There's a story Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles, tells in a footnote to an address given at Tate Modern a few weeks ago, and which is now published on Thaemlitz's website. It tells how, while DJ-ing a deep house set at the closing party of the event – a queer and trans-gender cultural symposium - Thaermlitz was approached by a blonde-haired woman who requested something be played by Madonna. When Thaemlitz declined to play anything by her or any of the woman's other requests, she turned nasty, and started calling Thaemlitz a faggot before staff moved her away from the DJ booth.
Such an ugly incident speaks volumes about how deep-rooted homophobia remains in society. The fact that this was a queer and trans-gender event makes the incident even worse. This is just one of the concerns which may be raised in 'Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight', Episode 5 of Instal and Kill Yr Timid Notion festival founders Arika's latest line of inquiry, which gives as much discussion space to the philosophical and political ideas behind a particular sonic form as it does to the music itself.
Episode 4: Freedom is A Constant Struggle, which runs this weekend, looks at the relationship between poetry, jazz and revolution in the dissident black American culture that grew from the 1960s civil rights movement. Following on from this, Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, which takes place next month, looks at the gay, bi and trans-gender sub-cultures based around the House Ballroom scene of the 1980s, which sired vogueing and other flamboyant dance styles, as well as embracing drag and lip-synching alongside a deep house soundtrack into what seemed from the outside like the greatest party on the planet. Especially when it was co-opted into the mainstream by pop cultural magpie and material girl, Madonna. Thaemlitz, however, who chooses to switch between gender pronouns when writing or talking about him/herself, sees it differently, and is almost mournful about the culture he is both immersed in, while remaining outside of it.
“The way in which queer club culture and trans-gender club culture is tied to ecstacy and pleasure,” Thaemlitz says, “what that means is that people don't always see that it is tied to a lot of social strife. This idea that clubs are about community, and finding some kind of place where outsiders can all be together, that helps the clubs keep their power as a kind of fake safe space.”
The social strife Thaemlitz is talking about, of course, is the rise of the AIDS virus which decimated many from the House Ballroom scene. Maybe this recognition that the party was over before anyone was prepared to admit it is in part what's left Thaemlitz out in the cold. As a non-op trans-gender person and an ultra-articulate polemicist and critic of the scene, Thaemlitz's stance hasn't always gone down well with what one might presume to be her natural constituency.
“Most of the time I'm just ignored by them,” she says, “It's so rare to be asked to play in the queer club scene.”
For almost twenty years, Thaemlitz has combined a prolific musical output under assorted names including DJ Sprinkles, with a series of public speaking provocations that counter received orthodoxies about queer and trans-gender culture. Now also in charge of the Comatonse Recordings label, she remains wilfully singular in her world-views.
“It's more like I did something in the eighties and nineties, and then stopped,” she says, “whereas now it's more about a decline both personally and sonically in music. For me, whatever's happening now is a critique of the house music of the past, when, for me, what was going on in the eighties was the most interesting time. Remermber in the eighties when there was all this retro thing for the sixties, with all these sixties soundtracks on Vietnam War films? That's kind of what it's like for me now with eighties house music. It's like going to an oldies night. I'm kind of anti-futurist in that way. I'm not a dreamer or an anticipator. I'm still trying to catch up with the present, and that's as much as I can hope for.”
For Hidden in Plain Sight, Thaemlitz will take part in three events. The first two of these will draw from Soullessness, a project which saw her put together some thirty-two hours of music, eighty minutes of video and 150 pages of writings and images that looks at gender, spirituality and a myriad of things besides in an epic mash-up of sound and vision. In Glasgow, Thaemlitz will read extracts from texts followed by a discussion, and will perform parts one through to four of Soullessness. Then, as DJ Sprinkles, she will play at two club nights which bring together House Ballroom stalwarts, including The Legendary Pony Zion Garcon, who brings Vogue Evolution, a dance troupe focusing on social concerns, to town; as well as black transgender lipsynch artist, boychild.
While this should capture the House Ballroom scene in all its glory, Thaemlitz for one sees little to celebrate.
“It still goes back to that blonde woman,” she says, “giving out all those homophobic slurs to me and to others. It's really important to understand that this is still happening.”
Episode 4: Freedom is A Constant Struggle, April 18-21; Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, May 24-26, Tramway, Glasgow. Hidden in Plain Sight: Club, Stereo, Glasgow, May 24-25
The List, April 2013