Terre Thaemlitz, Interstices, video installation, coutesy documenta 14, photo C Mathias Voelzka

A conversation with Terre Thaemlitz - ‘Fuck art, seriously. Fuck music. Fuck religion, while we're at it’ 

Issue no4
Aug - Sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

As the sun sets outside Cologne’s brilliant white, minimalist Christuskirche, I watch hardcore porn in soft focus. Women are penetrated while they perform domestic chores. Hips gyrate pinkly as the video collage cuts to another lurid scene – pinafored women and lithe young men are glimpsed as though through the haze of a rose-tinted telescope. The priest, bless him, insists he doesn’t mind. Manic birdsong runs into heady cello crescendos, and a muffled, girlish moaning trills constantly from the right-hand side of the room. The man next to me keeps crossing and uncrossing his legs.

For 86 minutes, amid pixelated, pornographic goo, a treatise on the immorality of reproduction streams across the screen: Craig loved his vasectomy; Adam raped and impregnated a thirteen-year-old girl; and Yuko arranged an abortion the moment she knew she was pregnant. Taki experienced ‘pregnancy denial’ and gave birth into a toilet pit – the hole was too narrow, so she “rammed the blockage down”. This is Deproduction, the latest offering from Terre Thaemlitz, co-produced by documenta 14 and Cologne’s Academie Der Künste der Welt. Eighteen vignettes in ‘Names have been changed / Sound/Reading for Incest Porn’ sample the horrors of procreation, before ‘Admit that it’s killing you (and leave) / Sound/Reading for Gay Porn,’ the show’s second part, deepens its theoretical defence of people who choose not to have kids. The “first piece,” Thaemlitz tells me, “uses incest porn, and the second gay porn. These are the two polarities of sexual taboos in relation to patriarchal families. Traditionally speaking, incest represents the ultimate sexual taboo within the family unit, and non-reproductive gay male sex is the ultimate taboo outside the family.”

Throughout the performance, beneath the screen, sits owlish Thaemlitz. When it’s over, a long silence ensues, the audience apparently unsure whether it has ended or how they are expected to respond. Clapping, when it does come, is strange after what we have seen, and no less awkward than silence. About half the audience has left. Thaemlitz appears not to mind – “fuck ‘em,” she says. There is a faint sense that the joke – not quite funny – is on us. “Love is a concept used to justify violence,” Thaemlitz says, responding to a question from the audience – is there is any place for love in her vision? I, too, ask Thaemlitz whether there is place for hope within this nihilism, and what, if there is none, we should do about kindness. He rejects the idea “that all that is good in the world is that which is invested with dreams and visions and plans for tomorrow... It's really symptomatic of the imposed optimism through which capitalism and globalization insist we live, work and breath. Just because we are totally fucked does not mean suddenly anything goes.”

Thaemlitz – or DJ Sprinkles as he or she is also known – has spent her whole public life refusing to participate in the essentializing binaries of gender, and has turned the same intelligence on any number of naturalized phenomena. “Nick Drake sang that great line in "Time Has Told Me": ‘So I'll leave the ways that are making me be what I really don't want to be, | Leave the ways that are making me love what I really don't want to love.’ ...What if we look at the lesson of family as not about how family "naturally" supersedes all other social bonds, but as our social capacity to hold really intense and lifelong bonds with really different people we would never willingly choose to have in our lives, simply because of the ways in which we are conditioned to see them as forever a part of our lives?” she asks. Do these relationships not, instead, prepare us for lives of owning and being owned?

It is hard not to be swept away by Thaemlitz’ arguments when you consider the extraordinary prevalence of sexual abuse that happens within families, overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Advocating for the dissolution of such bonds and the lifelong claims they exact is clearly an argument against violence, and not simply for choice. “Family remains a feudal micro-kingdom – the epitome of anti-democratic social organization,” Thaemlitz says, analyzing the family as it figures in the variously racist, sexist, capitalist work of the state. “In classic fashion, this intensity of potential for incest is matched by an intensity of moral rhetoric about family values and sexual propriety,” she argues, describing the cultural myopia that permeates liberal societies, and the saccharine moralism that denies root causes and bars path to understanding.

Terre Thaemlitz, Interstices, video installation, coutesy documenta 14, photo C Mathias Voelzka

Terre Thaemlitz, Deproduction, 2017, courtesy documnenta 14

Do you think the violence of gender is getting worse?, I ask Thaemlitz. “I mean, today Beyonce is a mainstream feminist icon... really? Caitlyn Jenner uses her Trump-supporting Republican wealth to advance the rights of transfolk... really? What kinds of body images, essentialisms and politics are happening here?” he asks. “There isn't much cultural deviation going on. It's all about pacifying potential deviants with a smokescreen of mainstream acceptance. And it seems most people today don't want to deviate. They just want acceptance despite a kind of visual difference that is devoid of social risk taking. It's all about being loved, being liked, being LIKE'd on social media, etc. And this goes into your question as to whether the violence of gender is getting worse. I think yes, despite a kind of general vibe that things are looking up, the actual cultural processes behind the construction of that vibe are horrifically violent and cultic.” Since Thaemlitz said this, Jenner has been photographed out and about in her ‘Make America Great Again’ cap just days after Trump decreed by tweet that transgender people would no longer be allowed to fight in the army as their medical costs were too high. In a culture that is more and more about symbols, and less about its own internal mechanisms, Jenner is the exception that writes the rules.

“I grew up in the '70s and '80s with gender-bending, which was not about passing as one gender or the other,” Thaemlitz tells me. Attendance to context and complexity are hallmarks of Thaemlitz’s musical and political work, and, in both spheres, she tends to sample, combine, subvert and resist. As 2008’s fêted Midtown 120 Blues announced, “House is not universal. House is hyper-specific… The contexts from which the Deep House sound emerged are forgotten”. Like musical genres, Thaemlitz views identity as “contradictory and multifaceted”, and refuses to accept false monoliths. “I prefer to openly build arguments around hypocrisies and contradictions, as a means of fighting didacticism,” he says. The cacophony featured in Deproduction sought to destabilise its audience’s expectations of pleasure, cello swells clashing with the irritations of constant tweeting and panting. The show as a whole demonstrated an overt antagonism with music and art as spaces of transformation, transcendence and even public education. "If I am an artist, I am a con artist," Thaemlitz said in a talk a few years back.

“To paraphrase something Dont Rhine of Ultra-red once told me years ago, the main problem with "political art" is that it mistakes the act of analysis (such as producing an artwork) with actual political organizing,” Thaemlitz says. “I think that is really the fundamental error of those who espouse that art can change the world, or music can change the world, etc. I mean, for a start, "changing the world?" That kind of over-reaching agenda is already a huge bullshitter warning sign. It's also indicative of latent totalitarianism, really. "Today MOMA, tomorrow... the world!" And whatever ideas or engagements of the head art may give you, they are usually happening in very specific and socially peculiar spaces. Often quite elitist and insular spaces. And to make things worse, they are usually just your reactions to an artist's hint at a political or social topic, without their ever actually developing a message with any clarity... The ensuing vagary and confusion of the viewer becomes commensurate with the work's depth. It's bullshit. So to presume those contexts are good places to talk about things is not much different from a religious person talking about how you should join their bible study because of all the good their church does for the community. And the sad thing is, the average church probably actually does more in terms of communal organizing. So yeah, fuck art, seriously. Fuck music. Fuck religion, while we're at it.”

Thaemlitz once said that growing up, “I had absolutely no interest in anything “transcendental,” simply because I was always in such a struggle to get in touch with reality, in a kind of brute way” – and this logic of restless demystification persists. In Deproduction, Thaemlitz poses her arguments seriously. Yet she resists wordless assent to the patronage of art institutions: she needs, as she has said a million times, money to survive. Beyond this, non-cooperation and bored defiance are personal and political realities – just because it’s ‘art’ doesn’t mean it’s not work; no, there’s nothing to hope for, you can’t become a “positive revolutionary,” and collapse into an industry of optimistic opium. Still, there is today, there are struggles for “localized harm reduction” that need to be fought; conversations that still need to be had; refusals still to be made, and vulnerabilities to be preserved, even in the face of violence.


Phoebe Braithwaite
is a writer and editor of openDemocracy Londen

Share this Article:
|Back to Top
Related | Most read
Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2021