Monday, 4 February 2013

Terre Thaemlitz.

Last Saturday I was in the Tanks at Tate Modern for ‘Gender Talents’. From the preliminary blurb:

Gender Talents: A Special Address, convened by Carlos Motta, presents an international group of thinkers, activists, and artists in a symposium that uses the proposition or manifesto as a structuring device and starting point for discussion. These ‘special addresses’ will explore models and strategies that transform the ways in which society perversely defines and regulates bodies. The event seeks to ask what is at stake when collapsing, inverting or abandoning the gender binary. Here the relation between self-determination and solidarity in processes of systemic change form the foundation of a pragmatic exploration of ways of being ungoverned by normative gender.

Make of that what you will – or not. It's the sort of stuff you churn out when you want arts funding (and there we were at Tate Modern after all). The event itself was more interesting. The symposiasts were (in order of appearance, double slash denoting discussion periods followed by short breaks): Carlos Motta, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, Del LaGrace Volcano, J. Jack Halberstam // Dean Spade (by video), Terre Thaemlitz, Beatriz Preciado // Giuseppe Campuzano, Xabier Arakistain, Campbell X, and Wu Tsang & Safra Project. (Follow the link in the first paragraph for brief bios.)

I'm not intending to review Gender Talents though. I've hated writing reviews since back when I had to do it regularly. Trying to think of something to say that isn't banal and derivative, even when you like what you're reviewing – in fact, especially when you like it... Instead, I just want to mention my favourite speaker of the day: Terre Thaemlitz.**

Terre runs Comatonse Recordings, which “is dedicated to the production and dissemination of non-categorical contemporary electronic music”, so I was down with him already. However, she also does a nice turn in iconoclasm, in particular debunking essentialist queer and trans narratives and their implicit hierarchies. Not from a position of superiority, denying people their (our) own truths as individuals – rather, it seems to me, from a position of inferiority: Oi, we're down here and you're stepping on us in your rush to be assimilated into the dominant culture, so consider the political consequences of what you're doing, okay? Then again, possibly that's not what he means at all. Perhaps it's best if you read what she has to say for yourself.

To that end, I'd suggest ‘Terre interviews Terre’ from October/December 2011. Here are a few snippets to get you started:

You might call me non-essentialist, non-op MTFTMTF... (...)
"Non-essentialist" (or sometimes I say "anti-essentialist") means that I reject the notion of my gender identity stemming from something natural, such as an "inner essence". ("Essentialist" refers to people who believe their gender is innate or biological, such as a belief in "being born this way".) Particularly in relation to social organizing and political issues, the downside of any essentialist argument - asking for rights because "I can't help it, I was born this way" - is that it removes all self-agency and capacity for choice around the issue at hand. (...)
"Non-op" means without having had any operations or medical procedures (you may have heard of the more common term "post-op", or "post-operative", used in reference to people who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery).
"MTF" means "Male to Female", which refers to people who deviate from an initially male-identified gender identity (conversely, "FTM" means "Female to Male"). I tend to list them in an endless cycle, "MTFTMTF...", because my self-representation is open-ended and goes back and forth.

[F]or several years now, when writing about myself I alternate gender pronouns (...). I prefer this to conventional "neutral" pronouns ("one", "they") because gender is never neutral under patriarchy. (...) By simply rotating "she" and "he", the focus remains on unresolved questions of gender identity within patriarchy, while rejecting the notion that "third-gender" pronouns offer a comfort zone or escape route (although they may for others). Also, because "he/she/he/she" rotation is disorienting and annoying to most everyone, I feel I am inviting the reader to share in the awkwardness and inconvenience I continually feel around issues of gender identification.

I do not identify as a man unless the social environment makes it absolutely necessary (such as in my passport). At the same time, this refusal to identify certainly does not mean I am "transcendent" of gender, and I would never say anything individualist like, "I'm not male or female - I'm just me". Society does not grant us that freedom. "I" am always in relation to "you", which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as "you" will allow. This will change depending on whether "you" are a stranger, a friend, a lover, a family member, a physician, another trans-identified person, intersexed, transsexual, a government official, etc.
For example, when I am in women's clothes and say, "I am transgendered", the reaction is completely different than when I say the same thing while wearing men's clothes. When I wear women's clothes, it seems "real" to people. They seem to accept my femme appearance as part of a longer physical transition - they may imagine I will one day undergo medical transitioning. When I wear men's clothes, what I say is more likely to be heard as the word-games of a dilettante with no material connection to their notion of "true" transgendered bodies. This is the gap in which I exist.

That how you identify depends on context... absolutely!

So, yes, I'd certainly recommend reading the whole of Terre's interview with himself. And you can find more of her writings here. And if you want his music, you can buy it from her here. And there's a mix he did for Resident Advisor available here.

I could get quite used to this rotating pronouns business :)

** The text to Terre's address at Tate Modern can now be read here.


  1. Excellent stuff, J - many thanks! Right on, Terre - this is just what I need to read. It is so much more liberating, radical, open and positive than essentialist narratives.

    Do you know, J, where I could find some good participatory online non-essentialist, non-op trans culture?

    D xx

    1. Specifically? No, sorry. I asked on Twitter as well... to no result. I guess everyone is just mixed in together. The most varied forum I'm on is Genderfork, but it's not very active. Forums in general aren't very active anymore. I blame facebook!

  2. Thanks, J! I've just joined Genderfork.

    Otherwise, oh well!I always seem to be an evolutionary stage or two behind other people in 'progress'. I can endeavour to console myself in finding something poetic about this. xx