“I wasn’t trying to hide from you but you kinda shorted out and I was like, ‘I’m not going to move anything’.” Elysia Crampton has been pointing the camera of her phone out of an apartment window. It’s a wobbly, slightly skewed image of the rooftops of La Paz in Bolivia, the Andes in the background and a crisp light blue sky in a city about 3,650 metres above sea level. The connection with London is rough at first, a short message from Crampton on sharing her contacts in a Skype chat box reads, “Hii hopefully this will go smoothly im bad at connection so bare w”. A fractured, delayed audio of an interview with the artist disconnects about eleven minutes in and reverts back to what was playing on my iTunes: an electronic track constructed from a hectic collage of synthesised sounds. A melodic trumpet patch, a shimmering ambience, a field recording of chirping grasshoppers plays out at shifting pitches. Together they tremble on top of the consistent seesaw of a sizzling rhythm that sounds like the steel ball chain of a cabasa. “Axacan” is one of four tracks on a full-length album, American Drift –released on FaltyDL’s Blueberry Recordings in July –and it’s named after what 16th century explorers called the then-Spanish province of present-day Virginia.
When we speak though, the dialogue drifts far beyond the region of the Southern United States where, until recently, Crampton has been based in a state of relative, familiar seclusion. It’s a chat that veers from the homosexual behaviours and “immaculate conception” of Komodo dragons, the strange DNA of octopi and the bacterial colonies that sustain us to ideas of “trans-ness”, “god-ness” and the forgotten queer histories of the Andean indigenous people that inform her work. It’s also a conversation that carries over from realtime video chat, to email, to shared Instagram images and an mp3 by an unknown Peruvian lesbian performer that Crampton found among her uncle’s old tapes at her grandfather’s farm where she’s living.
That discussion mirrors the breadth and variety of reference points that Crampton dutifully points to in the American Drift press release. It’s one that’s peppered with links to its influences, careful to give credit to the people and ideas it draws from, including a song dedicated to performance artist Boychild, one inspired by intellectual and composer Margaret Bonds and another by a Christian hymn. As she says herself, Elysia Crampton “always exists online”. The discourse she shares on her Facebook and Twitter accounts attest to that, and it’s one that’s as interesting and erudite as she is.
You make music primarily, but you also write a bit via Facebook and Twitter…
Elysia Crampton: Yes, I love writing, in general. I began using social media because I had no other platform for sharing my writing at the time, and I longed for that connection. It’s a lot of trial and error, but you get the hang of it after a while —it comes to feel better. Being here on the farm in Rosario, I’ve learned that feeding images and texts to my social media accounts isn’t much different from giving feed to the chickens or taking the sheep out to pasture, or, you know— alpacas are very independent— letting the alpacas out of the pen, taking them up the mountain, or herding the cattle to drink at the river.
In an interview with Tiny Mixtapes, you mention “a long history of anti-queer ideology and homophobia” a rivalry some Bolivians have against Peruvians. I remember being in Lima (Peru) several years ago and being struck by its apparent status of being a queer capital of Latin America.
EC: I’ve tried to trace this queerness myself —it definitely goes back to the land’s quite ancient past —of course, all of the homophobia and queer-phobia was introduced later by European colonization. There is this good book I would recommend reading, Decolonizing the Sodomite. It sort of tries to undertake this anti-queer genesis in Peru and Bolivia, and uncover the countries’ deep, queer legacies. Unlike Mexico, there aren’t any resources such as codices, records detailing the ancient cultures here. Many of the indigenous cultures are so obscured/ lost that people have little concept of them …and not just the so-called Incan legacy but everything else, it’s all such a blind spot. Anyway, this book tries to undertake an account of queer indigeneity, before there were even such things as Peru and Bolivia.
Historians say that most of what has been preserved from the ancient cultures is due in part to the people’s relation to/closeness with the natural geography/landscape— sites like the Andean mountains in which people were literally able to hide their customs, practices, melodies: organic moments taking refuge within a so-called inorganic embrace. This goes back to something that I explore on the album, something that I’ve particularly been concerned with, namely, the disanthropocentric relationships that make up what/who we are —our peculiarly entangled relation to other objects, places, things. How these things come to aid us, evolving with us, but also how these things supply/manifest their own agency, and how that resistance and support has affected, shaped our own histories, how they continue to shape history.
dont fuck w much A photo posted by Elysia Crampton ʚïɞ (@elysiacrampton) on
In being mestiza, living between the US and Bolivia, and as a trans person, it feels like you embody a lot of the conflict, or tensions of your music. Is that something that you think about?
EC: I’ve been trying to understand, determine the full implications of a sort of trans-spirituality —a trans-spirituality that takes into account the very strange corporeal status or materiality of the spiritual —this trans-spirituality that has resonated in my own life and the political consequences of such an encountering/mode of becoming that reclaims my whole life, even before I identified as trans, before there was this intentional phenomenological tracing or signalling of trans identification on my behalf.
I think about those people like myself, like I once was: caught in-between: not yet within what we might call the ‘concrescent’ phenomenological stage of being trans, or ‘transitioning.’ I think this is an important site of struggle —right before the problematic enclosures that accompany trans visibility —as this visibility already implies exclusions by way of its manifestation. How can we de-privilege a mode of existing, of transitioning, that unquestioningly gives authority to the language or form of communication that is the speed-of-light, that is, in other words, ‘trans visibility’?
I recall my own experience before transitioning. I would see other people’s concept/embodiment of transness and say, ‘no, that’s not me, this isn’t what i am’ —yet I still knew I was trans before I’d even begun puberty. It’s like the space/coordinates for me to transition, for me to embody my particular transness didn’t exist yet. I was trans but i didn’t know how to signal that transness yet specifically —I had to create it; an arrangement of things had to come together first. And everyone must find their own distinct gate, avenue, means to define and communicate/exhibit what they are. I’ve been really caught up in this business of trying to understand the kind of protobeing, the kind of dark materiality I once existed in, that resisted the limitations implied by phenomenization —the political dimension of this invisible component of transness that is so tied up with our power-potentiality, and everything it entails.
I’ve been thinking about that in terms of ideas of ‘queerness’ or ‘trans-ness’ because it feels like it can still work within a binary: What are you identifying with exactly, are you applying to a gendered social construct or are you dismissing gender entirely? And by dismissing ideas of gender, is there even such a thing as being trans, or ‘woman’ or ‘man’.
EC: I believe gender is more than just social relations, more than local manifestation, and that being trans accompanies more than simply ‘doing away’ with gender. Someone in an article once called me ‘de-gendered’ and I found that statement problematic to say the least. The issue comes down partly in response to language, communication, and constructing possibility spaces within/through narrative (as category, as limitation —as complex system) as it unfolds in real-time (space-time is/becomes storied). I’ve been liking the word ‘intersex’ more because the prefix ‘trans’ at times mistakenly gets taken as a ‘being outside of’ or ‘above’ gender, when in actuality we are always already entangled in becoming. Trans has more to do with that movement of being itself —what Adela Licona and Eva Hayward say marks the “where-ness of with-ness”. Some queer friends of mine will say, ‘why this political pressure on pronouns? It’s bullshit, it reproduces the binary, etc’. I can sympathize with some of that logic but then other times I’m like, ‘no, pronouns matter.’ It’s a historical thing —it’s about how narrative (particularly my own story) is uncovered, recovered, approached —again, it’s a thing about communication and how story assembles itself and affects us as a machine of meaning.
That’s also why I mention still being stuck on the political implications of this materialist, withdrawn sort of trans-spirituality of mine because the questions always come back —how to deal with this disturbing irreducible gap between phenomenon and thing, how to grasp the thinglyness of being when it remains so constitutively illusive?
It’s like, okay, if I want to go claiming certain people on my side —these folks who exhibit no marking or overt signalling of discernible transness, haven’t transitioned, don’t even particularly identify themselves yet as trans —obviously that sounds entirely problematic from the jump. Yet people exist in that space —they are living in that place, that shadow-realm where vulnerability and power converge, right now. So how do you account for that? It is a discrete space, a queer space, different from other proto forms of being. How do we facilitate greater possibility spaces for such people/help create avenues, channels, for those prototrans folk to become their best selves, [to be] able to not only transition on their own terms, but structure/have some control over the very space where they would appear as such/become visible?
You mention the way the ‘I’, as in intersex, has been literally surgically removed from a queer reality in a tweet. I’ve been thinking about how you couldn’t even start to measure the extent to which this is true because the prevalence of corrective surgery following birth, so who knows what the extent of sexual difference is beyond the gender binary.
EC: Yes, there’s this amazing book —it’s been out of print —it’s interesting because, having been organized from a queer perspective, it predates much of the writing on queer ecologies/queer materialities that would appear afterward. In its wide breadth of research it touches upon literary and cultural studies, queer theory, animal studies, science studies, feminism, cultural theory, gender and sexuality. I came across the book because [I think] I was studying Komodo dragons at the time and I was really interested in how, not only do they have immaculate conception, but they also engage in homosexual behavior in order to procreate, bearing a specific type of offspring through the encounter. This challenges the belief that some queer theorists maintain regarding the nature of queerness —basically that queerness, sustaining its mark of difference, guarantees a resistance to the procreative impulse —that in queerness as such, the so-called heteronormative call to be productive is dissolved. Yet with creatures like the komodo, there’s clear evidence that queerness, at times, holds the same desires and goals as heteronormativity. Also, I think one can find a much simpler example of this kind of desiring in the queer couples wanting to get legally married and care for children in the Americas— of course that usually gets explained away as a sort of cultural-conditioning [laughs]. We’re reminded again that desire is often contradictory, inconsistent, paradoxical —inherently queer in spite of its own ‘queerness.’ Objects—whatever they may be —even ‘queerness’ itself, have this indeterminate, irreducible side to them, a dark side that can’t be marked off with tape, delineated as such; a negativity which, at times, pierces right out of visibility itself. Queerness is always queer-er than we think it is.
What’s also great about that book is that it also highlights how, when Darwin was drawing his work on evolution, how the taxonomical hierarchical structuring came together, forming around these unquestioned anthropocentric tendencies in the general thinking of the time —like the privileging of human consciousness over other forms of being but also the type of signalling manifested by human brain processes against any and all other possible exhibits of complex/differentiated being— becoming this enclosure limiting how we were willing to understand the world from then on.
A photo posted by Elysia Crampton ʚïɞ (@elysiacrampton) on
And queer folk still fall into this trap. I still hear the default argument from trans people as means to validate being trans: ‘gender is created in your head so therefor x’. I mean sure, that’s part of it, but there’s so much more that gets cut out —reduced to a passive, lifeless concept of matter’s capabilities —when one privileges the object of the human brain as this ‘master organ’. The brain is just one component in a complex network of systems, yet people hold onto this idea that identity is completely contingent upon the brain —that if a brain was removed from its body, it would completely maintain/hold the identity of the individual it belonged to, as though that were it. Part of who I am, materially as trans —or whatever it is that makes me ‘me’ —is also the relationship with the fungal colony that lives on my body, the bacterial colonies and viruses that live inside my body, the chemical relationships/genetic footprints that mark that body, as well as the host of invisible stimuli, mechanisms, senses that inextricably braid my body with my environment. And even beyond all these, still, there is an even greater abyss of my own thinglyness that is non-local and therefore cannot be explained away with traceable things such as brain functions.
There’s this plethora of queer materiality that is constantly in motion, wrapped up in our becoming, and it’s just amazing how much information there is when you actually go looking for it. I don’t want to say this information is being suppressed, but it almost is, by way of what seems like a total lack of education. I wonder what it would mean for us, how it might help us, if we stopped defending queerness and transness based solely from this perspective, this privileging of the brain. Like, I’m not just trans because my ‘female’ brain is telling my ‘male’ body that I’m a woman. I’m also a woman because of my relationship to my environment, my relationship to different objects —some of which are not even traceable or materially constituted, but yet make up what I am.
Then, in terms of the materiality of your work, you’ve moved away from using samples, that are loaded with their own historical information. But, as with your use of oil paints and gouache, there’s a history and a chain of production also embedded in these sounds that are produced from/ by an instrument.
EC: You’re right —also, just considering the textures themselves —be they something like ‘fake’ instrument sounds signaled as such from a keyboard bank, apart from their supposed properly ‘authentic’ materiality in the instruments that are being mimicked, pantomimed, clowned by the electronics. I have this friend Katja Novitskova. She’s a beautiful artist and she did this piece —she’s always dealt with this sort of.. I want to call it ‘signal-oriented’ art. Anyway, the name of Katja’s piece was ‘A DAY IN A LIFE with THINGS I REGRET BUYING’ (2014), I think that was the name of the piece.
It involved these robotic nursery machines that made sounds, embellished with delicate ornamentation, worn almost like jewelry. The way the installation generated this sort of relentless objectivity —I always use ‘objectivity’ incorrectly but you know what I mean, like ‘relating to objects’ without the negative connotations of the word ‘objectification’. The objects in that show —it was like they were given agential space, room to exist on their own terms, among other things, in this machine of the show. There were these stickers —they looked like little bird tracks, little bird feet. Seeing those in the space of the room, it was like you got to encounter them in an act of radical autonomy —these things that were meant to exist as pure symbol were able to escape their assigned regime of meaning. In spite of the vacuous symbolism they were meant to hold/machinate, they became their own dark organism in this space, glimmering with agency, possibility. **