Christine Sun Kim Interview

Interview

Christine Sun Kim Interview by Taewoon Choi (artist, social scientists and activists.)/ Denise Kahler (interpreter)
Interview date: January, 14, 2020 (through a Zoom Meeting)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Taeyoon Choi:   I'm Taeyoon and I'm a fan of Christine, collaborator, and longtime friend. I'm very excited to have this opportunity to talk with her about her recent work. Even though we talk regularly, it's been a minute since we’ve had a serious conversation about art.
Christine (interpreted by Denise): Hi, my name is Christine Sun Kim. I'm an American artist living in Berlin, currently. Right now, we're communicating in American sign language through a sign language interpreter, Denise and that's who I am. My name is Denise, I'm a sign language interpreter for our meeting this morning. I've known Christine for about 15 years. So we have both worked together for 15 years and we're friends, too.
Taeyoon:          Also, Denise has interpreted for me quite a lot of times with Christine and also other members of the deaf community. So, I want to have that on the record that we are not strangers. There might be a lot of things that we talk about that are between the lines that we may need to unpack for the readers.
Taeyoon:            So I want to start with one of the first questions, and please correct me if this is wrong. In recent years, maybe in the last two years, it seems like you're more comfortable making political statements about deaf culture or disability rights in your art. I remember maybe five, six years ago, you were actively trying to distance yourself from your disability, because that was the only thing that people wanted to talk about. So am I seeing it right that you feel more comfortable with your art and actually making a statement in a way that you want about deaf culture?
Christine:            I remember that conversation clearly that we had in the past and yes, I've asked myself that question. My work, my practice, I feel have maybe taken a shift over the years. About 10 years ago, the audience maybe wasn't ready for me or maybe I wasn't ready to take the risks. So, like you said, I was trying to distance myself and about 10 years ago I was not thinking about what disability means. Deaf people have a long history, but the community often isn't included in what's going on there. I think this is because of a big reason -- linguistics. Deaf people communicate with a different language and often you go to events and there are no sign language interpreters.
Christine:          So those [deaf people] kind of feel like it's sparked resistance. And disability itself, that word is finally starting to kind of grow and expand and change and become a more positive term. I've spoken with other individuals and if I could kind of do away with or push aside that disability or don't recognize it at all... I remember telling you -- and I think maybe you said that to me -- you mentioned it seems like you're kind of a little bit anti-deaf or anti-disability. And I think at the beginning of my career, that's what I needed to do to kind of establish myself as a new emerging artist. And then when I felt there was a safe space, then I could go in that direction and be more comfortable sharing my deaf experience.
Taeyoon:          Well, I think that's a great point and I think you are aware of, and also part of, a larger cultural shift with disabilities and deafness becoming more positive, more fashionable, more progressive. I think we didn’t have Nyle DiMarco and Chella Man 10 years ago. We didn't have all of these people who are in the mainstream defining disability as an identity. And I see your work as a big part of that, at least from a New York arts and culture, fashion perspective. You have been pushing that and let's just acknowledge that things are different now compared to 10 years ago when we first met in terms of disability culture and I want to give you some credit for that.
Taeyoon:          My question is, what will the next 10 years be like for all of us in the community, around the community, allies? Can we just brainstorm what the next 10 years would be like? What do you want to see in the world?
Christine:          Okay, well before I answer that question, I just want to mention one thing about disability artists in general, and why I feel they're pushing that, or there's more resistance to that, or feel a stronger connection politically right now. Because in so many different countries I've seen, each country has their own set of laws and rules on how they provide access and quality of life and enjoyment as well as education. So it can be quite different depending on where you are. I think to be a disabled person in America is probably the best place to be.
Christine:          I have met others who have gone through and had greatly different experiences than I have. And I traveled to other countries and I can see the frustration. Deaf people aren't allowed to have a license or they can't get a job or basic parts of life. But now I've seen that being pushed and being more progressive, not only in America but globally. Anywhere deaf culture may stand or in history where deaf culture may stand, I'm starting to be a big believer that if we change laws later, slowly over time, that will affect people's thinking. Not only just to provide access, not for people to feel, oh, I have been forced to do this, but I can see the attitude towards our work in the United States differently as opposed to Europe or Asia. And I think that's a big influence on my practice of late.
Christine:          And your other question, in 10 years in the future. Maybe it's good for me to mention that I was just for the first time a co-curator in Tallinn for an exhibition with a friend of mine. The two of us co-curated this and it was interesting because it was not easy to make these choices about which  artists we were going to exhibit. Disability -- I may know a little bit about each, but really didn't have an experience with them. And in Estonia, it seems they're ready to ask,  ‘What is the disability to us? What does this mean for us?’ And that attitude seems to be growing not just there but elsewhere too.
                        So that helped me see a different perspective as a curator and as an artist. And it's interesting going through the list of artists -- there were so many Americans on the list and we struggled to find non-American artists to be a part of that. And I felt that was a reflection of the laws. In the United States, the laws are there to protect individuals, so individuals [from the United States] may be a little bit more well established than artists in other countries who don't have those laws.
                        So in the exhibition we showed this, and I think in many other exhibitions too you'll see this happening. I feel the next 10 years should be interesting in a positive way. It really depends on how technology affects us. Technology can make everything so one-size fits all. If that sort of technology continues to be multiple and flexible for two different peoples and not just one specific group of people, then I can see how that would really affect us. The adaptability of tech is what will affect us.
Christine:          I want to make a brief comment on the American centric nature, a kind of academic arts dominance, about disability culture. I'm going to Canada next week for a disability arts conference and you're right, 70% of the presenters are either New York-based or Berkeley-based. There's a little bit of a centralization of this trend, which is something that we should acknowledge and be aware of, because it's still an East coast liberal idea about identity and equity. And I think what you're saying about different cultures having a completely different set of standards and needs is real.
Taeyoon:          I think about the Korean experience, because I still continue talking with all these disability artists in Korea, and their needs are just entirely different. They need a different sense of job security. They need different kinds of access and I cannot discredit it. I think sign language is a good example.
Taeyoon:          A lot of the deaf people don't use sign language in Korea and there's a reason for that and I think the need to assimilate or kind of basically try to fit into the box is quite strong in countries like Korea. So they're just reacting differently. There is still yet to be a major deaf or blind actor in Korea. There are wonderful artists and writers, but they are still quite marginalized. So I'm thinking that the mainstream shifts and then the DIY shift needs to happen at the same time. And what I like about your practice is it's bridging the two sometimes.
Taeyoon:          Your art practice could be very obscure, very critical, or layered. And then some of the stuff that you do in fashion or your collaboration with other -- or I'm not sure if it's a collaboration -- but your association with pop culture seems to be making a different kind of impact. So it's two layers at the same time and that seems pretty healthy to have both.
Soojung:           So she has different ways to present her interest in the art world.
Taeyoon:          I'm thinking she does. There are many layers of Christine's practice. I think there's definitely her personality -- she's very outgoing and comfortable in public. When she's performing or doing a fashion shoot, for example. And I think that's awesome. I just think that artists should not stay in the studio. Artists should be everywhere, going to conferences and going to fashion shows. I'm trying to make a record of her drawings or writings, which is very personal and she does it all by herself and that's just entirely her. And then that coexists with more of a pop culture or a mainstream version of herself. So it happens at the same time.
Christine:          I am always wondering about the gaps between the language of cultures, between platforms. At first, I was considering that I need to have this specific platform as an artist. That's strictly where I'm going to be. But my art kept pulling me in other directions -- collaborating with or working with a disability community or media. Like you said, photography.
Christine:          So before I really wanted to stay specifically in the art world, but now, I want to stay in this direction of being able to kind of move across multiple platforms. And often I've worked with different sign language interpreters and I never really feel like I fit one exact community. So it becomes a reflection on my practice. Kind of like you said, two different directions or layers there. In regards to code switching, I'm really good at that with hearing and deaf people, switching between different cultures. But I do find it exhausting. People become more and more conscious or aware of how people do that kind of code switching. But hopefully somewhere down the line in the future, I will have to do that less. People will allow us to be what we are.
Taeyoon:          Let's talk a little bit about your private practice of drawing and sometimes writing. It's in your private studio and that seems to be one area that is not touched by mass culture or collaboration. You really define the style of the drawing, which becomes stronger and some of them became billboards and super big, covering up these highways or buildings. It's just been so interesting to see your scribbles become really large and travel to different physical spaces and media spaces. So tell us a little bit more about your writing and drawing practices and if that has changed or if you're keeping it consistent in some way.
Christine:          Well, before my writing was more integrated with playing with the idea of linguistics, of ASL, or along with musical notation. I started playing around with those ideas and I thought there were a lot of similarities between ASL and musical notation and that kind of led me in the direction of collaboration and thinking about American sign language. London is one piece where I collaborated with a group of children and I asked them, what would you like to say? What do you want to say to the world? And that's what influenced that piece.
Christine:          I'm sorry. I feel I'm kind of not really answering your question. I guess I think about a concept first and when I have a clear concept in mind then I kind of know what medium or format I want to use. Should I do this as a small drawing? Should I make this large scale? I usually always do a series -- One idea or one question, one situation, one specific experience. I feel like there's never one answer. So it's usually always a series. There's multiple answers. And I do that and usually in even numbers because I like to do things in grids.
Christine:          I feel it works best in even numbers. If you just have an odd number and one's kind of sticking off to the side, I feel it just doesn't work.
Taeyoon:             Can I interrupt for a second? I think that's a good point about you. You really like chaos      
 and play. You just like to mess things up or be really free, but on the other side you're       
 extremely systematic. You're so organized in your own way. And Christine used to be a digital archivist, managing thousands of files. So I think that's really interesting, because while the drawings are very improvised or very gestural, there's something consistent and I think that really works with the pie charts that
were really widely circulated last year. And some of the staff drawings, the line drawings, are very repetitive. So I think that's just interesting about your practice -- that it's irregular and unpredictable, but still very controlled. There's that tension between extreme control and you letting go of the control.

Christine:          Yes. And I think playing between those two things, like you said, the graph kind of design or the grid design in undergraduate, really changed my life. One class, Oh -- FC, there's a program that they have 1.0. It's a program that you can use to design things. It's FCP.
Taeyoon:          What is FCP?
Christine:          Final Cut Pro.
Taeyoon:          Oh, okay. Yeah. That's a video editing software. Yeah.
Christine:          Yes, exactly. 1.0, that version, that first one they put out. The graphic design class that I took, I remember using that and learning the basic tools of it. And I'm like, ‘Oh, I don't really like those grid designs so much and all the planning that went into it,’ and I felt I couldn't handle it. But years later it kind of came up in my work again and I was like, ‘Whoa. Now I can see how it helps me place things.’ And that program, which helped me take that class years ago, I think became a foundation of my practice today. I think that sometimes you have things move too fast and then mentally you kind of ask yourself, what choices do I need to make? When things are laid out clearly in a grid, I feel like, okay, I feel better now.
Taeyoon:          Yeah. I think you're a bit of a control freak.
Christine:          Yeah. Before I wasn't, but I am now. I feel as an artist you have to be, you have to document, you have to save, you have to archive, otherwise your projects are just lost. And then all that work, where did it go?
Taeyoon:          I know. I'm really struggling with that because I'm also a little bit meticulous in one way but also really erratic and kind of not organized. And it's hard because things just pile up and we also don't know what is valuable until many years later. We may make a silly drawing that becomes one thing that people want to see, but I just didn't take care of it seriously. Just one more thing on the drawing is that I think there's definitely a sense of humor and comic in your drawings. I know that you really like the Simpsons and  90's cartoon and comic culture. What are the kinds of visual motifs that inspire you these days? Is there something new in the younger generation that you find kind of interesting visually?
Christine:          Well, I read a lot of Twitter and I read a lot of different articles, not so many books lately. I'd like to go back to reading books. But in this day and age I watch a lot of different TV shows as well. Since I was pregnant I was kind of laid up, I was doing a lot of that. Mooching off my friend, kind of hacker movies. So I'm able to binge watch these things and so movies and that kind of culture influenced me. That's why I don't read books.
Taeyoon:          I want to jump into another question. I think this may be relevant to the archive because it's a Korean-American artist archive. I've been thinking a lot about my Korean identity, especially the South Korean diaspora and my connections with East Asia, because I was in Hong Kong as you know. And China is a really important and very kind of problematic country that we are all associated with somehow. I think China is quite similar to the US in a sense. It's huge and there are a lot of progressive things happening, but also very oppressive things happening as well.
Taeyoon:          So I just see that as an interrelated situation. And for us being East Asian by our ancestors, I have been thinking a lot about South Korea, North Korea, and that region. Many years ago, we had a small collaboration where I helped you translate a letter from a North Korean, a kind of a family reunion planning. It’s been quite a few years and I know that your family is in LA and their extended family and they are still healthy and you still have connections with your grandmother. I'm just wondering, have you thought about North Korea, South Korea and then the region and sort of the whole East Asia? Because you also have a gallery in China so your work travels there.
    
Christine:          That was set up by a TED fellow whom I was friends with and they asked me if I could make some kind of contribution. Christmas wasn't really a good time for me, just this recent past holiday visiting my family. I think it was a communication thing. I just found myself feeling fed up all over again and I guess I'm a little bit fortunate that I'm able to kind of communicate with my cousins and just kind of be wild and free or texting or whatever. I know there's a lot of communication issues in many families, but I think for me, to have the added layer of the deafness there and trying to balance the Korean culture and communication, sometimes people are not very approachable. So Christmas made me think a lot about my Korean identity and my Grandma. She's good. What? She's 95... How old is she? 95 now, I think. Well, she's in her 90's and she's getting old, but her mind is still sharp.
Christine:          Of all my grandparents, she's the only one left living. Sometimes we'll write back and forth. She'll tell stories about her childhood and her experience during the Japanese colonial period. So I think that right now, I'm feeling because of Hollywood becoming so kind of mainstream -- What was that movie? Crazy Rich Asians, that movie, right? -- and putting out Asian culture, you start to see it more and more today. I see it building more of an appearance and there's a large group, a collective in LA, it's called G-Y-O-P-O.
Taeyoon:          It's called a Gyopo. That's a word for foreign Koreans.
Christine:          And it's an amazing organization. They have a really good program and I gave a talk there last year and I really enjoyed it. They're not very strict. They're open to ideas and I can see a big shift happening there regarding identity and roots.
Taeyoon:          Yeah. I mean I think it's interesting for you to bring them up because I think they are a bit different from the earlier generation of Korean American activism. My understanding of the 90's and early 2000’s Asian activism was that it was very insular and a bit about, let's find our roots, go back to where we came from, type of a thing and very exclusionary. Whereas, Gyopo seems to be interested in intersection knowledge. For example, mixed race Koreans or Koreans, and I think it seems less nationalistic than old school Korean American activism. I mean I used to just feel so suffocated by meeting-
Christine:          More accepting of that mixed race.
Taeyoon:          Yes, because I used to feel like the Korean Americans in LA are more conservative than Koreans in Korea because they left in the seventies or eighties and they just stuck with that mindset. So they speak like old people. They're super patriarchal and sexist and, sorry, I'm just going off, but I really feel they're stuck in 1970's dictatorship model and they're super Christian. Which, we all know. Super Christian. They're voting for Trump and I just, it just pains me to interact with them.
Taeyoon:          I mean our parents generation for sure, but even our generation, people who grew up in that environment could be like that, they would be really stuck in the past. And that happens a lot with immigrant families because they are isolated once they come here and they just stick with their own kind of socio-economic class. However, I think what we are talking about is more queer friendly, more mixed race friendly idea of a national ethnic -- it's not nationalism, it's ethnic identity.
Christine:          Also, that could include disability because the Korean culture is huge, when you think about that, the way they are towards disability. The disability rights they have over there, it's, oh my gosh. I struggled with the Korean culture for a while. But now, I see this new generation. I see this change. Gyopo, like you said, that foundation there. Christine Y. Kim is one of the curators at LACMA, a really great person who I think has helped being a friend.
Christine:          There's a group in LA, by the name of Commonwealth? Commonwealth.
Christine:          And the community is growing too and expanding, as well.
Taeyoon:          Yeah, that's correct. Yeah. And there's a huge LA Korean-American art scene that's really cool and one artist that I like is Gala Porras-Kim. She's part of the Commonwealth and Council Gallery. She's half Mexican, half Korean. And her work about language and migration and borders -- artificial and real borders -- is really interesting . I don't think the east coast has that kind of Korean-American culture. However, there's a really good Pan-Asian food and music event and community happening right now. There's a thing called a happy family night market and they're a group of people, mostly women, that’s a food and art festival and they've been really, really good. I worked with them a few times and they're all into subverting that ethnic identity. So it's not just about, ‘Oh, we got to make the best Vietnamese sandwich. It's, how can you make a Korean-Vietnamese sandwich? And it makes complete sense, because oftentimes people are mixed. Sometimes they would mix Latin-American cuisine because people who make Korean food in the restaurants are all from Latin America. So it must have an influence on how we have food.
Christine:          I think that's interesting. Immigrant life is in the 80's and the 90's as people came to the country and tried to remember their roots and they're trying to make a perfect copy of where they came from -- be an authentic experience. But as things have gone and things have changed and so many other people are coming, you can see that happening.
Christine:          But now, I think compared to the late nineties to 2000's, we're seeing much more of a presence and I think that's good. Let the change happen. I think they’re more and more open than they were in the eighties and the nineties. They're working hard to find a place to find faith or language and culture and when people find their place, I think that's when change starts to happen.
Taeyoon:          Okay, so I want to just share the last question. Are you planning to do any performance or digital media work in the future?
Christine:          What do you mean by digital media?
Taeyoon:          Something that involves computers or interactive sound work?
Christine:          What's going on next for me? My next work is at MIT, the visual art section that they have there. I have 12 new drawings that will be shown there. They're the ones that I made regarding sound last year and the ones that I made for Roux, Seven Days of Lullabies (2018). So there's one for each day. And I did this for parents, for their idea of singing lullabies. So that will also become part of a sound installation there. What else? I have a few talks coming up. I'm not good at remembering my schedule.
Taeyoon:          So in the MIT exhibition, there will be a sound installation and will there be a performance as well?
Christine:          No performance. But there will be sound, yes.
Taeyoon:          Let me clarify the intention for asking that, because you have done a lot of work with sound and technology in the past and that's a big sort of aspect of your practice. I want to hear where you're at with it, what ideas you have or what kind of technologies you're excited about.
Christine:          Well right now the technology part is really too much work for me and I'm always screwing it up. To make things, then the debris, to be able to take care of it and maintain it. Game of Skill (2016), remember that piece that I did? It was two huge cases that needed to be brought and I have no patience for that. I'm really not good at it.  I could collaborate with somebody who had that skill, but I found those kinds of projects really exhausting. I worked with Levy Lorenzo before when I did Game of Skill, but it was a lot to keep up with. I kind of make something and move on, make something and move on. It's a challenge to make things in the technology world and to keep it funny.
Soojung:           Thank you. So I would like to get a kind of closing comment for this interview. Korean-American artists started to come to the United States in the 1950s and 60s, and then slowly, they grew in the 1980s and 90s, but throughout this time, the important part is the identity issues as a Korean-American artist in the 1990s. In that era, artists of multicultural backgrounds began to enter the mainstream in the art world. One Korean American artist is Yong Soon Min. Why I mentioned her name is that she’s not only a visual artist but also an activist, curator, and educator. I expected that artists are a kind of social messenger that reveal to the public issues or problems and share meaningful things in their lives. So Taeyoon and Christine, your younger generation, who I expect will lead the next step as Korean-American artists, what do you think is your role as an artist in society through your artwork?
Christine:          It's two different perspectives. It depends on what kind of practice. For example, in my practice, I feel responsible to put specific communities and find their place in history. The more we work on or I make to expand that idea of deafness, the deaf identity and the deaf experience, and put it out there into society to make them more aware, I think that's helpful. The more work I make, the more I archive things. And I think secondly, I like how many artists often challenge what the idea of the future means. They may offer different possibilities for the future. What kind of future do we want? I feel artists often help society see a big picture. What do we want for the future? I think those are the two main takeaways for me.
Taeyoon:          I just want to add that the idea of a Korean American or international Koreans or Korean diasporas is changing. Because you've mentioned Korean-American artists being separate from Korean artists. For example, Lee Bul is a Korean artist and then Hak Kyung Cha is a Korean-American artist. I think that line is becoming really blurred these days and less strictly divided. So for example, I think, I identify as both. I'm Korean-American but I'm also Korean. I studied there, I use the language and my work isn't explicitly about being Korean-American.      
Soojung:           It is a little complicated to make boundaries between Korean artists who live in Korea and Korean artists who live outside of Korea in this global world. But when you study some cases, we need these kinds of boundaries or categories. Christine, you lived basically outside of Korea. So we can't just say simply, ‘you are a Korean artist.’ But category is not important. Your artwork’s influence and impact on others is much more important I think.

Interview moderated by Soojung Hyun who is a recipient of the AHL- Grace Charity Foundation Research Fellowship (2019-2020)