Offline Objects: Terre Thaemlitz Interviewed

To celebrate the release of biographical film 'Terre Thaemlitz: Give Up On Hopes And Dreams', Blaise Radley sat down with the inimitable Terre Thaemlitz

As a musician, digital streaming platforms and marketplaces typically don’t allow for much contextual specificity. Releases may be hosted in date order, but there’s little control over who engages, and on what basis, with an album as likely to be sought out directly by a user as suggested to them by algorithms.

For electroacoustic music producer, DJ, writer, and lecturer Terre Thaemlitz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, that lack of control actively stunts the sociopolitical discourse driving her work: her music isn’t intended for audiences who aren’t critically engaged, so why allow it to be distributed as if it was?

These theoretical considerations on the power bias inherent to commercial media exchange, in turn, form the basis for Terre Thaemlitz: Give Up On Hopes And Dreams, a biographical documentary that only reveals more about Thaemlitz by inference. Produced by Resident Advisor and shot in the Shizu Community Center (not far from Thaemlitz’s home at the time of Kawasaki, Japan), the documentary consists of a series of conversations between Thaemlitz and a group of her friends and peers; ranging from fellow iconoclastic producer Mark Fell to cultural theorist Laurence Rassel.

Yet Thaemlitz is only the subject of these conversations as much as she’s the glue holding the production together, with the group’s attention primarily placed on a selection of objects brought in by the participants. Each one points back to Thaemlitz in some way, big or small — one, an impassioned speech given by transgender rights activist Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Gay Pride Rally in NYC, another, a single note of the ‘JazzOrg’ preset from a Yamaha DX100.

This conceit lends the documentary the tenor of a cultural study instead of one of a specific character, though director Patrick Nation recognises this communal dialogue as essential to understanding Thaemlitz. And while the conversations around each object are limited to 20 minutes in the documentary, today Thaemlitz has kindly agreed to re-open the dialogue around her part in that process.

The full film is available to watch just below – read on for our conversation.

How did the idea for the documentary first come to fruition?

Terre Thaemlitz: I already knew Patrick from when I participated in the Real Scenes: Tokyo documentary he made a few years earlier. I think we shot over eight hours of interview footage, and I’m in there for about 30 seconds! But anyway, he contacted me with the idea of doing a documentary about me, which I then tried to shift into being about my work.

Early on, you push back against the use of geographical context clues, or a chronological timeline. Were you ever pitched a more traditional biopic?

TT: Actually, in the opening scene of the documentary when we are sitting at the table and I am mentioning all the standard things I wasn’t comfortable doing, those were basically his initial ideas. I’m a pretty private person, and I didn’t want people in my house, so we went back and forth quite a bit before agreeing on the final format.

Of course, I am very interested in contextual specificity, so I wasn’t trying to conceal geographical clues. To the contrary, we filmed in a very real local space reflective of my environment. My concern was more about avoiding orientalist clichés about Japan, and fictions of exoticism around me as a foreigner over here.

Whose idea was it to use the conceit of discussing objects, and what informed the selection process for them?

TT: This project started back in 2016 or 2017, and the footage was shot in 2018, so some of the details are already blurred by time. I don’t remember if it was Patrick or me who suggested it, but we used Ultra-Red’s Five Protocols For Organized Listening, which is a method of listening developed for social organizers and collective practice.

The idea is to cultivate solidarity as an intentional task you have to actively participate in, and listen in tension, rather than simply going along with others. It was meant to allow people who might not usually speak in those settings to say things, be heard, and broaden discourse. In our case, everyone pretty much knew each other, so there wasn’t so much tension. Like the community center, it was more of a framing device for generating discussion. Everyone was asked to bring an "object" that they felt related to my work, but it was up to them to determine what that meant, or what form it took. There were many that do not appear in the film at all.

The majority of the film takes place in unadorned meeting rooms. What effect do you think using liminal, blank spaces has on the surrounding discourse?

TT: Well, the fact that I didn’t want them filming in my home, nor have us all going around like tourists, meant that we were kind of limited in terms of adequate spaces. For me, the Shizu Community Center conjured the kinds of community centers used for activist meetings, which was in-keeping with the structural use of Ultra-Red’s listening protocols. But more important than using that space was not using more conventional spaces and content development routines found in documentaries about audio producers. So although I think the community center served its purpose, it was more important for what it pushed Patrick to avoid filming, rather than what it enabled. But I don’t take it as a blank space, nor politically neutral space. It is a city-run community center where they do annual health checks and other things.

In the past, I’ve heard you express antipathy toward community, and yet the documentary feels inherently inclusive. Are those two ideas at odds?

TT: I am critical of the ways in which the notion of "community" is often invoked fraudulently as a distraction. For example, insisting we refer to a queer or trans community, when so many of us operate in isolation. Concepts of identity are so often incorrectly conflated with concepts of community. On a broader cultural level, this has the effect of making us feel like our identities make us active participants in collective cultural activities, when in reality those identity constructs can push us further and further away from being able to engage in actual social solidarity.

"Community" becomes a keyword in ideological productions that conceal our active herding into essentialist identities and away from grounded social organizing. So you end up with people who feel they are really politically active and communally engaged on Twitter. [Laughs] I think we have to be careful about how we invoke models of "community," or choose not to invoke them. It’s really important for people to understand that an absence of alignment with a "community" does not mean an absence of solidarity or an inability to work with others. We need to unpack the presumptions that "community" brings to the table.

The documentary’s title reads like a wry nihilist mission statement. Does that aversion to dreams preclude taking pride in your work?

TT: Patrick had a really hard time coming up with a title. Pride is really not part of my work process, nor personal life. I understand how difficult it is for most people to imagine, because we are so conditioned to think it is absolutely integral to wellbeing, but it’s not. Pride is just the enforcer of shame. Like, I’m seriously not into it. It’s not just a word game, or public facade. I never could have arrived at my practice around social and cultural divestments of power if I were still clinging on to a belief in the necessity for pride.

Throughout the documentary, the discussion of your music is largely theoretical. You also firmly state that you don’t relate to artists, at one point calling them missionaries — could you expand on that?

TT: That’s actually supposed to be the theme of my next project. We find museums are akin to mega-churches, art programs akin to bible colleges, curators akin to a priesthood, and a constantly traveling class of commission-based artists akin to missionaries. Both church and art require lifestyle-consuming devotion, ideological conversion, linguistic indoctrinations that socially cloister participants from the public at large, and increase social isolation over time.

Both employ rarified myths of creation, and consistently mistake their own cultural analyses for material social organizing. Both require faith in order to endure their social madness. At the center of both, of course, is a disproportionate accumulation of wealth for the chosen ones – and willing social misunderstanding and martyrdom for the majority of "starving artists."

I also think there is a unique connection between the cultural herding of queers into the arts, and so many of us having histories of struggling to escape from faith-based communities. I fear that traumatic residue is why so many queer art scenes continue to mimic the social workings of faith based communities. In the same way you could say the Ballroom scene clings to concepts of domesticity ("house") and nationalism ("house nation") precisely because they represent the two greatest sites of social abandonment and disownment. Trauma continues to echo forward in our organizing by chaining us to the very structures we struggled to escape. So many of us also carry a longing for a homecoming, right? It’s complicated.

There’s a loaded irony to where the film ends, with you wondering whether the editing will lend the documentary a climactic finish. Is being the subject of a creative project difficult in that regard?

Well, an earlier cut actually had Patrick trying to give a climax by following that with the reveal shot from Rosary Novena For Gender Transitioning, so Mark Fell and I encouraged him to let it end deadpan. So I think Patrick was fighting a lot of conventional impulses in the editing process.

Yeah, it’s a very strange thing to be in a documentary. It is certainly not like working on a collaborative project, although acts of collaboration are certainly involved. But like you suggest, in the end it is someone else’s representation of my work and their take on me, so you don’t want to interfere in that too much. At the same time, you can’t completely act ambivalent while being an active participant. So it’s a bit of a mindfuck!

At the end of my viewing, YouTube automatically led me to eight suggestions of "similar" content. Do you think the documentary existing in a context dictated by YouTube changes the piece?

TT: YouTube… I mean, again, it’s not my project, so using YouTube is about RA’s distribution systems, but yes, intentionally or not, those systems reflect their practices and agendas. It’s kind of like when you license a track to another record label, and they have their digital aggregators and distributor chains, and you always end up being taken on a ride that goes further down the road than intended.

That’s why I have tried to minimize my interactions with other labels over the years. Not that they are acting maliciously — although that happens, too — but because there’s always some unpleasant surprise. It even happened with my CD-only collaboration with zeitkratzer, Deproduction Live, which we self-released. That ended up being sold digitally on iTunes because someone working at a sub-distributor with three degrees of separation from zeitkratzer’s main distributor was reflexively like, "Oh, this isn’t in iTunes! I’ll get it in there!"

I try to be more relaxed about how my interviews and word-based content is circulated. Like, for me it’s okay if someone comes across the ideas, but still comes away with no idea what it "sounds like" in relation to my projects. That is also why my writings are online for free on my website. For me, the RA documentary kind of falls in that category.

On your website, you sell your back catalogue in many different forms, including an mp3 compilation of said catalogue in its entirety. Does the physical object define the context, or the process of purchasing it from you, or both?

TT: It’s regrettable but unavoidable that in order to cultivate an exchange based on careful treatment of content, the primary point of access to my work remains a personal consumer exchange. However, there is a difference between getting your music at Costco versus from me directly. And there is also a difference between getting your music at a torrent site/YouTube/SoundCloud versus from me directly. And there is also a difference between getting your music at a university library or other archive versus from me directly. But yeah, I pack and do everything myself, and email people with a link explaining my concerns about upload culture, and I find that results in the most careful handling of materials.

Again, going back to that question of community, we certainly do not share a communal connection because of some bullshit online purchase. But there is a chance for solidarity emerging out of the personal exchange which is absent from those other means of accessing the work online. The odds of someone who purchases something directly from me deciding to upload it is substantially lower than someone who purchases it through more conventional distribution channels, where it is just one more commercial transaction indistinguishable from purchasing a Beyoncé album or whatever.

My focus on physical media is not about the object — although objects are nice. It’s because starting in 2003 I was fucked over by iTunes, Juno Download, e-Music and other mainstream distributors who sold my entire Mille Plateaux back catalog without permission for six years. That Deadstock Archive MP3 collection you refer to was commemorating my finally getting all that material offline — but with nowhere else to go, and no fucking desire to ever work with those asshole companies, all I could do was make some data DVD-Rs. [Laughs] That was all long before YouTube and fan uploads became the problem they are today. So my emphasis on objects, or "offline digital media" as I call it, is a result of that contextual specificity — the specificity of the digital distribution marketplace. It is a reaction to that. It is not an embodiment of a club scene or something romantic like that. But, for sure, it is contextually specific.

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