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Interview with Terre Thaemlitz

In the first room of Terre Thaemlitz’s 2017 exhibition ‘INTERSTICES’, at Auto Italia in London, columns of white text ran across one wall. Thaemlitz used Terminal font dimly lit by blue light, evoking the white on blue screens of late 1990s coding software; the text moves from describing the curves of audio waves forms, to the melancholy Thaemlitz’s feels when he applies ‘the first drops of cold foundation to my face’. The sense that the binary codes of programming and gender were being scrambled was amplified in the second room, where, fragments of pornography and 1990s talk shows were accompanied by jarring instrumentals: versions of songs, including Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’, with all the vocals missing. These are the interstices of the show’s title: fleeting moments of loss, only present in their absence. For Thaemlitz, interstices are more than formal processes – they are an analogue for her non-essentialist approach to gender and sexual identity. Being queer, trans, non-binary, or intersex is neither the foundation for a new form of identity, nor a refusal of identity that amounts to a transgressive political liberation. Like ‘the sound of stubble peaking through my concealer’, interstices are attempts at identity jamming, as Thaemlitz’s recent collection of writings, Nuisance: Writings on Identity Jamming and Digital Audio Production, is titled: impossible states, lived contradictions.

 

Thaemlitz is a multi-media producer, DJ, writer, educator, and founder of the record label Comatose Recordings. Over three decades and under numerous alias – DJ Sprinkles, G.R.R.L., K-S.H.E. – he has released nineteen albums and exhibited video, audio, and textual work in various contexts, most recently in a two-day residency at Café OTO in London. Albums like Soil (1994) interlace ambient noise with brutal accounts of domestic violence; others, like Midtown 120 Blues (2008), contain deep house anthems played and praised in mainstream clubs like Fabric or Panorama Bar. Thaemlitz is hostile to the way these clubs trade on a nostalgic vision of house music, the genre she most frequently works in, recasting it as a liberating paradise for queers and people of colour. As he recounts on the opening track to Midtown 120 Blues, ‘the contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black-market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction…’

 

Still, she continues to work with that sound all the same, and hosts the club nights Deeperama and Deepalicious in Japan, where he has lived since 2001. Producing contradictions like these is typical of Thaemlitz’s work, in whatever medium it appears. But even viewing contradictions as productive betrays what is most challenging about that work: its refusal to be made a tool for affirmative notions of gender and sexual identity – or for sympathetic discussion and critical explication. In our discussions, which took place at Thaemlitz’s request through an exchange of emails in November 2017, attempts to resolve the contradictions of her life and work into a coherent story were met with a laughing refusal to submit to such a grand modernist gesture. Instead we came to scratch even deeper into the contradictory desires normally smoothed over in the interview as a form. As she later said, it’s ultimately in the tensions and twisting between two people – the interstices – where discussion and exchange occurs.

Q

The White Review

— How did you first come to work as a DJ and music producer, and how has your practice developed as you have moved into different media and contexts?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— I used to just make mix tapes for friends, then I started DJ-ing at benefits for activist organisations in ‘89 or ‘90. That led to my becoming a resident at the trans sex worker bar Sally’s II, in the Carter Hotel ballroom. Meanwhile, from ‘86–‘90 I was studying fine art and all that bullshit, so I was already dealing with different media, etc. I really disliked my years in art school. I was at the Cooper Union, and it was incredibly regressive and modernist. Very hostile to social-based work, including having my studio vandalised, or people making photo copy parodies of my projects and placing them in everyone’s mailboxes… Studying that systemic intolerance also informed my understanding of how the arts deploy liberalism as a decoy. As a result, I have always deliberately maintained a distant relationship to all media industries. I step in and out of them, which has given me space for criticality that would be more difficult if employed full-time within one field.

 

Q

The White Review

— What is the difference, for you, between presenting sound in a club space and in an art gallery space?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— Of course, there are the obvious cultural differences between people approaching media through the lenses of ‘high culture’ and ‘pop culture.’ And in something like a gallery installation, people usually only spend thirty seconds or so passing through something, so there is little concentration. When working in a museum or gallery setting, I prefer to present a piece as a sit-down event with a clear start and finish. Conversely, people in clubs can be intoxicated or high, so that also affects concentration, but they tend to listen longer. They also tend to bring a lot of baggage about escape and transcendentalism, or spirituality, which is of zero interest to me, but… it’s just a job.

 

I’m not so interested in ‘presenting sound,’ nor producing ‘sound for sound’s sake,’ etc. I am also generally not so interested in clubs or galleries. To the contrary, they are sites for critique. The only real exception was Sally’s II, one dynamic of which was self-educating among intergenerational transgendered people. In response to poverty and the absence of health insurance, people taught each other how to find and use black market hormones, etc. It was often quite harsh, and the results were often more likely to result in bodies becoming hormonally deregulated than regulated, but it was people engaged in struggle, and attempting to reduce the violence of daily life. My time there coincided with my own decision to go through life without transitional therapies, and it certainly played a role in that decision. Those are the kinds of things that are ‘interesting.’ They are few and far between.

 

Q

The White Review

 In the introductory text for INTERSTICES, you talk about the importance of techniques like ‘framing’, where you cut the vocals from a song, but keep snatches of breath and instrumentation – the interstices. What is the relationship of techniques like these to what you call a ‘non-essentialist’ politics?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— ‘Framing’ is a rather literal implementation of Jacques Attali’s famous line in Noise: A Political Economy of Music 1977], ‘Music’s] order simulates the social order, and its dissonances express marginalities.’ As it says in the accompanying text to Interstices: ‘The passages most commonly deleted are vocals, figuratively silencing the dominant discourse within popular music in order to hear the interstitial sounds at their periphery. Often times the remnants of a singer’s inhalation and exhalation can be heard in the remaining passages, suggesting emotional, physical and/or sexual exasperation, and occasionally resulting in the whispering of new words.’ As you said, this idea of drawing attention to the moments between – the interstices – is a metaphor for thinking about the positions between essentialist binaries of gender (male/female), sexuality (hetero/homo), etc. As a representational technique, it is a reaction against conventional musicological approaches towards composition, and an attempt to find ways of constructing audio that are more connected to the themes being discussed. I think this is particularly necessary within the audio marketplace, where so many standard song writing formats are inseparable from essentialisms of expressing one’s soul, heart, etc. Like, it makes total sense that Lady Gaga’s sexually essentialist message in ‘Born This Way’ fits perfectly with a pop song’s compositional strategy, right? And it makes total sense that it resonated with a massive audience of essentialist-identified queers and trans-folk. The sonic language and message are in harmony. I am more interested in discussing issues of non-essentialist gender and sexual discord, so that musicology and all the power-baggage it comes with is not so helpful for me as a representational tool.

 

Q

The White Review

— Yes, it’s like ‘Born This Way’ was thought up by a corporate marketing team to give a certain queer audience exactly what they want.

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— Just to be clear, I am not counter-essentialising and saying one style is only suitable for expressing one message, another style for another message, as if there is an inherent connection between a particular sound and a particular content. I am saying, culturally, part of what I would call a ‘queer experience’ has to do with struggling through life with the ‘wrong tools for the job.’ Mainstream music can be one of those ‘wrong tools.’ I mean, how much of dominant ‘straight’ media is produced by queers in ways that might be encoded for those of us ‘in the know,’ yet making sure those messages do not interfere with heteronormative listening or viewing? You know, most of us go through life trying to make sense of non-binary experiences through rigidly binary ideological filters, because that’s all we’ve been given. It becomes difficult to imagine other ways of going about life, or responding to the world around us. I think this is why so much of queer and trans scenes are about camp, sarcasm, snaps and shade. One might say all of that cynical humour becomes the most immediate way to say ‘fuck off’ to standardisation through mainstream cultural tools. And clearly, sarcasm and cynicism still play huge roles in all of my projects. But at the same time, I also try to push myself to think of unusual processes or ways of doing things that might introduce some other layer of queered nuance.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is a video section in INTERSTICES where intersex and non-binary people talk about the medical corrections of their bodies and their discovery about their ‘true nature’. Is this also about the internalisation of the essentialist gaze?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— I hear most of those medical accounts on intersexuality a bit differently. I don’t hear the people in the videos saying that having the genitals one is born with would present an ‘answer’ to questions of the ‘true nature’ of their gender and/or sexuality – ie., allow them to suddenly come into a coherent identity of otherness. I hear those discussions as about elucidating positions of loss and violation. I hear it as voicing the cultural impossibility for non-identification. I hear it as more about a desire for the right to question, which is still systemically denied to countless children by ‘corrective procedures’ aimed at removing ‘doubt’ around their genders. Of course, I can understand how discussions about the lost ‘natural’ forms of a body can also seem to be leading to essentialisms, like you say. But I think that is a kind of ideological inversion, and that their discussions are not actually leading into essentialisms, but actually starting from a cultural climate of imposed essentialisms – and struggling for cracks to leak out of that, even if only partially. And I think that is how many things get done – in little leaks, and strategies and reactions that function in a given moment but break with time. While dominant cultures are all about propagating myths of standardised ways of successfully doing things, I think from minor positions it is obvious that this is utter fallacy. Well, I say I think it is obvious, but clearly it is not, which is why so many queer and trans communities are so desperately seeking connections to traditions and ‘our own’ standard ways of successfully doing things. The result, of course, is utterly homogenising Pride™ culture. Or else engulfing tribalistic lifestyles like wicca, etc. Either way, it’s about standardisation.

Q

The White Review

— One recent version of this in London, is the emergence of city government support for ‘queer heritage spaces’ in urban development plans, and as valuable resources for the ‘night-time economy’. Do you think this concept of queer heritage is something of an oxymoron?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— Yes, it seems such things quickly dissolve into investments and gentrification. The real-estate equivalent of the commodification of Pride™ parades. For the past ten years or more I have personally made a concerted effort to avoid participation in archive projects, including LGBT archives, but also ‘industry standards’ like YouTube and Soundcloud. I do it as a way to investigate what it means to withhold in today’s era. Historically speaking, if so much of queer and trans survival has relied upon strategies of secrecy and closets, what does all of this sudden institutionally imposed visibility do to brand those survival strategies as nothing more than trauma and shame to be disposed of? What does it mean that the closet has become taboo amongst ourselves, in an world that is still violently patriarchal and homophobic? There is just something in all of that which makes me feel all the less safe, and all the more reluctant to engage in public celebrations. The terms of celebration itself strike me as naïve, and as a result unwittingly oppressive.

 

I mean, this current era of mandatory Pride™ and celebration is also an extension of imposed optimism. This insistence that we find comfort in our sexualities and gender associations. Fuck that. Seriously. I find nothing celebratory or comfortable when I wear feminine clothes, just as when I wear masculine clothes. They are both branded with patriarchy. They are both uncomfortable. I feel just as much shame in my moments of passability as those moments when I clearly look like a ‘dude in a dress’ or a ‘fag’ despite men’s wear. It’s always an emotional conundrum for me when I see how archives always boil down trans experiences into those three stages we all know – coming from a past of trauma, leading to the snapping point of Stonewall when the inner anger burst, leading to today’s social openings and increased comfort with the world and ourselves. Like, what a teleological mythology. So many social practices for surviving inequity – strategies for self-defense – have suddenly been branded as bad habits born of past traumas. Emotional baggage to be discarded before entering today’s new queer era. That makes me quite uneasy.

Q

The White Review

— Viewing INTERSTICES today itself involves entering a historical interstice, a moment between 2000-2003 and now. How do you posit that piece now in relationship to technological history, and also to your own more recent work?

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— I always work with low-budget equipment, which has always been more about staying within my means than some kind of fetishistic romance for a particularly ‘underground’ look or sound. Most of the computer software and hardware used to produce the audio no longer works, and is definitely not supported on current platforms. Similarly, the video footage was taken from old VHS-era trans porn, or reshot off television and computer monitors with a standard home Hi8 camera, etc. So I do consider it a very ‘of its era’ piece, in every aspect of its technological production. I’m always fascinated by how we socially move through certain technological changes. Like, I think it’s so interesting that we have a generation of people who grew up on strictly digital video and television, yet in mainstream media we still see old-school static and ‘snow’ being used as a sign of poor signal. Even in the most futuristic sci-fi movies. It’s really odd. I am always curious about how the ways in which such representational gestures function for those of us who grew up with analogue static, versus those younger people who adapted it symbolically rather than experientially. Like, for example, the nostalgia triggered by the dirty VHS tape images in the opening credits to the TV series Transparent. In terms of thinking about audiences, I am aware of these different generational relationships to particular glitches, all happening simultaneously and uncontrollably. The very idea of using static or noise as representational devices does seem to encapsulate a certain notion of the impossibility for fixed meanings, even in how we approach the notion of ‘noise’ itself. And how nostalgia and tradition also constantly play into that. That’s a big part of the vinyl revival, too, right?

 

Q

The White Review

— Absolutely: the vinyl revival is driven by a nostalgia for authenticity, an authenticity that comes to be signified by scratches and glitches. This is what the dirty VHS images in Transparent also try to signify: that the characters in the show have an authentic or real relationship to the history of transgendered people. But can noise, static, and glitches work against this false nostalgia?

 

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— I guess another way to define that ‘glitch’ might be something like anti-traditionalism: there seems to be a tremendous absence of anti-traditionalism in most of today’s counter cultures. They are more about establishing or uncovering counter-traditions. This is very clear in something like Transparent, in the way Judaism is symbolically used to invoke notions of tribalism and tradition that transcend contemporary industrialisation, or are somehow other than dominant WASP Americana. And that resonates with mainstream LGBT desires to identify ‘our traditions,’ and the kind of tribal mythologies that infuse so many of ‘our histories,’ as represented in queer studies programs, etc. That is how I read it, anyway. So yeah, I think that anti-traditionalism has been replaced with counter-traditionalism as the primary means of critique and transformation. You know, the idea that there’s wisdom out there to be found, even if you can’t find it where you are. And that also strikes me as a kind of optimism that is symptomatic of our times. I am definitely more of an anti-traditionalist, distrustful of all positions of power, and refusing to celebrate comforts. Like, I’m not interested in presenting arguments in order to gain respect – for me or ‘my kind.’ I’d rather keep the focus on divestments of power, and to do that means constantly undermining those ‘traditions’ or methodologies that give one balance and an ability to stand. That’s where strategies of the closet, secrecy, withholding, and all of those other ‘shameful’ tactics come in handy, because they are not about erecting marble monuments. They are about discretion and self-erasure. And this introduces an interesting dilemma when dealing with the construction of histories. In a way, developing the skill to sense absence within historical narratives, and always carrying an awareness of gaps and omissions, results in models of history that might sound like the audio in Interstices. The jumps and signifiers of things lost – cut out – are as apparent and vocal as the melodies that remain. The gaps set the rhythm, and it is not one that flows with repetition. You can’t anticipate how it will proceed, like you can with a steady 4/4 beat. You have to actually listen as time unfolds. Within this way of hearing histories, traditions and customs are present and enacting influences, but they are also disrupted. Intentionally. Like that Gil Scott Heron line, ‘there can be no rest until all old customs are put to the test.’

 

Q

The White Review

— Your recent published collection of writings Nuisance: Writings on Identity Jamming and Digital Audio Production opens with a discussion of the pessimism that guides your critiques of the music industry. Critique, as a negative mirror of a desired future, can been seen to contain a latent optimism – but your approach is very different.

 

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— It is difficult for most people to remember there are many kinds of critique, and many aspects of critical negativity are not about a negative mirror of a desired future. The reason it appears so is that we are easily trapped in the logic of hope and optimism which I have attempted in Nuisance and elsewhere to deconstruct as a socially mandated and nurtured response within contemporary global capitalism. Like, if you are forced to wear rose coloured glasses all the time, it becomes difficult to see – and eventually even remember or imagine – green or so many other colours. And, even more importantly, critique is not an end point in itself. So the outlook described in your question is omitting the entire realm of social interactions rooted in urgency and care. Actions aimed at reducing or interfering with intolerable processes of violence. For instance, the difference between taking action to avoid or minimise an instance of fag bashing, versus some lofty agenda for a world without fag bashing. I mean, those are two radically different things, and involve radically different agendas and ideological processes. I am speaking more from/of/to the former circumstance. Being conscious of and speaking to violence that is real and being enacted constantly. Not a hypothetical response to something abstract and unexperienced. Your question is wanting to drag me into the latter circumstance where hope is deemed inevitable. It negates the functions of nihilism and hopelessness, which is socially understandable and customary, but also blocking the desired dialogue here. Am I making sense?

 

In a way, it’s like asking, ‘how does your practice of feminism avoid this implicit patriarchy?’ I would say in either case it is not about avoiding or transcending. It is about reacting. If I have a ‘practice of critique’ it is not about escaping the traps of optimism (or patriarchy), but actively addressing their insidiousness, and positioning them in relation to a larger economic and social environment that utilises hope-driven ideology as a means to enslave. Pointing out the absence of cultural tools for non-optimistic approaches toward perceiving and responding to the world around us. The taboo of being hopeless. The taboo of suggesting children don’t need dreams.

 

Q

The White Review

— Are nihilism and pessimism a form of care that we cannot see due to optimism’s ‘rose-tinted glasses’? Could you speak a bit more then about nihilism and hopelessness, but also the line you draw between nihilism/hopelessness and caring – is nihilism a form of care that we cannot see?

 

A

Terre Thaemlitz

— Isn’t it interesting that if you look at how you phrased that, it is still expressing the age-old binary of good and evil, right? Caring remains in alignment with notions of optimism, hope, etc. Nihilism and hopelessness must be separated by a line. I know that is not your intention, but it’s an example of how insidious this programming is.

 

I think there are forms of caring that emerge from an understanding of hopelessness and crisis. The standard mindset is one in which we are conditioned to insist that all cultural momentum – all ‘good’ or ‘useful’ momentum – emerges out of positive vibes, and that negativity results in social paralysis. Right? And in relation to societies insisting that people who have been inordinately abused will only give their lives meaning through hope that is contrary to lived experiences, I find that to be a very cruel expectation. It is a way of culturally approaching violence through a denial of how violence is ongoing. It’s like saying, ‘You know what your problem is? You live in the past. Move on!’ Which is also a way of saying that dominant cultures refuse to hear or learn from violence – because that would complicate the ethics of how they perpetuate and standardise violence, all to retain a status quo. So I think the demand for optimism is very clearly linked to our capacity to enact violence.

 

In my experience, actively living with a pragmatic nihilism grants more potential for empathy and caring, because one remains more conscious of the implications of violence. Violence that is unending. Like, on the dominant cultural level, for most people it would be taboo to acknowledge a brute reality such as the overwhelming likelihood that we will never be free of rape. And I say that as a tremendously heartbreaking observation – not snidely or cynically in any way. I believe it, as much as it sickens me. The ‘optimist’ says, ‘If I concede that, it is conceding defeat, so in that case I’d feel less motivated, and more likely to give up.’ I mean, what does it mean that we culturally concede so much of the formulation of care systems and social services to those whose entire organisational process pivots around ideologically running away from reality, away from the present? It makes any actual care received incidental – like the care given by religious organisations who ultimately prioritise what happens ‘after this life’ over what they are doing in the here and now. It severely limits and alters our primary ways of envisioning care, and reducing violence.

 

Q

The White Review

— This reminder that there are many kinds of critique is really important right now, especially when critiques of critique by figures like Jacques Rancière or Bruno Latour have become fashionable in the art world.
A

Terre Thaemlitz

— Yes, I mean, particularly since we are in this moment speaking for publication on an art platform, I think it’s all the more important to not slip into that standard way that art industries constantly confuse analyses – or ‘works’ – for actual acts of social organising, political organising, etc. It’s the epitome of reification, and involves an ideological production that always serves economics above all else. Like, in the arts a certain degree of negativity can be passed off as avant-garde posturing or being an artistic character, but it quickly gets shut down. For example, a few years ago when I gave a highly critical talk at a symposium called ‘Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness,’, the catalog text summarised my contribution as ‘delightfully, dare I say charmingly, grumpy.’ So, yeah, it all becomes about insulated discussions of social risks without an engagement of social consequences. This interview, too, right? No matter what we are attempting to discuss here, we are doing so through a social framework in which we want each other to ‘feel good’ about what gets published, right? You, me, the editor who will review this transcript, and the ensuing negotiations we will have about the final version, etc. It is then up to the readers to keep that in mind when reading what gets printed. Hopefully some of them will let the gaps set the rhythm.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

teaches English at the University of Southampton. He lives in London.

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