Christine Sun Kim and Melissa Dubbin in conversation about sound politics, scale and creating space
In anticipation of the birth of her first child, the sound artist Christine Sun Kim enlisted the help of seven collaborators to create A Week of Lullabies for Roux (2018), an installation featuring wordless soundtracks of various tones, all made in adherence with a score written by Kim that revolved around the concept of a “sound diet” of low frequencies for her infant daughter, Roux. In 2020, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the installation and another of Kim’s works, Close Readings (2015), the first sound installations ever to enter the institution’s collection. On the occasion of the Smithsonian’s inclusion of Lullabies in the exhibition “Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies,” which remains on view through January 29, 2024, Kim and one of her seven collaborators, the artist Melissa Dubbin, recently met virtually—Kim in Berlin and Dubbin in Arcata, California—to talk about the piece and about their shared interests in sound in the contemporary art world.
Melissa Dubbin: How did the sound diet emerge as an important part of your work? I would love to hear the origin of that concept.
Christine Sun Kim: The idea came to me before I had my first child, Roux. I was thinking about several things: I’m a Deaf person. I use sign language. And, assuming my daughter would be born hearing, I was about to be outnumbered by two hearing family members. My partner [Thomas Mader] is also a hearing person. I was thinking how in the outside world there’s so much noise. Radio, TV, internet, music, birds. I found myself kind of taking on the role of a doctor, feeling like I could prescribe different amounts of sound for a healthy baby.
MD: It’s interesting to me that you thought about this before you became a parent. The concept of a sound diet seems very relatable now, because we’re all thinking about what we consume.
CSK: In the beginning, I was thinking of many different scenarios in my head. How much should sound be available for watching Netflix, or how many sound toys should my child be able to play with?
MD: And then two projects emerged from the sound diet, right? A series of drawings and One Week of Lullabies for Roux.
CSK: Yes. Every drawing in that series basically embodies a full day’s worth of sound from the start of the day to the end of the day. Of course, this wasn’t something I literally did for my child. It’s more about encouraging a healthy balance between spoken languages and sign languages. The drawings led me to the second part of the sound diet, which became the lullabies for Roux.
MD: Did that project also begin before Roux was born?
CSK: It started when I got our baby monitor. I did some research and knew I wanted something with vibrations and features that I could access as a Deaf parent, but I also wanted one with a German electric plug because I am based in Berlin. I didn’t have a lot of success! So I tried the U.S. market, but I discovered that almost all monitors have preloaded songs that can be played when the baby cries or to help the baby sleep. I didn’t really grow up with music and I have a different sense of it, if you will. I found myself uncomfortable with the idea of playing a song that I didn’t know or didn’t really care for to soothe my baby. My partner and I agreed not to use the lullaby feature, and from that I developed the idea of seven lullabies from seven different contributors, hence one week’s worth.
MD: It takes a lot of trust in the composers to write lullabies for your infant daughter. Were all of the contributors close friends of yours?
CSK: Actually, no, I wasn’t close friends with some of them. Some were just people I am fond of and trust enough to follow my score. I came up with a list of parameters—no lyrics, low frequencies, something that could be played on repeat. And as long each piece was accompanied by a written audio description that I could access, I felt satisfied. Can you tell me more about how the composition for your piece developed?
MD: I have a long-term artistic collaboration with my partner, Aaron S. Davidson. We became parents in 2015, so the idea of a sound diet resonated with us. Our practice has always incorporated music and sound, and a few years ago we worked on Volumes for Sound, a series of sculptures that can amplify and modify sound. They’re encountered first as silent sculptural forms, and then they’re activated throughout the duration of an exhibition by performances by various artists. It became a platform for collaboration. At that time, we had regular recording sessions for our own performances related to this project, and there was a particular piece we wrote with Shawn Onsgard in our trio Three Planes of Silver that functioned as a bridge for the listener between two pieces of sound. Aaron and I felt it was something we could contribute as a lullaby, a bridge between waking and sleep. And so we made a special edit of it specifically for Roux.
CSK: I remember not long after I received all seven files and audio descriptions, the work was shown at Art Basel. I was trying to figure out how to play the pieces in that setting and decided on headsets that people could put on and listen to while sitting on a cushioned square bench, which I thought was nice, like a home environment.
“I have a personal rule with my work: I don’t want any of my sound files available online. To me, they are something that must be experienced sonically, in person.”—Christine Sun Kim
MD: That makes sense because you created this work to play lullabies for Roux at bedtime, but you also present it in your shows. How do you think this work functions in public as opposed to the private space of a home? I’m particularly curious about its use of color, which is rare in your work.
CSK: Normally I don’t use color in my work at all. Part of that is my fear of picking the wrong color! But it hit me that the baby monitor with the preloaded lullabies also has a color system. They are wireless and turn a very specific red when out of range, then purple when they reconnect. I was reminded of those colorful weeklong pill boxes and wanted to emulate that using a color gradient. I had Monday, the first cushion, start red and then gradually move to Sunday, the last cushion, as the most purple.
MD: The idea of a prescription for a diet really comes through with the format of the pill box.
CSK: Yes! And each headset lists the names of each contributor. I have a personal rule with my work: I don’t want any of my sound files available online. To me, they are something that must be experienced sonically, in person.
MD: I feel like you’ve made choices that allow you to stay true to your work in any platform available. You’ve also defined a unique relationship between ASL and music. Your drawings often incorporate or borrow symbols used in musical notation in a way that upends their traditional cultural format. Could you talk about your choice to use these symbols in your work?
CSK: Lately, it seems like ASL has been gaining popularity and cultural cachet. I think this is partly because of recent movies and more Deaf representation in entertainment. And yet there is still a disconnect because ASL doesn’t have any sound to it as a language. I’ve always thought that if ASL had some kind of sound aspect to it, it would have a stronger standing for hearing people. I try to accomplish this through connecting ASL to music. Music has centuries of power behind it, and ASL is a more recent language that has been around for only two hundred years or so. It’s still a minority language. I think it’s important to emphasize that connection, that collaboration between music and ASL, to put ASL on a larger stage. It’s an important part of my practice and my work.
MD: In previous talks you’ve mentioned that when you first encountered sound art in galleries and museums, you were working in painting and you worried that sound art might further distance you from the art world. But instead, you realized you had to unlearn what you had been taught about sound and create new sonic rules.
CSK: Regarding sound art, I don’t necessarily feel disempowered. I think I take it more literally—like, sound is how the world runs. I had sound exploration in mind when I lived in New York, and I was trying to figure out how to incorporate it in my practice. I noticed that sound art started to become a little hot. Like you said, I found myself with opportunities beyond sound art. I think it’s because I had never thought about sound critically, as a Deaf person. I started applying for grants and people had a strong response to that, which was illuminating for me. It helped me understand that people would have a response to me in sound art and the sound art that I made. Then I got the TED fellowship and was invited to the first group exhibition of sound art at MoMA.
MD: It’s interesting because artists have been using sound for a long time now, and institutions have adapted and become more equipped to present these works. It seems as if the art market is also becoming more interested or accepting, which allows for the kind of visibility you’re talking about.
CSK: Yes. I didn’t want to be too much in the art world or too much in the mainstream. I think what I navigated was not so much strategy but more a search for balance and trying to find ways to do that. Fortunately, my experience from TED was so positive. That was during a time when I felt people were starting to be more understanding and allowing of arts crossovers, whether it was art and food or art and fashion, lots of things. I did feel like the art world was just so mean, which is maybe why I felt like I needed a balance. I found that it was full of bullies. Racism was there, ableism was there, and I felt like: Why should I continue in this space? Then I got the TED fellowship, and it was really a positive thing. It helped sustain me in the art world. I almost quit, but this way, I didn’t have to.
MD: I am so glad you didn’t! The Smithsonian show will include Lullabies for Roux. This installation takes up space, and it has scale. I’m interested in the varieties of scale in your work in relation to language. You have works on paper of various sizes, large murals, billboards and, in the case of your project in Manchester, an entire city. Can you talk about your relationship with text and image or text and space and also scale in your work?
“I was thinking how in the outside world there’s so much noise. Radio, TV, internet, music, birds. I found myself kind of taking on the role of a doctor, feeling like I could prescribe different amounts of sound for a healthy baby.”—Christine Sun Kim
CSK: It all started around 2017 or 2018, when the Whitney asked me to do the Too Much Future billboard at the beginning of the High Line on Gansevoort Street. When they asked me to do that originally, I had just had Roux, and I wasn’t sure what to do exactly. I looked at some drawings that I had at home and found one and thought, “I wonder if this can go bigger.” I had never done that. I had done small projects that stayed to the size of paper and never really went off scale, if you will. I scanned it and sent it over. It blew up in the office. The museum was really excited about it. And then they blew it up on the billboard and that got me excited. Then I asked myself, “Why do I stay at the scale where I’ve been?” It made me think about how to go bigger. With the Whitney, I was like, “That’s all you got?” I wanted to do more. And then when Manchester reached out to me, I was like, “How about captioning the city?” It was my pitch. I didn’t think they’d say yes. So, when they did, I was like, “Ah. I say yes as well.”
MD: It’s something I hope to experience more of in person. Looking at the images of billboards within urban landscapes or planes pulling subtitles through the sky, I’ve been struck by the transformation of the physical environment. It is a form of subtitling reality at scale within the landscape, and in spaces in buildings where you’re amplifying and creating an environment with language.
CSK: The practice of scale also works with my personality. I just love to be around people. I like to be in people’s faces, too. It probably is annoying for some, or obtrusive, but I like to get in there. And I think part of it’s because, subconsciously, I don’t want people to forget that I’m here because they don’t hear me. I think that being in people’s face visually is different. Being a part of a visual language sometimes allows people to make decisions without me because I don’t hear the decisions being made in spoken language. Scale becomes kind of a survival skill, one of my tools to be in people’s faces. And you know what? It seems like people like it.
Beth Staehle provided ASL interpretation for this interview.
Christine Sun Kim, based in Berlin, has exhibited and performed internationally, including at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York; De Appel Arts Center, Amsterdam; Berlin Biennale; Shanghai Biennale; and Sound Live Tokyo. She has been awarded a MIT Media Lab Fellowship and a TED Senior Fellowship.
Melissa Dubbin, based in Brooklyn, NY, works in collaboration with Aaron S. Davidson. Their work has been exhibited internationally at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, Australia, ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany, IF THE SNAKE, Okayama Art Summit, Japan, EPFL Pavilions, Lausanne, Switzerland and The Kitchen, New York. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Creative Arts from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.