Photo by boychild
Between maniacal laughter, MIDI horns and aggressive bursts of noise, a voice is heard proclaiming, as if from the trailer for the latest Michael Bay blockbuster: ‘the darkest hour’. This trope which appears throughout Elysia Crampton’s oeuvre is a strangely ominous sign for an artist who takes a major influence from Jose Muñoz, one of the central theorists of queer optimism. But as Crampton explains, such contradictions don’t present a problem to her. And in fact, forcing such apparent antagonisms between optimism and pessimism, past and future to come to the fore is a central tenet of Crampton’s creative practice, which in many ways is an attempt to decolonise the club. An attempt which, as she explains, is sorely needed in the present moment.
2016 saw many horrific political currents globally (or perhaps just in the global north) come to a head. In your piece ‘Dissolution of the Sovereign: A Time Slide… (Or: A Non-Abled Offender’s exercise in Jurisprudence)’ a voice announces that ‘The future is our domain — the here and now is a prison house’. Would you say this is a statement that informs your work generally?
Yeah, thats actually a rewritten quote from Jose Muñoz, who sadly died a couple of years ago. The interesting thing is that if all that shit didn’t go down last year I still would have written that work, which goes to show that — I don’t want to get into identity politics here — but I guess you could say that thats because of who I am, as trans, as someone of indigenous descent, this is a mindset and a relationship to survival that is ongoing and didn’t just begin with the events of 2016. And of course it’s related to what’s going on, but I wrote that work actually in December 2015, and so I had no idea what things were gonna be like when I started performing it.
Maybe I’m going off too much, but it was really interesting on one end to feel like I had the privilege and agency to perform my life basically: my own struggle. A trans group from Bolivia gave me these special archive images of the trans history there that I projected when I performed. It made me feel like I had this agency and this privilege that in hindsight I didn’t really have, but I think it was a form of survival for me, of not having to face exactly what I was going through at the time in order to do it, and so at one end I felt like I had this agency and privilege being able to be on a stage and perform my life and experience, but on the other I was still going and experiencing all the violence just to get on that stage, like going through the checkpoints for each city that I came to, and having to deal with all the street harassment just to get there, or even deal with the exclusion from the people actually putting on the shows, like maybe with the sound person or something.
I was just thinking about that the other day; how you can occupy two places at the same time. And I think we live in such a binarized society, particularly in the US, where it’s like, if you feel like you’re on one side, it’s like you’re automatically sided to that, when life is actually much more complicated, and I think thats where an indigenous perspective really helps. Especially an Aymara perspective, coming from where my family comes from — an Andean perspective — where they value trivalent logic, where those inconsistencies can be housed together and we can embody them.
At the same time as this future-orientedness, there seems to be a deep acknowledgement of your cultural heritage, with direct references to, and samples of, cumbia and huayño music. How do the past and the future relate in your work?
You know, there was so much about my own experience growing up — and I’m in my 30s now — that never made sense, and I think it had to do with the way time was linearised and flattened coming from — what is it they call it now? — A northern perspective? It’s always this made up geography you know. And in the Aymara language one faces the past and the future as related to the back, the thing that is carried, because it is not seen, we can’t predict the future. And that really stuck with me, I realised that’s been something I’ve tried to speak in relation to, and I think many of us relate to time in that way. But there’s so many ways of relating to what we call spacetime and what has been heaped together, all the antimatter and the matter that gets all heaped together into these terms which make them seem abstract and far away, even though every day we’re dealing with antimatter or what’s called dark matter, you know, it is part of our lives.
But to get back to the question, for me I don’t even have to relate the two, because they’re always already integrated into one another, and that’s just my perspective. My point in trying to use these examples is that it’s difficult in a time when theres only limited language and the whole idea of time is so flattened and linearised and that’s why when people like myself tend to bring out indigenous art it’s always viewed at best as this neoliberal folklore revival bullshit or like this touristic enterprise, and at worst it’s like ‘oh you’re being primitivist’ and it has no relevance for the here and now.
Every track on Demon City has input from other artists, like Chino Amobi and Lexxi, and this kind of collaboration seems to represent a trend in some of the new queer club music. I wanted to ask whether collaboration in this sense is a gesture of solidarity, or even whether it points towards some shared political project?
Yes, I think it is, but you know you have to also look at, again, this perspective of day-to-day survival, and many of us don’t have the income or the economic strategy to release work on our own, we just can’t afford it you know? So it’s just a much better idea to do it together, where more than one person gets promoted, but there’s also that fallback of being with someone else.
Your work has been described as having a collage aesthetic — is this a conscious decision for you when writing or is it only others who may not share your world and cultural reference points who impose that category onto you?
That used to be something I wanted to run away from, especially when I started releasing work under my name. It definitely was collage work. And, well, at one point I was a good musician, I was doing piano lessons correctly as a kid, but I lost all those skills and so the fastest way to make the music that I had in my mind was to make do with what I had. And you know I would have very limited resources at times, I would be in an institution like rehab or in jail and there were no other resources for me — I didn’t have a band or anything, you know? I had what was available: a few crusty 90s acapellas on my mp3 player and maybe like a sampler or something, and I made do with that. But I think I’ve embraced that more because I do think, with my writing style starting out with those limited techniques, they’ve just imbued themselves forever. Even now I work harder to be a better performer, I practice, and you know I have more opportunities with performing live and stuff like that, but it is a patchwork still, and my mind accumulates it like a patchwork.
I think that also goes back to a really strong indigenous legacy where the approach on the settler-colonial side would be one of mapping, of cartography, while the Aymara perspective would be more like, not just braiding but a weaving together, and it definitely speaks to a feminine experience. It’s more like a textile approach perhaps. And I just want to say, because I don’t want to forget this, that in terms of that live performance I was doing last year [Dissolution of the sovereign], that was the first time I got to do a work like that, and this whole time I’ve had to deal with being a low budget, one person act. I tried to do as much as I could, because I always dreamed of having a band, and not just a rock band, but like a jazz band with a full woodwind section and everything. But I never realised how terrible I was at performance and having to do all this stuff like voice acting.
I think people have been very — and maybe this is because the concepts seem fresh — they’ve been very forgiving of me, because I look back and it just seems really messy to me and I don’t want to go without saying I’m aware of that. It’s still a project for me to be a better musician. But one reason I did that show was that I really wanted to create a format that could be replicable for anybody who was a one person act; they could tell their story or they could do a theatre style piece just with the limited resources that any DJ would have, and I really hope I get to see that happen.
I suppose in relation to this idea of patchwork, on a personal level, I’m kind of intrigued by the recurring tropes in your music: the ‘ocelot’ voice and some of the evil laughter — could you explain a little about these? Are they just part of a kind of ‘musical signature’ or is there more to it than that?
Well the laughter is part of a long legacy in a lot of Latin American, Indigenous and Black cultural music, and I don’t really want to nail it to one beginning but it’s there even in country music from deep in the Andes, it’s there in Caribbean music, it’s there even in ballroom music I think. I mean I’m not really inspired by ballroom music but I know a lot of queer musicians and a lot of my friends are ballroom producers. So yeah, it’s always there, and what I like is that no one can locate a real owner, there’s no master or originator there, so it’s just part of this legacy that finds its way into my work and I just carry it on. It is a trope that I use, I guess you could say in solidarity with these other musicians from the past and I’m just carrying it on. I’m sure a lot of people when they hear it in my music, because of the groups I’m related with, people will probably hear it for the first time, even though it’s something very old, and it’s such a simple thing to hear, and such a clear thing, that maybe it will open up their ears to music that they ignored before, that they felt wasn’t for them, you know, Cumbia music or something.
The theme for this year’s CTM festival is ‘Fear Anger Love’ — could you tell us where you fit into that (or if you think you do at all)? Have you planned a performance specifically in relation to this?
Oh Jesus I didn’t know that was the theme! Actually the show I’m doing encompasses all three of those things, haha. I remember last year, when I was touring round Europe, I did a really nice show that I didn’t anticipate doing in Berlin. It was a really nice venue, and I really didn’t expect all the people that were going to be there to be there and it to go how it went because I was just so weathered and had no time to rehearse. So I have a feeling that people are going to be expecting a lot, and I’m trying to be prepared this time!
All eyes are on the US right now. Is there any insight you give to the political mood over there at the moment?
Yeah, you know, I think a lot of people ask me about being American, I’m proud to be an American, I work hard to live in the US, it’s an expensive place and it’s a hurtful place to navigate, now especially, even though for some of us it’s always been just as difficult. But you know, it’s really hard trying to look at the future and be prepared. On one end I think us having this figure who’s got this sign around his neck saying, ‘I’m a bad person’ allows people to take a side, and I think that’s one of the good things about binaries. But I think a part of that though is that it makes the left feel very self-righteous in knowing that they’re on the other side. And especially the non-radical left, the liberal, visible left, it keeps them from doing the hard questioning that we all really need to do.
One of these questions is about everybody’s complicity in how we got here — you know, it didn’t just materialise out of nothing. And also, all the places where the left has severed themselves from a real radical politics, one that would actually connect them to people like me, and to things that they’re still severed from. Like for instance, I’m sure you guys have heard about one of the very few visible indigenous struggles in the North, with the water pipeline in Dakota. And that’s what pains me, the left gets so self-righteous and they forget… I don’t know, I don’t even know why I’m saying this, I think I just need to talk about it because you watch things and people seem so aware, and for some of us, it’s the same thing… I just really hope that this means more solidarity with indigenous people, especially in North America.
I remember reading about the colonisation of Washington DC, and obviously it used to be a really large indigenous Native American centre. And even when it became DC, there were so many Native American delegates there that had pretty much assimilated, they were part of the higher classes or serving office. And one of the most fucked up things that I don’t think most Americans realise is that that Vanishing Project of the Indian Commission wasn’t part of the first wash of settlers there. It came later, it was after many were already incorporated into the society and that’s the really fucked up thing, I just think of people that would maybe in the same standing now, like my mother and then them slowly making this project that re-folkloricises them in order to vanish them out of that society and it’s scary to me. I don’t put it out of the question of something that could happen with this administration. So yeah, thats why I really hope we have more voicing. Where I become positive is with the black visibility that’s happened, and I think only through blackness is there any way that there can be any indigenous visibility.
Elysia Crampton will perform at Festsaal Kreuzberg on February 4th, as part of CTM Festival.