I can’t remember when it was (high school? university?) that I sat in a classroom listening to new-to-philosophy classmates debate a well-known thought experiment…
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?
In the right room, impassioned and boundless discussion can spring from this simple inquiry. In others, it goes down like a lead balloon. (My class certainly belonged to the former group.) At the heart of the question is the relationship between sound and hearing, or more generally, between the existence of a given phenomenon and the presence of a subject to perceive it. This week I was twice reminded of my long-ago philosophy class and the “tree in the forest” thought experiment: first, when I was introduced to a popular ASL anecdote; and second, when I was researching the practice of conceptual artist Christine Sun Kim (CK). I will save the ASL story for later; CK’s work is the subject of this week’s blog post.
CK is a deaf artist from California. She studied painting in New York, but has, for many years, incorporated sound into a performance- and installation-based practice. Her methods and artworks are a way to express her ideas and assert her presence in the world of sound. Living in New York and Berlin, CK exhibits internationally and has completed residencies at the Whitney and MIT, among many others. This week, I have immersed myself in the wealth of videos and articles that exist online featuring CK and her work and have listed a few of my favourite videos below.
What does the sound of obsessing look like? What about the sound of relevance, or of passing time? Perhaps you’re thinking: obsession is not a sound and sound doesn't "look like" anything. Using the symbols and structures of music dynamics, CK makes drawings of sound, as explained in this video published by the Rubin Museum:
“Christine Sun Kim: The World is Sound” (Rubin Museum on YouTube): 7:55
While I was watching this first video, the gallery door opened and as usual, the doorbell rang. It was at this moment that I realized the video was without sound and my headphones without purpose. Earlier that very morning, while squeezing in some study time for a test in my ASL class, the sounds of lunch-making and teeth-brushing were audible distractions. As I watched Joey sign a story on my course DVD, I attempted to focus my attention by increasing the volume on my laptop. Once again, this had no effect on a soundless video. In both instances, I was struck by the habitual way I deal with sound in my daily life. Growing up, CK learned to read the cues of the hearing world, as you will see in her TED Talk below. But as she describes, she has used art to unlearn “sound etiquette” and to focus on what sound means to her.
This last video is a more intimate portrait of the artist. She is not giving a talk, nor is she formally presenting her work. There is footage of the artist at work interspersed with footage from an interview.
“Christine Sun Kim” (Vimeo, Shot and Directed by Sirio Magnabosco): 10:11
Through musical and linguistic notation, CK incorporates drawing and performance into playful and conceptually rich imaginations of sound. She is able to access the medium in a way that I, as a hearing person, cannot and her insights and ideas are new and challenging as a result. They are, nevertheless, exceptionally relatable, like the drawing titled “The Sound of Relevance.” In this work, she pictures the quiet determination, then escalation that characterizes the return to an idea that slips out of focus the closer you get, culminating in a final moment of clarity. There is no “sound” to relevance, but employing the language of music dynamics allows the artist to capture an incisive representation of the concept.
In addition to positing the sounds of non-sounds, CK’s work highlights the aspects of sound that are material, physical, and visual, all of which makes me consider the possibility of separating sound from hearing… which brings me back to the ASL story. In it, a lumberjack goes out to work. With each felled tree, he yells “timber!” After lunch, upon discovering a very large tree, he sets to work; it is a laborious affair. He swings again and again at the trunk of the tree, then stands back, puts his hands around his mouth and yells “timber!” But nothing happens. The tree doesn’t budge. He tries again, but to no avail. He telephones a tree doctor who arrives on scene. Upon inspection, the doctor declares the tree is deaf and, with large gestures, finger-spells “T-I-M-B-E-R” and the tree crashes to the ground.