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Terre Thaemlitz: “Change Does Not Equate With ‘Progress'” (Part 1)

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Klickt hier für die deutsche Version des Interviews.

Terre Thaemlitz is best known as DJ Sprinkles within the world of electronic dance music, but the Comatonse Recordings owner has also always been active in the world of (audio-)visual art. The recent Reframed Positions project included a screening of 2017’s multi-media piece Deproduction and a discussion between Thaemlitz and Room40 founder Lawrence English in Berlin as well as a DJ set at Panorama Bar, but also an exhibition at Lüneburg’s Halle für Kunst between May and mid-July that features works from more than three decades of activity.

In the first part of this in-depth interview following up on the exhibition with Kristoffer Cornils, Thaemlitz reflects on the pandemic, the economics of club culture, and what the oldest piece in the Reframed Positions exhibition represents today.

How have you experienced the pandemic so far? It seemed surprising that you have not engaged with it in your work since it touches upon a lot of themes that you have addressed.

I haven’t produced any new work in that entire period and instead used the time off from touring to put together various CD reissues and compilations for Comatonse Recordings, each of which involved a lot of assembling that I do on my own. As someone who never enjoys traveling, I have to say I was happy to just stay around my home. I began traveling again starting with a DJ gig in New York last October, but I have decided to quit doing multi-show tours. Instead, I will just do one-off shows, somewhere between two and five per year.

Of course, just as I decide to make this change, it seems a lot of EU organizers are now refusing to book people for one-off shows and requiring multiple shows as an “ecological” thing. Ironically, that means organizers actually want me to do more travel, just so that they can divide the total “carbon footprint” of all combined flights between all the shows on a multi-stop tour. While that division of mileage would look good on paper, in reality it means adding more intra-EU flights for me. It seems like a new and inflexible EU-style eco bureaucracy that is about numbers, not actual pollution. I’ve already had an offer from a gallery in France rescinded over this. I got the impression they were working within an annual carbon goal and preferred to save the air miles for someone of a higher level than me.

It may take another year or two before I understand how to perform and travel less in an “eco” music industry that is always demanding more performance labor and more travel—just like labels demand more bonus tracks, etc. This kind of hypocrisy is typical of today’s bureaucratic moment, which is all about capitalist virtue signaling. The whole carbon footprint thing was developed by global polluter BP to cover their evil ass, just like BlackRock twisted black woke culture into DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, editor’s note] and ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] to keep everyone preoccupied with corporate culture identity bullshit while they continue raping the planet.

But I suppose the broader and perhaps more interesting answer to your question has to do with how the pandemic has been one of those events of such massive scale and misinformation that I felt the need to just pause. The alternative would have been to speak too soon and look like [US-American linguist and political theorist] Noam Chomsky. Do you remember when he was giving interviews advocating for people without vaccinations to be rounded up and separated from the vaccinated? When he was asked about how they would get food, he said it would be “their problem”! It was a super sad instance of fear-driven propaganda, ironically coming from the person who wrote Manufacturing Consent. I didn’t want to run my mouth just to end up looking like that. (laughs)

How do you feel about the past three and a half years nowadays?

As things started closing down at the start of 2020, all I knew was how history has proven time and time again that capitalism, major industries, governments and the global elite couldn’t give a fuck about the health and safety of workers or the public in general. It was difficult to piece together what was unfolding at the start, with all of the massive closures and lockdowns being presented as solely for our safety. There was also this insane ideological inversion happening where phrases like “follow the science” were used to shut down scientific inquiries about the efficacy of draconian policies being put into place—all the while US hospitals were firing hundreds of thousands of medical staff. The ways in which publicly funded research was exploited for financial gain with little regard for long-term health issues was of a scale that blows away the kinds of corporate issues activists were facing around HIV treatments in the 1980s. How can anyone process all these things in real-time?

“We must grasp that hypocrisy is unavoidable and stop invoking morality or ethics as the justification for our actions.”

But there were strange moments of clarity. I distinctly recall one time when Trump was blaming “Chai-na” for the virus, and China officially responded that the virus was made by the US. I remember thinking that if China is formally blaming the US instead of sticking to the wet market theory, it seems likely that the combined propagandistic finger-pointing of both countries confirms a reality that falls in the middle: a leak from a lab in Wuhan that has been doing gain-of-function research funded by the US. Today, this is the most viable and scientific explanation for what happened. But even that remains taboo to say in certain circles, right?

I have the impression that there are still a lot of on-going debates within the scientific field about a variety of possibilities, however on a social level the public discussion around these and other politicised topics has become notably more tense.

I doubt that the cultural indoctrinations we have all undertaken will ever be unpacked. They are already normalized. And it has all happened incredibly rapidly. We are still in a moment where just saying the things I have said here could have me branded as a “right-wing conspiracy theorist,” which is a ridiculous thing that is repeatedly thrown at any leftist who deviates from dominant narratives. Everything sounds conspiratorial because there were, in fact, many conspiracies deployed upon us.

As an audio and media producer, all of this throws traditional models of audience, let alone political alliances, out the window. It is a truly queered moment of closets and withholding, while the heteronormative world—including mainstream LGBT—plows forward with ever strict demands for conformity to its moral codes. Codes that uphold all this insanity. This is why, for me, queer issues are always in critical inquiry of the construction and function of morality, not an embrace of morals.

This brings us back to your previous point. When promoters try to put the onus of touring ecologically on you, that makes it an individualised moral issue. However, if they’re so concerned about their or your carbon footprint, they could just book someone local. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to tell people to stop booking you! (laughs) But why even are we flying people around the world to, well, it’s about selling booze in the end, isn’t it? It would be bad for business to openly have this conversation, however isn’t that proof that this business is … bad?

I’m pretty sure I can destroy my own ability to get bookings. (laughs) I mean, for sure, music performance industries are precisely that: industries. Their roles in cultural production—which are generally valorized by participants, while simultaneously demonized by conservatives and policy makers responsible for things like permits—are inseparable from the problems of industry. And yet, quite a few EU venues get financial support from local or federal government culture funds. So there’s that tie to government corruption. Venues can also be entwined with organized crime, which is not only about drugs but real estate, construction, permits, etc. Then there are loudspeaker and equipment rental companies, audio technology companies, soundproofing technologies. So it’s an oversimplification to say it’s just about booze. There are a lot of economies knotted together: commercial, tax-based and shady. And when you have that many people making money off something, it is generally indicative of something bigger going on culturally.

And what would that be?

It all relates to clubs being what Michel Foucault referred to as “heterotopias,” or culturally sanctioned spaces of social rupture or departure from the norm. While a lot of people are quickly seduced by heterotopic time’s illusion of radical departure—imagine people who think attending Burning Man is a radical act of political and social transformation!—heterotopic events are actually strategic components of dominant heteronormativity that “refresh” us just enough to come back and subject ourselves to more “normalcy.” I termed this inevitable transition back to norms as “homotopic”—not in relation to anything queer, but “homo-” as a return to the “same”. Foucault’s use of “hetero-” is about the “other,” and not related to heterosexuality. This is why conservative culture has a vested interest in retaining counter-cultural sites, and complaining about them is part of what constitutes those sites’ heterotopic value. So the economics around clubs is deeper than one particular industry or product.

Simultaneously on the cultural level—and not to suggest people should book me—in addition to supporting local scenes, there can be value in bringing in people from afar and exposing people to different things. Otherwise, I mean, you are German, so you don’t need me to tell you what it would structurally mean to locally centralize cultures through an active exclusion of outside influences. Club music in particular strikes me as a particularly complex mish-mash of global influences that can’t be untangled, despite the constant claims to authenticity. But of course, bringing people long distances is generally only possible for venues with larger budgets. So we also have to be conscious of the multiple economic and cultural tiers that clubs operate on, otherwise people are too quick to generalize what is “good” or “bad” for clubs, as if they are all just one thing. They definitely are not.

I think we would agree that it is vital to publicly analyze and discuss problems in these industries. But I would avoid terms like “good” or “bad,” precisely because the moral judgment they imply will generally be used to enable more problematic shit. It will generally reflect what is “good” for the mega clubs, while generally relegating small and underground venues to “bad” culture. That was the result of all the legal actions around Japan’s fuueiho morality code and anti-dance restrictions in recent years. I doubt people remember, but in 2015 major Japanese techno and mainstream DJs all united to sign a “Declaration on the Future of Japan’s Club Culture,” in which they literally apologized to the police and elected officials for “causing trouble” over the years, declaring their promise to dedicate themselves to growing Japan’s economy—insane neocon bullshit. Big clubs were empowered and restrictions on small venues remain in place, along with absolutely no attempts to help sex workers and other people most directly affected by the morality codes.

“Imagine people who think attending Burning Man is a radical act of political and social transformation!”

How can these traps be avoided, then?

We have to learn to have more complex relationships to hypocrisy on political and organization levels. We must grasp that hypocrisy is unavoidable and stop invoking morality or ethics as the justification for our actions. The latter is how we ended up in Japan with businessmen fighting for their “right to dance” by pointing out they are upright citizens who just want to have fun—”nothing to do with those perverts and sex workers and criminals.” Feigning to act on a level devoid of hypocrisy just ensures things never change, or even get worse, because it ensures we never actually engage on a structural level with the social mechanisms at the core of our struggles—the mechanisms that actually guide the cultural construction of any given society’s morality, and the policing of bodies.

The current cultural ideals of overcoming hypocrisy, and the false promises of any society operating transparently, is precisely what leads to corporate cons like ESG and DEI culture. Our willingness to be sold those strategies, internalize them, and perform them ourselves out of a delusional sense of self-manifestation, is a huge indicator that we have already lost the battles we think we are fighting today.

These are processes you have addressed in your work, which brings us to the Reframed Positions retrospective at Halle für Kunst in Lüneburg between May and July this year. It followed up on a series of archival releases and compilations of your music. What is your curatorial approach when putting these compilations or this new exhibition together?

Well, with regard to the Comatonse CD editions in recent years, there was little “curation” involved because I did my best to make them as completist as possible. For example, DJ Sprinkles’ Gayest Tits & Greyest Shits compiles all tracks I have released as DJ Sprinkles in any format, beyond Midtown 120 Blues, which is still available.

The Mark Fell collaborations on Incomplete Insight were probably the most interesting to put together, because it is a rare instance of me including a lot of unreleased material. I generally only produce things for release, and never have extra stuff lying around. But in this case, Mark and I pulled out the old sequencer files from the first EP sessions and we really liked a lot of the rough sketches and in-process versions. In fact, “Incomplete Spiral 4” is the version I really wanted to release on the original vinyl EP, but I was shot down by both Mark and the Japanese distributor I worked with at the time, so it was nice to revisit that track and find my opinion had not changed over the years. (laughs) That fourth draft edit is the version I play when DJing today, much more often than the later version released on the first EP.

The Reframed Positions exhibition was curated by Lawrence English of Room40. I was involved in that process, but it would not have happened without his efforts, and I think that is expressed in the selection of works which was even broader and occupied much more physical space in the first iteration at the SubStation in Melbourne.

It features one of your earliest works, a 1987 untitled minimalist painting consisting of nine rectangles, reminiscent of a keyboard. What does this piece represent in your biography as an artist?

It’s actually a triptych of three squares, each divided into thirds. As obvious as it sounds when you say it, I hadn’t ever made the visual connection to a keyboard. (laughs) I guess because it was done before I ever owned a synth. I was just nineteen and studying under Stuart Diamond, who was a guest professor at Cooper Union that year. In those days he was part of the Lower East Side “Postmodern” scene and pretty much the only person encouraging my interest in minimalism.

Other professors were literally forcing me to do all kinds of structural and representative drawings to prove my rendering skills before allowing me to start doing minimalist things. It was weird. Art school is weird. And I get what they wanted from me, and why. It’s a catch-22, because I have also done guest professor studio visits at EU art schools where there seems to be almost zero emphasis on formalist technique, and total emphasis on thematics—which is not for everyone, just in the same way my interest in Marxist-inspired minimalism was not for everyone where I studied.

Replicas Rubato (1997) by Terre Thaemlitz
Replicas Rubato (1997) by Terre Thaemlitz

I once met with an EU student who was really struggling with his drawing skills, maybe in his third year. It was clear that he just wanted to draw well, so rather than shit all over his stuff for not being thematically interesting to me, I decided to go into super-drawing-nerd mode and shit all over his drawing technique instead. (laughs) I did it in a tough love kind of way, just being totally honest about his poor line quality, choppy hand motions, and things like that. He actually said I was the first person to give him technical advice related to drawing.

But yeah, most EU art on the level I encounter through my work is seriously lacking in production quality. And also in ideas, honestly. I mean, how counter-cultural can analyses be when the analytical methodologies themselves come from institutions funded by the social and governmental structures under critique? Then again, places like the US and Japan have no such cultural support, and they also churn out vapid corporate shit by the ton, so yeah, regardless of where we are from, all art schools are fucking bullshit. I’m so glad I left that world. Music is also bullshit, obviously. (laughs)

I guess for me the painting in Reframed Positions represents an abandoned path, perhaps executed just well enough to suggest that, yeah, actually my career could have all gone that direction instead. A direction that likely would have made my entire catalog today, and all of its underlying analytical strategies, an impossibility.

The second part of our interview with Terre Thaemlitz will be published on November 14.

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