Terre Thaemlitz

Excerpts from “the longest album in history”

Terre Thaemlitz is a musician, artist, filmmaker, polemicist. As a house DJ he performs under the name DJ Sprinkles, often in transgender clubs, but the work he brought to Sheffield’s Showroom as part of Alex Keegan’s Refrakt series wasn’t really about house music or club culture. The evening was billed as an ‘audio-visual performance lecture’: predominantly film-based, framed by an introduction and a question-and-answer session. It dealt with a whole raft of issues around gender, politics, religion, consumerism, immigration and more.

Keegan is a musician and philosophy graduate. The Showroom is one of the biggest independent cinemas in Europe. As a coming together of producer and arts venue (the premise behind the New Music Plus… initiative) this event did exactly what it said on the tin, and well. Personally I found it hard to stomach many of the ideas behind Thaemlitz’s caustic, hostile brand of polemical art, but the questions it prompted from the audience after the screening were impressively broad, candid and inquisitive.

MP3 artists are expected to provide extra multimedia freebies with little or no recompense. “What that creates,” he explained, “is a labour crisis in the industry.”

As we settled into the Showroom’s plush pea-green velvet seats, the speakers played a loop of slow, spacious piano chords. These turned out to be Canto V from Thaemlitz’s Soulnessless project: a 32-hour live recording that pushes at the limits of MP3 formatting. What kind of new playback possibilities, Thaemlitz wondered, are possible for recording artists today? His point is partially about new technical formats, partially about the demands that the marketplace places on today’s music makers. MP3 artists are expected to provide extra multimedia freebies with little or no recompense. “What that creates,” he explained, “is a labour crisis in the industry.”

The performance itself comprised Cantos I-IV of Soulnessless. These are short films shot with shaky hand-held camera, backed by claustrophobic electronic soundtracks and overlaid with dense bodies of text. Thaemlitz doesn’t leave his audience guessing over his take-home message. All four Cantos explore aspects of religion or spirituality, all of them drawing fairly jaundiced conclusions. The first soon becomes a tirade – “I hate all religion”, the text declares – and concludes by hailing Mary as a transgender icon. The second links superstition and belief in ghosts to the ill-treatment of Filipino immigrants in Japan. In the third Thaemlitz travels to the Philippines to interview nuns about sound systems in convents, and Canto IV describes Thaemlitz’s father’s experience with Catholicism and the connection between American Catholic schools and military youth training.

After the performance there was a moment’s silence before broadly enthusiastic applause broke out. Thaemlitz took to the floor to field questions. He described his method as ‘like a video game’, building up in difficulty from the first Canto, whose narrative was easy to follow, to the last, whose split-screen body of text was deliberately too much to keep up with. He intends his audience to give up or get lost, he explained. The films’ constant rhythm and repetition is a nod to “cult initiation films” shown to him in his youth by the Catholic church. This, too, is a tactic designed to alienate.

Terre Thaemlitz “I’m a nihilist and as people I think we’re just fucked.”

The Showroom audience could clearly handle the challenge. Questions ranged from the bemused to the technical to the deeply personal. “How often do you encounter people who, like you, are genuinely devoid of spirituality?” (Answer: rarely. Thaemlitz even equated Humanism’s ‘homogonised models’ to the sort of erasure of diversity that underpins fascism.) “Don’t people need to find some degree of commonality in order to coexist together?” (Answer: I’m a nihilist and as people I think we’re just fucked.) “What, then, makes you happy?!” (Answer: happiness is a post-industrial lifestyle choice.)

On paper Thaemlitz’s responses might have left little room for debate; his seems to be a determinedly cynical worldview with little compassion for those who think and feel differently from him. And yet his performance raised a lively and diverse discussion that went on for so long that Keegan eventually had to wrap things up “in case we’re here all night”. From the response around me, the evening seemed to strike a pertinent chord for many in the room.