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Terre Thaemlitz

Monheim Papers The Processes of Unbecoming by Yuko Asanuma
Terre Thaemlitz (Photos courtesy of Comatonse Recordings)
Terre Thaemlitz (Photos courtesy of Comatonse Recordings)
Terre Thaemlitz (Photos courtesy of Comatonse Recordings)

Terre Thaemlitz, also known as DJ Sprinkles, holds an extremely unique position in this world, even among the most forward-thinking art/music producers. Her determined, deep engagement in criticality makes him not an easy subject to write about, as she relentlessly forces the mediator to question every preconception and assumption. 'I'm quite anti-performative, and consider myself more of a cultural critic. I don't consider myself an artist or musician’, she shrugs off my initial presumption. 

Nonetheless, Thaemlitz is most widely known as a recording and performing artist whose earlier works appeared on the German electronic music label Mille Plateaux, and more recently on Tokyo’s Mule Musiq and the Parisian label Skylax Records, while his own imprint Comatonse Recordings has always been the main platform for her writings and less conventional projects. Most recent additions to his discography include the 76-track full-length Comp x Comp (2019), and a multimedia album that consists of audio, video and text, Deproduction (2017)

Her house DJ alias, DJ Sprinkles, became popular in the international club and festival circuit over the past decade or so, most notably after the release of his highly acclaimed Midtown 120 Blues album in 2008, followed by an RA Podcast mix that brought him substantially wider international exposure, and also in part reinforced by the growing efforts within the scene towards realizing more diverse and gender equitable line-ups. 

The use of mixed pronouns here may cause slight confusion and distress, but it’s intentional. As a transgender person, Thaemlitz was never comfortable with using one pronoun. At the same time, she rejects using third-gender pronouns because, 'they don't resolve gender crises under patriarchy. They're not going to bring me any comfort. They might bring comfort to the reader, but I'm more interested in the reader sharing in my own gender discomfort under patriarchy. So if it becomes awkward to read something that's rotating pronouns within it, well, fucking welcome to the world!’

Being an immigrant in Japan

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of Thaemlitz’ relocation to Japan from her home country, the U.S.A. We had an extended conversation over Zoom between his countryside farm house where she currently resides in Chiba, Japan and my current home in Berlin. Myself being a Japanese person who has lived in Australia and Germany for almost 20 years in total, there is almost a reverse correlation between our immigration paths.

 

Japan is usually not the first choice for relocation if you’re involved in art or non-commercial music. The cost of living is high, particularly in Tokyo, and there’s very little support from the public sector or wider general public. But she points out that her residing in Japan is motivated by something that many of us completely take for granted – physical safety. 

 ‘I'm coming here as a transgendered person from the United States. In the US it's all this kind of “fuck you” individualist culture, where if people don’t like you they immediately feel entitled to voice it. They feel entitled to just spit, throw things, punch you, or do whatever. Whereas in Japan, if they don't like you, the worst thing they will do is ignore you. So based on how I was socialized in the US, the silence in Japan for me is golden. I can deal with people who don't like me leaving me the fuck alone. I don't get beaten up here. But I wouldn’t romanticize living here, either. I think the world is a pretty shit place. As a result of growing up with a lot of bashing in the US, I’ve tried to reduce my engagements with the violence around me.’

 

The silence he could appreciate in Japan is often perceived as politeness, or in some cases even as a ‘zen’ attitude by outsiders, but she is well aware that it is also a form of social suppression that can suffocate the most vulnerable behind its calm façade.

 

‘On a surface level daily life here is incredibly polite and friendly – I think even for local Japanese people. The ways that the culture and the language function, and the ways that people develop their minds around concepts of communication... or the lack thereof. That's also why they have such a high suicide rate here. I think people here don't really come to terms with the concept of repression, and the damage it can do.’ When asked why she chose to live in Japan despite an awareness of such problems, Thaemlitz replies, ‘I think most people misconstrue what immigration is about. In most cases, immigration or moving to another country is more about getting away from a situation that they're in, and less about following dreams. You work within whatever options are available, and hope for the best.’

Against the sense of becoming

As the world occasionally witnesses some of the numerous ‘inappropriate’ remarks about women or LGBTQ people made by Japanese politicians and high-ranking public figures, recently illustrated by the Tokyo Olympic chief Mori and the newly appointed ‘women empowerment and gender equality minister´ Tamayo Marukawa, one can easily imagine that his current home doesn’t exactly offer an ideal social environment to be in. After all, in terms of gender equality Japan is ranked in a dreadful 121st place among 153 countries (by the World Economic Forum 2020). Its increasingly conservative-leaning social climate is not only reviving, but enhancing outdated patriarchal views. But it is because of such a backdrop that her non-conforming existence and practices as an expressive critic gain more significance than ever before.

 ‘I would say my approach towards my status as an immigrant in Japan is paralleled by, and informed by, my anti-essentialism towards my own gender and sexuality. I don't set out to be a foreigner speaking with authority on Japan or my experiences in Japan. Rather than professing to having become acclimated to Japan, I think about how the experience of immigration helps me unbecome certain things that I was in America. I think that those processes of unbecoming are the things that I can speak about with more authority, and be more precise and more informative about. In general, for me, it's more useful to speak about processes of unbecoming, rather than becoming. And I think that's something which began when I lived in the US, in terms of my queer and non-essentialist transgenderism, and how it's never been about a course of coming out into singularity, or like transitioning from A to B. I’ve always been more interested in how we can distance ourselves from things that are connected to painful socialization systems, and things that we wish to separate from – as opposed to aligning with something else. Now, the dominant language around immigration, like most languages around transgenderism, sexuality and “coming out,” is always in the populist sense about “becoming”.’

He continues to elaborate on the potential dangers of complying with the sense of becoming, as it relates to reconciliation with dominant social power structures, which also provides a context to her earlier comments on pronouns. ‘For me, that emphasis on reconciliation and visibility is really a disservice, and something that stops us from thinking about the real complexities of social relations. Instead, what it does is it throws us into the language of identity politics, which quickly becomes very essentialist. People start attributing identities – socially constructed identities – with the power of “nature”. And that, for me, is dangerous. That, for me, is where a lot of bias and violence stems from.’

The Laurence Rassel Show

During Monheim Triennale 2022, he will be appearing in three separate programmes, one of which is The Laurence Rassel Show. The project began as a commissioned electroacoustic drama piece for a German public radio station, but was never aired. It was supposed to be a follow up to Thaemlitz’s previous electroacoustic drama produced for Hessischer Rundfunk in 2004, Trans-Sister Radio, which focused on his transgenderism and immigration experiences, touching upon issues such as the risks of travel and transgendered mobility.

Terre Thaemlitz (Photos courtesy of Comatonse Recordings)
Photo: Comatonse Recordings

 ‘I did that first radio drama at a time when transgenderism was a hot topic in the German media. It went well for them, and they asked me to do a follow up. I know that they were fishing for another thing that was just focusing on transgenderism, but I wanted to do a piece that also more directly incorporated concepts of feminism. Laurence Rassel and I had already known each other and worked together, in relation to her group Constant, which is a kind of Belgian cyber-feminist collective. At that time Laurence was somebody who had always basically worked anonymously and invisibly, which was a feminist rejection of male authorship, and the kind of insistence upon authoring, branding and naming things under patriarchy. When we did the first Laurence Russell Show, you could Google her name and almost nothing would come up – that was also kind of the joke behind calling our collaboration The Laurence Rassel Show.’

Terre and Laurence proposed a programme that explored the contradictions and possible overlaps between two very different gender-based models of authorship – trans renaming of the self and feminist anonymity. While the proposal was approved and they proceeded to produce the show, upon completion, the radio station decided not to broadcast it or pay them for their production work. She carefully chooses words to describe his disheartening experience with the broadcaster. ‘At first the station cited concerns with copyright clearances for materials sampled in the show, although it had been produced in a manner similar to Trans-Sister Radio. Sadly, the actual issue was the programme director's disappointment in the project’s discussion of transgenderism in relation to broader gender and feminist issues –”feminism” being the least sexy and marketable term imaginable at the time.’ As the months passed it became clear the project was permanently shelved without payment, so Thaemlitz and Rassel decided to self-release it as a double CD and vinyl EP on Comatose Recordings, as well as free download on Comatonse and Public Record.

‘This will be our third “performance” of The Laurence Rassel Show. Each performance is considered a completely new episode. Our first live performance was at the Arika festival in Scotland a couple years ago. There, we did it like a morning radio talk show with lots of cheesy sound effects, which was broadcast in real-time on a local radio station with no archiving. We wanted it to be a one-time thing that disappeared, reflecting certain concepts of invisibility and retreat that we've discussed in the original Laurence Rassel Show. But we didn't really think it went that well technically. So, for the second live performance of it at MACBA in Barcelona, we had audio and conversation in a closed room. Each episode carries on threads of conversation started in previous episodes. We had about a 45-minute core conversation between Laurence and myself, and then we opened it up to the audience for another hour or so. When things got quiet, we allowed it to get quiet, we brought in some subtle electroacoustic sounds and just gave people time to think – and also gave ourselves time to think and respond. For Monheim, format-wise we are planning on doing something similar to what we did at MACBA.’ 

DJ Sprinkles

Another 'performance' is set to take place under the alias of DJ Sprinkles: a DJ set. However, her association with this form of expression is rooted in a very specific context that is dissimilar to that of the majority of DJs around, and that is hinted at in the deep and delicately textured sounds as well. His selection and mixing are aimed for a prolonged introspective and reflective musical journey rather than an instantly gratifying ‘party with friends’. 

 ‘I started out as a DJ in a very specific moment, between ‘88 and ‘92. I was providing mixtapes for people to play during the gay pride parade in New York. Then I ended up becoming a resident at a club called Sally's II, which was a Latina and African American transsexual sex worker club. I was doing four shows a week, including two with Dorian Corey, who was one of the really old school, original, really important performers in the New York ball scene, and who was in Paris Is Burning and all that. It was when house music and deep house music were emerging from New Jersey and the Lower East Side in New York. And at the same time that I was playing within this very explicitly queer, transsexual sex club, I was also involved with ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). Culturally, there was a huge surge of identity politics coming out at that time.’ 

 

In the period when the pride movement was crystallizing, and everyone was ‘out loud and proud’, Terre felt more at home at Sally’s and associated closer with the queerness she found there, where he describes sexual orientations and desires were shared in much more discreet and less empowering ways.

 ‘The thing that I really was grateful about at Sally's II was that it was more in line with what my understanding and experience as a “queer” was. I came from Missouri, where basically the only gay bar that we had was a kind of Western bar that you go in, and maybe you see two guys in their 60s with their wedding rings on. You know that they have their wives with kids out in the countryside. And they're just there at that bar able to hold hands and share a whiskey before going home to their wives and kids. It is a global reality that most sex between men does not happen between two self-actualized, out loud and proud men. It usually happens where one or neither are identifying as gay. That's the traditional paradigm for male on male sex. So that's where I came from, and why I understand that strategies of the closet, secrecy and invisibility offer means of protection, and are not simply sites of emotional trauma that must be considered taboo like mainstream PrideTM culture insists. That's also part of the DJ Sprinkles projects, and how they're related to a model of queerness that is critical of the concepts and construction of PrideTM, as it relates to the commodification of our sexualities.’

Clubs as a site for organizing and education

Therefore, the club environment DJ Sprinkles emerged from represented and meant something wildly different from today’s common notion of clubs as strictly sites for pleasure and entertainment. Her focus, and how he perceives the function of clubs as a social space, are far beyond ‘good vibes' and hedonism.

‘For example, in the US there's no social health care and most people don't have insurance – especially if they're homeless trans kids who were thrown out of their houses and disowned by their families. So basically the house scene and those clubs functioned as sites where people could educate each other about hormone dosage, which transitional therapies work and didn't work, which doctors were safe, which ones weren't... And they also could help share medicine. Like, the drug dealer at Sally’s II wasn't just selling cocaine, but also selling hormones and prescription stuff. It was very much a site for organizing, education and sex work, as well as the dancing hedonism and conventional club world blah, blah.’

As he finds less and less spaces like that these days, her forms of expression have diversified to cater to different occasions, and also to earn a living.

‘There's usually no space for aggressive criticality in club settings, where everybody is either high or drunk. So I use my writings and interviews to get across all of the problems, difficulties, hypocrisies, and contradictions that are impossible to convey in a club setting. I also try and complicate how we think of our participation in those situations. They are sites of employment, where I get paid. To be honest, I don't want to go and DJ at a festival in Europe if I can avoid it. They have nothing to do with the roots of where I was DJing, and what interested me about being a DJ in New York at a very specific moment in time. Also, these days I almost never get asked to DJ at queer events because queer events basically don't have the budgets to fly somebody from Japan halfway across the world. So I'm constantly playing for the wrong audiences. But I need to do that for economic reasons. Similarly, I'm forced to perform my “non-performative” electroacoustic works on stages and things. So these are serious compromises and real problems for me. It's all related to economics, the performance aspect of my work is completely economic, and completely problematic. I try to be open about how problematic it is, and have basically made that my overarching project – to see how far one can go while actually being open about the problems and contradictions of the types of employment we're forced to do.’

Terre Thaemlitz electroacoustic performance

This leads us to the third programme he is presenting at the Monheim Triennale, which will be an ambient set played as Terre Thaemlitz. She explains how it’s rather unusual, and how he sees it as an opportunity to raise questions about today’s performance-centred economy.  

 

‘Usually, when I'm brought into festivals for a Terre Thaemlitz show, I'm performing a specific project like Deproduction, or Soulessness or those sorts of things. But in this case, Monheim has asked me to do something I haven’t done in many, many years – an ambient DJ set. So that will also be a throwback to the early nineties, where I was DJing ambient stuff in clubs too. But it is also a deliberate request of the Monheim bookers, because the festival is all about improvisation, and my usual performances are structured to be non-performative. They're structured to be, in a way, like conventional early electroacoustic tape playback pieces where I press play, the video goes, and I basically sit there for an hour without doing anything. On the one hand, it is a reference to bringing traditional academic electroacoustic tape performance into a commercial performance sphere, but on the other hand as a drag queen it's a rejection of the conventional transgendered stage which is about camp, performativity, flamboyancy, and gesticulation. So I'm critical of performativity as it relates to the transgendered stage, too. That's why I prefer stillness on stage.’

Hier stellt sie die Frage, was eine Performance ausmacht. Und ist bereit, diese Frage während ihrer Zeit in Monheim als performancebasiertes Festival zu verkörpern. „Wir sind kulturell mehr und mehr versklavt an Modelle von Improvisation und Live-Performativität, die für Monheim wertvoll, aber im Grunde genommen das sind, wo ich in meiner gesamten Karriere kritisch gegen gewesen bin. Ich denke, das ist der Grund, warum ich eingeladen wurde, als eine Art kuratorischer Kontrast, denn Monheim legt so viel Wert auf Improvisation, Spontaneität und diese Art von gemeinschaftlicher Zusammenarbeit mit Künstlern und Musikern, die super begeistert davon sind, Zugang zueinander zu haben und zusammenzuarbeiten. Ich denke, sie wissen, dass ich das Gegenteil von all dem bin. Und im Grunde habe ich meine Karriere damit verbracht, diese Art von unterhaltungsbasiertem, liberalem Kommunalismus zu kritisieren, von dem ich glaube, dass er den Menschen wirklich die kulturelle Fähigkeit zur Kritikfähigkeit raubt. Als sie zum ersten Mal an mich herantraten, habe ich mit einigen der Mitarbeiter gesprochen und wirklich gesagt: „Hey, ich möchte sicher sein, dass ihr versteht, dass ich nicht voll enthusiastisch kommen werde. Das ist überhaupt nicht mein Ding. Ich komme nicht mit Begeisterung, ich komme nicht mit Energie, und ich werde nicht kooperieren, wenn es darum geht, begeistert spontane Kollaborationen oder improvisierte One-Offs zu machen.“ 

Here, she poses a question of what constitutes a performance. And he is prepared to embody that question during her time at Monheim as performance-based festival.

 

‘We are culturally more and more enslaved to models of improvisation and live performativity that are precious to Monheim, but basically what my entire career has been critically against. I think that's why I’ve been invited, as a kind of curatorial contrast, because Monheim has such a heavy emphasis on improvisation, spontaneity, and this kind of communal cooperation with artists and musicians being super excited to have access to each other and work together. I think they know that I'm the opposite of all that. And basically, I have spent my career being critical of that kind of entertainment based liberal communalism that I feel really robs people of the cultural capacity for criticality. When they first approached me I had talks with some of the staff and really said, like, “Hey, I want to be sure you understand that I'm not going to be coming with enthusiasm. That's not my thing. I don't come with excitement, I don't come with energy, and I'm not going to be cooperating in terms of being excited to do spontaneous collaborations or improv one-offs.”’ 

Amidst the global pandemic when many of us ‘missed’ such live performances and communal experiences in their absence, her concerns about the impossibility for cultural spaces focusing on non-performative work is growing stronger. 

 

‘I think the direction of where we're going is clear. We can see it in the technology, which is all focused on live streams and surrogate performance systems. It’s further crystallizing and making it concrete: the cultural investment into models of live performance, models of authenticity, models of improvisation, models of audience versus performers. And it's completely conservative, radically conservative, radically boring. To me, it’s just patently obvious.’ 

Terre Thaemlitz (Photos courtesy of Comatonse Recordings)
Photo: Comatonse Recordings

The way she engages different contexts with different aliases and various forms of activities is also a strategy for resisting essentialism and singularity. In a world where everything is condensed into a logo, a thumbnail, a headline or a short bio, he forces us to puzzle and accept the complexity of it all. 

 

‘Working in different genres, and working under different aliases, parallels my critical interest in avoiding the public projection of an essential essence or a singular artistic vision – “a truth of being” or “who is Terre Thaemlitz?” As if there's one fucking stupid answer. So that kind of fragmentation, going into grays, getting away from black and white, away from a singular artistic identity, a singularity of origin for creative process, the singularity of authorship, something being authentically mine, or all of that – it is why I work in sound collage and sampling. Things that don't start from a purist musicological or compositional authenticity or anything like that. Fuck all that stuff. That's what I'm set up against.’

Queer calculus and a call for confrontation

And she has no intention to make it easier for you. ‘If somebody happens to go to a Terre Thaemlitz event, or a DJ Sprinkles event, or they pick up an album, or they read an interview, and if it becomes a gateway into their learning more about something, that's fine. But I'm less concerned with the idea of providing outreach to beginners, because on the culturally minor level that kind of constant appeal to the mainstream is what also stops us from cultivating more in-depth and precise means of talking and conversing around our issues and our crises. The mainstream is focused on a kind of expansionist concept, a very Western globalist and capitalist idea that we need as big an audience as possible, and the more people we can reach the better. That notion of applying dominant populist models of distribution to very minor and culturally specific forms of media can be a mistake, and doesn't serve my interests.’

 

He uses math as a metaphor to further explain the necessity of unabbreviated interactions. ‘We're forced to always speak in terms of arithmetic, and addition and subtraction, when in fact, we're dealing with calculus level problems. I would rather be a person who presents works that hit the audience with calculus. Just hit them with queer calculus.’ 

As I was about to wrap it up, while trying to embrace the calculus of Terre Thaemlitz, I almost unconsciously sought for a way to end our conversation on a positive note like I always do. She responded with one big final slap.

 

‘I'm a nihilist; I think we're fucked. We're all socially conditioned to feel like we have to end on an optimistic note, but no. This is all fucking shit. Always going bad. We've entered a world where it's increasingly less about left versus right, and more about top versus bottom. That also echoes power dynamics of sexuality and gender. That's the world we're in. And we need to start confronting it, we need to stop thinking about good shit, and start allowing ourselves to feel urgency around the violence and destruction going on around us. Violence that is being facilitated at every turn. Instead of putting hope in any of this shit, we need to really get away from hope and be like, “Holy fuck!” Take off the rose colored glasses. It's okay to panic.’

Yuko Asanuma