Exploring the concept of sound to empower the Deaf community

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As a hearing person, I oftentimes take sound for granted. It is my main form of communication, a large part of how I connect with those around me, and almost always in the background of my life. Yet the TedTalk below, by Christine Sun Kim, had me re-evaluating my relationship with sound, and made me think that maybe I should be doing as Kim suggests, and re-thinking the connection between sound and social currency in a way that could socially empower Deaf people.

Kim describes silence as “a very obscure sound” stating, “I was born deaf, and I was taught to believe that sound wasn’t a part of my life. And I believed it to be true.” Kim is an artist, and the recent popularization of auditory arts has prompted her to greatly explore her relationship with sound, in particular as a concept that could be experienced tactually, as a visual, or as an idea. “In Deaf culture,” Kim states, “Movement is equivalent to sound.” She describes a deaf person living in a world of sound to be akin to living in a foreign country, and explains how she is very aware of “sound etiquette” – such as not scraping utensils on a plate while eating, or not slamming doors – despite being Deaf. Kim’s artistic interaction with sound led her to reflect on all the different ways sound can be experienced. Kim felt inspired to include the idea of sound in her own artwork. Remembering this conceptual transition, Kim explains, “I know sound…it doesn’t have to be something that is just experienced through the ears. It could be felt tactually, or experienced as a visual, or even as an idea. So I decided to reclaim ownership of sound and to put it into my art practice. And everything that I had been taught regarding sound, I decided to do away with, and unlearn. I started creating a new body of work.”

Kim’s new art received a lot of attention from the art world and she realized that sound is akin to “social currency” something “so powerful that it could either disempower me, and my artwork, or empower me. I chose to be empowered.” Kim began exploring the similarities between ASL and music in her artwork, and found that there are many. One of the points she emphasizes is that, like a music note, a sign in ASL cannot be fully captured and expressed on paper, which subtle changes capable of affecting the entire meaning.

Kim concludes with a brief examination of the culture around verbal communication, highlighting how society views her as not having a voice at all just because she doesn’t use her “literal voice” to communicate. “However,” Kim says in conclusion, “In this day and age, we live in a very audio-centric world. And just because ASL has no sound to it, it automatically holds no social currency. We need to start thinking further about what defines social currency, and allow ASL to develop its own form of currency – without sound.”

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