Christine Sun Kim

Christine Sun Kim is creating work that challenges people’s perception of sound. She will have two exhibits in Austin this week — Bounce House and Calibration Room.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

You are in what looks like a storage room, and you are entirely alone. You hear a collection of sounds — scissors slicing through the air, people sucking their thumbs. You see numbers being projected on the wall. You aren’t dreaming — you’re in the Calibration Room, an art installation in the Visual Arts Center.

Christine Sun Kim, the sound artist behind the Calibrating Room, has been deaf since birth. Her goal was to redefine the way people understand sound and silence.

“I want people to leave feeling less fixed on the notion of sound and what it means collectively,” Kim said. “Sound doesn’t mean only receiving through the ears.”

Kim, who is currently an artist in residence at the VAC, collected a variety of sounds for the project, ranging from feet walking in sand to the sound of a maxi pad being ripped from underwear. She said she deliberately avoided asking other people if the recordings she collected sounded “right.” 

“It’s important to use a sound that empowers my work, so I haven’t asked anybody for help,” Kim said. “I get these from my own voice by using objects, parts of the body or hitting things and from sound samples I find online.”

When a visitor walks into the Calibration Room, they hear a variety of sounds played at a custom volume. A technician outside the room is responsible for setting the decibel level, and that technician factors each individual visitor’s hearing level into the experience. Kim said it was important to her that the work be accessible to people who can hear sounds at a variety of levels.

“Each individual’s hearing level is very personal,” Kim said. “It’s just like vision; everyone’s vision is different, and everyone requires a different prescription if they have glasses. It’s the same thing with our ability to hear.”

The sound being played at any moment, and the decibel level at which the sound is being piped into the room, are projected onto the wall as part of the installation. Kim said she tried to get the broadest range of sounds possible, and some are less pleasant than others — visitors can expect to hear anything from an airplane taking off to a person giving birth. 

Although conversational speech takes place at about 60 decibels, Kim’s recorded sounds measure anywhere from two to 115 decibels. Technicians can adjust sounds up to 50 decibels above a participant’s natural loudness comfort level without injuring anyone’s hearing. Kim said the installation centers around personal relationships people have with sound — hearing is not a collective or communal experience in the way people might think it is, she said. 

“The concept is that no matter what your decibel level is, you won’t miss anything in that space,” Kim said. “In that space, I’m not considered deaf. I’m accessing all the sound.”

In planning her project, Kim worked closely with the VAC’s Sound + Vision program and with the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a community organization working with experimental sound and music.

Xochi Solis, director of events and public programming at the VAC, said the staff at the VAC collaborated extensively with Kim to organize the technical aspects of the Calibration Room and to repurpose the storage space effectively.

“This ambitious project has challenged some of our own perceptions of sound,” Solis said. “It’s been very exciting to learn new things about ourselves alongside our artist.”

Kim will host a talk Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Art Building to discuss her body of work, including the Calibration Room. The installation is free and open to the public.