"I prefer to over-clarify"
We are sitting in a hotel room, the very symbol of alienation, shortly before midnight and Therre Thaemlitz's gig as DJ Sprinkles at the LAWBF series. The right time and place for the serious subjects we discuss, as today's pathologies are both global and urgent for Terre Thaemlitz. The multimedia producer (musician, essayist, label owner) has been one of the most critical and sophisticated voices of the cultural scene for the last two decades. Here is why.
Let’s first talk about your performances. In an interview you stated that you look at all kinds of appearances you’re booked for – be it DJ-ing, performing, lecturing – as work, as labour. And that your main concern is "delivering on your end of agreements" with the organisers.
Well, that’s not my "main concern", but it’s part of being an employee that you have to deliver in order to get paid. The main reason I perform is because you can’t economically survive off record sales. For me that is a really unfortunate thing because I’m interested in what I consider to be "non-performative" electronic music. For me it’s really about a lineage of audio production that’s engaging a critique of the performative stage, and a rejection of the rock’n’roll paradigm. So it’s ironic that we are economically forced to perform non-performative media. That is why in this other interview I said that line about holding up my end of the contract: because all the other typical rhetoric about performing out of free will, self-expression and so on, isn’t of interest to me. Or perhaps it's better to say it's only of interest from a critical perspective, as notions that I am attempting to complicate and to reject. That’s why all that is left is the contract.
Are you being cynical when you are performing because you actually do not want to?
I’m just like anybody else. I’m doing my job. I do it because I have to, not because I love it. The fact is that people in creative fields are constantly barraged with this insistence that, ‘Well, at least you're doing what you love and you have to be thankful," blah-blah-blah. It really makes it so impossible to engage in any sort of labour analysis and solidarity. The only solidarity we are allowed to express within "creative fields" is the solidarity that manifests itself in free labour: ‘Yeah, I'll help you out with that event/exhibition/compilation/publication for free.‘ Where is the solidarity that helps us survive?
What is on your mind these days?
T: I'm working on a new project in the trajectory of "Terre Thaemlitz" projects like Lovebomb and Soulnessless that has to do with a critique of family and clan, as well as a defense of people who don’t have children. I think we live in a post-democratic era now. We culturally swim in the language of neo-liberalism, in which the rhetoric of democracy and state care are floating about, but socially it’s really become all about private ownership and a return to private wealth, feudal financial relations and power relations. So I've been thinking about the ways in which family and clan are involved in contemporary politics and society. This includes the ways that global notions of "the enemy" are no longer "enemies of state," such as in the Cold War (although ISIS calls itself a state), but clannistic enemies. Today's "age of terrorism" is much more about social organizing around clan antagonisms, which is a return to a pre-democratic model of political antagonism. Of course, at the center of the clan is the family. So I’m thinking about that stuff and how fucked up families are, how fucked up the pressure to have children is, and the ways people who don’t have children find ourselves culturally ostracized and harassed in so many cultures around the world.
Are you interested in visual arts?
Only as a site of critique. The industry as something to be critiqued.
Art industry you mean?
Art industry, music industry, academia.... I don't participate in those fields because I feel they enable me to express my views. Rather, it's the opposite – the social and cultural workings and ideological productions that emerge from these sites are symptomatic of the larger social issues and dynamics that I struggle to critique. So it’s just choosing sites where the problems of the industries display the larger cultural problems that I’m interested in discussing. I don’t find much cultural value at all in the arts or music...
Because they’re intoxicated by industrial dynamics?
Because media industries are clearly inseparable from the functions of propaganda for dominant cultures. They just rely so heavily on particular ideologies of authorship, ownership, creativity and expression which conceal the politics and finances behind them. There is a difference between my approach towards the arts versus music. Within the arts you have more than a century of very precise, political, situated critiques of the problems of artistic production and creativity – galleries and museum spaces and how they’re constructed, not only socially but ideologically. People working in the arts are aware of these critiques and yet it’s business as usual. So cultural critique is pointless in the arts. Meanwhile, music industries are even worse because those century old critiques in the arts haven’t even penetrated the audio market, or barely have.
Even people in the art world who would be very familiar with the social critiques of creativity and authenticity would – when it comes to listening to music – still believe in the myth of the authenticity of the blues musician.
That makes music – in its relationship to pop culture – naive, and an even deeper, stronger tool for the production of these creative mythologies that I find very problematic and essentialist.
That’s why many of your records come with text – as an instruction for the music?
Yeah, I mean music is a very – we could say – poetic kind of medium. And as we know most poetry is bad poetry that instantly goes into weird vagaries that amount to nothing. I think that’s how most music functions as well. So I prefer to over clarify, as a necessary critical gesture, because audio industries are so hellbent against producers being able to speak. In the arts it’s the same.
The artist is the first one to say ’Oh the work should speak for itself, I don’t want to ruin it by talking too much about it’.
It’s the same with musicians. That’s because we’re culturally conditioned to basically be idiots who can’t speak about the very things that we are doing, and leave content up to the record labels, up to the press, up to the critics - who are basically in the business of sales. We internalize this antagonism and feel like it will be wrong for us to talk about what we do. Wrong to actually be able to have communicative tools to be more specific about how our activities are grounded in social contexts and socio-political frameworks.
You said that “any social space that declares itself ‘open’ and ’all accepting’ is instantly suspect, and engaging in ideological production.“ You are playing at Kantine am Berghain tonight. I guess the people running Berghain would say the site is open and all accepting – do you think that it is a political place?
People know that the Berghain has a horribly restrictive door policy. That’s also part of their attempt to preserve and protect certain queer activities that go on inside, right? I'm not from Berlin, and I've never been booked for a Saturday night there - which is when everything gets most decadent, right? - but I get the feeling that Berghain is more notoriously self-enclosed than all-open. And there is a politic behind that.
The club has always percepted as a space for escapism, where one is able to leave behind all concerns, where societal segregations also seem to be less effective. Do clubs offer a possibility to experience something right in a fucked up world?
I think when it comes to the events and performances themselves they tend to function similar to concerts and other things like that, where you have the introduction of a heterotopic space in which "escapism" revolves around and relies upon a faith in transcendental potential. That is a faith which I just utterly do not have, and do not want. I feel that is very problematic. The sensation of "transcendence" or "escape" is a product of ideological production within a larger context of cultural domination - only a kind of sanctioned performance of social transgression through which we exorcise the need for actual transgression and social restructuring. I guess the short answer to your question is: No.
So no escapism or escapist behaviour, I understand you are rather interested in techniques of disobedience and non-cooperation as a general means of resistance. Could you elaborate on that?
In all of our lives, including mine, we are constantly engaging in different forms of escapism - the comfort zones in which we allow ourselves to become numb or naive or ambivalent about the oppressions and exploitations that those spaces in which we feel comfort rely upon in other social arenas. For example people from the First World enjoying the "high life" in Third World resorts. To presume that social transformation occurs in a moment of escapism is an ideological trap. Because you’re relying on the moment of separation/escape/transcendence to bring resolution to the crisis at hand, as opposed to exploding into irresolvable differences. For me it’s just more important to try to find ways in daily existence – in relation to interpersonal relationships to friends, family, co-workers, your employment, your housing etc. – to minimize the violence that we enact on others by being complicit and ambivalent about the corruptions behind the spaces in which we feel safe.
For example, my non-essentialist approaches towards queer pan-sexuality and transgenderism do not set me free sexually or genderwise. It's the opposite of that. If you are refusing to take sides, if you are refusing to align yourself easily with one side of a dominant binary – whether it is hetero/homo, male/female – then that makes it incredibly troubling for many people to interact with you. Because most peoples' sense of their own identity and sexuality and behaviour and desire relies upon a gauging of where the people they are with lay on the map sexually and socially. This means that every kind of interaction becomes a negotiation, which could be as much about open alliance as it could be about closeting. When we are comfortable, that means we are accepting our role in the production of violence. Of course, we all have to find spaces for comfort, but what does that mean socially in terms of responsibility?
How can we be more responsible than becoming neoliberal assholes? That for me has to do with non-cooperation, and that means not only being uncooperative with others, it means refusing to cooperate with your own desires for assimilation. It means keeping yourself in a state of flux and vulnerability.
A lot of people state that technology is progressing in such a large scale that we can’t even grasp what is going on. Do you think the technological future is our doom or the promise of a better future?
I really am a nihilist. I don’t find hope in anything. The ways in which people speak about the high pace of technological and cultural developments now... in a way all of that motion is not taking us to places quicker. It’s just generating a white noise that is socially quite stagnant and slow as ever. People talk about the global spread of democracy, and yet we are still dealing with no end to basic injustices such as women earning significantly less than men for the same job. I think that people are maybe mistaking the granular dynamic of all this static around them for actual social transformation and change, simply because it sounds sparkling and moving to them. But it’s coming out of, and feeding back into, quite conservative industrial loops. For example, in relation to transgenderism, the rampant escalation of available hormone therapies and physical "remedies" for gender crisis, etc. may seem revolutionary to some people. But for me, I cannot help but notice that the acceleration of the medical industry’s interest in these issues (ie. "curing" gender crises) is escalating on a curve that coincides with the ways "curing homosexuality" has medically fallen out of fashion. So I see these "revolutions" in trans-care as a re-direction of a pre-existing homophobic undercurrent within medical industries, and how that homophobia feeds into certain gender constructions. That, of course, affects how liberating these technologies and changes can be. I think for all of this noise and all of the motion and chaos that seems to be so accelerated, in the end we find that it’s doing very little new – in terms of really new radical ideas that succeed in dismantling things like the mechanisms of patriarchy. Like, the cyber-feminist fantasy of people not knowing your gender online did not become a dismantling of patriarchy in any way.
Being a nihilist and never being optimistic about things what are you most concerned about these days?
...Patriarchy. Just, all the brutal manifestations, the construction of gender difference, deployed in so many cultures and contexts around the world in so many differently horrible and grotesque ways. Seeing people finding moments of celebration within these – including matrimony... including LGBT matrimony... the impossibility of eliminating all forms of matrimony and discrimination... Instead, people seem preoccupied with demanding their "right" to share in those abusive privileges that have haunted us for centuries. We never find ways to dismantle patriarchy. We only get sucked into it deeper and deeper. Living in Japan, the women there - transgender communities as well – face really extreme misogyny. It’s really crushing, it’s really upsetting. I know a lot of people personally suffering with things. It’s older than capitalism, patriarchy is even deeper in our cultural roots. It just destroys me.
Terre Thaemlitz was born in 1968 in Minnesota, USA, and currently lives in Kawasaki, Japan.
Website of Comatonse Recordings and Terre Thaemlitz.
"Like a Wild Beast’s Fur" (abbreviated LAWBF) is a Berlin based showcase that presents a hybrid art form and functions as a collective. Every show is a unique combination of theatre and performances by internationally acclaimed artists. It is headed by Nicholas Mockridge.