© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
turn on background audio player
In Little White Earbuds (US), October 30 2009.
For Terre Thaemlitz, audio is never “innocent.” From Thaemlitz’s earliest ambient recordings, through a series of incredible electro-acoustic projects for the Mille Plateaux label, to a current triple-life as producer of astringently political “radio shows,” deep house auteur as DJ Sprinkles and K-S.H.E, and writer/polemicist, Thaemlitz’s project has always been to unsettle any putative audience’s assumptions of what constitutes knowledge and politics. Thaemlitz is also possibly dance music’s finest socio-political commentator. Not to mention her continual “queering of the pitch.” With DJ Sprinkles’s Midtown 120 Blues somehow managing to be one of the best dance music albums of both 2008 and 2009 (thanks partly to a staggered release schedule, but also to the ineffectual nature of most any of its supposed “competitors”), it’s time to take the temperature of the “ideology of the dance floor” with our scene’s most articulate outsider.
How did DJ Sprinkles come about? I know it’s a pun on Annie Sprinkle and golden showers, and I know that it was your DJ name while you were DJing at clubs in the late 1980s. Can you give us a snapshot of that era of your life?
Terre Thaemlitz: Yeah, I’ve told the DJ Sprinkles name story quite a few times, and it’s not very interesting to begin with, but…. Yes, Annie Sprinkle was doing her safer sex workshops near where I lived, and I’d have to say the reference to her was half homage, half parody. In late ’80s New York, DJ names had to be tough – so I wanted something totally pussy and embarrassing. The whole “nickname” thing always struck me as weird anyway, especially since most nicknames assigned to me in life were not favorable. Around that time there was a television commercial for an instant cake mix complete with frosting and candy sprinkles. In that commercial the announcer said, “With sprinkles in the mix,” which struck me as a lame hip-hop shout-out… you know, “Sprinkles in the mix.” Weirdly, I heard Paul Miller got his inspiration for the “DJ Spooky” name from a box of Post monster cereal (Frankenberry, Boo-Berry or Count Chocula — I forget which… do you have them down under?). I guess the relation between DJ names and processed baked goods is a New York thang.
Yes, I can’t really imagine there being an Australian DJ named DJ Meat Pie. You began DJing in late ’80s New York — what was club culture like in NY back then? There’s an accepted history of dance music, NY clubs etc but what was the “reality” of the time, from someone in the trenches?
I wouldn’t dare presume to represent the “reality” of the time, since I always felt like an outsider in clubs — partly because I never did drugs or drank. I also never had the knack for sexual cruising or other things. I was more the nerdy wall flower type. If I wasn’t working, then I was just going along with friends. I usually got bored because I was taking everything in sober, trying to enjoy the music but it was mostly too vocal heavy. I think it’s fair to say there were a lot more door policies and exclusionary things going on back then. Race, gender and clothes played a big part on who got in and who didn’t. Drugs were also much more important, which clearly influences the memories of many people when they talk about what euphoric times they had. That’s not a slam, it’s simply so. The genres of dance music were also not so commercially developed and regimented, so stylistically there was also a bit more discontinuity, but major label wailing diva crap was everywhere, even in the clubs people talk about as having been “deep.” In New York, The Loft was really the only club I liked for the music, and the Puerto Rican drag club La Escuelita had the best atmosphere for me. When I first moved to the city in ‘86 I remember liking Madam Rose’s and 1018, but what did I know. I never liked the Pyramid and the whole East Village Deee-Lite/RuPaul crowd, although I lived right next door to the club. The East Village scene had a tendency to take itself too creatively.
You still DJ as DJ Sprinkles — see the Deeperama mix disc series. What are you interested in, what’s your approach, as a DJ? You’re not interested in the seamless mix I’m guessing, and I really like the way you let songs play out as wholes, rather than creating non-dynamic plateaus…
I like DJs who play like they’re just sharing their private record collection with friends. In fact, I began DJing because my roommates complained my record collection was taking up too much space and I either had to do something with them or sell them. I like to play tracks from beginning to end because most tracks have a structure to them, and I like the rise and fall. I also like the idea of killing time, letting the tracks take up time, not rushing. Maybe this is partly because my first DJ gigs were always all-nighters, so I had to stretch a crate of records over six or eight hours. I think people are a lot more patient with playing tracks all the way through today. In the ’80s, it was difficult. People got bored and left the floor half way through a track. Maybe part of that is an impatience that came with certain drugs — quick loss of interest, always needing new stimuli. If I’m really in a good dancing mood, I like when a track just goes on forever, totally getting lost in the moment. I mean, the fact that most of my own tracks are in the ten minute range pretty much says what I like to DJ. Tracks under five minutes drive me nuts. I usually re-edit them on my computer into longer mixes so I don’t have to feel rushed making an extended version on the fly by mixing between two copies of the same record. I’ve built up a lot of custom mixes I’ve made over the years. I always love when people come up as I’m playing some totally self-made mix nobody on earth has, and they start going off on how they love that particular mix, how they bought that record for that mix, etc. They’re so sincere and enthusiastic, I just nod and go along with it. It’s cute, really.
The sense I get of any overarching “project” you may have in all of your work is this: generalization is the work of ideology and capital; in order to tease out the implications of power and/for the “margins,” we need to work from specifics. Hence the key thread in Midtown 120 Blues, of disavowing the universalist claims of “house is a feeling,” “the house nation” and instead grappling with the specific politics of house’s origins.
That’s basically correct, but I am not concerned with origins, which are another kind of naturalist claim that relies heavily on identity constructs (who constitutes the “true originator class”? etc.). I am concerned with contexts. Contexts of production, contexts of distribution, contexts of reception. And these contexts are always politicized, and about social relations. Often about consumer relations. The title of the K-S.H.E album Routes not Roots was clearly a reference to this notion of complicating concepts of origin. Because of its autobiographical elements, Midtown 120 Blues can initially come across as a testimonial about a certain era, but it’s really more about how images of a previous era are contextualized within the current music marketplace. It is the process of interpreting those autobiographical elements today — and not the subjects of the stories themselves — that are at issue. This is all pretty much laid out in the introduction monologue. And it’s interesting that a lot of bloggers really hate the parts where I’m talking. I can understand this on a sonic level — my voice sucks — but beyond that I think there is a connection between the way people rant against the intro track, and the marketplace through which they encounter that track. And this is a good reaction for me. To have people debate a little about the album is much more interesting than simply “loving it.” I think it’s good if media involves things other than “entertainment value,” if only a little. The marketplace is not very forgiving, though.
I should have put origins in scare quotes, really. “Origins.” You must find the current nostalgia for deep house within club culture rather interesting.
Yes, the “current” “nostalgia” for “deep house” within “club culture” is “rather interesting.” [Laughs] Hmm, but not really. I mean, it’s heavily filtered through a European (German) lens, and current production techniques are totally different, so it’s culturally and sonically quite divergent from the classic crap sampler based stuff of twenty years ago. As a DJ it’s quite hard to mix a lot of digitally produced tracks with the old vinyl stuff because the sound is so sharp these days. Those keyboard emulator plug-ins are so clean, and everybody’s mixes are so hot (treble-heavy, punched up). When you look at the wave forms, everything is compressed and clipped. I also think everything has become too much about “music” — I mean, musicianship, jazz, artistry, all in the most conventional sense. Then you go to the shopping mall, and they actually play instrumental house as muzak — and it’s not all bad, as far as house goes. That can’t be a good sign.
You mention bloggers hating “the parts where [you're] talking” on Midtown 120 Blues. Which I find interesting, because for me it’s the monologue at the end of “Ball’r (Madonna Free Zone)” that’s most affecting about Midtown 120 Blues, addressing as it does the modes of recapitulation and incorporation that “minority” cultural expressions inevitably experience in their mainstream uptake. Madonna’s line in “Vogue” about it making no difference “if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl” is completely disingenuous — and in a way I preferred Malcolm McLaren’s uptake of Vogueing. Three questions here:
Firstly, some observers argue that precisely this kind of “mainstream uptake” inveigles the underground into the mainstream — a Trojan horse approach. To these people, Madonna turning the art of Vogueing into a number one hit exposes the masses to what was once a hyper-specific dance form for certain parts of the Queer community. I find this idea problematic — what are your thoughts?
Clearly I find it fucked up. But what is really fucked up is the underlying demand for mass acceptance — whether that demand comes from within, or is imposed from without. A lot of drag queens love Madonna, and my little rant at the end of “Ball’r” really described a frequent thing, where people within the vogue scene would request her tracks. Of course, most transgendered cultures are haunted by aspirations for “passability,” which means being able to “pass” as that which is most commonplace and boring in dominant culture. It is about transforming oneself into something totally banal — which is incredibly difficult. Few ever achieve that target banality, and the gap between where one “started” and how far one has “come” in transitional processes involves a lot of radical transgression. Dangerous, physically and emotionally threatening transgression, all in an attempt to reach a point of “safety.”
It’s always fueled by a sweetly romantic desire to simply fit in with that which has excluded us. For me, this is really hard-core. Emotionally difficult. In some ways, maybe the relationships between transgendered communities and dominant cultures are like those of children who continue aspiring to please their abusive parents, if only in the hope of avoiding a drunken beating. So, it would be false to try to represent the “transgendered underground” as something completely against or divested of dominant culture. It would be false to say Madonna has no place in drag culture. Rather, what is her place? I guess this is where we get into post-colonialism and thinking beyond a binarism of “invader/invaded.” This question of what Madonna means to transgendered people is a much more interesting question than what “our” place has or has not become in mainstream culture as a result of Madonna’s mass popularity. Mainstream assimilation as a goal — giving power to the very idea of the necessity for a Trojan horse — is something I don’t want to invest any energy into.
Secondly, I suspect people like to read your address of specific moments such as the one in “Ball’r” as “redress.” But there’s a far more resigned tone to your work, right? Or am I off base?
I’m not sure if I follow your question exactly. When you say “resigned” I guess you mean I’m not proposing a way to correct things, or saying what has to be done in the future. Yes, we’re totally co-opted, even before “scenes” define themselves, let alone represent themselves through histories. I can imagine stuff like the Madonna rant coming across as a “redress,” but she was widely debated back in the day in those terms, and it’s not about hindsight. I mean, I really ranted like that back then to people requesting Madonna. [Laughs]
Right. I guess I meant that some people I know think you’re “taking on” Madonna — righting wrongs. Whereas you’re more about addressing contexts, which doesn't have that frisson of battling the “enemy” (as such). And thirdly — Madonna, Kylie et al. are surprisingly resilient gay pop icons — what’s with that? What does it say to you about gay culture?
I think it says gay culture is not that strange or distant from pop culture generally. Interpret that positively or negatively as you like, depending on who and where you are.
I think all of these discussions are complicated by the fact that for a long time a majority of house producers have been white Europeans. I mean, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but it sure seems that way to me. And the EU deep house scene is incredibly heterosexual. The presence of women at a lot of events is often framed by “girlfriend” status (as opposed to the equally suspect tradition of “fag hag” status). So we are in an era where there is a dire need to complicate the systems of representation through which we “feel” house as a primarily “black” experience, and to a lesser extent in most peoples’ minds these days, a “queer” experience. This unspoken dominant context, to me, seems to be the invisible drive of today’s racial/sexual politics in the house scene, which is a dynamic in the construction and reception of “black musics” generally. As a listener, are you a fetishizer, or an originator? Neither of these positions appeals to me. In this sense, I don’t think house’s racial/sexual politics offer us anything particularly different or inspiring. But I think aspects of the history of house, and analyses such as Reynolds’, can give us insights into the ways in which cultural acceptance and exclusion operate in relation to an industry focused on the marketing of cultural peripheries to a mainstream.
All of us, of course, exist in multiple social contexts from fringe to center, often with multiple cultural identities. And in saying that, I am by no means saying we are “all equal” within society or that these crossovers neutralize or balance out — to the contrary, I am saying the imbalances of prejudice and discrimination are not as linear as identity-based social analysis implies, and therefore I feel their mechanisms remain obscured. Learning to complicate our simultaneous relationships to seemingly exclusive cultural arenas (often founded in consumerist identities) strikes me as the core issue underneath racial/sexual politics. I think this is hinted at in Reynolds’ notion of feeling a “double exclusion” — as opposed to simply feeling “excluded.” I realize the main interpretation of his phrase is about a double exclusion in relation to dominant white, heterosexual culture. But there is also the complex exclusion of homosexuality within the African American community, the dynamics of which are different from that in Latino and other “black” (ie. non-white) communities, all of these angles are still exploding today. We need a kind of 3D way of looking at social processes, which go beyond the 2D linear identity-based models that over simplify things into oppressor/oppressed — which implies a prioritization of individuals over social processes in the discussion. In the end, “changing the world” is less about a personal choice to “live right,” and more about cultural issues of education (the value systems of which influence those “personal choices”).
Lovebomb (especially the video) and Routes Not Roots (which built most of its “black” house rhythms on “white” country music breaks) were about the problems of trying to complicate the relationships between amorphous issues of race, sexuality and gender when my language is conditioned by my own upbringing under US “black/white” race and identity politics. I think both albums present the limitations of that kind of discourse, and at the same time try to constructively convey ideas through those systems in the personal absence of something more appropriate. Lately, I have had several people come up to me and say when they first saw Lovebomb years ago they really couldn’t accept my placement of race issues in the project, and they had to ideologically reject it initially, only to finally come back to it several years later with a different sense of how they themselves had projected certain issues of race and identity into the film. For someone to have that kind of slow, ongoing relationship to a project is more than I could have imagined, but then again, why is it unusual? Why is it so hard to “hear” house music’s histories? Why isn’t this silence upsetting to more people? Why do so few house projects ask us to struggle along with them, as opposed to always positioning themselves as doorways of escape from our struggles? It’s like we don’t even fucking try.
You ask, “Why do so few house projects ask us to struggle along with them?” Is it because there’s a canonisation of certain political-historical moments in house culture — i.e., if you want to talk about politics in house music, you can simply mention “Baby Wants To Ride,” or The Children’s “Freedom,” and it gets you off the hook.
Yes, it’s like talking about fine art in that way — the well placed reference speaks louder than actual references to content, and is a cloak for an absence of analysis. But I think it’s also about the genre itself. Like, would you kill me if I simply said straight out, and not as an excuse but as a complaint, “It’s only dance music”? It’s like people in the U.S. trying to talk about the Vietnam war through 60’s rock, or the civil rights movement through Motown. It mistakes a consumer relationship to media of the time for an active understanding of the times themselves. This happens because we are told to perceive music as a kind of testimonial of authenticity — authenticity of the artist, of their context, etc. When we feel connected to the music, we feel we share in that authenticity. And that is a very difficult thing for most people to unpack. Demystifying audio feels like a betrayal of the music and producers — like an insult to them. Or worse, an insult to ourselves and what we have internalized. But it’s not an insult. It’s about realizing the constructed nature of our relationships to media. And that is, ultimately, a key element of all historical analysis.
Unfortunately, even if a producer such as myself has an interest in producing “political works,” the industry has countless blocks set up on all levels. Content gets censored, restructured, repackaged, edited, cut out… The level of historical analysis offered by most dance music is on about the same level as an elementary school first grade history book. That’s a precondition of audio content — that it is inherently dumbed down. Yet, we can read those books in critical ways and elaborate on the cultural dynamics that created the book — what did and did not make it into the history book, what was considered most important, least important, etc. This is how I look at music — not in what it says directly, but what it says about the culture that presented it as saying something to begin with. It is a deconstructive process of listening through which audio analysis begins to offer deeper insights. One of the difficulties of popular music criticism is that it focuses on the testimonial and first-hand knowledge, which are about fictions of “truth.” I am interested in the ways in which “thinking” can be distinct from claims of “knowing,” since there is a common misconception that cultural criticism is about “people who think they know how we should live our lives.” However, in rejecting the idea of “knowing,” I am also not interested in that kind of vague, dismissive cop-out, “but hey, what do I know?” I think we can have knowledge without it resulting in fascism. Fascism is about a specific relationship between power and knowledge — not various forms of knowledge themselves, which are by and large diffused and impotent. Analysis needn’t be oppressive.
When thinking about social problems, I always avoid hypothesizing futures or “solutions,” since those concepts are usually too symptomatic and tainted by the cultural dynamics of the problems they attempt to resolve. It’s also a bit too optimistic for me, to think there are solutions. A “time of peace” does not strike me as a realistic possibility. So, in our symptomatic idiocy, we are left with struggle, historical materialism, and analysis in an attempt to more clearly engage the oppressions of today’s cultural processes. This kind of motivation stemming from a necessity to actively challenge the present is quite different than being motivated by desires for what we wish to happen, and I think the ensuing cultural momentum can also be quite different. But this “devoid of dreams” approach is clearly not about a “way of life for everyone” — and the fact that it lacks an aura of mass appeal makes it all the more well suited as an approach toward challenging homogenization — whether that homogenization be fascist or humanist. It becomes a process of resistance that works with notions of context and limitation, rather than aspiring to transcend them. It’s a middle-finger to universalisms.
A lot of people have leaped on Midtown 120 Blues as your most “approachable” record, or something along those lines, or that it’s another “leap sideways.” But I’m more interested in DJ Sprinkles’ conceptual consistency, whether it be the “Sloppy 42nds”/Love For Sale thread, the way Midtown 120 Blues acts as a “sequel” to K-S.H.E’s Routes Not Roots. Can you talk about this?
It’s nice to hear those threads get followed. The key difference between Routes Not Roots and Midtown 120 Blues is that the former was completely self-controlled and released, whereas the latter was produced for a label with established distribution (Mule). This affected the types of tracks included, the design, the amount of text or other data, etc. I think Midtown 120 Blues has a degree of stylistic continuity that it would probably not have if I had released it myself, which is maybe a part of what people are responding to. But I really think it’s just the first time a lot of people have had access to my dance music, since Mule is fairly widely distributed, and as a genre house is obviously more “listenable” and familiar than some of the other stuff I do. But as you pointed out, there are connections between my projects in various genres. I like reformatting certain themes or ideas into different genres. For example, the dance album G.R.R.L. and electroacoustic album Couture Cosmetique both came out together and have the theme of fractured gender identity, but in totally different languages. There is a graphic connection in the use of silhouette figures on both album covers, but that’s the only real hint they are related. The fact that music distributors and shops are so focused on particular genres means there are often instances where a shop might carry one project but not touch another. Most people in Japan only know my house music. Most Europeans know the Mille Plateaux stuff. Most North Americans know the old Instinct ambient albums. It’s a really simple map of cultural and ideological interests. I like the idea of people having to cross those economic and territorial borders to follow the threads. Maybe that is also about my teenage experiences tracking down electronic music in the American Midwest. The fact that it was hard to trace was what kept it from being pop. That was important to me. It still is.
Maybe just to better explain, you are talking about when I edit samples using “brothers and sisters” so that they only say “sisters.” This has a three-fold meaning in relation to feminism (the decentralization of a male target audience within electronic music), queer culture (”sister” as a term of endearment between men, as well as between lesbians), and transgendered culture (you get it already). For me, this is about a specificity of audience identification (how do listeners relate or un-relate to the phrase “sisters”?) — the idea that this record might not have been made for you, as opposed to the all-inclusive invitation of “brothers and sisters”… which, of course, is itself an enclosure in relation to black culture, and more specifically African American culture, etc. The initial phrase itself seems to implode upon itself in that sense.
How do you feel when people respond to your music emotionally? This intrigues me because your materialist approach to sound divests it of emotional content, unless you’re using it as a signifier, to make a specific point, i.e. the ANC Radio Freedom speech that’s molded to fit Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You” on Lovebomb.
Of course, we are animals — we respond with emotion. Materialism is not about the evacuation or divestment of emotion. But it does (or can) involve a demystification/denaturalization of the ways in which we interpret our emotional responses. Particularly when we are responding to representational systems, of which I think music is one. The “Apartheid” track on Lovebomb is completely about emotional responses — at first eliciting a feeling of anti-apartheid alliance with the ANC speaker, and then proceeding to challenge that alliance with his increasingly detailed plea for murder and violence. The result is not about going from acceptance to rejection, but to a more intricate investigation of the social implications and responsibilities that come with acceptance — a deromanticization of acceptance back into a material process.
The track is intended as an exercise in re-examining a “natural” or reflexive initial emotional response, and then to think of how we might re-examine other reflexive emotional responses. So for me, emotion is not “bad.” I just think we culturally overemphasize “positive” emotions and place incredible pressure on people to be happy in a world that is, by and large, miserable. Happiness is not a lifestyle, nor is it at the core of acceptance and diversity. It’s a passing emotion mixed in with a million others. Why all the fuss to feel happy when listening to music? It seems incredibly short-sighted and disconnected. Of course, most people use music to “escape,” so that’s part of how we are conditioned to relate to the medium, which also affects how it is produced. Alternate approaches seem annoying and tedious. But I prefer the alternate approaches, and at times there is a joy or pleasure to be found in better understanding one’s oppressions. It doesn’t lessen the emotions. It just filters out a bit of unwanted manipulation from conditioned responses. The fact that we have a kind of cathartic reaction to the genres we like before actually listening and thinking about the specific compositions being played strikes me as manipulation, and makes me uncomfortable.
Sorry, I think my question was a bit messed up. Maybe I’m thinking too much in binaries — that your approach, being not always immediately focused on engendering some kind of emotional identification (”oh, that’s how I feel too”) on the listener’s part, is therefore stripped of emotion. I did just wonder, though, how you felt at being connected to the Clicks & Cuts movement in the late 1990s, through your involvement with the Mille Plateaux label — this kind of post-structuralist, post-musical approach to music-making which for many appeared to privilege the software over “the heart” (form over content etc.) but really ended up completely validating age-old discourses of beauty, seduction etc. Who was it that said, “Oval once subverted software, now they soundtrack perfume ads”?
Do you mean me? Because I think I said something like that about Marcus Popp and Oval, too. [Laughs] Clicks & Cuts was difficult for me because it quickly dominated the Mille Plateaux soundscape, making a-structural electroacoustic projects like mine stylistically incompatible with the label. Towards the end, they were not very enthusiastic about my projects at all, which was a shame since I was really one of the only producers invested in generating social discourse — something they claimed was important to them. Like you said, for the label owner Achim Szepanski, Clicks & Cuts was about a Deleuzian model of a self-generating music machine wherein artistry was irrelevant. As an anti-creative gesture, I can appreciate this. However, the ultimate effect was no different than the disco industry of the ’70s. It offered nothing interesting in terms of cultural production. It simply became a cynical model of how audio distribution functions, which leaves me begging the question, “And then?” That should have been a starting point, but it was their grand finale.
I was recently thinking about DJ Sprinkles as an “invisible DJ.” From what I can tell, Sprinkles isn’t really out there doing the circuit, Sonar, Berghain, etc. Which reflects, in a roundabout fashion, certain ideas about invisibility you’ve discussed before, from the “active invisibility” espoused by The Laurence Rassel Show, to the way you place into question the migratory routes of the DJ as global phenomenon, from NYC to Berlin to Barcelona. Is it a great leap to think about this in relation to the questions about transgender identity and border crossings you raise in Trans-Sister Radio?
No, I don’t think it’s much of a leap at all from DJing to the visa issues raised in Trans-Sister Radio, particularly since employment as a music performer or DJ often involves crossing borders without proper work permits, etc. We all know stories of DJs being turned away from borders because they show up with crates of records and no work permissions, trying to enter as a tourist on vacation. “Yes, I always carry 100 kilos of vinyl records with me –what’s suspicious about that, officer?” But you’re right, I have not really had much success as a DJ in the traditional sense, and haven’t “made the rounds” at festivals. In that sense, my experience as a DJ is entirely average. That averageness is not some cynical experiment — I am not trying to fail. I simply am a kind of failure as a DJ, which, in it’s all-too-familiar banality, has become a part of my “documented” response to mega-hyped DJ culture and it’s pop-star mentality. For me, the late ’80s New York scene was not about the famous DJs with their residencies at big clubs, but more about the majority of people making/playing/buying music and not really “getting anywhere” with it.
Living under capitalism, I like learning to feel comfortable with activity that does not result in success — since non-success is the norm. Trying your best and making it is not the norm — it’s propaganda. Of course I play with notions of hype, too. My over-hyping the “Best DJ” underground grammy from Sally’s II is mostly revenge for being fired a month later for not playing a Gloria Estefan record, but also about playing with the press and promoters’ eagerness for hypability and personality. The entire Comatonse website is a sarcastic hype-engine, sprawling forever, overwhelming the viewer with nothingness. Of course, as the years pass, it all takes on a sense of credibility — as has my image as a DJ in some way. The fact that my name somehow made it into Peter Shapiro’s book Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco is up there on the ridiculometer with my making it into the printed version of the All Music Guide to Rock. WTF. Things like that have completely discredited the music industry in my mind, and I wish to convey that sense of disillusionment to others. It’s about breaking mass media’s hypnotic, propagandistic grip upon us as consumers. Breaking the allure of visibility and pride.
OK. That last sentence is intimately related to your engagement and history with queer politics, I’d guess. And I’m very interested to know where you think queer stands, currently. “Silence = death” was the chant, once upon a time — now I can’t help but feel “visibility = death,” “tolerance = death.” The queer community (such as it may still exist) seems to be off on some weird “tolerance” rap — as though being able to marry makes any serious difference. As though rights can actually ever be “equal.” We’re embarrassed by the specificity of our existence.
Wait, I think some of your math is off. “Silence=Death” was a reference to HIV/AIDS related deaths as a result of U.S. government ambivalence/silence about the epidemic, as well as the effects of our own communal silence/closeting/hiding. So “silence” is negative. But it seems you are using “tolerance” as something considered positive within queer communities — a desire for tolerance with same-sex marriages, etc. In that case, the formula should be “intolerance=death,” right? I’m not trying to be fussy — I’m just trying to figure out exactly which perspective you mean? Because there is a lot of critical work being done on the idea that “visibility=death” — or, that visibility has a down side, and invisibility is not always detrimental; to the contrary, there are ways in which invisibility can provide refuge, flying below radar, etc. Clearly, I feel an affinity for this kind of thinking. Pride movements are totally polluted by Americanization. The same-sex marriage movement actually really only took off in the early ’90s after U.S. HIV/AIDS activists gave up on the idea of the US ever having socialized medicine. As you can read in the current debates around Obama’s health plan, Americans are still too stupid to realize government can be more than a war machine and actually offer social services — they think that would be communism. So, in the ’90s activists turned to spousal coverage as a goal to get health insurance for as many people as possible. The specificity of this need was soon replaced by the more easily sellable humanist plea for romantic tolerance. But, yeah, like you say, it’s more about our tolerance of matrimony than asking for society to be tolerant of something “other than normal.”
I guess I was thinking more about a shift in the way I see queer politics playing out — I’d never want to do violence to “Silence=Death” being a fundamental part of addressing the American government's silence around HIV/AIDS related deaths, but I also saw it working more generally — that the Silence around queer politics both outside and inside the community at that time could enact a “death” of sorts of any revolutionary or emancipatory impulse. There was a need to be seen, to represent community. Whereas now that we’re supposedly visible, I suspect many in the community are interested in something that approaches “being tolerated” — and one way we can fold into mainstream society is by adopting heteronormative tactics like marriage. So in a way, our seeming “visibility” neuters any “powers” we may have. Which is why I like the idea of invisibility being refuge, “flying under the radar” etc. — because I think interesting things can be done at this level. I suspect my logic is fundamentally flawed, and I don’t know if that clarifies what I was saying, but I’m interested in your thoughts.
Okay, so we’re talking about the same thing. But the funny thing about people interpreting something like same-sex marriage as a form of “visibility” is that, on a cultural level, it is not granting visibility to anything new. It is not about visibility at all. It’s just about conformity. Of course, this conformity is about power sharing, and legal protection of certain relations under the law. But it is not about altering the base functions of power itself. And it does not help all lesbians and gays. Assume all nations agree, same-sex marriage is allowed. Then we will all be deeper under the cultural and bureaucratic tyranny of the monogamists, which will then have the support of a larger percentage of queers. And how difficult will that be to legally dismantle? Exposing hypocrisy is our only way out — to show that the legal terms at issue are simply that — representational terms we only engage out of violent necessity. They are not our relationships themselves. Our consolation is in the fact that monogamy itself is a guarantor of secret alliances, below radar rendezvous, invisible connections with tremendous powers. Anyone with open eyes can see all of the industries which facilitate “safe spaces” for such connections, regardless of sexual orientation. Personal ads, websites, chat rooms, bars, clubs, hotels, parks, parking lots, to name a few. Sexual deviance is highly institutionalized. Realizing this also helps us demystify invisibility as a refuge, the over-romanticization of which can lead to other traps (such as lesbian and transgendered pagan witchcraft, queer kabal, etc.).
This issue around visibility and “moving to the centre” also plays out on dance floors — in queer club culture, which so often feels like a repetition of the homogenizing “big room” club phenomenon. I wonder what queer club culture lost when it gained “real visibility” — when the pink dollar began seriously to validate a big queer business on the dance floor.
And how do we talk about what was lost without transforming the “olden days” into some kind of Waldenesque place calling us home? Or, I guess it’s a kind of inverse-Walden, since we are talking primarily about urban oasis. When I go home to Springfield, Missouri, there are the gay clubs that kind of emulate the major city clubs, and then you have the clubs with fifty year old farmers with wedding bands sharing a final drink and embrace before going home to their wives. Disco music sounds a lot different in these latter clubs. I’ve always felt more at home in these latter types of places, where people still live with closets rather than go into some kind of evangelical, prideful disavowal of closets that totally affect our daily lives outside “the scene.”
And also — queer is still treated by most as shorthand for “gay and lesbian.” Often just “gay male.” Where is transgender, multiple gender etc. in all this?
Issues of transgenderism (gender) and queerness (sexuality) are definitely culturally interwoven, but they are also very distinct issues. One is about the body. The other is about your body versus the bodies of those you have sex with. I think it is usually more helpful to discuss them separately, and help people see the ways in which they are separate, since we are so used to the vague “sameness” implied in terms like “LGBT.” If gayness and lesbianism are about sex between partners with the same gender, and heterosexuality is sex with the opposite gender, what is a transgendered person’s relationship to those sexual formulas? It quickly falls apart. As for the term “queer,” I like how it is totally confusing. It means people who use it have to qualify it and explain ourselves, at least a little bit. I think this is different from using terms that so thoroughly speak for us with no need of clarification. But in terms of social analysis, the term “queer” is about a non-binary model of sexuality, in which sexual identity is not a pure state of being, but a state of identification. The easy analogy is, if heterosexuality is symbolized by black, and homosexuality by white, then queerness is about all the gradations of grey between. Most people fall closer to one or the other, and then proceed to identify with one at the exclusion of the other, but in fact our sexualities are much more complex. Consider how many out gay men who say they always knew they were gay since childhood just happened to have been married with kids at some point. To reduce those years into a “mistake” is as dismissive as a straight frat boy who denies every blowing his frat brothers on pledge night. Shit happens. The homo/hetero system keeps us from being able to discuss it.
“Pride.” What does this mean, now, to any idea of queer?
There are a lot of critical minded anti-pride events in Europe lately, usually the day before pride parades. I’m not really sure I get the point of those, either, but it’s kind of nice to know they’re out there. Pride is simply the binary corollary to shame, which is really what drives cultures, so it doesn’t really offer us much in terms of altering power relationships or addressing the workings of shame. Pride seems to me like just sharing in the arrogance of power. Queer pride is like a lesson unlearned.
Near the beginning of our interview, I asked about an “overarching project” to your work. But this in itself is a universalising claim — the “grand narrative” of your art. How would you rather people think of/about what you’re doing?
I think taking them one project at a time is fine. I like to collect records and books that seem incredibly random and disconnected, even discredited — because that sense of disconnection offers a lot of information about the status quo of a particular time and place. I guess I’d like to imagine my releases working like this, just some random weird thing that a person stumbled upon, and as an object in a marketplace it is somehow more special to them for what is isn’t, rather than for what it is. I guess that’s also how I approach my business and personal relationships, for better or worse. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to collect all my projects, so I like this idea of things being incomplete and unmappable. Even my “Dead Stock Archive” MP3 collected works is designed as a random thing not available through commercial distribution channels or online download. And by including absolutely everything, I think the discontinuity of the projects destroys any ability to read a narrative through them — bringing things together only to show how they fall apart rather than unite into some huge mega-robot. I like to imagine my projects breaking down into smaller and smaller bits like fractals, their patterns making them ever weaker and scattered, divesting of power… because divestment of power is certainly a recurring theme for me. I try to find processes of production that resonate with that theme, strategizing my own failure as a reaction against social pressures to succeed and conform — neither of which are realistic possibilities for most people, no matter how hard we try to believe they are possible.