Face Value

Christine Sun Kim - Tate Modern

What does it mean to take something or someone at ‘face value’?

Drawing on her work as well as basic American and British Sign Language, to explore how seemingly small and fleeting gestures can start or stall our communication with others.

The films that the workshop was based on involve the artist standing in front of her partner, with his arms in front of her completing ASL gestures. The artist has to respond to these gestures with the facial expression that matched them, and also, the facial expression crucial to their meaning. The films demonstrate how important it is within this language for the facial expression to match the hand gestures and vice versa, both components must work seamlessly alongside each other, neither one is superior to the other. The artist confirmed to us that facial expression constitutes about 50% of the communicative features of sign language, that the face can be used as a tool to make the gestures more specific or to completely turn the meaning around. It surprised me that facial expression is an essential feature of grammar within both ASL and BSL.

The task of the workshop was to recreate these films that Sun Kim had created, using our own criteria on which to base which signs and facial expressions were utilised. We were split into three groups, which each one centred on a different theme : TIME, MONEY and AMOUNT. We had to come up with three different scenarios which demonstrated the different possibilities within these themes, and then we had to act them out in pairs with one person using either ASL or BSL (standing behind with their arms stretched out in front) , and the other person producing the facial expression to match.

I enjoyed the workshop and its content, but what I was really captivated by was the interaction between speakers of different language, the speed of translation, and the almost exact precision of interpretation. Multiple other hearing members of the public were present, although the general consensus was the deaf speaking community. That isn’t to say that I felt like an outsider, I was made to feel engaged and involved, but I did not feel like my voice could dominate here. And that’s because it couldn’t - if I spoke my own language, the majority of the people present would be unable to hear it. My thoughts and opinions could only be distributed through the image of somebody else (the interpreter). This feeling must have been reciprocated by the deaf members of the group, as their words also had to pass through another person in order for them to have any effect.

The artist had an interpreter committed to translating her guidance and feedback throughout the workshop. I don’t know for sure if this interpreter had worked with Sun Kim before, but it seemed as though they had been working together for years and years. The two individuals seemed completely intertwined, as I had to listen to the voice of the interpreter to register what the artist was telling us to do, whilst simultaneously looking at the artist, her facial expressions, how she was moving, in order to pick up the essence of what she was saying. The speed and the efficiency of the translation that was occurring meant that a really strong and intense connection appeared to exist between the two women. There was no delay, no “buffering” period, and because of this the two existed as one entity, utilising at once two means of communication. Because I am used to processing individuals’ personalities, their character, mainly through their voice and the intricacies of this feature, the voice of the interpreter was being processed by my brain as the voice of the artist - even though I knew, obviously, that it was not. The role of the interpreter was simply to translate the instructions of the artist to us, non-ASL speaking participants, however I believe that the responsibility of the interpreter was greater than this. The interpreter, in my opinion, took on the persona of the artist, as she had to make decisions herself about how to most accurately convey the temperament and disposition of her partner (deciding on elements such as tone, speed, levels of enthusiasm).

Whilst reflecting on the workshop, one of the participants made a really interesting point that perhaps the non-deaf members of the group were able to pick adapt to gestural communication relatively easily because gesture is something we also use as part of our language. Gestures, particularly arm and hand movements are used constantly by us as a tool to emphasise our points, to make our points more specific, and also to describe how things physically appear. Sign language seems like a less daunting or intimidating language to learn for us English speakers, than other spoken language such as French or Italian. I think this is because within sign language we are not faced with the embarrassment of incorrect pronunciation, which inevitably occurs whilst beginning to cross these language barriers. This is also an issue because incorrect pronunciation can completely alter the meaning of a word, and can prevent or disrupt any transmission of information. I believe that beginning to learn sign language does not carry with it the same level of self-consciousness as beginning to learn a foreign spoken language, because gestural signs are already a major part of our language and we are already familiar with how they may be constructed and attributed to meaning.

We worked in group of about four or five to complete the task we were presented with, with each group having either one or two deaf members. Because of the language separation, it was required that neither type of speaker spoke in their normal tongue, as this would automatically exclude. We therefore had to communicate in either writing or in simplistic gestures that we all had the potential to understand. It was really encouraging how much we were able to get done during these periods whilst no interpreter was present, and we had only our initiative and a very basic understanding of the other groups’ language to get us by. I found it difficult, quite frustrating at points not to speak whilst desperately trying to describe an idea, to agree or disagree with somebody. Body language and facial expressions were key even in this stage of the process, meaning that the importance of these factors were evident in the production of the films in addition to the outcome of the films themselves. Both the deaf and English speaking members of each group were faced with the challenge of producing a piece of art DESPITE having little to no knowledge of the language of their team-mates. This challenge was overcome with moderate ease, and I think this can be explained by the correlations and similarities between both languages that were present.

I thought that the task were were asked to complete, the films were were required to produce were quite simplistic and basic, however I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. In my own work I am attempting to describe the complexities of language features in simplistic ways - in order to allow an awareness of them to be received easily and quickly. Despite this, instead of the content of these films, I was captivated mainly by the difficulties that had to be confronted in order to reach an outcome, and the compromises and alterations that we had to make to our usual approaches to group work.