New Sounds at SAAM 

Acquisition of work by Christine Sun Kim adds sound art to SAAM’s collection

A photograph of a gallery space with artwork on the walls and a bench with headphones

Christine Sun Kim, One Week of Lullabies for Roux, 2018. Sound, seven channels, various run times.

As the curator of time-based media, I’m responsible for creative projects that have duration built into their structure — that is, they change over time and take time to fully experience. In SAAM’s collection, this mostly includes artist-made films and video, but also light installations, television sculptures, and even video games. Yet, while many of these have very powerful soundtracks, and one artwork, Cloud Music, poetically intertwines closed-circuit television and electronically generated sound, until this month we have not owned any works where audio was the primary artistic medium. Until now. I’m happy to report (though ARTnews beat me to it) that SAAM has acquired its first sound art piece for the collection, One Week of Lullabies for Roux (2008) by Christine Sun Kim.

While I’m excited to be expanding the scope of the media art collection, what I find even more exhilarating about this acquisition is how it will expand the way we all think about sound. As an artist who was born deaf, Kim’s decision to use her work to explore and challenge the assumptions of an audio-saturated world, while claiming and shaping her own relationship to sound, is a gift to Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audiences alike. Insights abound, as connections are made, disconnections are highlighted, and new approaches and understandings are made possible. For years, Kim has used performance, video, drawings and installations to consider concepts like “hearing etiquette,” often unexamined behaviors the Deaf community is pressed to adopt to be socially acceptable in shared environments. A series of drawings and a four-channel video, Close Readings (2016), that we are also adding to the collection, probe the highly subjective and hugely impactful interpretive layer that captions bring to movie-viewers who are also readers.

A photograph of four tv screens in an art gallery.

Christine Sun Kim, Close Readings, 2015. With Jeffrey Mansfield, Ariel Baker-Gibbs, Alison O’ Daniel, Lauren Ridloff. Four channel digital video. 25 min 53 sec.

As Kim and her hearing partner recently became parents to a hearing child, she is now examining and making work attending to the “sound diet” they will create for their household. Just as one considers which foods are appropriate and nourishing for different ages, Kim brings equal care to what audio will be introduced to her baby, as modeled in One Week of Lullabies for Roux. Having bought a monitor that came with pre-recorded lullabies, Kim realized, “The idea of playing songs for my child that I am not familiar with gave me a feeling of unease, so I factored them out of the sound diet.” Instead, she invited trusted friends (most of whom have their own creative practices and were new parents) to record lullabies based on the following score instructions:

  • Length can be as short or as long as you like.
  • No lyrics, no speech.
  • A greater emphasis should be placed on low frequencies.
  • Will be played on repeat at normal or low volume.
  • Will be used to encourage my baby to sleep between 19:00 and 20:00.
  • Write a short description of your lullaby.

The final piece includes seven of these score-based songs, one for each day of the week, that are then made available for listening-audiences in various configurations.* The artists’ favorite installation format is a bench that looks like a daily-dose pill box, where each audio track can be heard via headphones with the composer’s name on them. As SAAM will be debuting this newly acquired work in an exhibition on “musical thinking” in 2022, I am hopeful visitors will be able to engage with this piece safely via headphones and with one another. If not, Kim’s focus on sound as the primary medium means we can use other listening devices and installation arrangements while appreciating the essence of her work. I hope we can learn from these lullabies to be thoughtful with our sound diets, regardless of our age and the news of the day.

*The seven contributed audio tracks and collaborators are:

  • Juan Cisneros: Untitled, 09 min 54 sec & 11 min 11 sec
  • Melissa Dubbin & Aaron S. Davidson: A Lullaby for Roux, 03 min 22 sec
  • David Horvitz: When the Ocean Sounds, 01 min 36 sec
  • Carmelle Safdie: Frog Bog 3 (with footsteps), 2 min 08 sec
  • Sonja Simonyi, Nico Van Tomme and Niels Van Tomme: Good Vibrations, 29 sec
  • Lotti Sollevi: Untitled, 07 min 50 sec
  • Alex Waxman: Roux’s Casino, 05 min 02 sec
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