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Terre Thaemlitz: “Change Does Not Equate With ‘Progress'” (Part 2)

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Klicke auf diesen Link für die deutsche Version.

Hit this link to read the first part of the interview.

In part two of her in-depth interview with Kristoffer Cornils, Terre Thaemlitz discusses a variety of subjects connected to works that were on display this summer as part of the Reframed Positions exhibition at the Halle für Kunst in Lüneburg. Furthermore, he also talks about DJing and the ambivalent legacy of 120 Midtown Blues, the path-breaking DJ Sprinkles album that was released 15 years ago in October 2008.

As the title of the Reframed Positions exhibition at Lüneburg’s Halle für Kunst already implies, it is possible to revisit the pieces in very different contexts. Interstices for example, an audio-visual piece that deals with “corrective” surgery performed on intersexual people, feels very topical considering the recent debates about gender transition and so-called anti-trans laws in the US. You have generally been critical about medical procedures, whether they are forced on people or performed according to their own wishes. Do you see a link between the piece and current developments?

Yes, I am concerned about people’s growing reliance upon medical interventions, and I remain critical of the abusive histories behind medical industries seeking to culturally reconcile people’s gender or sexual variances with dominant norms. Those histories of sexual and gender medical interventions are more interconnected than many people in the West like to think. And despite people in many countries now seeing attempts to “cure” homosexuality as cruel and misguided (a notion I also agree with, of course), those practices continue to be entwined with gender reconciliation therapies in many cultures around the world. I suspect this will always be a global issue because on a dominant cultural level our understandings of both the sexual binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and the gender binary of masculine and feminine, are framed by social systems that rely upon the mass internalization and naturalization of exclusionary binaries in order to function (typically patriarchy, but also its corollary matriarchy).

By definition, the hetero-/homosexual binary around which so much legal regulation of family structures and sexuality revolves only makes sense in a world where a person is able to identify one’s gender opposite, thus restricting their sexual object choices to the two mutually exclusive categories of male and female. Meanwhile, intersexuality and non-reconciliatory forms of transgenderism throw both gender and sexual binaries into question on a socio-material level. Over the course of transsexuality’s short history, it has quickly come to overshadow all other forms of transgenderism precisely because it is the form of transgenderism that is most invested in reconciliation with the gender binary, both culturally and financially. On a structural level it actually poses the least threat to existing social systems.

Medical investment firms are actively involved in the cultivation of these global markets as well, which often means prioritizing profits. I was looking at some statistics from a Western medical marketing firm that expected the economics around transitioning therapies to expand five- or six-fold between 2019 and 2025. That means an industry that took sixty years to grow to where it was in 2019 was anticipated to duplicate that sixty-year growth each year for the next six years. That kind of economic explosion is alarming. So I’m afraid there will always be many things to be concerned about.

To be clear, on the individual level I am not interested in interfering with peoples’ decisions, nor obstructing medical access. But as always, I am concerned about the ways in which information is controlled, which directly correlates with our decision-making abilities. In the past, it has generally been a problem of non-trans medical professionals controlling information and access. Historically, that was the “anti-trans” bias of the medical industry, and skepticism among trans people about the practices of medical industries was commonplace. Today, amidst the economic expansion of these industries, we suddenly find ourselves in a cultural moment where any expression of concern about medical malfeasance is reflexively reframed by mainstream LGBT cultures as endorsing “anti-trans talking points.” This also has a detrimental impact on what kinds of information are available to people in our decision-making processes. If trans people are only able to access pro-transitioning information from mainstream trans sources, and all criticism is framed by those same sources as anti-trans (even when being spoken by other trans people), then that certainly is a PR coupe for the medical industries—intentional or not. And the result is heightened risks for people making decisions based on limited and market-biased information.

This topic actually played out through a recent review of Reframed Positions published in the German art journal Texte zur Kunst. The author reprimanded the various curators involved for not “intervening” in a discussion between myself and head curator Lawrence English, in which we got on the topic of how children experiencing gender crises are more likely to be given hormone blockers than feminist social tools to help cope with the discomforts of gender variance within a binary system. They were essentially calling for my censorship. It was a shocking testament to the difficulties of discussing these issues, even when speaking as someone who has been openly trans for decades. I did respond to them with a letter to the editor that has also been published on my website, which goes into considerable detail about where I think we are culturally at right now with regard to dominant LGBT censorship around our ability to discuss such issues.

Amidst this current medical marketing and informational chaos, what we now face is a sudden ramp-up in transitioning procedures without adequate education and cultural grounding. I believe this is a large part of what has triggered the conservative, reactionary backlash we now face. It is a political nightmare for anyone concerned about the medical industry, because the discourse is shut down by both “anti-trans” conservatives and the LGBT mainstream. It is a sad irony that, in their fear of the far-right, dominant LGBT liberals have taken over the role of morality policing traditionally enacted by the far-right, in effect administrating on behalf of the right. I think a meaningful social resistance to recent political efforts to restrict and re-criminalize us would involve us—people personally connected to trans issues—being capable of more openly addressing the various problems related to these issues amongst ourselves, as well as with the public at large. Not shutting each other down.

Terre Thaemlitz - Deproduction (2017) by Terre Thaemlitz
Terre Thaemlitz – Deproduction (2017)

Another work that is somewhat related to these issues is Deproduction, which was also featured in the exhibition and shown at Callie’s in Berlin. In a discussion with Lawrence English in Berlin, you said that you haven’t received many negative responses to its core themes. Why do you think that was?

Hmm, I’m sorry, I don’t have a clear memory of saying that sort of thing. Maybe at one point I was reacting to his suggestion that the project is more provocative than it actually is, and I was saying that on a practical level I did not ever receive any strong reactions against it? Like, I have a vague recollection of talking about how Deproduction is kind of lame, and if it appears to be somehow radical, that is more of a sign of how lame everything else around it is rather than proof of the project being particularly challenging? Does that sound like what you are talking about?

That’s certainly something you have said. Generally, art which aims to be provocative can enter an echo chamber: People just nod in agreement because it is preaching to the converted or they do not really engage with it in the first place. Is that something about which you are concerned when presenting your work?

Yes, it is both a concern and a presumed unavoidability. Particularly within the visual arts, there is a tendency to mistake a piece of “political art” for actual political organizing. In fact, a piece of art or music or whatever other media is simply the presentation of an analysis. It is a thesis, of sorts. Similarly, the act of experiencing such a piece is often mistaken for an act of political action. Think how many people consider themselves “political” simply because they attend edgy art shows or music festival with a social theme!

I understand that I am presenting the audience with an analysis. I understand most will fail to see it as an analysis, which means they will fail to understand its potential for informing actual social organizing that they may participate in—most likely elsewhere. The language you used, which is completely normal language, about “engaging” with the work reveals the problem at issue. It is not a question of engaging with a work in that space—which is already culturally and socially compromised, be it a gallery, museum, concert hall, club, store, cinema, whatever. It is a question of whether or not it is even possible to apply the analysis elsewhere.

A work’s potential social applications are where I locate its potential cultural and social use value, if any. It’s not much.

DJing can be considered a form of social application of art. You played at Panorama Bar as part of Reframed Positions and after an hour put on beatless music for a long stretch of time after a bit more than an hour. This is not the first time I’ve seen you do this in that place. What are your intentions for doing that in this specific context?

Just a little romantic music for the people having sex in the club. (laughs)

I very vividly remember you playing the Nina Simone rendition of “Sinnerman” in its entirety the last time I saw you there. That is hardly a sexy tune, or is it? After all, people don’t only come there to fuck, but also to dance. The music you played seemed almost like a comment on certain expectations or norms within club settings—on what counts as “danceable” in there.

Hmm, not being able to dance to “Sinnerman” sounds like a German problem. (laughs) People go nuts on the dancefloor with that track here in Japan. I mean, I remember you guys couldn’t dance to anything but stompy four-four techno until 2008 or so. My house sets in Germany before then were met with total hostility, people standing in front of the DJ booth with angry faces, staring me right in my eyes, frantically raising both arms up and down to say, “faster, faster, you fucking idiot!” You’ve come a long way. (laughs)

Midtown 120 Blues‘ critical finger is pointed first and foremost at myself as a producer back in 2008.”

For me, “sexy music” is not only about sounds that conform to some established norms about romance. Back in 1994, the second release on Comatonse was Anti-Instrumentations by Erik Dahl. He was the person who first ported C-Sound to the PowerPC platform, and it was a vinyl EP of the first three electroacoustic compositions he made with that software. It was super abstract digital synthesis stuff combined with moments of massive drones, certainly not what anyone would consider conventionally “sexy.” And yet, when Erik gave his cousin a copy of the EP, we couldn’t have been happier when he came back the next day talking about how his girlfriend came over and they fucked to it. (laughs)

Midtown 120 Blues, which turns 15 years old this year, is still one of your most popular works and often cited as one of the best electronic music albums ever made. It seems somewhat ambivalent that a record so dedicated to minor positions has become canonised. How do you feel about that?

In terms of public reception, I think there is still some confusion about the intended messages of the album. I think it partly stems from an uncritical internalization of dominant messages around music’s relationship to identity politics—notably, that it is somehow a “one-to-one” relationship. It’s clearly not. But how many times have I had people introduce themselves to me as “straight white cis men,” then go on to say they don’t know if they are “allowed” to tell me they enjoy the album because their identity doesn’t match the themes it discusses? It freaks me out to think that level of essentialist territorialism—which is completely antithetical to my own beliefs—is an active part of how the album has come to culturally function.

Besides, as a fag who grew up with closets, I am always aware that I don’t know who someone is fucking behind closed doors, or in the parks. So if someone comes at me with this strong “I’m a straight white cis man, trust me” stuff, there’s always the possibility that the lady doth protest too much, methinks. (laughs) Also, few people seem to get that the album’s critical finger is pointed first and foremost at myself as a producer back in 2008, releasing the album on Mule Musiq, which was part of that whole EU house gentrification movement. I mean, listen to the remixes they put out for the original release—they’re all techno. I can’t play any of them in my sets, except the Motor City Drum Ensemble remix.

So, like most of my projects, it’s intended as a literal demonstration of the problematic issues at hand—not a proposed solution to the problems I am identifying.

It is a gesture of what could be called radical or critical nostalgia, questioning the narratives and origin myths of house music. Since its release, the discussion around dance music has apparently changed: its genesis in precarious contexts shaped by queer people as well as people of colour is being more heavily emphasised. How have you perceived this shift in discourse?

Midtown 120 Blues is certainly critical of the construction and cultural functions of nostalgia. I don’t know if I agree that the dominant discourse has really shifted, though. I was talking about the same things when Midtown 120 Blues came out, and Routes Not Roots before that, and Bassline.89 before that, and Sloppy 42nds before that, and, and.

On the dominant cultural level, the political issues never really change, in part because the struggles are insurmountable. But dominant culture likes to “reintroduce” things on a ten- to twenty-year cycle. And that seems strategically related to generational flow and keeping that flow politically unstable by grounding culture in the cult of youth. In youth, we have a tendency to confuse our first experience encountering something for that thing’s discovery. So the discourse young people generate around that thing is usually filled with an urgency that asks, “Why haven’t you old fucks all been talking about and dealing with this shit already?” In fact, people have been talking about it—and organizing around it—all along. But the reality of endless struggle is typically rendered unrecognizable by dominant cultural strategies that preach teleology, and the suggestion that humanity outgrows crises. Growth, or hope in humanity, becomes the promise of a better tomorrow. But it’s a ruse, of course.

As cultures loop and loop on a topic for generations like a tape loop, the historical echoes of struggle degrade and distort over time into something different, introducing new forms of alienation, but never accomplishing the desired goal for connection to that fantasized original object in the recording, i.e., the potential for achieving political resolution. This kind of looping and emphasis on youth culture’s “potential” is strategic to the preservation and expansion of power. Not to its downfall. It renders intergenerational struggle inconceivable to most.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying things never change. They do. The pandemic is a case in point of rapid and massive global changes. I’m just saying, change does not equate with “progress.” The language of progress and hope is invariably a smoke screen to distract us from abuses and get us to go along with them. This is as much a problem in socially minor and culturally critical circles as in dominant circles. Particularly when most peoples’ understanding of the minor is taught to them in major educational institutions or from social media. What a shit-show. Then we’ve got ol’ Chomsky manufacturing consent for fear mongering, making the old guard look not very mature or helpful, either.

Well then, what is to be done?

I’m a nihilist, and I don’t think there is a way out of these cultural shifts on the dominant level. But just in terms of thinking through ways to survive, resist and function on culturally minor levels, I think it’s useful to stop making social struggles about types of people. Understand identities are not who we are as people but are political sites consisting of grounded relationships to systems of power within which people operate. Keep focused on the material issues, and not the ethical quests. Keep focused on the material issues that ethics are constructed through and serve. That means being willing to change our ethos, much as good scientists modify their beliefs when confronted with unexpected or contrary data.

In my view, an emphasis on materialism is the only way to make discussions of things like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., have a functional political use value. Otherwise, we’re just talking about how all the various forms of discrimination around those things make us feel, as part of a quest to feel better. It’s not about transforming feelings. If anything, it’s about reducing violence within a world that makes it near impossible to engage with, let alone transform, the biased social structures we are forced to inhabit.

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