Why is the concept of “liveness” in culture still as pervasive? Why do we stubbornly hold on to it even in times of a global pandemic? Japan-based producer and DJ Terre Thaemlitz has been preoccupied with questions like these for more than two decades. She consistently and relentlessly draws attention to the fact that the persistence of notions of authentic self-expression, of originality and authenticity in art and music, go hand in hand with essentialist identity politics. For Thaemlitz, the cultural, economic, and aesthetic dependence on “liveness” is one of the results of this conceptual alliance. In collaboration with the Yokohama International Performing Arts Meeting (YPAM), V/A – Various Artists hosted a discussion with Terre Thaemlitz on December 14 2021. V/A’s editors Marc Schwegler and Remo Bitzi and YPAM’s program officer Tomoyuki Arai talked to Thaemlitz about the current iterations of the notion of “liveness” and how they are tied to contemporary social, cultural, and technological systems. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.
TOMOYUKI Let us start the discussion by trying to get ourselves acquainted first with what we called the “regime of liveness.” What do we mean by that term, and what does it entail?
TERRE I think most people think of live performance as something authentic and original that is rooted in talent. We know that under patriarchy this notion has historically played a very specific role in the narrative of how men have come to create the world and the culture we live in. The cultural processes through which we learn to identify and even feel what qualifies as an “authentic live moment” are not universal and emerging out of some shared human experience. They are colonial by design, contextual, and expressions of the power dynamics within specific social relations. On a fundamental level, this is demonstrated in the way victors in warfare historically seek to eradicate or rewrite the cultural legacies of those they have defeated. Within many cultural regimes, including within contemporary capitalist globalization, the concept of “liveness” has come to symbolize an authentic performance of the self—for performers as well as audiences. What is “not live” is fake, inauthentic, inferior. For example, lip-syncing. Meanwhile, the histories of forms of media and cultural production that reject or are critical of that “liveness,” such as a drag performances that literally revolve around lip-syncing, are culturally downgraded to a level that is often commensurate with the social downgrading of the people doing it. In this way, live performances—and the systems through which their cultural value are defined in rejection of what is not authentically live—are expressions of the regimes in which they obtain value. And this, of course, simultaneously excludes what is culturally devalued or considered to be without value.
REMO You’ve been critical of the concept of liveness and the idea that a live performance should be perceived as something original and authentic for quite some time. For example, you discuss it in the context of your own practice in your 1997 essay “The Crisis of Post-Spectacle ‘Live’ Contemporary Ambient Performance (Or… Why I Can’t Get Paid to DJ A-Structural Audio).” Could you briefly summarize your stance?
TERRE I wish I never had to perform. The reason why I perform non-performative work is out of economic necessity; it’s the only way to earn money with the kind of work I produce. Jacques Attali wrote in Noise: The Political Economy of Music: “In music, as in the rest of the economy, the logic of the succession of musical codes parallels the logic of the creation of value.” What that means is that what becomes culturally labelled as “music”—or audio work that can actually achieve funding status, whether it be through government grants or corporate funds—and that becomes popular and functional in an economic sense is always going to parallel a kind of value system that is upheld by the mainstream. This means that in the case of live music events that can be staged in certain types of settings like theaters, they have to conform to an established model of what an audience is. This is also true even now, during the pandemic, when live performance becomes by and large impossible—and despite the fact that almost everything is done digitally these days. One might think that the restrictions on live performances under the current global health crisis could provide a cultural opening into some other kinds of non-performative-based methodologies, or digital practices that foreground the fact that they are digital, but almost all of the technology that comes out of this moment, and all of the projects that are getting the most funding, revolve around the concept of live tele-projection.
This ties into a very long history of economic and cultural entanglement which has prioritized certain types of performance. Within the framework of modernity, this can be traced back a little over one hundred years ago to the tensions between two different aesthetic or cultural practices: Futurism and Constructivism. Constructivism was rooted in engineering more than in creativity. It was based on collectivist ideas and linked to ideologies of socialism and communism. Futurism, on the other hand, was very much about the creative gesture as a kind of disruptive, violent act, and indeed was a movement founded and endorsed by fascists. Both of those two cultural practices generated a lot of ideas on how we might approach the technological production of audio.
In Constructivism and in Futurism—and later on in Musique concrète and tape music—a trajectory of experimenting with electrical devices emerged. Most of the devices that contemporary experimental electronic music uses today can be traced back to people who were actually trying to do quite conservative things, like for example the theremin. The theremin was developed as a new instrument for a very conventional orchestra. The same is true for the guitar distortion pedal that came to define the Rhythm and Blues and Rock’n’Roll movements, which was first introduced in American Country-Western music: it was actually meant to be used to emulate an orchestra by giving the guitar a wider breadth of string tones. Even the TB-303, which is the infamous bassline synthesizer for Chicago Acid House, was made for guitarists to program a bassline to practice along to. All of these devices, however, were misused by people inhabiting culturally minor spaces, and that is how we ended up with these alternative production processes, although every one of them also ultimately became once again re-consumed, reified, and put back into the marketplace on a mainstream level.
MARC It’s interesting to think about liveness from a technological perspective. Recording devices enter the picture at the same time as the antagonism between Constructivism and Futurism…
TERRE Constructivism was already dead by the time tape music and sampling as well as DJ culture emerged, but there was this movement of sample-based, non-original, consciously referential audio production both in academic ivory towers like IRCAM as well as on the dancefloors. From the late 1970s into the 1990s, however, there was a series of lawsuits regarding sampling and copyright infringement. It’s interesting to note that one of the key futurist imagery-holders in electronic music, Kraftwerk, sued Afrika Bambataa for copying their song “Trans-Europe Express.” Without speaking to Kraftwerk’s personal intentions, on the cultural level there’s an immediate betrayal of class and race interests within the gesture of electronic musicians embedded in futurist iconography suing African American hip-hop producers. Lawsuits like this one in the US music marketplace pretty much set the framework for copyright legislation around the world. In the US, it basically set the legal precedent that a sample was still referencing an original source, and thus the concept of original authorship had a higher legal status than practices of anonymity and eschewing, confusing, and conflating such a concept of authorship.
Of course, that legal status also upheld a cultural status. Back then in the days before online streaming, we as people were constantly bombarded with radio play that was always corporate based, so the public had few means of selecting what we heard during the course of our day. By making it illegal for people to sample at will, the courts essentially decided that we as cultural participants could not culturally possess the music that we were corporately and economically pushed to internalize and even build our identities around. This meant that even sample-based work must forever be positioned in relation to, and succumb to, the cultural frameworks of authorship, originality, and creativity. And all the audio production software coming after that era of lawsuits catered to those frameworks. Max/MSP, Ableton Live and other real-time programs took over the marketplace while non-real-time software pretty much drifted to the wayside. For example, black box strategies for sound synthesis—a form of audio synthesis in which you start a sound generating process and let your computer render it for a couple of hours with no certainty about what the result will sound like—have all but disappeared. Personally speaking, in my own electro-acoustic work that’s where the best sounds came from! That’s why I can’t make interesting electro-acoustic projects anymore, because none of the old software works! (laughs)
All of this sets the framework for where we are today. There is an enormous economy around digital audio production, but, culturally speaking, it’s completely embedded in mythologies of the creative artist, of the electronic music producer who is also a live musician. Today it is commonplace to hear arguments elevating the DJ to the level of the musician, yet we never hear arguments rooted in divestments of power that seek to pull the musician down to the level of the DJ. I am coming more from this latter position.
MARC You’ve already talked about how little change there is in the emphasis on liveness even though the pandemic forced a lot of performances and presentations of works into the digital realm. I feel like a lot of players in the field of arts and culture tried to just transfer their usual activities and programming of live performances into online streams, where they now have to compete with media companies and activities that are way more attractive to audiences. So it might not be venues, clubs, and arts institutions that will hold up the banner of liveness after all.
TERRE I would just say that whoever does take the place of established cultural institutions and venues—and oftentimes in Europe they’re funded by the state, not by corporations—no matter how radical they may position themselves as an alternative or an antithesis to what has existed before, I can guarantee that they will be rooted in conservatism because they can only have access to that funding if culturally they perform a heteronormative function. We can compare that to LGBT issues: a lot of people tend to think that the new liberal mindset paves the way for a tremendous moment of opening, when in fact I think we’re entering a more dangerous and difficult-to-dissect form of sexual and gender control simply because dominant cultures figured out that it doesn’t matter if people are gay or straight, if they identify as male or female or non-binary or trans or transsexual or intersex, so long as their performance of those sexualities and genders conforms to certain degrees of heteronormativity. The issue is no longer about the opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality; it’s simply about applauding heteronormativity within mainstream queerness, transgenderism, etc. In the same way, then, you can say that any kind of federal—or, in the case of Japan and the US, corporate—funding for arts and media is only going to continue to happen so long as “radical gestures of change” and what seems to be “new” ultimately conform to a moralistic framework that is in line with dominant heteronormative cultures.
Whatever is on the horizon can be different from what we are accustomed to, but it is certainly also going to be heteronormative and not going to bring about anything interesting. Basically, this is why we’re always going to need people consciously working within culturally minor positions and in antagonism to the funded mainstream. If you personally go through a process of visibly making it within a dominant cultural system, and if you’re not able to have a self-critical perspective on the inevitability of selling out when entering a regime of visibility on a mainstream level, you will continue to be duped into believing the banner you uphold symbolizes something radical.
Likewise, online performances are emulating live performances, but they are more low-budget than before the pandemic, and as a result of that drop in production quality, of course they are increasingly lumped in with what’s going on in everyday social media—which, by the way, are not the democratic tools that people think they are. We live in an era that no longer emphasizes content development but emphasizes content delivery instead. What we do and say has less and less importance; it’s simply generating white noise within the bandwidth. This all comes along with a radically conservative breed of censorship, which of course predominantly targets the Left more than the Right in terms of functionality, but it gets away with this by motivating people who identify as liberal to be cops out there, policing people and creating a cultural climate in which censorship is acceptable to many who align themselves with the Left.
It’s once again the Right tricking the Left into doing its dirty work. All those people, those influencers on social media, also feel like they’re being creative, and culturally they are increasingly being equated with traditional creators in the sense of what has been historically funded by the state. I cannot see that as liberating. I do not see influencers changing the game. They love the fame game. Rather, I see it as just a cultural passing of the torch from an old model of ‘creatives’ to a new model. But the new model is still entrenched in the same conservative ideologies as the old. I think this unconsidered traditionalism behind much of what media companies and online practices offer is symptomatic of an internet which was developed by the military and academic institutions—two reactionary conservative frameworks. How the fuck are academia and the military going to liberate us? By turning the internet over to corporations? How’s any of that been working out for us? (laughs) It’s not like the roots of certain systems always determine what will eventually happen, but we have to understand that if we don’t have a critical perspective on our relationship to those systems and their histories, then we’re losing track of the materialist framework that we’re operating in, which then goes to deploy more ideological production aimed at giving us a false sense of creativity or freedom, of individuality or independence—all this bullshit that capitalist society wants us to buy into both emotionally and economically.
TOMOYUKI I find this thought very important—that capitalism conceals the material roots of things and makes us believe that what we feel is rooted in natural necessity.
TERRE Capitalism employs a process of ideological production that always inverts our perception of the social systems we inhabit. That is the same fundamental premise behind the concept of art having a kind of eternal, universal, or timeless value—something that transcends the contextual. We need to go through tremendous ideological leaps to convince ourselves that the very world in which we live in doesn’t determine the value systems that we employ to judge that world. Systems of power employ ideologies to conceal their actions and their violence. These ideological inversions have an endless daily function for us.
Art, music, and notions of creativity and authenticity are things that are culturally being used to convince people that we have a “natural” (i.e., supra-social) relationship to those things that we feel so “instinctively” attracted to—the result of which is the naturalization of social relations and the power dynamics they hold within; however, I think that kind of “instinctive perception” is something that has a constructed dynamic to it. The same is true for our sense of instinctive attraction in relation to sexuality. If you grow up in a society that insists that you can only like your opposite gender or your same gender—a binary logic that doesn’t even make sense for trans people that don’t identify as male or female—then we of course limit our framework of reference so that it ends up feeling completely natural to think that one has been born straight or born gay. I think that there’s a social process that goes into the elimination of other possibilities, and that limits what we are capable of conceiving as “natural” or “instinctual.” It limits what we are even capable of conceiving as possible.
This can also be applied to the functions of creativity: when we place the value of performance upon its creative potential and its liveness, we are also eliminating a whole cultural onslaught of other possibilities for how to perceive one’s own methods of production and practice—especially if we’re talking about work that is meant to be critical of the mainstream. As a result, we are encouraged to remain clueless to our own stance within that system of being duped. One can make that an insistent part of one’s work, which is something that I try to do. I don’t identify as an artist: I identify as a producer or a critic whose entire practice is about being critical of the entire concept of what it means to be an artist. But you have to endlessly talk about these kinds of things, and the message still never gets across. Here I am, working like this for over thirty years, and Tomoyuki who has known me for a long time still called me an artist when he introduced me today! (laughs) That’s okay, I still love you. These things happen; they slip into our way of talking. Sometimes I want to say “audio production” but say “music” instead, even though those two things for me are radically different.
MARC Recently, Remo and I have been interested in the tutorial culture that emerged online: all those people tutorializing their arts and crafts practices, from cooking to music making. We were thinking that this may lead to a moment in which the concept of performance or liveness could change in an interesting way.
TERRE That you can have a million people visibly out there doesn’t mean that you have a million people with critical perspectives rooted in critical practices. Their characters may often be snarky—they may behave “critically” in the sense that they’re being bitchy and critical of others—but I think there’s only a few people who have a materially grounded culturally critical message that is somehow aligned with an analysis of the methodologies being used to convey that message. In the same way, sexual and gender issues have been popularized to an extent that has created a very top-level mainstream movement around queerness, non-binary positions, etc. In the end, though, the kinds of people who are generating discourses in ways that are actively non-heteronormative are a minority within a minority. This is what I call the “queer ratio.” Even when you’re addressing a completely Queer audience, the people who are invested in non-heteronormative lifestyles are always going to be a queered minority within that group.
The kinds of online practices that you are talking about are always going to create an incredible amount of white noise, and within that there’ll be a few people that might be doing things that have a critical or disruptive use-value. That’s why I’m always speaking to a notion of culturally minor practices that are not rooted in any attempt for a regime change, that are not rooted in any hope or aspiration of seizing power but are invested in endless analyses of power relations which inform strategies of non-cooperation and practices to divest of power. I’m not interested in power-sharing; I’m not interested in grabbing the reins. I understand that power is inherently abusive. All one can do is struggle to mediate one’s countless, unavoidable, endless and hypocritical relationships to systems of violence. And that generally requires minor, localized, anti-populist yet anti-elitist, geographically and historically contextual practices that are by necessity in antagonism with dominant cultural praxes.