After my conversation with artist, DJ and musician Terre Thaemlitz took place, we returned to Auto Italia, where Thaemlitz has a solo exhibition which is running October 3 to December 3. I had insisted upon conducting this interview in person as a nod to Interstices, the title of the show and a word meaning the space between things. I’ve always been obsessed with how conversation teeters and returns, the way that people pause in conversation to allow for intervention to happen, for others to interrupt or clarify. Context and nuance are everything in the unspooling of a thought over time. And how the removal of certain acts of conversational gap-filling leaves one with unease; how much the work of softening the interstices in communication is gendered, how much is culturally expected.
The way that music can have ambient or jarring qualities is the same way that visual information can be received. One can be lulled into the experience of ‘looking at art,’ ‘watching porn,’ or ‘listening to music’ without realising that something is off until already wading in uncertain waters. Being walked, a little way, into taking in information that feels threatening to you. Thaemlitz’s in-person affect was hard to explain to those who, like me, had been intrigued by her performance at Cafe Oto the previous night. A lack of excess, sense of vigilance to the demands of the moment, and a refusal to slip into social habit or convention without questioning its foundation may not be an ‘authentic’ self, but they chime with the political concerns of his work.
I was curious about how it functions to be onstage looking back at an audience watching your work, with all their reactions writ large. Particularly with ‘Deproduction’, a fairly intense experience of art-viewing even if you begin in agreement with the central tenet of the work: that democracy cannot exist while the family exists. Thaemlitz explains that it’s also her reaction to the conventional male-to-female drag show, replete with extravagance and loud performativity. Another factor was the audio, often made well in advance of their accompanying video works, which use techniques as a response to ‘things that were going on with real-time signal processing that were steering digital synthesis towards the kind of live stage paradigm.’ Despite being uninterested in performing, both in their work as a DJ and musician as well as in the constantly multiplying public panels, Q&A sessions, talks, interviews, and lectures that accompany being a cultural worker, Thaemlitz participates in these performative structures only to the extent that is required for the maintenance of life, while continuing to critique and make public that reluctance.
As I was transcribing our conversation, I came across a line by deadpan Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy, “Families are so strong. They have all of advertising on their side. But a person alone is nothing but a shipwreck. First they cast it adrift, then they let it sink.” Thaemlitz’s body of work suggests that sinking should only be considered one option of many.
** Last night I saw ‘Deproduction’ and you’ll be showing works again at Cafe Oto tonight as well. In terms of the screening format, where people are either watching a twenty-minute video in a gallery, or watching you onstage next to it, is there a difference in the reception? The scrolling text is difficult to follow because of the speed, which creates a sense of urgency.
T: Well, when I make the pieces – including ‘Interstices,’ ‘Lovebomb,’ ‘Soulnessless’, and ‘Deproduction’ – they are intended to function in two distinct ways. The main way is as something that you would purchase and watch at home. My approach towards video work, and writing as well, is about anticipating it as something that is intended to be revisited. Of course, in a live performance setting, that revisiting is not allowed. It’s a one pass deal. Still, the themes that are being discussed are bigger than a sixty minute time slot.
The pressure you were talking about – feeling incompleteness or that you’ve missed things – is an admission that the conversation is ongoing, or that it hasn’t even begun. At the same time, it’s also trying to get away from the standard musical performance scenario of delivering feelings of fulfilment and communion – the audience having communion with each other, and communion with the musicians onstage, blah blah. My performances are a critical rejection of that, so instead of people feeling connected together, I set them up so that by the end they are aware they didn’t get it all. Also, what the person next to them got could be totally different from the parts that they caught. That social disjuncture, for me, is more realistic and honest than the kind of fake communion that people would normally have at a concert, where they leave agreeing.
** ‘I got everything! We all got it, we were there together!’
T: (laughs) That’s a kind of bullshit thing. So then to start from that more realistic and honest moment of disconnection, the question becomes: is it actually possible to have a kind of social dialogue or conversation that we all hypothesise has happened at the end of a happy rock concert or something? So that’s why I follow performances with Q&A, begging the question of dialogue, as a performance of the fallacy of what music performance usually is.
** It feels like a trojan horse, in a way, to sit people down thinking ‘we’re here to be entertained by this music personality,’ and have them then stuck in a position of being forced to sit with the ideas that you put forth…
T: Yes, and denying performativity. I definitely see it as tape-based work. You hit the play button. It’s part of that legacy of musique concrete, tape-based audio. On the one hand, that’s a broader rejection of the conventional stage paradigm, and on the other hand, as a trans person it’s an attempt to re-think the transgendered stage. As a trans person the idea of sitting still for an hour or two onstage before people is my rejection of the typical transgendered stage.
** How does the onslaught of text-based information you present undo the resistant mechanism that an audience may have? If you’re reading something at your own speed you can critique it in the moment, question certain ideas being put forth – but in this captive audience scenario that you’ve provoked you’ve undone some of that resistance, or some of that capacity for critique, in the urgency of following words down a screen moving away from you.
T: Yeah, and if you do pause to reflect, you’ll miss the next thing. But for the premiere of ‘Deproduction’ in Greece and Germany we distributed printed versions in translation.
** Translation is never direct, is it, it’s totally mediated. It’s even more difficult to translate work that has a particular tone, maybe irony or humour.
T: Or that has ideas that people are generally not exposed to.
** I wanted to then talk a bit more about that idea of translation, thinking about why all the visual source material you use in ‘Deproduction’ is Japanese porn, specifically incest porn and gay porn. Do you take the local context into account when you’re asked to be present in another place?
T: I know that while I’m producing the works in Japan, I’m also going to be presenting them in Europe, to a primarily white audience, and a hefty chunk of them are usually going to be straight people. Open-minded, maybe, but I did have this feeling last night – there were definitely a lot of straight couples, on dates…
** It’s so funny that that’s the date they were on, the total destruction of the family and heteronormativity and reproduction. I hope they went home and looked at each other like, fuck…
T: I like to imagine them going home and fucking with all that shit in their head!
T: …I approach the representation of issues of race as something that, like gender and sexuality, is always going to be problematic given the power dynamics of the cultures around us. That also makes the problems contextual. When presenting the project in Japan, the problematics that arise have to do with all of the Japanese incest porn images revolving around a nuclear model of the family that is symptomatic of Western globalization. Then the gay porn, which was of a group of gay Japanese thugs raping a salaryman on the train during his commute, is also about the idea of homosexuality threatening the proper capitalist worker. Both of these strains in Japanese porn, even in Japan, are symptomatic of globalization. So, these dynamics, for me, are really integral to the broader themes of the piece, and then become strategic, as points of critical engagement with those media. But outside Japan, and particularly in Europe, these non-western representations of a western family model get positioned in relation to western assumptions about race, colonialism, orientalism, etc.
** I was thinking about the idea of watching porn collectively in a non-private situation. Something that you mentioned last night was about sex education being a general term for what is needed to take in these understandings of power, hierarchies, bodies, and the movements between those. How porn works as a pedagogical tool for many people, and I would say especially queer people, whose sex practices are not represented – even in a truncated way, the way heterosexual sex is – in mainstream media.
T: Yeah. I would consider last night quite a tame performance, which was reshot and filtered Japanese porn imagery, shown in an environment where people would not feel safe to masturbate even if they wanted to. This was clear. It would be quite a different performance if it was in a space where people felt free to masturbate, or have sexual exchanges. What would it mean to do that amidst this heavy text, or to have the option of ignoring or momentarily stepping out of the text in order to be physical with someone? There is an impossibility of sexual expression within the framework of these ‘artistic’; or ’cultural’ frameworks where these themes are supposedly able to be discussed openly. It becomes a gesture of the pornographic, as opposed to ‘the pornographic,’ and for me, that’s a capitulation. It’s not like i was trying to do something cool by showing some porn to stir stuff up, it’s more the opposite: look how quickly this porn is divested of its erotic power. ‘Interstices’ does that as well. ‘Interstices’ is all drawn from trans porn.
** Yeah, but I would say ‘Deproduction’ is even more removed, more abstracted, so it becomes even less sexualised. What is the process of decision making there, to take another step back from how that could be functioning?
T: The way that it’s been re-shot through a fractured lens so that the images are as if through a kaleidoscope is meant to invoke a kind of sentimentality that is more romantic than sexual, which is about sentimentality around the family. There’s this tripling of images. For me, this is a metaphor for getting away from singularity. Making it soft, playing on sentimentality at the same time the text is critiquing family.
** It also does something to queer the image; instead of having this heterosexual scene, you suddenly have three cocks not connected to any body, and a hole that is not gendered, and you have hands here and there, coming out of unplaceable flesh, this kind of beast.
T: It becomes monstrous. It is a queering of images, but I didn’t want it to be a queering that passed as liberating.
** What was said about body modification? I read it as referring to hormones being self-administered without medical supervision, sometimes due to the difficulty in obtaining them through the long process of the gender clinic, or because of someone’s refusal to pass through those processes, having to lie every step of the way in order to be ‘certified.’
T: Like the Preciado paradigm. So I discuss the emergence of that, how the counterculture of trans self-medicating appears to be a kind of ‘good’ response to the bureaucracy of formal conventional transsexual transitioning therapies, and of course there are approaches towards the plasticity of the body that are not so rooted in essentialisms. But what I talk about in ‘Deproduction’ is that you quickly find these gender subcultures and countercultures are also oftentimes tied into seeing it just about body modification on the level of tattoos and piercings. Which, in itself, isn’t the problem, but the problem is that most of these movements are also connected to certain mythologies of the clan or the tribe. It reflects, on the subcultural level, our internalisation of the larger mainstream emphasis on the need to reinscribe the family as the site for social services. I mean, as these mainstream democracies destroy more open, non family-based social services, right?
** This rhetoric of queers choosing their own families, because families are so important that they need to be reinscribed, even if their traditional family has disowned them.
T: Yes, so many of our queer subcultures and queer communities are grounded around the very formulas through which we’ve been traumatised. Part of that, of course, is about the fantasy of finding the fulfilment that was denied us by being disowned – not only by family, but also by governments and nations. This is why we have, for example, in the world of house music, ‘House Nation.’ This idea of the nation coming up in the same way that family comes up. Because these are the sites of our abandonment, the sites of trauma. So, for me, I think it’s important to identify how our countercultures remain enslaved to the family, clannism, nationalism, and reflect this internalisation of the larger pro-family bullshit we wish to depart from.
** Something else that you mentioned earlier was this notion of remaining in the minor, of not making work that should be understood by most people. And with that, the refusal of this flattening of complexity. Saying, this is for a specific audience with a specific set of experiences, while also not agreeing that because we’re a queer community we share a certain set of experiences or political beliefs.
T: I very much take into a project’s formulation the idea that people live through closets. So even if an audience appears very straight, that doesn’t mean that the only people who will ‘get it’ will be the more overt fags. There are people in closets and we’re all in and out, dealing with stuff. Something could resonate even more deeply for someone who identifies as straight than for someone who doesn’t. Maybe to put it in easier terms, thinking mathematically, pop culture is addition and subtraction – the idea that one plus one equals two, and reducing everything to that level. But we also know, with mathematics, that there are times when you really must speak through calculus. It’s likely only going to be legible to the people who have studied calculus and have adapted that language. And when I say “studied,” in reference to queer experience that would be more experiential and not academic. Tools for survival. In presenting these projects involving “calculus” to a broader audience that’s not ‘for queers only’ – there’s no door policy on my events – that means they get received differently, and just letting that happen. Letting them be lost for a moment. It’s ok! Letting them also be exposed, so if they feel triggered to focus enough to pick up something new, then that’s a possibility. Part of that process of flattening complexity you talked about is about conforming to mainstream ideas of ‘Pride’ and visibility – the idea that visibility always equals power, and closets, silence, and secrecy always equal shame and death. This formula – this didactic polarity – doesn’t reflect the histories of closets and secrecy as means to self-defence that facilitated our histories and our survival amidst dominant heterosexism.
** And perhaps in some cases even allowed for more ‘freedom’ outside of a policy of assimilation and visibility at all costs?
T: Yes, so I produce for a mixed model of audience that incorporates the reality of those who may be closeted, and others who are not even seeking resolution. But I would say ‘mobility,’ not ‘freedom,’ because freedom is a word that I don’t really like. It’s a bit too Utopian. Some years ago I started being increasingly non-cooperative when it comes to recording and archiving. For example, not letting people film the events, as a reaction against this queer archival moment. Not because I think that this strategy that I have is the ‘right way,’ but, in this current moment where strategies of silence have, in a way, become taboo, what does it mean to allow myself to work through and experience silence and withholding in public? Within a public that is demanding recording? So it’s more about me trying to learn for myself what it means to withhold. So far, no regrets!
** Maybe then to continue with that idea of legibility, or refusal of legibility, how does that work with various stage presences or names? Is that connected to that refusal, or is it more about creating a separation between strands of work?
T: No, it is a kind of refusal. I would say because of this strategy of simultaneity, I think that there’s more legibility than most people have in their work. What I would say about the legibility and accessibility thing is that there’s a difference between your standard illegibility resulting from being artistically vague, and illegibility actively arising as a result of a producer putting a lot of effort into trying to communicate things that may be incomplete, contradictory and even hypocritical – things that are inherently ‘illegible.’ I think that that’s different from being in a high tower, or trying to do stuff that’s just dramatically or theatrically meant to exclude for no purpose other than artistic affect. If my projects enact exclusions, I think I make a best effort to contextualize those exclusions as they happen in relation to larger social dynamics.**