In January Berlin-based artist Christine Sun Kim spent three months in London with her family at the invitation of Somerset House Studios and Goethe Institute. Edges of Sign Language, her resulting exhibition at Somerset House, concludes on 21 May. It presents four canvases whose shapes are modeled after the physical and spacial boundaries of the titles they represent in American Sign Language – the rounded edges of All Day All Night (2023) represent the cyclical nature of the sun rising and setting, while Echo (2023) takes a dynamic form of a bend, like the sound that moves from one place to another. The canvases function as a materialization of the titles of the works, challenging the viewer’s expectations of what a canvas ought to look like and what it should contain. For V/A and our ongoing focus theme “immediacy,” Caroline Whiteley spoke with the artist and interpreter Helsa Borinstein.
CAROLINE WHITELEY V/A currently explores the notion of immediacy. There are a lot of interesting synergies between this idea and your work. I’m curious to hear what comes to your mind when you think about it?
CHRISTINE SUN KIM I think about how you want to do to define it, for example related to time or pacing. I’m on my second pregnancy. I’m already five months in, and it feels like it just happened yesterday. It happens with such speed that there’s been no real time to sit down and reflect on it. When I think about immediacy, I think about experience: things that have happened in the past and that are more present than ever. I think it comes from a place of expectation, really.
When you have a specific expectation, time seems to slow down; things take longer. And when you have fewer expectations, things tend to happen much more quickly. I’ve always had this problem, managing ideas and hopes and expectations of things that are to happen further down the line, letting go of these expectations and just absorbing the feeling of the journey, so that you’re not in a place of resistance.
I think of immediacy in relation to expectation. I don’t want to sound like an old-school person, but everything can be achieved with a click of a button these days, right? Whether it’s food or really any form of service. I feel like we really take immediacy for granted, and it’s led us to do even more multitasking than we were doing previously. This creates a new expectation, right? Now others have the expectation that you’re able to do five very different kinds of errands or tasks within a short amount of time. Where’s the end point of this? What are the limits of our expectations?
CW Yes, I agree completely. Edges of Sign Language was commissioned as part of Somerset House Studio’s series Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy, which explores societal and ecological issues related to our health and collective wellbeing. The title of the series reminds me of an essay in Jia Tolentino’s book Trick Mirror, in which she talks about how we’re told to “always be optimizing.” Post-pandemic, teetering on the brink of recession, it feels like we’re in an especially weird moment of hustle culture…
CK Do you know about crip time? It’s about understanding how individuals with disabilities or chronic illnesses and neurodivergent people perceive time and space differently than able-bodied people. Those of us who are disabled – and I use the word disability as a positive term, not as a negative term – we’ve really expanded what disability means because of how society and its norms have been built.
Everything’s been just one way, one idea that everybody accepts and follows. I use the phrase crip time, so that society is accommodating [to people with disabilities; author’s note]. So for example, with this interpreter [Helsa], I need a little extra time to say what I want to say.
It requires more planning; I have to contact an agency; I have to find a budget; we have to find time to set up a meeting via Zoom: there are all these extra steps. But if I didn’t need [ASL] interpreters, we could just do this over a phone call instead. So crip time means taking time, taking space for ourselves, and demanding that it be allowed – and we should.
CW Yeah, that’s true. Edges of Sign Language challenges norms and expectations, too. For example, it questions the idea that a canvas can’t be left blank, which is what you did in the exhibit – it’s a canvas with no paint on it, but the shapes of the canvases are very intentional. Could you tell me a bit about the concept behind the work?
CW The concept was quite simple. It was based on specific signs that I wanted to use. My favorite one, the big circular looking one, is the shape for how you would sign the concept of “all day and all night.” In English this concept requires four words, and in American Sign language you do it in one sign, which looks like the sun moving over the horizon and then going down below it. I really wanted to play around with American Sign Language from a non-linguistic and non-academic perspective; something less serious but simpler and more playful.
As a person who uses and depends on sign language, it’s quite frustrating that we’re constantly having to fight for just basic human rights and for recognition. This fight takes place in various ways in daily life, so I want to make sure that there’s also space for us to have fun and to be playful, which is where Edges of Sign Language comes from. What’s the maximum framing space required for these signs to be conveyed? I wanted to look at that and trace the edges of these signs.
I drew these shapes and I worked with a phenomenal team at Somerset House Studios. They were able to find a company called TASC that made the cut of the wood, the base, the frames, and then they mounted the actual canvases. I intended to leave the canvases blank.
Let’s look at the current situation: Helsa [Borinstein], the person who’s interpreting right now, is basically an empty canvas. I need to find a way to put my words, my thoughts, my ideas onto this canvas. What interests me is what Helsa’s canvas can offer, but Helsa has a limitation because of who she is as a person, how she presents my voice, how she represents what I’m saying – that has certain limits. Every interpreter, every person, will provide a different frame and different limits. I want to look at how these parameters are set up, rather than what’s on the canvas. I’m interested in what the canvas is itself if that makes sense?
CW That makes complete sense. Your choice of the words you used to inform the shape of the canvases are all related to time, like All Day All Night. It has a beautiful shape, of course, but it relates also to the here and now. Another piece is titled Score, which reminds me of the works that you’ve done with musical scores and with notation. How did you choose the words to describe the four artworks in the exhibition?
CK [In practical terms] I wanted to use words that looked beautiful on the canvas, and I wanted the signs to be conceptually interesting as well.
We’ve just talked about All Day All Night, and I love how All Day All Night represents the movement of the sun with one gap in the edge of the canvas. And then I chose “Score”, which is completely full of time markers, right? That’s what a score is; it’s all about timing.
If you see the movement of it, the vertical portion of it, that’s the shape of the arm. I’ll do it for you now; I’ll demonstrate it. Moving forward, that’s my arm, that’s where the movement is. People think that sign language just requires your hands, but that’s absolutely not the case. It requires movement and arms and much more of the body.
The third sign is “Echo”, which is sound based. Sound has a direct correlation to immediacy: it’s a vibration of air, that’s how you are able to perceive it, and then it’s done. Echo very much ties to that idea. In my life, the concept of echoing has been very prevalent. For example, [my interpreter] Helsa is repeating, she’s echoing, right? So I say something and then she’s echoing what you’re saying back to me.
In school things either had to be written down or captioned. Any information that I received was all secondhand and often strongly filtered by the time the information got to me. I feel like my education was curated by all these people who got to decide what I needed to know or what I didn’t need to know.
As for the fourth piece, the sign for “All”, there happened to be a fireplace in the exhibition space. [As it turns out], the sign for “All” looks like a little chimney coming out of a circle. When I was coming up with the pieces for this space, we liked this correlation between the fireplace and the sign for All.
In lots of sign languages around the world you can pick one sign and you can sign it multiple times and the meaning can shift each time you sign it, depending on the facial expression you use. I feel the same way about the canvases: you could take them put them into a different environment, into a different space, and the environment itself will impact them. But not so much the other way around.
CW When I think about that process of filtering ideas, I also think about disinformation. The Sound of Temperature Rising (2019) reminds me of the misinformation and immediacy around climate change. Do you see these parallels as well?
CK Sure. I mean, I made that piece during my first pregnancy. I was having a really difficult time sleeping; I was very agitated. It made me think about temperatures rising and how this idea can easily be used in different contexts and from many different perspectives, whether it’s weather change, political unrest, disinformation, and all those feelings that you get from disinformation. Although all of that came out of my first pregnancy, it can still be used and applied to other things that are sort of hot topics and things that are being spoken about.
Visual language has a lot of power, and it can relate to so many different things. I think it’s a very powerful tool because the art itself is scalable. It became a billboard exhibited on a highway billboard in Los Angeles on the 710 Freeway and a mural at MoMA in New York.
CW I hope you’ll indulge me on this one because I really love your sense of style. Could you tell me a bit more about your relationship to clothes and the joy of fashion?
CK When I started my art career, I worked really hard to find my language in terms of materials that I was using for my artwork. I became very serious, too serious. As a Deaf individual, people already observe me and think, ‘Oh, she’s very serious.’ But I wanted to be joyful as well; I wanted to enjoy myself. Over time I discovered my love for fashion, and that it doesn’t have to be serious; it can be fun and glamorous.
I’ve always enjoyed clothing, but what’s really had a huge impact on my sense of fashion was my performance at the Superbowl 2020, where I signed the national anthem. For that event, I decided that I wanted to wear an Asian designer. So I asked Humberto Leon, one of the co-founders of Opening Ceremony, if I could wear one of his dresses.
When I was on the platform wearing that dress, I was like, ‘Wow, clothing is a different tool. I can tell my story through my clothing choices.’ From that moment on I really kept in mind that I needed to not just socialize with artists all the time. My brain needed to meet other people and do other things. Now I have lots of different social circles that I participate in, and it’s just fun.
A few years ago, I met Veronika Dorosheva, a stylist here in Berlin, and we’ve been collaborating [on my looks] more and more.
CW You’ve spoken before about shifting away from working explicitly with sound art. I came across a Todd Selby documentary from 2011, in which you’re pictured walking down this incredibly busy road in New York and using a field recorder to capture sounds on the street. I’d love for you to talk me through this journey of discovery and when you began to change your approach to making art that draws from the visual elements of sound.
CK I’m really happy that you’ve asked me this question. Todd Selby’s [NOWNESS] video opened up so many doors for me as an artist. I’ve been really fortunate that he decided to feature my work. At the same time MoMA had their first sound artists show, and I was in that group show.
I had just come out of graduate school at Bard. During my time there, sound was very much a part of my life, but I was very passive in how I chose to respond to that. I would just say things like, ‘Oh yeah, that doesn’t interest me, that’s not my thing!’ I think being passive about sound and trying to avoid creating tension was a survival strategy. There’s also another element of being an Asian person in a country that is filled with mostly white people—be it in America or even more so [now] in Germany.
I would ask myself: ‘How do I turn one [identity] off and only be the other thing?’ It’s the same with my deafness. Throughout graduate school I tried to figure out where I belonged, where my place was. Would it be okay to work with this particular sound idea without compromising my Deaf identity? I’m very proud to be a Deaf person, so I had a huge internal struggle around this. It was almost like [I was] trying to whitewash my Asianness in terms of my Deaf identity, or [I was] trying to be more manly to disavow my femaleness, which is ridiculous, right?
Because the answer is right there: of course I can play around with these things and still maintain my identity. But the way that society has conditioned people, makes people believe they have to maintain the course, they can’t deviate. I was always interested in sound itself: in the vibrations, the physicality [of sound], but after a couple of years, I finally branched out [from sound art] because all the different layers of my life have taken me in this way. And I want to stay messy, I don’t want to be defined as just a sound artist, and I wouldn’t define myself that way any longer.
CW It’s difficult with categorizations because it becomes quite convenient for journalists or the industry to pin people in a certain genre of art.
CK Yeah, and I understand why; it’s fine. I don’t mind it – it’s good for clickbait. But now it’s more about how I’m able to use that opportunity that I’ve been given to explore different ideas. With the work that I do related to sound, it’s almost as if you just have one dish in front of you, and you’re stuck with it, right? Sound is really, really broad.
CW Incredibly so.
CK I’ve just stopped eating the one dish—and now I’m trying some of the other ones.
CW That’s a beautiful way to put it.