in that artwork series I was very transparent about who I was. In the beginning I was much more cautious about how I put that out there, and very aware of my identity. I felt like I had to wait for my platform to grow where I was ready to share other aspects of my identity and bring it to the forefront. So today, people ask a lot of questions about my Asian American identity, and I feel like I’m not sure how to answer just yet. All my life growing up I felt like I was so busy being Deaf and focused on that: how to communicate, how to succeed, how to survive. The Deaf community in America is a very white space and it really taught me how to let go of that Asian identity—not in a very direct way, but subtly—that was the message that I got. Over the past few years, I’ve really gotten more involved with my Asian American identity. What does it mean to be Korean American? Distance from my motherland, so to speak, the history of that homeland. And now that I’m living in Germany, I think it’s ironic, because it’s an ongoing story for me. I do wonder sometimes if my kids, when they grow up, will fully recognize their identity and who they are. Coming back to my family: they were Korean immigrants to the United States, and they moved to California and now here I am, an immigrant in Germany; it’s kind of funny how things are coming full circle, you know?

TJ: What were some turning points throughout your life that led you to this exploration of your identity and embracing so many different parts of that identity? This could be multiple identities, multiple stories, multiple facets of who we are. We’re always challenged in seeing those identities at the same time.

CSK: It’s happening slowly, [I have] these kind of wake-up moments in regard to thinking about narrative, about the narratives of our stories on a more mainstream kind of level and how that influences how I view my own identity. Recently, a lot more Asians have made different films and we see that more out in the mainstream. That makes me think about it more, makes people think about it more. It’s kind of a psychological thing. I wish that it wasn’t necessarily happening this way, but it’s something that becomes part of mainstream culture and then people start to talk about it and then because of that it’s kind of a collective awakening and these discussions happen, and people start to think and realize. Some people might be like, you know, “that movie that was so great” or “I could really relate to that.” That was just what my family went through, I went through that feeling too, of loneliness or feeling like I didn’t exist. I’ve already gone through that series in my life and in my artwork—of talking about my deafness. So maybe this is a new phase, a kind of awakening, a conversation around Asian American identity. But I think that’s how every time something becomes a little bit more mainstream, I become more aware of myself consciously, of that identity and layer of myself.

TJ: I’m curious: the hearing community doesn’t necessarily understand the difference between being Deaf or being hearing. What is that difference and what is the difference between being an Asian Deaf person versus being an Asian hearing person? I know that you identify as Deaf, but you grew up in a hearing Asian family—so what are some of the differences that you think exist between those communities?

CSK: Of course, it’s a little bit different, and it’s strange how in the last three years I’ve found myself and the Asian American community more than ever. So, I think the concept of race, ethnicity, has nothing to do with communication for me. Communication aside, food, celebration, traditions—those are things that I can connect and identify with. Being Deaf in a Korean culture or an Asian culture in general, I think that it’s much more stigmatized. I feel like being disabled and being Deaf is more stigmatized in Asian countries compared to America and some parts of Europe. I think a lot of that has to do with disability laws; if they are actually in place and enforced then there are better rights for these individuals. So, being Asian and being Deaf, I feel that they are still very separate. There’s the Asian level—or am I talking about the Deaf Asian level?—they’re like two separate things, they’re not one in the same. I’m still, maybe, connected in a different way; this is off the top of my head.

TJ: What are some of the advantages that the hearing Asian community has over the Deaf community, and if you could talk more about what it’s like to be from that community? Could you tell us more about the stigmatization that you mentioned in other countries? I think other communities might not be aware of that and in some ways don’t realize the privileges we have as American Deaf people.

CSK: You make a good point. When I mention stigma it’s what is not considered “the norm.” For example, there are communities in Korea—and my mom often speaks about this, about the superstition that you may see for somebody who may be blind or disabled—it’s kind of like a bad luck kind of day if you were to run into one of these individuals. So, the idea of disability—that there’s something wrong or maybe something went wrong in that family—that makes things even harder for those individuals. They’re not considered, they’re marginalized and pushed aside, it’s not inclusive, they’re not allowed to become full members of society. The Deaf Asian community in America, in my opinion, is still new and fragile. While the community is growing, I think it still has a lot more growing to come, although it’s amazing to see what has happened up to now. For example, there’s [nonprofit organization] Asian Signers and you can follow them on Instagram. They’re a new, young group of Deaf people that is growing and putting out content on Instagram in sign language and they’re making so many contributions to our Deaf Asian community, into that space compared to, you know, just the typical organizations, which for me are usually comprised of older individuals. It still has this underline of a very strong connection to Asian culture and the different levels of class, the respect for your elders—our situation is unique. We don’t really have the time to have that separation. I think it’s the time now really to come together, but how do you do that? How do you work with older Deaf individuals who think on that level? How do we come together in that space? I’ve never really confronted that. Of course, there is still a lot of oppression of Deaf Asians—I feel like even a little bit more right now—and it’s frustrating to see that happening. As opposed to the white hearing community that maybe have caused some of this toxic relationship to grow, and we see a reaction to that in the community. There were already existing problems and now things have gotten a little bit worse. But I do see things growing and I’m happy to see these changes happening. I hope to continue contributing what I can.

TJ: I have some follow-up questions with what you just mentioned. I’m curious about your mom, and . . . you have a Deaf sister? How did your mom respond to having two Deaf children?

CSK: It’s funny, I don’t think my parents really told me the full story of how they felt when this happened. We never really sat down and had a talk about it. So maybe when the time is ready, I can have that conversation with them. But, yes, I’m very fortunate to have an older sister who is also Deaf. We lived in a certain school district in California where they had signing, they had tutors who visited my parents twice a week so that my parents could learn sign language. I’m really thankful that system was in place. [Because of it] I was able to develop a relationship with my parents—because they were able to sign. That is quite rare, so I feel very fortunate to have that. My sister and I are very close. Having two Deaf children, of course that wasn’t easy for my parents to deal with, and my mom is the youngest of eight children. My dad has five brothers and sisters. They all left Korea and came to the United States—I grew up with almost fifty first cousins! I’m really very adept at code switching. Depending on who I’m interacting with, I know how best to behave to communicate my needs. Having those traces of Korean culture still a part of me and being in that family, you just have to make those code switches, it’s how you interact in a large family like that. My parents signing did, in some ways, make it easier for me.

TJ: My second follow-up question is related to what you said about a younger generation of Asian Deaf people contributing to Instagram. What are your hopes or what are you looking forward to? How are you hoping to support these future generations of Asian Deaf people?

CSK: It’s funny—see the shirt that I’m wearing right now? On one sleeve it says, “Stop Asian Hate,” and on the other, it has the Deaf power symbol and a pigeon. It really goes back to a Chinese American by the name of Jeff Staple. He heads an agency that is partially a clothing collection, which also designed shoes and had some type of visual communication in connection with the clothing. It was really hard for him to break into streetwear culture at that time. Black, white, and Latinx were out there, but there was nothing really there for the Asian community. He’s really a pioneer in that way. Jeff contacted me on Instagram and wanted to collaborate and I said, “Why not? Let’s try and design something.” At that time, Asian hate and a lot of things like that were very sad to see happening in different communities. So, we brought in a good friend of mine, Ravi Vasavan—a Deaf designer from London, whose father was Indian. It was a very good match. We set up the Deaf Power website, and this whole team came together and worked very well together. In designing this shirt, Meeya Tjiang, who’s also an Asian Deaf individual, came to be part of the team. It was so great that we got the funding, that we got this to happen. It all got sent to Asian Signers for their content on Instagram. We originally planned to send some money to different individuals, different agencies. But once we got all of the money we thought, why not contribute all of it to the Asian Signers? We were like, “Yeah! That works!” This has shown me the power of social media.

TJ: With that story, what are you hoping for future generations of Deaf Asians?

CSK: Hopefully the youth of today will have more platforms to be able to tell their stories. I feel like in the last two or three years we’ve seen more and more Asian stories out there, whether in film, social media, or in print. So, I’m hoping that there will be more and more opportunities for Deaf Asian people to be part of the change and to have more resources and more access to media.

TJ: Do you have any plans for future collaborations with other artists? Perhaps a project that is identity focused—whether that’s related to being a woman, to being a mom, to being an Asian identifying person, to being Deaf?

CSK: Well, right now, I’m not really consciously thinking about one specific identity. It’s really what interests me and then I work from there. I often start with a central idea about my life; you mentioned becoming a mother. That made me think a lot about that, and then you could see that being reflected in my work. So, motherhood could be one; how I communicate with my hearing daughter. Or why society isn’t designed to support mothers? Support [mothers] in the workforce? Maybe having some kind of equality for parental rights. And yes, my work has a very strong connection to being a mother, and I’ve collaborated with my partner here in Germany. It’s amazing what they have here in Germany. They provide us money every month for my daughter, until she’s eighteen, they’ll keep her dressed and well fed. It’s amazing! And it’s more sustainable. It gives me the opportunity to do what I need to do as well as care for my family. That idea and that concept of support is different depending on where you are. For me, the fact that I’m able to continue to work because I have this level of support, because I have the support system that is here, it’s great.

TJ: Speaking of motherhood and its connection to your art, I think not many artists showcase the experience of motherhood and I’m currently working with one woman who is late Deaf, or I suppose has progressive hearing loss. Fran Flaherty was originally born in the Philippines and then moved to the United States, where she started her own small organization, Anthropology of Motherhood. There just isn’t enough artwork about being a caregiver, that experience, and what caregiving truly incorporates. I think it’s interesting because she’s a woman from the Philippines, and has that connection to Asian culture, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but women served this caretaking role in the family unit historically. I give all this context in processing this question to ask: What do you think about art that showcases motherhood or the caregiver role? Why do you think there’s not so much of that out there in the world?

CSK: In regard to your question, as it applies to Asian culture, it’s very strongly gendered. Of course, we expect the mother and the parents to take care of the children, but it’s really not the father’s job and it depends on the culture and it depends on the generation. But I grew up thinking that’s exactly what I would become. However, where I am right now is completely opposite from that experience and I love it. I have full respect for both sides and [my partner and I] take turns giving care and dividing up the responsibilities. It’s really nice to have that support. I don’t see enough really good examples of motherhood out there where people are talking about or critically thinking about this. I feel like we’re too busy, we’re too stressed out, we don’t have time. You just check the boxes, you do one thing, you move on to the next, and we’re not sitting down and having these critical important dialogues or conversations. A large percentage of the world, and the art world, be it auction houses, exhibitions, and museums, is still run by white people—by white male-identifying people. So, if we make work that is very specifically about caregiving and doesn’t necessarily meet a male’s perspective of what good art it is, if it doesn’t meet or satisfy what they want, then we won’t have the platform, we won’t get our work out there, people won’t see it. But, at the same time, I’m very aware that in this day and age persons of color and disability are very hot. It’s very trendy and timely at the moment.

TJ: As it should be! It’s time to take that platform and use it. Since having your child and going through this experience as a caregiver or motherhood in general—how has that affected your art?

CSK: I think that when I became a mom I really took a step back and thought, What does family mean? Not just from the kids’ purview, but as a partner, being a partner, having a spouse. We kind of had an idea—we were together, we knew how to team together, the two of us—but now we’re a family of three. So how does this work now? What values do we have? How do we raise this child? I noticed this coming up in communications, for example in my Sound Diet pieces. How much sound do we bring into the home? So yeah, this theme has appeared in my work.

It also deals with the idea of relationships within family, it comments on how society might look down on or view family, who I am as a Deaf mom, and what it means to be a Deaf mom. A lot related to that—my work has definitely taken a shift. A lot on those topics, and also using time more effectively. Now that I have become a mom—looking back on the past is like, How did I use my time?! How did I get things done? I feel like I’m so much more focused on being careful with my time and not wasting it.

TJ: The phrase that I’ve learned to use since becoming a mother myself is, “budget my time.”

CSK: It’s hard!

TJ: Yes. [Time] is just so valuable, so I have to budget carefully. What is interesting you right now in your art? What are you drawn to in this moment?

CSK: I just recently came out of a phase where I feel like I was so obsessed with the idea of repetition, life being full of repetition. For example, I’m signing this interview in American Sign Language (ASL), [the interpreter] Denise is repeating this in another language, and it’s being recorded, so what does that mean? Going forward my voice is echoing over and over and over again, and it’s never being directly conveyed from point A to point B. When you type something in text it’s also kind of like an echo or reflection of me. My work is an echo of me, if you will. So, I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot about echo and repetition. I’m doing a new mural called Echo Trap at the Museum für Moderne Kunst [MMK, in Frankfurt] here in Germany. It’s a huge mural that encompasses the space, that moves across all four walls, where it goes around and bounces from wall to wall to wall and kind of gets stuck in that space. That idea of my voice, right, being repeated, and kind of not directly being myself. I feel like it’s a good access point where people can, in a way, identify with that and understand the art and within the Deaf community as well, you know all the oppression that they’ve experienced for years and years and years, so, of course, it’s very community based. Things stay within the community, and also things echo within that community. This phase, if you want to call it the “echo phase,” has led me to something else. I’m working on a new mural right now at the Queens Museum in New York. It comes from the idea of sounds you see in comics—where they typically use the idea of movement and line, using lines to reflect movement or sound. For example, if a child was about to hit a baseball, you could see the swing of the bat or the movement of the ball in the calmness of the line or the thickness of the line. Whether it was a really hard hit, or a soft hit, you could see through the movement and the motion of the line this meaning being conveyed. So, the idea of imagining myself as though I was signing. For example, the sign for “rest,” it requires you to use two hands to make that sign. But if you’re signing maybe “angry” or “mad,” depending on the emotion and the way you would create the movement when you create the sign, it can envision and change the meaning, these subtle changes. You’ll see that in the mural, you’ll see those motions of lines that are being drawn from comics conveyed in my mural and in my artwork. And all the signs that are part of this mural have some contact with the body. I want to expand more on this going forward, in regard to representing sign language or sound or action, some type of movement. For me, the focus is going to be on ASL—the power, the balance between this way of communicating, this medium, this mural.

 TJ: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hurt myself when I’m mad and using sign language and I sign something so forcefully it hurts!

 CSK: Me too! And it’s even worse when you wear glasses, right? You can accidentally hit yourself and cause your glasses to come off your face. I think it’s the worst when you wear glasses and they just go flying.

TJ: The power of signing! I want to go back, quickly, to this idea of the echo chamber or the echo story that you mentioned. What you were talking about made me think, both of us as Deaf individuals, we navigate both the Deaf and hearing world and identity is . . . challenging. Sometimes it takes shifting your identity. So, telling your identity to each world is different, and to hearing people I limit myself in some ways, how I frame or represent myself, I make sure that I repeat myself clearly so that I am understood correctly.

CSK: It’s stupid that we have to be conscious of that, right?

TJ: Yes. But in the Deaf community I just feel a lot more flexible. I’m able to bring a story that I’m feeling about myself today that is different from yesterday or tomorrow and that I can just bring my full self into that space. So, I’m curious how that is for you. I know you were saying that this is a project that you’ve wrapped up. But how are you able, if at all, to break that echo in the hearing world of the story that you’re able to tell yourself about yourself directly?

CSK: Well, first of all this is why I’m so excited for us to be able to do this interview today. It’s so different to be able to conduct it in sign language and to directly communicate. And then working, obviously, later from a voice transcript so we can clean up what we talked about—that may take a little bit more time—but there’s a little bit more control over our voice and how people view us. As an artist, it’s like a brand, really. Being an artist is like having your own brand. And what we put on social media is another brand, so you really have to be so careful, there’s so much work put into making sure everything lines up and the image that people see of me in the world is what I want to put out there. I’m working on a new access rider—me and my gallery in LA, Ghebaly—I’m really so fortunate with them. We’ve only been collaborating for the past two years. The senior director there, Gan Uyeda, is learning ASL, so now I’m able to communicate directly with him and obviously we work remotely—me from Germany and he’s in California—but it’s so interesting to be able to communicate at this level and also have the layer of understanding that this is what I’m trying to say. The rider includes things like interviews or working with curators. For example, it says something like, “Please don’t label Christine as a Deaf artist.” Obviously, there are things I do that are tied to the Deaf community and it’s obvious that I’m Deaf. Why do I have to hold out a flag and say, “Hello! Here I am! I’m Deaf!” In the disabled arts community, we’re past the point where we need some kind of announcement or diagnosis or branding of ourselves. I want to challenge how we can put it out there without seeming to hide it at the same time if that makes sense. The audience is smart enough to figure it out. I’ve grown in my artwork, I’m in a place where I don’t have to put it out there. This access rider includes a few links where people can learn about the Deaf community, or if people don’t sign, there are different resources that are contained in the rider. Because every time I sit down with a curator or some bigwig, they usually don’t know anything about deafness and I feel like I have to become an educator all over again, and it’s a waste of forty-five minutes, a waste of this time spent together, an education on what deafness is and all of that. And then, only in the last few minutes do we get to talk about my work. It becomes quite frustrating. So, the gallery has helped put this rider together, and I think it’s a great tool to have. They worked on getting my feedback—obviously—in how they created it. The worst part is sometimes you have no control with institutions and media.

TJ: Being labeled a “Deaf artist.”

CSK: I don’t want to be a Deaf artist, exactly. I don’t do PR, but in interviews and things like that, I always ask, “Please, please, please, what is going to be the headline here?” I remember the worst one, an experience in the past, somebody had written, “Artist who cannot hear but works with sound.” That was years ago, and that was really kind of traumatizing, that really stuck with me. That’s not who I want to be. That was about five years ago, and I realized, I want to have the last say, I want to be able to project my voice, and whatever is put in print out there about me, I want to have a say in that.   

TJ: The hearing world still sensationalizes Deaf people and I hope that we can change the way the hearing world looks at Deaf people more broadly. We have such interesting lives and such an interesting culture and stories to tell of our own. But we’re often framed with this two-dimensional perspective of being a Deaf person, and so working to break those barriers as a hope for the future.

CSK: I agree. I agree.

TJ: Well, thank you so much.

CSK: Thank you, for this opportunity, and I hope more opportunities like this will arise, where I can work with Deaf interviewers. I love it.

TJ: Yes, the feeling is mutual. It’s not often that we have two Deaf people interviewing and it’s really nice to put this out there into the world and shift the perspective of how we’re able to talk with one another versus a hearing person interviewing you.  

Christine Sun Kim is an American artist based in Berlin. Working predominantly in drawing, performance, and video, Kim’s practice considers how sound operates in society, deconstructing the politics of sound, and exploring oral languages as social currency. Musical notation, written language, American Sign Language (ASL), and the use of the body are all recurring elements in her work. She further uses sound to explore her own relationship to verbal languages and her environment. She is represented by François Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles and White Space Beijing in Beijing.

Tabitha Jacques is the director of placemaking at Gallaudet University. Jacques, from Baton Rouge, LA, was the director of the Joseph F. and Helen C. Dyer Arts Center at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology for seven years. She worked as an exhibit curator for the Gallaudet University Museum Project and was a special projects coordinator for the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. She earned a Master of Arts in Art History and Museum Studies from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Gallaudet University. In 2018, Jacques was selected as a 2018 Forty Under 40 honoree by the Rochester Business Journal and in 2019, received the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from Gallaudet University Alumni Association.