The question of identity
Located in Kawasaki, Japan, for some years now, American artist Terre Thaemlitz keeps reflecting the concepts of non-essentialist transgenderism and pansexual sexuality through sound, image and word. Testimony of a (re)search on identity, full of critique towards the commercial society.
Can you tell something about your latest projects, as well as what you’re working on at the moment?
At this very moment I am finishing my debut album as DJ Sprinkles, the pseudonym I have used on various vinyl EP's and remixes. The album is titled "Midtown 120 Blues" (which is a reference to the Midtown Manhattan clubs I used to DJ at in the late 1980s /early 90s, and the 120 beats per minute tempo of deep house music at that time, which is different from the vocal house that Europeans call deep house), and it will be released in the fall of 2008 on Mule Musiq here in Japan, as well as distributed in the EU by Kompakt.
The album continues with themes from my 1998 DJ Sprinkes EP, "Sloppy 42nds: A Tribute to the 42nd Streen Transsexual Clubs Destroyed by Walt Disney's Buyout of Times Square" (a track recently featured on Ame's "Coast2Coast" DJ mix compilation for NRK).
While the world celebrates the revival of New York House Music, constructing utopian fictions about the genre as it goes along, I still associate Deep House with transgendered sex work, black-market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, racism, gender and sexual crises, unemployment, and censorship. It's pretty straight forward dance music, but it revolves around this question of how to incorporate issues of social context into a commercial CD. There will also be some tracks on compilations and remix EP's by Mule, as well as an old ambient track I did in 1994 coming out on a compilation by InnerVisions (Ame's label).
Last year also saw the release of "The Laurence Rassel Show", a 90 minute electroacoustic radio drama which is available for free download from Public Record and Comatonse Recordings. Laurence is a Belgian cyber-feminist who generally works anonymously, as a response to the problems of being "named" under patriarchy. Our project deals with issues of authorship and copy-left from feminist and transgendered perspectives, using a lot of black humor. It was originally developed under commission by German national radio as a follow-up to my previous radio drama on issues of transgendered travel and migration, called "Trans-Sister Radio". Unfortunately, "feminism" is not as sexy as "transgenderism," and the broadcast was eventually cancelled for content reasons that have been documented elsewhere. Needless to say, we were incredibly disappointed (emotionally and financially), but we put it out ourselves. There is also a deluxe double-CD edition available through Comatonse with lots of bonus audio, poster, transcript, etc.
I am actually working on my next electroacoustic project, which will be called "Soulnessless", and takes a critical look at intersections of spirituality, identity and politics (I'm coming from a clearly non-spiritual perspective). It seems the "new spiritualism" is a liberalist trend in the EU these days, which is kind of disturbing for me. The project is planned as a double disc audio CD and video DVD set, the materials on the two discs being different from each other.
I'm also trying to put together an MP3 collection of my entire back catalog – over 400 tracks – on DVD-R. It will be called "Dead Stock Archive". This is in response to the unauthorized sale of my albums by iTunes with absolutely no contract, and their ignoring my direct requests to stop their illegal sale of my works. It makes me sick to think of corporate fucks like iTunes creating an environment against open file sharing, but then turning around and selling music they have no rights to.
Weirdest of all, if I can hardly make any money with my music, why the hell do they want to try to sell it? [laughs] It's total blind greed and the attempted accumulation of all information by corporations, no matter how unnecessary the information is to them…So, I would like to make my audio available as MP3's, but I can't afford the bandwidth to handle online distribution, so a single DVD-R collection seems the best solution.
Oh, and the Berlin based publisher b_books is putting out a bilingual German/English compendium of all my writings, called "Nuisance: Writings on Identity Jamming and Digital Audio Production". I'm really excited about that, especially having my writings in German! Germany is really my main audience for those writings, and I've always felt uncomfortable about the difficulties presented by the specialized English terminology used in many of my texts.
Sometimes you make a verbal introduction before starting a live show, and the fact is that at an electronic music concert it is unusual to hear what the artist wants to express…
Yes, and sadly that’s because a lot of times the artist just doesn’t want to express anything… The majority of "experimental" music still attempts to function in purely formalist terms of "sound as sound", making it no different than high-modernism from a half century ago.
Do you do give introductions to all of your shows?
No, I do have different types of shows, including festival performances, deep house DJ events, or even academic lectures. But a lot of my electroacoustic performances – like the Mille Plateaux stuff – do stick to this format of beginning with an introduction and ending with a question and answer session afterwards. This is in direct response to the promoters and performers I am usually working with, as a critique of the silence around content based work within electroacoustic festivals, etc.
I also want to explain things for the audience to help them make the most of the time – maybe I'm afraid of wasting people's time [laughs]. There are also some subtexts that people usually don’t catch about my performances, like the fact that I'm always considering my performances in relation to the transgendered stage. People usually have preconceptions about the transgender stage being very flamboyant and active. But, for instance, in the “Interstices” show there were definitely moments that were the antithesis of action, or at least using very slow movements. I always tried to get away of that idea of transgenderism being so over the top.
It's been some time now that you have lived in Japan. What took you to make that decision?
Yes, it's actually been seven years as of the end of January, and last year I somehow managed to get permanent resident status! Immigration is a difficult and stressful experience, for sure.
There are many answers to your question as to why, and I'm never sure where to begin when someone asks me that. The main impetus were that I always disliked the U.S., as long as I have my equipment I can work anywhere in the world, Japan has always been the main supporter of my label Comatonse Recordings (I am more known as a house DJ here, not so much for electroacoustic music or writing), and my partner was Japanese.
If you can't tell from my projects, I never got along well in the U.S., but given my economic status I also never thought it realistic to leave the U.S. I had considered Berlin, since I tend to work the most in the EU, but I didn't know how to go about making it happen in a long-term way.
Then, I had a chance to come to Japan sponsored by my partner at the time, who is a Japanese woman. In my project "Trans-Sister Radio", I dealt with some of the emotional and political dynamics of being a transgendered person living on a spousal visa – the transcript for which is available on Comatonse –, but it's definitely scary to try and discuss those things publicly when you're going through various approval processes.
I'm a transgendered identified male (both my transgenderism and maleness are documented in different public spheres), in a committed relationship with a documented woman, my sexuality is often simplistically described as "gay" by the Japanese press… from the eyes of an immigration officer trained to weed out "fake marriages”, how does one defend the sincerity of my situation as an immigrant whose material circumstances are in complete conformity with the social contract, but whose identity is not? (Of course, this is a question that has plagued my long-term relationships with women for decades, as discussed long ago in my text "I am not a Lesbian")
And in the end, like so many things in life, all of these encounters we have with massive bureaucratic systems are not systematized at all. They are random, and even reversible at any time. I can't look at my experience and write a guide for transgendered immigration.
There is no such thing. The system is fluid, changing, subject to human decision, rigid yet flexible – this is somehow related to how I have been struggling with identity constructs all along, but on a bureaucratic level I had never encountered before. I'm not sure how to talk about it clearly. I guess this is why I get flustered when people ask how I came to be here. The question implies a degree of free will that, as we all know, does not exist.
Everything must be bought, especially when dealing with government agencies, and if you don't have money that means selling bits of yourself in other ways. Building and breaking social ties all the way. This is symptomatic of why I feel any model of "community building" is inherently suspect. Unity is rooted in denial, for sure!
With all of that being said, the reason I enjoy living in Japan and hope to remain here is that it's incredibly safe and friendly (in a kind of reserved, keep-to-yourself way). Take away people's access to guns and narcotics, and they can actually be pretty nice!
Was it difficult to convey your messages in the United States?
Yes. I never get to perform in the U.S. There never seems to be an interest in my performances there, or even electronic performances generally. It's too rock'n'roll. But to be honest, my music is really non-performative. For me, to come up with a performance strategy for music that is completely pre-processed in the studio isn't very interesting for me.
However, economically people like me rely on performances, and not album sales, so it's part of playing the game. This again ties things back to the transgender stage and the idea of pantomime, "faking it," finding a way to turn pressing play and standing on stage for an hour into something interesting. I often play with the image of having high-tech gadgetry on stage but making people wonder what is happening – what is pantomime and what is "live" action? What are their expectations about "live" performance to begin with?
Is there a political stance, at that level?
Well, I have my intentions associated with each project, a socio-political theme which I try to convey, but in a conventional performance situation I don’t think that it’s inherent an audience will be able to catch my intended content. Electroacoustic performance is often abstract, and in the same way most people cannot explain "modern art" they are usually not able to explain "modern music". I mean, that’s why I’m explaining it now [laughs]. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that – like we said earlier – the artists don’t really want to talk about anything and the audience doesn’t expect anything.
There’s also the question of image. Despite the “flashy” aesthetics, there exists a lot of content in your performances…
I try to approach those "flashy" ideas with a sense of humour, too, like the mirror ball segment during the “Interstices” show. I mean, even though it's supposed to be a serious computer music concert, you can’t have a drag show without the mirror balls! I like mixing those elements of humour and inappropriateness into an electroacoustic concert, which is traditionally very academic. In one way, it’s about reducing the computer music to a kind of level of superficiality and, on the other hand, is about trying to imply a larger context – the contexts in which I work and operate, as well as the contexts the audience bring with them.
Focusing on the sound production, in itself, is the final result dependent upon the software you use?
No, not strictly. There’s always a lot of manual editing and cutting. For instance, the process I call systolic composition is a subtractive process that involves a lot of manual editing of a sample's wave forms. There are also a lot of things like the good old buzzes, clicks and stuff – some of those are made by software, but most come from manually selecting and repeating very small pieces of audio.
But the idea isn’t to arrive at some romantic notion of gesture or to put a "human touch" back into it – it’s not like that. In some way, it’s just trying to get away from the sounds of Max MSP and the automated plug-ins that most people rely on these days. For me, that sound is too institutionalized and standardized. And we have to look at how the spread of electroacoustic music techniques into some mainstream music circles affects the ways in which we read the genre.
Things have definitely changed within the past 15 years. Just like you can't say today's Punk music is really Punk at all by 1970s standards. I see this as a crisis and a challenge. It seems most others don't see it in cultural terms at all, simply as a technological shift.
But that human touch that you mentioned is present in your works for piano, no?
The Rubato Series piano solos, as well as the house music released on my private label Comatonse Recordings, both definitely play with signs of the human touch. But it is not about authenticity or an ability to play instruments (which, of course, I cannot play any!). It is about how a person with no musical ability can invoke an image of virtuosity (in the words of some reviewers), simply by regurgitating what I have heard on the albums I own. And, more importantly, how an audience places more value on works which they can identify as "coming from the heart".
I firmly believe this is a conditioned response created in consumers, despite the desire for people to feel music is "universal". It amazes me that the very people who say music is universal, whether they are western classical musicians or house DJ's, never address the fact that everyone has a genre of music they truly hate, defeating any model of universality.
For example, I truly hate classical music, both in terms of sound and in terms of what it represents historically as the sound of feudal elitism. That horrible sound has survived hundreds of years while the sounds of people on my corresponding economic level from that era have been forgotten. In a similar way, I consider the projects I produce as works to be forgotten. Queer history, transgendered history, the history of the poor, all of these are constantly being buried, only to be excavated in fragments. So the entire presumption that producers or DJ's like myself are contributing to a "universal canon" capable of appealing to everyone is just offensive and ignorant to me. It also clearly shows a lack of perspective as to one's actual potential audiences. But it is standard thinking, of course.
That is the context I am playing with when incorporating the sounds of a "human touch", the rhetoric of which is imposed on my works regardless. So I might as well engage it directly.
Are you still into activism, these days?
Not so much with the straight-on, direct, social action type of stuff anymore… For me, that was mostly in the late 1980s, and the majority of those grass-roots organizations have since changed into CBO's (Community Based Organizations) or NGO's (Non-Government Organizations).
The age of direct activism is gone, it's tactics for social disruption all coopted by mass media. We need a new approach, one that is neither the old model of activism, nor easily adaptable to business models and corporate endowments. Right now, I don't know what that might be. Recently, Ultra-red has been doing work around that question. But personally, I got kind of disillusioned with activism…
In what way?
Basically, I always had to advocate for my own non-essentialist approach to identity in consistently essentialist terms… Especially when it comes to identity issues, there’s always so much emphasis on legislation, making identities legally recognized, and that sort of thing. But the presumption that visibility always equals power is flawed.
Also, the ways that most gay and lesbian agendas approach transgendered issues is all so incredibly reductionist and over-simplified. They always put the drag queens in the front of events, like the Pride parades, but hide us from sight when it's time to legislate. It’s like putting the clowns in the front and that sort of bull-shit attitude… There are personal issues that I just couldn’t always deal with. That kind of pressure…
So, do you think that there’s been an assimilation procedure, regarding gays and lesbians, in the U.S.?
Yeah, I tried to address that in my “Love for Sale” project. But not only in America. It’s interesting that in a lot of times, and in different countries – especially in Germany, perhaps simply because I have the most exposure there – people are really quick to explain how progressive and open society is around issues of sexuality. They ask why I need to present this information about transgenderism if everyone is ok with it, to which I can only ask when was the last time they saw a transgendered person in the context of "everyday work", such as doing the register at a supermarket, or working at a gas station, or in an office? A liberal belief in social openness does not equate with social mobility.
Do you believe that it’s a case of lack of sincerity?
I don’t think that it’s lack of sincerity, but lack of exposure, on a real, material, social interactive level. Statistically, when we discuss queer or transgendered interaction, we're not only talking numerically about a certain fraction of the larger population, but culturally about bodies and behaviours that revolve around invisibility, hiding, closets, passing as people we "are not", etc.
This makes it very complicated to discuss visibility when we are simultaneously relying on a kind of duplicitous silence that – despite the slogan – does not always equal death. Silence is also how people survive. So, in that way all these ideas and notions of a society being accepting and free just float around – it’s just ideas, a kind of weird exercise. It’s over-simplistic.
It reminds me of when I was a child in the Midwest U.S., where an entire community could be White. It doesn't mean everyone in that community was racist, but how could you effectively discuss issues of racial discrimination within such a context, where the dynamics of how the community came to be so racially homogenous in the first place are cloaked in social processes that are just taken for granted?
There’s only the exposure that the system wants to exist?
Yes, I guess so.
What’s your relationship with the gay and lesbian community? You seem to joke about everything, like the parades. How do they react to your work?
Well, in general my work has been ignored by the queer press and events. “Love for Sale” did get some coverage, simply because of its cover, which was a parody of a stock market exchange, but with all the different currency symbols replaced by the rainbow flag and other queer commercial symbols. But the reviews stayed on a totally superficial level, without getting into it.
They ended up saying, “Hey, based on the cover this is for us”, which was the kind of marketing response I wanted to trigger – this desire to commercially consume one's sexuality. Then they opened it and there was this big critique of the pink economy and the commodification of sexuality, deconstructing the very urges that made them want to buy something with a rainbow flag on it.
But, anyway, I do have affinities with the gay and lesbian community, and part of my queer identity is, of course, a relation to gay and lesbianism. The thing is that, for my experience, I don’t fit cleaning into one identity, so I try to be critical of them all – heterosexual and homosexual as sides of the same ideological coin - which isolates me.
Is Japan different, at that level?
Yeah, I’m much happier here. It's clear that I’m totally an outsider from the start, and so people don’t expect anything from me – it’s liberating. Especially in the transgendered community, there’s a different relationship that I’m allowed to have to the public. In the U.S., the response to my walking in public in drag would be verbal and physical abuse. It’s a very tactile form of critique, when you’re going down the street… In Japan, it’s more a silent ostracism.
So for me, the silence is golden. But I also have to explain that, for people born here, the silence and ostracism is a painful nightmare. There are never mass solutions in this world. One person's "liberation" is hand-in-hand with another's oppression. This hypocrisy is unavoidable, even though the liberals will continue to fantasize about "freedom".
Let’s talk on politics now. How deep is your interest on Marxism?
Is Marxism actually political anymore? [laughs] Well, I do love Karl Marx writings – he’s my favourite author. For me, the thing that’s really valuable about Marxism, besides the idea of historical materialism, is that he has a great sense of humour. There’s a lot of satire and sarcasm in his work, which I really appreciate.
But I also think that it is really valuable to talk and think about how Marxism failed. The point where I deviate from Marxism is that I’m really interested in the failures of Marx' theories – I don’t identify myself as a Marxist.
Or, at least, you’re a deviant one...
Yeah [laughs]. And actually, I would not be afraid to call myself a Marxist, but my use of the title would be a bit sarcastic, and probably just to piss off someone I consider Right-wing.
It’s like in my Sanriot design project, where I took the Sanrio Hello Kitty aesthetic and used that style to make renderings of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg and all these leftist heroes as cute, cuddley characters. On the one hand, the project was about making their images accessible. On the other hand, it was a cynical comment on the commodification and institutionalization of Leftism, Like the Che Guevara logos found everywhere.
In which way is your design work connected to the music? Or are they two totally different “universes”?
I definitely consider all of my projects "multi-media" in that they include audio, visual design and often an analytical text. The designs of CD's are always limited, not only by the format but by the labels themselves.
Usually it's a budget issue. It can also be that the labels have their own look under which audio producers are expected to facelessly release our materials (remember Fax Records? that was the model for the Instinct Ambient Series, by the way). But I've always struggled to have my texts included, and done my own design work. Graphics are really the least flexible part of a commercial audio release, and the printers always make mistakes, and they assemble things wrong. For example, the CD "Oh, No! It's Rubato" was sold with my full parody of DEVO's album cover showing, but in fact my intended cover was the other side of that tray card, etc.
In terms of quality control, it's really the most difficult aspect of a project. There are only a few covers I've designed that I think live up to the audio and texts, which I don't think is asking very much to begin with [laughs].
But the graphics are not always intended to illustrate the audio or text, just as the text is usually not a description of the audio. The different elements are intended to play off one other, so maybe in that way there is still an allowance for space between "universes", as you say.
I think the "Lovebomb" video is my best synergy of visuals, audio and text, even though the three elements often contrast one another. It probably comes closest to being what I had hoped to produce since I first started doing this…just in time for Mille Plateaux to go under, and the collapse of the electronic music market. Another lovebomb…
Nuno Loureiro and Rui Farinha
Photos: Comatonse Recordings
Note: This work is based on a first interview recorded years ago for broadcast in the Tecnosterona radio show , at Radio Universidade de Coimbra, at the time of a Terre Thaemlitz' presentation of the "Interstices" performance (Serralves Contemporary Art Museum, Oporto).