Friday, 30 August 2013

DJ SPRINKLES in-depth interview part 3

And so we come to the final part of CVNTY's epic interview with Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ SPRINKLES; artist, lecturer, highly respected deep house producer, and someone with more than just a passing interest in trans*/queer/gender issues. In this part of our epic sit-down, courtesy of the kind folks at Arika in Glasgow, we talk about Terre's history in activism, more on the difference between political organisation and activism (especially in relation to being trans*), how Terre got her start in the world of voguing and ballrom in early 90s New York, and the complex effects of "Paris Is Burning" and Madonna's "Vogue" on that world and its people: 

 Sprinkles in action at Arika Episode 5, Glasgow, photo by Michael James

I think we agree in that we recognise that there is a political element to everything, but I feel "activists" can often come across as quite patronising...

Well part of that is because most people don't want to hear another person telling them how to live, and if the thing they are being told is not something they are personally invested in, it becomes just one more cultural demand. Most cultural commands are coming down from a position of domination, but I think people find it easy to mis-direct anger at activists because everyone is already so beaten down and alienated from each other under capitalism. Any self-conscious social organizing initially registers as annoying, because we are conditioned to respond to it as inappropriate and anti-social. This is all assuming we're talking about left-wing activists we would hypothetically like to embrace, as opposed to right wing radicals whom I think are patronizing in completely different ways via their amplification of mainstream cultural dominations. I think, again, it comes down to an inability to distinguish what is political organising versus activism. Organising does not always mean sitting on a committee in a room inventing rules and protocols. It could also be as familiar and seemingly innocuous as the structuring of lives within familial units. These are also political organisations. Constructing "family" is one of the most common organisational frameworks in the Ball scene, right? So, how do we learn to fathom all the seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives as forms of political organisation? If people can get in touch with that, then I think a lot of the "anti-activist" resistance to political engagement fades away because we realise political engagement is not just some external imposition by others. It's something we are doing, hearing, speaking and teaching all the time within daily life - often unwittingly. So that's what I would offer to someone who feels that frustration [with political activism]. 

I think genderfuck is a good example of that because I don't fell like it's overtly political, but I think the act itself is political because it is going against society's dominant, patriarchal ideas of gender. To me it seems like a very simple, direct way of doing something political without having a bullhorn. 

Actually I am shocked that you are phrasing it as not overtly political, because from my own experiences, it effects not just how people react to you on the street, it effects your ability to get work, it effects your ability to even buy things when people refuse to serve you… 

What I mean is not that it isn't political, as of course it is, it effects every aspect of your life. But what I am trying to articulate is that it doesn't fit into people's perceived notions of what "politics" is, which, as you mentioned, is people in suits, talking down to you, telling you how to live…

Well, maybe also because people perceive it as perversion, and therefore a personal choice. Within the public/private sphere that we have constructed so well around ourselves, this notion of choice is supposedly the indicator of freedom and de-politicised motion - basically, the opposite of activism. I think genderfuck doesn't register as traditional "politics" because it is seen as our "choice" to do genderfuck, simultaneously announcing and inhibiting our free movement within public spaces. As an action, it blurs the lines between "public" engagement and the perhaps shameful disclosure of something usually kept "private." I mean, most people think of "public spaces" as a forum for the political, whereas what happens in our bedrooms is considered private, "fuck you, it's my business and you have no say here." But in fact what happens in my bedroom IS directly related to what is not socially able to happen elsewhere. Much as the politics of the public fill private spaces, genderfuck seems to bring the politics of the private into the public. So yeah, there is that whole public/private thing of seeing genderfuck or certain other forms of transgenderism in relation to perversions, choices, illnesses to be treated, etc. - not standard political disourse. Of course, the minute we say these things we realise we cannot separate them from real material struggles. It's impossible. Especially when you are talking about perversion and illness. These are morally and politically laden terms. 

Right, we have been talking for over half an hour and we haven't discussed voguing or your roots in New York! I should probably start by asking how you got into that whole world? How did you discover voguing and ballroom? 

Ok, well I was doing activist work in NY in the late 80s. I guess it was around 1988 that I did a mix tape for the API contingent of the Gay Pride parade (API stands for Asian Pacific Islander, my partner at the time was one of the founders of the API Caucus at ACT-UP). I started DJ-ing at benefit events, and out of that, I started getting DJ gigs. I got a DJ residency at Sally's - actually Sally's II - which was a notorious midtown sex workers club at the Carter Hotel on 43rd St. It was a really different scene from the [East] Village, from the 'art queen' type of scene. Sally's was a place where there were sometimes balls, but mainly I worked two nights a week with Dorian Corey, and another night was with Miss Sherry from Las Vegas. So that was such an amazing thing - to be so young, in my early 20s, and working with these icons… I mean Dorian Corey [star of "Paris Is Burning"]… she really stood up to her legend! But because Sally's was very much a "post-op" scene, and Dorian and a few others were in their 60s (there were many first wave transexuals around), I also had a lot of early exposure to people in all different stages of life and transition. Not just people who were young and good looking and had the right surgeons, but also people who had been living for decades with implants. Of course, a lot of things are done on tight budgets and go wrong, so this is when I also came to conclusions on my own that I would remain "non-op". Based on not only the economic suffering I saw people getting themselves into, which is really like mortgaging a house (and a lot of the girls were homeless), but also just the general health difficulties I saw people getting into. I saw the different effects of aging on transitional procedures, that I think a lot of people don't see. And heard a lot of stories of health troubles from girls whose treatments had lapsed or were sporadic for years at a time, due to a lack of finances and health insurance. Although I worked full-time during the day as a secretary, I also had no confidence in the financial security of my own future, so it was a really intense experience for me, at a point when I really needed to make certain decisions about the course of my own life. 

How long were you at Sally's? 

I was DJ-ing there between 1991 and 1992, but it was probably around a six or seven month span. I got the Sally's II Grammy for Best DJ in 1991 in January or February of 1992, and then a month later I was fired because I refused to play a Gloria Estefan record! This was because it was requested by a big-cash John. So, Sally pulled me aside and said to me, "You gotta start playing Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys, and more of that stuff". At the time I was only playing underground house from New Jersey and the Lower East Side, mostly instrumental stuff, so I said "No, I''m not gonna play it," and she said "Well I'm gonna have to let you go". I mentioned that only a month earlier I had gotten the underground Grammy, so I couldn't be doing that bad, and she said, "Well, the girls voted you best DJ, but the Johns pay the bills." And that right there sums up a lot of my scepticism about how certain parts of ball and vogue scenes preach that it's all about acknowledgement and visibility and being named and breaking through. I mean, for me as a transgendered person, what better acknowledgement could I have had than being voted Best DJ by the girls themselves? Yet the Mother of the House Of Magic herself, Sally Maggio, then almost immediately turned around and invalidated that acknowledgement from the girls. Those two conflicting dynamics are tied up in the award. And that's why I hype it up on my website still, not because it is the symbol of some great achievement - which I realize is how most people will simplistically perceive it. For sure, mentioning the award after it was basically invalidated is like a "fuck you", ha ha! But in many ways it symbolizes the complete opposite - hypocrisy and even shame. At the same time, for those who understand the nuances of those kinds of situations, I don't want that "invalidated" initial meaning to be totally erased. It's very bittersweet. So yeah, the real reason I bring that story up is because it represents my concerns about how most people rely on representational strategies whose value systems are almost exclusively rooted in acquisition and visibility. Of course, the ball scene has a very long history with problems of exploitation, mis-representation and commodification, and those abuses are interwoven with very deeply rooted desires for acceptance, acknowledgement and visibility. The general tendency is to maintain face, and identify those problems as solely coming from without. But, through the internalization of violence, those problems are also part of the very practices through which the ball scene self-organizes. That award story kind of sums up the hypocrisies I think many people are struggling with in the ball community. 

That's interesting, because the period you were djing at Sally's would have been around the time "Paris Is Burning" came out? 

Just after, I think. 

That film has a very mixed history: on the one hand it is a huge amount of people's introduction to this whole world of houses and voguing, but also a lot of people say it only shows you a very small aspect of this world, and it's not doing it full justice. Did you see any of that in your time at Sally's? 

I think one of the problems of how people deal with representational issues within house communities (also, of course, within histories of racial and gender discrimination) is that it's easy to slip into a belief that representation can occur in an unbiased and fair way. Of course, every representation is a deception, and who should know that more than drag queens? So did I see it? Yeah of course I did, and at the same time I was actively arguing with queens who wanted me to play "Vogue" every night. It wasn't as though the scene as a whole had its shit together and knew all the problems with "Paris Is Burning" and Madonna's "Vogue" or whatever. There were people who were on the ball with that stuff, and I'd like to think that I was maybe one of them. But at the same time, there were a lot of people who really wanted to participate in that pop moment and celebrate it, simply because any visibility registered as good visibility. It's a kind of juvenile fandom fantasy, you know? So, in any representation of ball scenes, the question then becomes, "how does one really map and represent complexly overlapping communities that deploy languages of authenticity?" That authenticity can be tied to what kind of transgendered person you are, for example post-op realness versus butch queen realness versus a total train wreck person like myself. And, of course, authenticity in relation to issues of race, of class, etc. So, if that is the kind of language that's going on (and this was in the 80s and 90s, when identity politics with an essentialist twinge was in its heyday) how does one actually represent more complex relationships of community? And even myself, being someone who is White in a Latina and African-American club - if you want to boil everything down to essentialist race relations, what the fuck was I doing there, right? Well clearly that is not a very nuanced way to understand social relationships that bring people - even unexpected people - into specific spaces. It leaves you speaking of identity as a claim to territory, rather than speaking of social movement, interaction, organization, domination and violence. So I think unless you enter very precise conversations about why particular things failed or succeeded in terms of media representations, then the boundaries of that conversation becomes too broad and fall into sweepingly essentialist categories.

Terre Thaemlitz "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album" (Sprinkles' Unpaid Overtime) 

Find out more about Sprinkles/Terre (and buy her music!) at Comatonse Recordings

Much thanks to Barry, Bryony, everyone at Arika

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