There is a sense, in Terre Thaemlitz’s exhibition ‘Interstices’, of what you might call the time-traveller’s dilemma: to be stuck in the past, knowing what is to come, but having to follow through with it anyway. This is not simply because the works featured here were made at the very start of our whirlwind new century and are manifestly of that era; Thaemlitz, a prolific transgender music producer, DJ and writer, released her glitch cut-up album Interstices on the eminent electronic music label Mille Plateaux in 2000. An entire wall in the gallery’s front room is covered with dark blue paper, the lengthy text that accompanied the original album set out across it in old-school ‘terminal’ computer typeface, while the video in the back room, Interstices (2000–03), was put together shortly after. The film – an 18-minute romp through porn, daytime talk shows and scrambled jazz and country music – is more than just a visual transcript of the album. Nevertheless, it has the feeling of being an experiment in which Thaemlitz already knew the outcome.
The expansive wall text sets out a range of definitions of the work before we’ve had the chance to encounter it, explaining the editing techniques that shape the project and comparing Thaemlitz’s production of the album to applying layers of make-up. Theoretical interpretations are offered, as she sets out a ‘conceptual emphasis of sonic peripheries and moments between dominant melodic contents,’ to form ‘a symbolic relation to non-essentialist identity politics including Queer pansexuality and transgenderism’. The video itself (which featured in documenta 14 in Athens earlier this year) fortunately exceeds and explodes all this pre-digestion: it is, first and foremost, a personal essay on the social and medical norms that attempt to force gender identities onto individuals. It is also a process-led experiment in media manipulation and excision: showing porn without sex, talk shows without talking and rock songs without singing. And it’s a hymn – overflowing, mischievous and at points even celebratory – to what identity, gender and sex might be.
‘Jobs available! Choice positions! All openings must be filled!’ the text reads in between VHS-engrained flashes of contorted bodies and faces gurning with something like pleasure. The flashy tongue-in-cheek humour subsides as voices from doctors and patients recount fragments of gender reassignment experiences, treated as cases of ‘experimental surgery’, left as ‘ruined people’. One section draws from a talk show focusing on a sport-loving tomboy who is given a girly makeover; ‘Here’s Wendy before’, the host announces, as the video cuts to someone gyrating wearing a strap-on, running a broom over a prostrate companion. ‘Now,’ the host proclaims proudly after the reveal, ‘it takes her two hours to get ready rather than the ten minutes it used to!’ The question it all begs: why do we have to be one thing or the other?
Thaemlitz’s point, of course, is that we don’t – or that we shouldn’t have to. But the seductive and abrasive ambiguity of the video manages to express that in complex and dynamic ways. His formal collaging and theoretical insistence on liminality and interstitiality root it in the time in which it was made, but the video maintains a tension that is enduringly lively: both raw and over-digested; unfinished and foregone. Glitch aesthetics of the late 1990s and early 2000s was meant to be a way through the 1s and 0s of the digital cage, a way to hear and see the material of this supposedly intangible format; Thaemlitz, a brilliant, relentless pessimist, knows there’s no way out, but there is useful, critical equivocation. Interstices maintains a wary uncertainty that might be occasionally joyful despite itself, dragging its heels all the way.
Main image: Terre Thaemlitz, Interstices, 2001–03, site-specific text installation view, 2017, Auto Italia, London, window vinyl, vinyl wallpaper, poster handouts, Tokyo Blue strip light. Courtesy: Auto Italia, London; photograph: Manuela Barczewski