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In The List (Scottland), April 18 2013.
As the latest experimental Arika festival comes to Glasgow, Neil Cooper speaks to house DJ Terre Thaemlitz about the enduring power of the 80s and the continuing stench of bigotry
There's a story Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles, tells in a footnote to a recent address she gave at Tate Modern. Now published on Thaemlitz' website, it recalls her DJ-ing a deep house set at the closing party of a queer and transgender cultural symposium. A woman approached the booth and asked for something by Madonna. When Thaemlitz declined to play any of the woman's requests, she turned nasty and started calling the DJ a faggot before staff moved the abuser on.
Such an ugly incident speaks volumes about how deep-rooted homophobia remains in society. The fact that this was a queer and transgender event only makes it worse. This is just one of the concerns which may be raised in Arika's 'Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight'.
Organisers of experimental music, film and art events such as INSTAL and Kill Your Timid Notion, Arika's latest line of inquiry will once again give as much discussion space to the philosophical and political ideas behind a sonic form as it does to the music itself. Also on the Arika bill is 'Episode 4: Freedom is a Constant Struggle', which looks at the relationship between poetry, jazz and revolution in the dissident black American culture that grew from the 1960s civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, 'Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight' looks at the gay, bi and transgender sub-cultures (Thaemlitz chooses to switch between gender pronouns when writing or talking about him/herself) based around the house and ballroom scene of the 1980s. As well as siring the cult of vogueing and other flamboyant dance styles, drag and lip-synching were embraced alongside a deep house soundtrack in what seemed, from the outside, like the greatest party on the planet. Especially when it was co-opted into the mainstream by pop cultural magpie, Madonna. Thaemlitz, however, sees it differently, and is almost mournful about the culture she is both immersed in and remains outside of.
'The way in which queer club culture and transgender club culture is tied to ecstacy and pleasure means that people don't always see that it is tied to a lot of social strife,' says Thaemlitz. 'This idea that clubs are about community and finding some kind of place where outsiders can all be together helps the clubs keep their power as a kind of fake safe space.'
The social strife Thaemlitz is talking about, of course, is the rise of the AIDS virus which decimated many from the house ballroom scene. Maybe this recognition that the party was over before anyone else was prepared to admit it was, in part, the reason why Thaemlitz was left out in the cold. As a non-op transgender person and an ultra-articulate polemicist and critic of the scene, Thaemlitz' stance hasn't always gone down well with those one might presume to be her immediate constituency. 'Most of the time I'm just ignored by them. It's so rare to be asked to play in the queer club scene.'
For almost 20 years, she has combined a prolific musical output in her own name and as DJ Sprinkles (as well as other noms de plume) with a series of public-speaking provocations that have countered the received orthodoxies about queer and transgender culture. With her own Comatonse Recordings label, Thaemlitz has a wilfully singular world-view.
'It's as though I did something in the 80s and 90s, and then stopped,' says Thaemlitz. 'Whereas now, it's more about a decline both personally and sonically in music. For me, whatever's happening now is a critique of the house music from the past; what was going on in the 80s was the most interesting time. Remember in the 80s when there was all this retro thing, with Vietnam War films and their 60s soundtracks? That's kind of what it's like for me now with 80s house music. It's going to an oldies night. I'm kind of anti-futurist in that way. I'm not a dreamer or an anticipator. I'm still trying to catch up with the present, and that's as much as I can hope for.'
For 'Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight', Thaemlitz will take part in three events. The first two of these will draw from his Soulnessless project, in which Thaemlitz put together some 32 hours of music, 80 minutes of video and 150 pages of writings and images that look at a myriad of topics including gender and spirituality in an epic mash-up of sound and vision.
Thaemlitz will also read extracts of his texts followed by a discussion, and will perform the first four parts of Soulnessless. Then, as DJ Sprinkles, Thaemlitz will play at two club nights which bring together house ballroom stalwarts, including The Legendary Pony Zion Garcon who brings us Vogue Evolution, a dance troupe focusing on social concerns, to town. Plus, there's an appearance from black transgender lip-synch artist, boychild.
While all this should capture the house ballroom scene in its full glory, Thaemlitz for one sees little to celebrate. 'It still goes back to that woman giving out all those homophobic slurs to me and to others. It's really important to understand that this is still happening.'
Episode 4: Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Tramway, Glasgow, Thu 18-Sun 21 Apr;