Seo Hye Lee: Shaping Sound Through Text
by Juli Cordray
We had the chance to catch up with artist Seo Hye Lee during her time at Vital Capacities — a UK-based accessible online residency program — to learn about what she’s been up to over the last month(s) and her practice more broadly.
For Seo Hye, the residency presented an opportunity to build on previous works that consider modes of communication, particularly in the visual form of gestures and subtitles:
“I was interested in further exploring dynamic forms of communication through subtitles and the residency provided the perfect opportunity to expand on this. My research during Vital Capacities has incorporated more about the history of subtitles, the difference between closed caption and subtitles, and also the history of intertitles during the silent film eras and the role of the Subtitler in translation in film/media.”
Words and symbols describing sound — interpreting, transcribing or supplementing spoken dialogue, atmospheric undertones, music — subtitles and closed captions are also processes of displaying text on a moving image, against a backdrop of changing scenes, moving bodies, and emotional shifts. In her research and work, Seo Hye is exploring and experimenting with the language used in such descriptions, what they convey or leave out, and the role played by this tool for accessibility.
Seo Hye, who has a cochlear implant, often draws on her experience of hearing loss in her work, while emphasizing the distinction between “hearing” and “listening” — the latter, she explains, is possible regardless of a person’s hearing ability. Her current research expands on a project from 2020, titled Partial Gestures. Created to accompany a zine that she also produced — titled BSL (British Sign Language) — the video work includes auto-generated subtitles from Youtube, with all their inaccuracies, transposed over images of close-cropped hand gestures, including sign language, and other partially visible body parts in motion, without revealing the full context.
During her residency, Seo Hye has focused her research on the language of subtitles specifically within archival films depicting pottery-making processes and other crafts — likewise incorporating movements of the body. As Seo Hye describes, her new video work “explores the relationship between the language of subtitles and the visual language of hand-crafted ceramic pieces, forming language and communication from movement, gesture, and feeling.”
Overlaying silent footage of hands as they touch and shape wet clay, molding it into round objects on a potter’s wheel, Seo Hye’s subtitles offer simultaneous sound cues to the viewer. The same gestures and images are repeated in a row, like a filmstrip, accompanied by a different type of subtitle in each frame: one action-based, one abstract, and one music-based.
“I was interested as to how the identical videos took on varied meanings and the context of subtitles altered the experience for the viewers. By juxtaposing abstract, action-based, and music-based subtitles, I aim to highlight how powerful the use of imagery and words can be and how much this can alter our perception of events.”
Seo Hye’s action-based subtitles consist of a single verb in present continuous form: turning, shaping, etc. The abstract subtitles, on the other hand, feature short poetic descriptions without a concrete point of reference: “sound of listening inward”; “sound of remembering fondly”. While the music subtitles, too, are descriptive but not definitive: e.g., “mysterious string music”. Taken together, they prompt us to imagine what certain feelings and impalpable moments might sound like; and by extension, what subtitles themselves might sound like. Seo Hye elaborates:
“I found it fascinating how the ‘action-based’ subtitle can tell us the specific sound, enabling an immediate connection with visuals, while the more abstract and music subtitles are left open to our own interpretations.“
This specific connection between pottery, sound and language had already been materialized in her previous works — first in Artefacts of Sound and then in Many Shapes of Volumes (both from 2019) — in which she created ceramic sonic vessels. It’s a direction and medium she started to explore while living in Berlin and getting to know a new community. According to Seo Hye:
“I took ceramic classes in a local studio. Coming from an illustration background, naturally I started to explore ways of drawing sound into shapes and making those shapes into ceramics. I started to question — how could I create a shape that would contain sounds I want to hear? I gradually started to experiment with the idea of the shape of sound and began creating objects to reflect this.”
The objects produced for Many Shapes of Volumes — fabricated by ceramicist James Duck — were based on Seo Hye’s drawings and acted as carriers of sound: “this allowed people to listen to and touch the pieces as they moved about the space.” Here, a process of translation manifests through tactile relationships, hand gestures, and physically shaping — giving form.
“The work Many Shapes of Volume utilised both primitive materials and new technology; the choice of ceramic significant in its timeless nature, along with the integration of modern audio technology within. I find myself drawn to the connection between these two, and I have continued to explore this within the film archives of pottery and the digital art media format.”
In reference to working with these themes within moving-image media, in one of her posts on Vital Capacities, Seo Hye offers this insight: “Craft videos are fascinating as they frequently show pairs of hands making objects from a shapeless form into something beautiful. For me, this formation presents a parallel between the idea of digitally shaping words into the language of subtitles, exploring its poetic nature.”
In her latest work, the subtitles are also digitally shaped by square brackets, which typically signify an insertion of additional information for the purpose of description, of sound effects for instance, or clarification — in this case not transcribing dialogue, but the language of sound itself.
As Seo Hye points out, auto-generated subtitles, like those on Youtube, are notoriously inaccurate. But what potential do inaccuracies — or, perhaps, the absence of a definitive notion of correctness — hold in this context? Can miscommunication instead be used constructively, to offer varied experiences to viewers and allow space for new correspondences to emerge?
In the various subtitles that appear over the same recurring image in Seo Hye’s current work, we might also recall the prevalence of captioned images on the internet, in the form of memes. Familiar images appear again and again in new contexts created through imagined dialogues or descriptions of ambient sounds. It’s within this digital sphere of communication (and miscommunication) that Seo Hye’s work likewise unfolds and opens up new narratives. Here, Seo Hye seeks out modes of communication based on feeling and perception, rather than clarity and accuracy, highlighting the nuances that already exist and embracing them for their constructive potential. At the same time, such gradations render sound plastic, as a form that is not only tactile, but also malleable — intended to be held, touched, felt, as well as shaped and reshaped, like clay.
Check out Seo Hye Lee’s new work in Vital Capacities’ online exhibition from July 22, 2021.