Temporary Autonomous Zones: DJing Queer
Next weekend I’m DJing at Temporary Autonomous Zones, a research piece cum club night curated by Oren aka the doctoral researcher Jack McNeill. The format for the night is pretty simple: a warm up, followed by three curated sessions, and a “come down” (Oren’s choice of words, not mine). Each curated session explores a particular theme prevalent in electronic dance music culture, namely; hierarchy performed by Bearfoot, excess performed by Quip, and queerness performed by yours truly. The score or guidelines offered to each DJ details some key reference tracks, images, films, essays, and a short blurb about the theme.
However, since being given this brief I’ve been playing with the notion of DJing queer or queerness. And, after a lot of deliberation, I’m left wondering if it’s even possible to do such a thing. Can you DJ queer identity? Is one person capable of doing that? And if so, what the hell is “queer”? Does it mean the same to me as it does to you or the militant academics and pundits policing what is or isn’t cricket in the public sphere?
Queer isn’t gay. Gay is queer, but queer isn’t gay. Queer is larger, wider, more encompassing. I remember an old science teacher explaining taxonomy saying “All cows are animals, but not all animals are cows”. Queer in terms of its lexicological or ideological structure (or lack thereof) is similar. It’s post modern, in that it generally defies description when looked at in exclusion to the surrounding materials (strictly speaking it's post structuralist, but who's counting?). Just as post modernism can only really be expressed in terms of it’s positioning to previous movements, so does queer defy definition without comparison to the “normal” or homogenous whole. So, when taken in exclusion, what is queer music? What is queer culture or culturally queer artefacts?
I’m reminded of Stephen Fry’s explanation of camp in his first autobiography “Moab is my Washpot”. Fry spends as much time explaining what camp is not as explaining what is actually is. I’m tempted to try to do the same for queer. I imagine there are many that will baulk at what’s about to be written but take a moment to consider why you're so offended before jumping on a political high horse. And of course, this is my interpretation. But it’s queer, so by it’s very existence my definition is correct, and so is yours.
Queer is not silly, thoughtful, flamboyant, an excuse, opposition, exaggeration, for a minority, ostentatious, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, desperate, attention-seeking, academic, outside, political, ignorable, insincere, passé.
Queer is fun, serious, thought-provoking, expressive, impulsive, subversive, antagonistic, playful, a mirror, for everyone, celebratory, sad, freeing, emancipatory, inside, political, important, honest, now.
So before I travel too far down a semantic rabbit warren, we should turn our thoughts to DJing queerness. Initially my thought was to play contemporary queer vogue tracks: Ha Trax, Sniffles, Opulence, Cunty etc. Certainly all that material is culturally encoded and understood by those within and around the cultural periphery of the vogue scene as expressly queer. But then the audience at TAZ will not necessarily be versed in that material. When most people hear the chant from Trading Places the image is that of Dan Aykroyd’s “blackface” rather than the battling houses of Omni and Xtravaganza.
If not expressly queer vogue tracks then what? It would be more queer to play an hour of Riot Grrrl feminist punk than it would be to play “gay anthems”. In the reference material Oren cited “I Was Born This Way” by Carl Bean. Yes a gay anthem, and one not known beyond the fringes of the older contingent of American gay men, and those with a penchant for historical perspectives on popular socio-musicology (myself included), and a DJ must consider their audience. The fact most of my straight male friends will happily sashay around to “Young Hearts Run Free” says something as to the commodification of traditionally gay anthems. “I Am What I Am” is more populist joke than it is gay anthem. It would be more queer to play an hour or 80s cock rock than it would to play Dancing Queen.
Do I take the audience on a journey into queer-hop? Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Angel Haze, Zebra Katz etc. Is a dance floor really the place to take people on an 85bpm trip into such difficult territory? Or do we focus on history? Is it where this blog would come into play, telling the story of disco and house music as an expression of the LGBTQ experience?
I don’t feel any of those options really express any rounded picture of queer identity, even if such a thing exists and it’s solid enough to express. Instead, the set is going to revolve around one idea: celebration. The whole concept behind Temporary Autonomous Zones is that a DJ and a crowd can develop a rapport over time, and in that space rules concerning behaviour and attitude develop. In fact, this is one of my favorite aspects of DJing; the way in which for a limited time we are all part of a collective something where the rules of engagement and the omnipresent wariness with which everyday life needs to be carried out dissolves into something kinder and more sincere. As a result my set at TAZ will be a celebration of this, and the freedom with which it brings. Yes, there may be dark terrain to cover during that exploration, but historically places like the Paradise Garage and The Loft were locations in which that darkness was temporarily overcome or forgotten about. When you’re inside, the outside melts away. In every sense.
Musically, I’m not sure exactly what that will be quite yet. Celebration of otherness, as we already stated, can only really occur in space where the norm is also present. Without going to heavily into critical theory I imagine Derrida would have a field day with the ideas of queerness in TAZ. Celebration is perhaps a more honest conceptualisation of queerness. Queerness can be antagonistic, it can present itself as standoffish or exclusionary because it is so deeply invested in itself. But if by bringing to the fore the positive and caring aspects of the material people can bond through difference then surely that's a wonderful thing? Maybe that's what queerness is. Like house music, and disco, and gospel, and all the other wonderful experiences uncovered during the FoH project, perhaps queerness fits in perfectly as it is, at it's deepest level, about acceptance of otherness and appreciation of it. Acceptance doesn't require homogenisation, we're not all the same and that's something to be celebrated. If you can't dance, that's ok! If you like to wear a dress, that's ok! If you don't understand the significance of Love Is The Message and all the historically encoded material around it, that's ok! You don't have to know, but you can accept and try to understand. And you should celebrate that. We should celebrate that.
If you’re interested in hearing hierarchy, queer, and excess live then tickets for the show are available here. See you there!