This was one of the many unexpected directions that my interview with Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ SPRINKLES, took when we sat down back in May at Glasgow's Tramway theatre. I was in town to review Arika's Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, and to interview some of the weekend-long festival's performers, including Sprinkles. As this was a voguing event, I assumed our conversation would primarily be focused on dance music and gender/presentation. But I was pleasantly blown away by Terre's unique outlook and the explanation of the different philosophies that surround it.
We spoke for almost an hour, and what you read below is only the first 20 minutes of our conversation. So, yes, this interview is definitely what you would call "epic". We did talk about gender, dancing and vogue too, and I will be uploading the rest of this on CVNTY over the next few weeks, presented with as little editing as possible, besides some slight revisions made by Terre.
So how did you come to be involved in Arika and the Hidden In Plain Sight project?
I am here under two different aliases. One is Terre Thaemlitz, which is my legal name. On Saturday I am doing a lecture as Terre, and then in the evening a concert with video performance, all based around a project which is called "Soulessness". And then tonight, as DJ Sprinkles, I am djing at a club called Stereo. I'm doing the warm-up set for Vjuan Allure.
Do you know Vjuan?
No I don't know Vjuan, I have to confess ignorance 'cos I am so out of touch with the new school scene, and also I left New York in '97. For the last 12 years I have been living in Japan, so I am quite removed form a lot of western references in general. I am happy to meet people though, because of this whole Ney York revival of the scene, and Michael and the people doing the Vogueology project. It's exciting for me.
I have to admit, the line-up for HIdden In Plain Sight, and tonight's gig at Stereo, is very impressive. I'm always a bit sceptical when I see artists or groups appropriating vogue culture, but Arika definitely seem to be doing it well.
I think Arika are interested in having it connect to the people who come to their usual shows. One of the connections that has come up, in a few of their episodes, is the history of Glasgow in connection to the slave trade and how that connects to African American culture. So I think that is part, on a material history level, of trying to see these traces. But it's also one of these things where it takes a weird international meeting in Glasgow for us to meet each other.
Can you explain to me what your talk/presentation and show tomorrow are going to be about?
What I am doing tomorrow is a project called "Soulessness", which I have billed as the world's first full length MP3 album. The format is a 16Gb micro SD card that has over 32 hours of music, 165 pages of pdf text and images, and then 80 minutes of video. The text and video are also translated into 10 different languages. The idea is that the centrepiece is a 29 hour and 40 minute MP3 file that is just under 4 Gb, which is the maximum file limitation size under fat32 requirements, and that is how I came to define how long an MP3 album would be. So the theme of that particular piece, which is called "Meditation On Wage Labour and the Death of the Album", is about how, with the transition from album to CD, and then from CD to MP3 (where we have the CD plus digital exclusive downloads, etc) and then the press demanding online mixes and stuff, basically as producers we have been conditioned to produce more and more content over the years. At the same time the labels are playing lower royalties and advances, etc. and this, for me, represents a labour crisis.
So I wanted to do a piece about this crisis of the ever expanding definition of what the album is, based on media format duration. Because these days we tend to think of the album as a conceptual framework, but actually concept of "the album" was first defined by vinyl playback duration, where you can have up to 18 minutes of audio per side before introducing notable sound degradation. Before the CD, vinyl albums were 36 minutes to 40 minutes. The CD album went up to 74 (then 78 and 80) minutes. So that 30 hour, 4GB MP3 file is Soulnessless' audio centrepiece, and it's accompanied by a text on the themes of meditation, wage labour and the death of the album. It's thinking about how materialist practices and analyses are burdened by always using language that is in servitude to, and created by, dominant cultures - which are almost always in service to the right. So the language we are left with to construct our critical analyses is contaminated in this way. The piano recording itself was done in sessions of about 8 hours each, and one of the underlying questions to the sessions was, "can this meditation be on material practice rather than on something spiritual?"
So that is Canto V, but my performance tomorrow night is actually focussing on Cantos I-IV. They also try to investigate and deconstruct spirituality. Or to put it more precisely, it's a rejection of spirituality within audio production, and how that also collides with issues of gender within audio production. So some pieces pursue transgendered issues, as well as electronic music production's relation to gender (because it is typically so male dominated). For example, there is one Canto called "Pink Sisters" in which I attempt to identify unmapped or unconsidered locations where these issues of gender, spirituality and electronic music collide - and that quest led me to interview nuns about their use of electronic audio equipment: microphones, amplifiers, electronic keyboards, etc. But of course, even in their extremely "alternative" and off-radar activities, the nuns are not necessarily "inspiring" or "different." Their aesthetics are clearly inflected with standard music rhetoric of "soul" and spirituality, and that rhetoric actually defines their conservatism. My intention was not only to document the nuns, but to draw parallels between their activities and the activities of most "alternative" and off-radar experimental electronic music producers. For me, the disappointments and problems raised by "experimental" and academic computer music producers are often quite similar to those of the nuns.
What do you mean by a "rejection of spirituality"?
Well, I am coming from a very atheistic and also anti-spiritual and anti-religious position. At the same time, the way I look at atheism is not in this kind of trendy way where it's about, you know, educating people to figure out it's bullshit or whatever. It's more out of a position of hopelessness, where I really do believe atheism can never be a populist movement because people are too stupid.
I believe that, even if we get rid of religious organisations, we are still trapped by spiritual dogma and superstition. And even within the whole rhetoric of western humanism where, even if you step out of the religious realm, you still have a monotheistic notion of the shared human experience that underlies humanity itself.
So, from my stance, atheism is simply a means of resisting and deprogramming amidst a hopeless situation. House music is always classified as being "spiritual", and as a house producer, I'm someone who buys and listens to a lot of music that is produced with those intentions and overtones, and of course the different club scenes themselves use this rhetoric of soul and spirit. But, as atheists, similarly as queers or trans people, we build unintended relationships to dominant media. Vogue is an ideal metaphor for what I am talking about - it's not even a metaphor, it's action! So for me, rather than trying to invent a new language to discuss this, it's more about how has the history of resistance against religion, of resistance against spirituality, etc, how has it manifested itself within the limitations and context of dominant linguistic and audio formats? That goes back to the 29 hour piano piece that takes the idea of meditation as deep thought on something that could be about material process or labour. Getting away from the idea of the authentic, from the idea of doing something new. Getting away form the idea of inventing a new sound or a language that would be ideal, or whatever. Of course, my rejection of authenticity and naming puts me at odds with certain aspects of the vogue scene which is about acknowledgement and branding, but that's also part of the hypocrisy of life.
There must be conflict between your outlook and most house producers?
Sure, and not only house producers; for example, tonight I am djing house music, but tomorrow night is not house music. The Soullessness thing is not house, it's more in the realm of ambient, computer music, so the conflict is with other types of producers as well. So of course there is a lot of resistance, even to the idea that producers should be able to verbalise and think and express what their intentions are. Because how many people, just like in the visual arts, back away and say "I just want the song to speak for itself" or…
"house music is a feeling"
...yeah, and I guess for me "feeling" is also something that is suspect, because we are conditioned to feel our genders are natural, for example, or our sexualities are natural. I think most people these days would identify with that. If you asked if they feel they were born male or female, most people would say one or the other, yes. If you asked people if they felt they were born heterosexual, or born homosexual, most people within those two options, would say yes. So feeling, that house "feeling" is also something that is suspect, when positioned in relation to queer cultures or trans cultures. and that is something I am interested in speaking about generally and creating discourse about.
But again, it's not about the idea that this is a completely new and unheard of discussion in need of a new language, or that what I'm talking about is some sort of surprise. It is more like, "how have these discussions existed historically, and in what ways and forms, through appropriations of dominant cultural languages and other familiar representational processes?" Which is not so dissimilar to how voguing appropriates imagery from dominant western cultures.
How did you come to reject spirituality, personally? Is it a deliberate rejection, a decision you have made?
For me it is a decision, and I think it is better when it can be a decision, as opposed to something that is done with ambivalence, trying to ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away. Being decisive and thinking about organisational strategy is something I am interested in. And I also think it's something a lot of the people with Vogueology, Michael Roberson, Father of the House of Garcon etc, are very interested in the idea of organising. And this is not simply to do with an exercise in analysis, it has to do with communal organising of resistance to dominations. I know it's tragic, but there was a murder of a trans woman in New York last week and Michael is actually in the process of organising the memorial right now, here in Scotland. So there's these really upsetting subtexts to the issue of organising too.
OH YOKO "Seashore (Sprinkles' Ambient Ballroom Mix)"