The idea of casually walking by the origin of the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement, two blocks from where I live, has still not really sunk in since I moved to New York. I did this again walking to the Whitney recently, to see the 2019 biennial, the 79th installation of the longest-running regular survey of American art. It features a few dozen artists (2/3 of whom are women), spanning several floors of the museum.
On the fifth floor behind the front wall I stumbled across a series of five white square panels, about 5x5’ each, spaced a few feet apart from one another. Each panel had 6-7 pie charts, all rendered in dark charcoal & oil pastel, smudged onto framed paper. All-caps titles, handwritten with mixed alignment, were scrawled across the top of each panel. DEGREES OF DEAF RAGE IN EVERYDAY SITUATIONS, the first one read. I accidentally started at the end panel, DEGREES OF MY DEAF RAGE IN THE ART WORLD.
The artist dragging a standard-fare tool of the business world out of Excel into angry, dusty charcoal is Christine Sun Kim, a deaf Korean-American artist from California now living in Berlin. Each pie chart, accompanied by a small caption, represents an amount of rage in each situation, each labeled using elementary school math terminology, starting at “acute rage” before moving onto “legit (right) rage,” “obtuse rage,” “straight up rage,” “reflex rage,” and finally “full on rage.” Captions describing each experience ranged from “when an Uber driver calls instead of texting” to “getting hit in the head with a bag of peanuts by a flight attendant who tries to get our attention.”
The aforementioned final panel, about the art world, initially hit home the hardest as a viewer. Standing there taking in the work, it subconsciously makes one begin imagining themselves standing there as a deaf person. What would one be missing? What would one be gaining? How would one feel? “Reflex rage” at “curators who think it’s fair to split my
salary fee with interpreters,” it responds. I carried this empathy reading through each caption. Many implied extensive stories left untold—“Rijksmuseum front desk manager” is left open for the viewer to reimagine. Off to the side, an example of “cute rage” was “being offered a wheelchair at the arrival gate…and the Braille menu at restaurants.”
At this point, my close friend also visiting the museum texted me she had thrown up in the stairwell. It took a moment to regain my mental state & return to my frantic note-taking in front of the work.
Personally, the comparison to my experience as a trans person jumped out. It was not a difficult mental connection between the scene of “no fire alarm or doorbell strobe lights at hotel” and the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms in public spaces (see: NYU) and verbal and physical violence toward trans people in gendered bathrooms.
Kim does not shy away in this work. The piece feels like it could be scrawled in a private sketchbook journal, but is instead installed large-format in a public art gallery. (There is no question to me it belongs there, however.)
As minoritized peoples, we are constantly, systemically encouraged to be more “palatable.” Not too trans, not too femme, not too black, not too fat. Just enough—and even less when one finds themselves at the intersection of multiple minoritized identities. Kim is completely comfortable implicating the majority of viewers of the piece, at least to get their attention. The first graphic on the first panel, representing “acute rage,” is captioned, “no apologies from assholes (audists).” The use of a term to group hearing viewers, “audists,” which most are likely unfamiliar with, can be unexpectedly other-ing. But personally, I have explained to too many people (including my own father) they are not just “normal,” but instead, “cisgender.” It can seem nice to imagine oneself as the default, not a member of a group on the same field as the marginalized. I imagine Kim has been left exasperated in this way more than once.
I was again interrupted by a toddler just learning to walk, rocketing around, stumbling, and getting uncomfortably close to everyone. 17 months old, the mother mentioned at my inquiry. A museum is not a solitary place to consider the artwork, I am reminded.
Though I am not deaf, I feel the rage Kim is capturing in this piece very personally. From my experience, the whole first panel, and several others, could be about the trans experience with just a few words changed. “[Interpreters] whose voices take over ours” (at the level of “obtuse rage”) could be repurposed for cisgender allies to trans people. Across community lines, the minoritized experience in modern America, it seems, has many similarities.
I would not typically present myself the way I currently do if I did not live under our cis-hetero-patriarchy. I would embrace the feminine side of my identity my gender expression typically ignores, and express myself more freely. But right now, I know deep inside that my words mean less if they are draped in a gown than a button-up. I will be taken less seriously, be less respected, and less listened to, the further I am from the cis white male I could instead present myself as. (Considering the frequent slaughter of trans women in this country, especially those of color, this is an unbelievable privilege and not one most trans people share.) It is not even a conscious decision—I internally, instinctively evaluate my level of safety and comfort and my internal system changes my defaults of expression. Sharing my complete truth will not truly be celebrated, and so oftentimes it is simply not worth doing.
DEGREES OF MY DEAF RAGE, in its stark panels of charcoaled charts, presents a life experience of constant awareness of a different-ness I am intimately familiar with. Not a day goes by, barely a waking hour, where I do not consciously experience the world differently than my cisgender peers. A few blocks from Stonewall, another long struggle for rights unfolds, seen clearly through these panels.