The Sound of Temperature rising

Christine Sun Kim‘s heated soundscape focuses on climate change

Christine Sun Kim hero

The experimental artist likes to mess with us by playing with the structures of language, notation and humour to depict her connection to sound – and the need for change

The more art you make, the more innovative you become.

Christine Sun Kim

The temperature of the planet is rising. Christine Sun Kim’s sensory-rich art points to the need for collective action; it is designed to set your mind on fire. And it’s witty.

This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read the interviews.

The infographic, angle and pie chart-loving California-born and Berlin-based artist has built an acclaimed practice distilling sound into clever new forms and focusing on the politics of sound and language within society. Kim plays with the musicality of American Sign Language (her first language), music notation, televisual captioning, performance and drawing to investigate her relationship with the aural environment. Adding some strategically deployed humour helps challenge the role of spoken language as a currency of social exchange. 

The Sound of Temperature Rising Forever | Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

In The Sound of Temperature Rising Non-Stop Forever, her focus is firmly on climate change. The alarming graph of elongated musical notes and distinctive text was exhibited on a billboard in downtown Los Angeles in 2020, created in collaboration with Fine ActsArtists for Countdown, a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis. Backlit by heavy smog – a combination of the usual LA pollution and the lingering smoke from the Bobcat fire that was still burning – it very clearly points to the reality of record temperatures and wildfires.

The drawing is part of a wider series of soundscapes called The Sound Of, in which the artist depicts inner states, such as The Sound of Anticipation, The Sound Of Being Resigned, The Sound of Being Spaced Out and The Sound of Obsessing (I can relate) – or abstract concepts, like The Sound of Frequencies Attempting to Be Heavy.

Kim’s drawings are deceptively simple, because they have layers and layers of technique and personal, political and environmental meaning. By distilling sound to its essential qualities, she addresses the intricacies of social exchange and the power of representation with illuminating wit and candor. 

Her projects have been shown at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Times Square and beyond. The artist is the recipient of an MIT Media Lab Fellowship and a TED Senior Fellowship.

TOPIA chatted to Kim about her heated politics.

Q&A: Christine Sun Kim

Why art?

If you know how to do it right and know your audience, art is such an effective tool for storytelling. My practice is fundamentally about messing up the hierarchy between spoken, written and signed languages. And about how to place more value on visuals rather than sound.

What’s the story behind The Sound of Temperature Rising?

I came up with this concept while I was pregnant with my child. It mostly had to do with blood circulation and the metabolism being more active than normal, which caused my body temperature to rise. Then I saw that it can be applied to other situations such as heated politics and climate change. I initially made a drawing but it turned into a mural and was adapted for several places. The concept evolves wherever it shows up. I appreciate this kind of adaptability because it reminds me of how much I often need to adapt and/or code switch around non-Deaf people.

Take us into your creative cosmos. Who are your biggest influences and who do you find exciting today?

Right now, I love nothing more than watching my Deaf peers kicking ass: Actor Lauren Ridloff, artist/model Chella Man, model/producer Nyle DiMarco, writer Sara Nović and many more. They add so much to Deaf representation and I’m a huge believer in making the Deaf community as visible as possible, to impose our existence onto people’s minds. That will leave a lasting impact on what defines norms and normality.

Artist and TED Fellow Christine Sun Kim explores that sound can be felt, seen and experienced

Do you have any rituals that get your creativity flowing?

I have ADHD, so I got zero structure. But I am slowly learning how to take baths. It’s the only way to turn my mind off and to not be tired. If I feel balanced enough, my energy will make creativity flow well.

What role do you feel art and the artist still have in today’s society?

I remember art critic Jerry Saltz said something to the effect of, “art does not change the world but can change one person’s life”. I would agree with that. The more art you make, the more innovative you become. It gives us the guts to try new ideas. There are good people with good intentions out there, but ill-equipped to build creative resistance. We need to start from the bottom: more funding and support for art classes and activities at schools, especially for young kids.

What’s next?

I’ll have a solo at Secession in Vienna in February and another one at Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs in March. I’ll do a short term residency at Somerset House in London this January to March. I’m mostly excited about all those opportunities to make new work. 

Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?

I’m not big on songs but I love my friend Matt Karmil’s songs filled with bouncy low frequency beats. I would play any of his songs.

What’s so good about this?

Artopia is an ongoing TOPIA series exploring the power of art when it comes to positive social impact.

This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read all the artist interviews.


Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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