.:.GIVING VOICE TO VELVET RAGE.:.
Expressions of Queer Identity in Noise
by Thomas Boettner | Header Photo Credit: Harrison Henry Martin
Dedicated to the memories of Jaime Carrera, John Barber & Antonio Urdiales
Part I: Why You Never Became a Dancer
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” —Aristotle
As time goes by, the argument for representational art seems to come up more frequently as society grows more aware of intersectional struggles and forms of identity. The Gamergate and Sad Puppies scandals both grew out of reactionary movements towards diversity in the video game and science-fiction worlds, respectively. Even Vox recently ran a piece illustrating why Diego Luna‘s Mexican accent was important within the Star Wars universe. Rewind the clock back a decade, however, and representation looked far less widespread than it does today.
When I first started to bill my Fire Island, AK project as “queer noise,” I was pushing against several walls all at once. The venues in my South Carolina hometown were not used to much more than cover bands, bar rock, and nu-metal. Throwing a sexual/political identifier into the mix probably didn’t help, but at the time it felt like the best an angry fag in the South could manage; the mass amounts of Marx, Butler, Lenin, Hocquenghem, and Foucault I had ingested probably didn’t help either. By this point in my artistic development, I had already discovered, and become bored by, most punk. The Mukilteo Fairies, Huggy Bear, and Limp Wrist were good starting points, but Crass boasts more full-length albums than those three combined. The painfully earnest, disjointed pop sensibilities of Xiu Xiu hold far more sway in my mind than Elton John or Freddie Mercury. Anhoni was still performing with the Johnsons, but even their Romantic balladry felt too safe an outlet. I attempted to perform at the first ever Pride event in my hometown, but was deemed “too aggressive” to perform.
As a latecomer to noise, I was voraciously devouring what I could find. Wolf Eyes hit my radar in 2006, but it took another two years before I got led towards Whitehouse, Prurient, Sutcliffe Jügend, and Non. Unfortunately, idealism left me wanting. While power electronics, as a genre, frequents the use of sadomasochistic imagery as a means of reflecting society’s own misogyny, inherent violence, and sexual addiction back upon itself, there is also an extremely boring amount of heterosexual fantasy bundled together with the aesthetic language. Where was the harsh noise sibling to Plague Mass? Surely somewhere out there was a History of AIDS from someone who lived through the height of the epidemic.
Thanks to the social magic of MySpace, DList, and the still-young Facebook, I managed to slowly string together some contacts and names. Richard Ramirez was one of the first major queer noise artists I was able to discover, and in true noise fashion, he agreed to do a split with me simply by merit of asking. His work in the fields of HNW and harsh noise still continues to be at the forefront of what could arguably fall into the “queer noise” category; what does such a designation say, though? Is it the noise itself that is queer? In Queer Theory, then yes, since noise takes the approach towards “music” by resignifying and subverting the definition and presentation thereof. However, I want to stick with “queer” as a means of saying not heterosexual, not cisgendered. I want to look at artists that share, in a certain sense, a camaraderie beyond genre. This is not to say that such artists are willing (or able) to be pigeonholed, however.
Where I tend to view my own work as political by nature, Richard Ramirez disagrees. “I don’t see [my work] as political,” he writes, though he does affirm that his work under his name, and that of Black Leather Jesus, are “explicitly gay themed.” The same way straight men’s aesthetic language often trends toward the female form, Ramirez’s own leanings are what have informed his work’s aesthetics. “For many years […], I would see other artists use pornographic images of women. I didn’t see any of men at that time. I decided to use pornographic images of men then and continue to do so.” In a genre that so often flirts with shock tactics, there is a sincerity to his presentation which is refreshing, albeit still encoded with innuendo and symbolism that is probably lost on certain parts of the audience.
Ramirez’s husband, Sean Ramirez-Matzus, takes a much more straightforward approach, however. His art and politics are intrinsically linked, regardless of whether he’s performing as Bog Queen (a duo with Ramirez, separate from their Obsession project), A Week of Kindness, Shudder of Anguish, or any of his myriad other projects (most of which fall under the HNW category). “My work is extremely political. I am extremely political,” he explains. “But the work is not always easy to read. I have a tendency to be obtuse and abstract, but it all comes from a very politically charged place. […] I’m from a rather old way of thinking, that all experimental art is inherently political. In my world, I can no more be separated from my queerness and the political struggles inherent therein than I could be without consequences separated from my arm or leg. It is me. It is at the core of who I am.” Ramirez-Matzus’s most (overtly) political work is arguably still the Pink Triangle Series: a succession of cassette releases curated from various queer artists focused on, as he explains, “agitprop protest against the preachers and politicians of hate on the American and international stages.” While many of the Pink Triangle Series releases had different performers, and each its own subject, the aesthetic language and design was all Ramirez-Matzus’s own, thus generating a unified statement of intention and resistance.
Subtlety has a time and place, however. Each Straight Panic show I perform includes a prominently displayed pink triangle flag. Surprisingly, I get questions regarding its usage and meaning. Some audience members simply don’t recognize the symbol (frightening), while others have made accusations of Fascist politics (disheartening). I like to imagine that Nebraska’s Plack Blague receives far fewer inquiries. Decked from head to toe in studded leather, Raws’s project stands out as a one-man industrial / EBM powerhouse, mixing the energy (and draw) of a dance party with the aggression of industrial and power electronics. What the Daily Nebraskan calls “scandalous,” Raws calls “100% in-your-face homoerotic!” Moving beyond spectacle, Plack Blague is “basically forcing any audience to interact with a gay man. […] All [the] songs are about homosexual interactions, people, and personal experiences.” His willingness to mix threatening aesthetics with humor draws on the absurdist nature of noise itself, juxtaposing what is too often a staunchly serious genre against theatrical performance. “I’m a constant target for ridicule from the general public,” Raws admits, “which is a constant reminder to be more gay than ever.”
This desire to engage the audience is a driving force for many queer artists, among them Brooklyn’s Michael Foster (the New York Review of Cocksucking, the Ghost). Foster describes his own improvised/free jazz as a “conscious effort to present more overtly queer work.” The driving motivation is a mixture of a “response to the lack of queer visibility in various experimental music scenes,” as well as “a personal challenge to come to a more embodied and autonomous concept of my own queer identity and practice in relation to my work.” Foster echoes Ramirez-Matzus and Plack Blague when asked about any political nature his work may or may not have. “I think it’s impossible to make apolitical work when we live in a highly politicized society,” Foster continues, stating that “I see being queer as radical because it rejects the heteronormative concept of binary sexuality/gender/etc., in favor of something that is personal, indeterminate, fluctuating, and autonomous while (hopefully) promoting a concept of compassion, sensitivity, and community that defies basic categorization.”
This notion of community is what led me to connect with two “rising stars” of the contemporary scene. Forbidden Colors (Enrique Hernandez, San Francisco) and Dreamcrusher (Luwayne Glass, NYC) have both received a fairly impressive amount of coverage in their own cities in relatively short time periods; both are queer people-of-color, and both tend towards an abstraction of dance music. I’ve had the pleasure of getting both on a compilation (Trigger Warning, FMLR 2016), and Forbidden Colors is also on a double-cassette, four-way release with Richard Ramirez, Body Stress, and Straight Panic (Deviant, Moral Defeat 2016).
Their shared confluence of identifiers continually informs the work they create, especially in a live setting. Where Forbidden Colors sets the stage with “Santeria Candles, field recordings, and ‘found footage’-style video, […] physical interaction with the audience using empty PReP bottles,” Dreamcrusher is much more visceral on a tactile level. “I feel that because my music is so aggressive, and my stage presence is confrontational, that it makes me and what I make innately political and queer driven.” Glass explains, “No matter what, this body is under constant scrutiny and observation. Sometimes it overshadows how I express myself and why.” That level of scrutiny drives the physical confrontation that has made Dreamcrusher shows infamous, however. “When people see me setting up to perform, they have these set up stereotypes in their head—whether they have merit or not—that I know white queer noise people never have to deal with. Finding commonality with other queer folks gets grayish because of that, but other trans*/genderqueer performers I know get misgendered just as often as I do.” Hernandez is equally as conscious of the way in which audience perceptions taint ability and talent: “I feel like it’s necessary to give another narrative to the predominantly straight, white male gaze that is so common within a lot of extreme music. […] Being queer is a political stance. As a queer latinx person, I feel like my projects are another channel to vent my frustration and feelings regarding our current climate.”
As is often the case with extreme and experimental art, the confines of the physical body have long served as a source of inspiration and frustration. From Vito Acconci’s Seedbed to Chris Burden’s Shoot, to the body modification of Australia’s STELARC, the physical boundaries of the body have often served as a veritable playground for artistic expression and exploration. Transgender artists are no exception, and understandably so. Without minimizing anyone’s experience, there remains a strange postmodern element to the social/cultural understanding of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Eames Armstrong (D.C./Brooklyn) has been treading similar strange grounds with their mix of ritual harsh noise and performance art wherein they’ll “often do actions that are blatantly about gender—chest-binding, make myself a cock out of whatever, and sexuality—stick stuff in my pants or in my mouth, take off my clothes, get bound up, leak fluids. […] It’s ultimately about reinforcing the body as a process of coming together, falling apart, reconfiguring, collapsing, becoming and becoming. I came to making noise through a more body-based performance practice so it’s no surprise that my work is shaped by and against the particularities of my physical and social body.” Though Armstrong is just as wary of being labelled a “Trans* Artist”: “There is a danger in reading work simply through perceived aspects of a person’s identity—it runs the risk of really missing what the person is doing or saying in favor of a simpler more stereotypical interpretation.” Their aversion to initially identifying as trans* was, understandably, informed by the fear that the identity “would function as an endpoint explanation of my work, even if it really was a big influence[.]”
In regards to sheer frustration, however, Sonia Dietrich (BRUT) holds nothing back, in either her work or her motivations. Though, as far as her work as BRUT is concerned, being “political” is less an aesthetic than a way of life inasmuch as one “can be queer but only on this spectrum, you can be an activist but only to ‘this’ point. You can fuck who you want but don’t talk about it. It’s the ‘I have a gay friend, I am cool, I am an ally’” mentality. “[M]ake people uncomfortable, you are too much,” Dietrich says. “No one wants to hear about the history of gay rights and that nothing really changes and that politics are moving backwards.” Arguably, in contemporary America, the argument she makes is difficult to dismiss. For-profit prisons, militarized police, police brutality, and rising tides of fascist activity all make for a rather bleak landscape, especially for people who already find themselves on the margins of “polite society.” While openly/primarily a project focused on women and women-identified people, BRUT stands proudly as a statement of political intent. Dietrich is pretty straightforward with the admission that she’s “just fucking angry! […] I think the accurate answer would be that there is a choice to be queer and political and dedicate life to the resistance, speak up and fight back. […] But one thing has to be clear, to them you are still different.”
Part II: Interior, Noise Show
“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representative of the oppressing class are to represent and oppress them.”—Karl Marx
The date is March 28, 2015. After much positioning, ideological arguing, and pleading, Straight Panic is finally set to perform at a queer arts’ space in Minneapolis. Despite a seemingly stacked bill in an underground space, most of the meager audience turns out to be staples in the noise scene, and hardly any of the general LGBTQ+ crowd that normally attend their themed dance parties. The space makes their money back, the hosts are pleased by how polite and accommodating the audience is, and by all accounts, the show is a success. I wonder what they were expecting otherwise. More so, I wonder where my intended demographic was.
The high profiles generated by G.L.O.S.S. and Laura-Jane Grace (Against Me!) are tentatively inspiring. Seeing a basement show packed with queer and trans* kids is a welcome change from basements of predominantly straight white men clad in black (no offense, noise bros). After G.L.O.S.S. played Minneapolis in late 2015, I noticed that more trans* people began slowly showing up in my own audiences. Once a space had been made, once people saw that they were just as welcome as anyone else in the “underground,” then they began to feel comfortable enough to venture out to shows. I won’t claim that all of them understood (or enjoyed) the shows, but a few were struck enough to talk to me afterwards, and a couple even picked up some tapes. The general consensus I was able to gather from these limited interactions was that Straight Panic was an affirming, empowering project that gave queer audience members a sense of belonging, strength, and power. As an artist, that kind of conversation is worth more than any merch sale.
Sonia Dietrich (BRUT) is not far off though, when she points out that “it’s a two-sided stick. Queers don’t come out to performances in fear of rejection or ‘persecution,’ but promoters don’t invite them, or just stick to the typical fifteen bands they have on [rotation]. And what do we get? Same festival […] in different countries of same bands promoting new albums or old once reissued.” When the acts are aggressively queer, the audience tends to follow suit; or at least logic would seem to imply as much. Perhaps, by its nature, extreme music is continuing to “queer the pitch” by being difficult and challenging. On the face, the whole notion sounds discriminatory, but the notion of “queer spaces for queer bodies” is still valid. Over the week of Mardi Gras, three transwomen of color were murdered in a 48-hour period in New Orleans; eight transwomen of color have been murdered this year alone. Mike Pence is Vice President, and queer people all over America are watching with bated breath as their newly acquired strides towards recognized social equality waver in the political breeze. Or to put a different spin on it: Some male-oriented gay bars still have what are known as “Berlin rules,” wherein certain hours/days/rooms are only accessible to men. The issue isn’t one of misogyny, but rather one of community—a space apart from the general melting pot of society to connect, interact, or unwind.
I’m reminded of a story, relayed anecdotally to me by Dolores Dewberry. Hirsute Pursuit performed in Minneapolis, MN during PRIDE week 2013. Despite being a pretty straightforward industrial project, where the beat is very front and center, I remember the utter dejection that came with her admission that the show was under-attended, and generally ignored or maligned by the queer community (which is superficially shocking, considering how highly the Minneapolis “leather community” regards itself). What is it that makes a drag show and beer bust (weekly occurrences) more intriguing than supporting actual queer art? Safety? Predictability? Comfort?
Sean Ramirez-Matzus (A Week of Kindness, Black Leather Jesus, An Innocent Young Throat Cutter) has a similar story from his own performance history. “[Richard Ramirez] and I did an Obsession performance at a famous leather bar that was, in the eighties and nineties, a big part of the Houston industrial scene. Dream gig for us. It did not go over well. At all.” The admission seems, initially, like the expected outcome (what with it being Texas and all), but shouldn’t queer spaces be more open to queer art, regardless of its easy digestibility? Compared to Raws’s (Plack Blague’s) own performance last year at the Eagle Tavern in San Francisco, as part of the “Folsom Street Fair Pre-Party,” the case could be made that it’s less the type of bar than it is the geographic location. Raws admits that he never thought Plack Blague “would even be considered […], and it really showed that gays want interesting entertainment and more than just pop stars and boring DJs.” Or at least they do in the Bay area.
I remain unconvinced. The Minneapolis EagleBolt liked to brag that it was a leather bar, but every time I put Slayer on the jukebox they’d skip the track. The usual music of choice? Broadway showtunes. My own efforts to book Plack Blague, operating on the assumption that the prestige of the San Francisco Eagle would be enough to influence the Minneapolis EagleBolt, were met with the delayed, disinterested response of “we don’t really do shows.” To be fair, Minneapolis does not want for venues, but there’s a certain allure to being able to perform in a gay bar, when you’re a gay artist. Somehow the adage about leading horses to water seems, while appropriate, also inverted.
Even stranger still is the fact that almost every queer artist I know is very aware of the early influences that queer people had on electronic music, experimental music, the avant-garde, techno, etc. Kenneth Oblivion (Contact Low) has been making self-described “doom electronics” in Montana, and asserts that “[queerness has] always been a part of the scene. From Jhonn Balance and [Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson], to Richard Ramirez, we’ve always been here and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” COIL, Throbbing Gristle, Patrick Cowley, Merce Cunningham, even the most mainstream of all, David Bowie, were all not only innovators and influencers in their stylistic fields, but openly queer, and more than willing to play with gender roles and sexuality for the sake of their own art. So where’s the audience, and does it matter?
There is no real, definitive way to escape internalized bias, but each and every artist I spoke to at one point or another agreed that visibility was important, if not a driving factor. For our own sense of self-worth, for the sake of the “scene,” for our art, our sanity, our integrity. People hate “posers” and “sell-outs,” and claim to laud “authenticity,” but just as often, the case could be made that such statements are nothing more than empty value signaling, easy buzz-words to let other people know that you are, in fact, “authentic,” “legit,” “TRVE KVLT.”
Maybe the question really is one of geography. Enrique Hernandez (Forbidden Colors), based in San Francisco, seems to have “found that the queer community has been very supportive, not so much your PRIDE Inc., but [..] the punks, weirdos, faeries and drag queens, and High Femme Synth Sisters. As I stated before, I live in a very special place (the Bay Area) that lets the queer community grow; this includes a very fertile experimental and noise scene.” Granted, the Bay Area has always been known as a place for both queer people and experimental art, but even Alaskan Andrew Schmitt (MISANDR, Lord Ennui) agrees that “there is a growing support base for queerness in extreme music[.] That said, the larger opposition to queerness in extreme music has also grown much more vocal and visible in recent years.”
Angel Marcloid (Pregnant Spore, fire-toolz, and many more) points out that people are more conscious of scene diversity these days, “and not only that, they are seeing it as important to try and include queer people (and people of color for that matter).” The conflict, however, is “hyper-focused […] negatively by some, and positively by others, but we are still others. We are still special, we are still oppressed, we are still something else other than regular-ass human beings.” There aren’t any mental gymnastics required to understand the complications by being shoved to the extreme end of a spectrum. Especially in a field which is often (correctly or not) described as a “Boy’s Club.” Marcloid describes her own experience, while not wholly hostile, as one of more casual identity redefinition. “Even though I am a trans girl, and I present very femme,” she explains, “I’ve experienced more male privilege in the noise scene than I’ll ever be comfortable with. […] I can show up to a show decked out in makeup and a slutty skirt, and people will still call me ‘bro’ because they think that’s what makes me comfortable. They want to let me know they’re cool with me.” The fine line between condescension and respect blurs, but whether or not there’s malicious intent seems almost too complex an issue to define on anything but a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, that’s not how political power works.
Minus a couple of bad reviews (quality, not content), Straight Panic has had very little in the way of a negative response. My affectionately dubbed “noise bros” are mostly white, straight, cis men, and be it due to political ideology or nihilism, none have cared that I’m a self-identified faggot. Is this luck? Is my acceptance due to the fact that I “pass” as straight? That I’m butch enough? That I’m talented enough? Or am I really just an overly critical, high-strung fag, lounging in shock art? How come I never get angry street preachers, Nazi skinheads, or bona fide bigots at my shows? Am I too loud for them to bother, or am I too “underground” for them to notice? At this point, I’d be happy to perform with Brethren, if just for the potential for some genuine conflict.
Luwayne Glass (Dreamcrusher) seems to share my concerns that “most harsh noise fans [don’t care if a performer is queer], which also poses a problem when it comes to misgendering and tokenism especially.” Even more troubling is the shared sense that “most queer organizations are just as bad as Urban Outfitters or Ivanka [Trump]. Placating to, being docile, submitting to, or assimilating to white straight norms just enough to sell, but still attract a queer audience to fawn over you, [for the] the sake of money and fame. Oldest story in the book.” Though, we both agree that we have our spaces, even if they aren’t as culturally visible as The Advocate or a spot on Logo: “The queer people and organizations I fuck with are like me,” Glass admits, “in that I will never dumb down who I am or what I do. I would be in utter shock if OUT magazine asked to do a shoot with my crazy ass, but then I’d ask them to triple the check[.]” Considering how many straight, white, celebrity men have been on the cover, I’d say they could easily afford the tab.
“After I started doing more overtly queer work, there was some pushback from straighter elements of the scene, but it’s led me to seek out (or create) more open environments, communities, and avenues for my creative and curatorial work,” Michael Foster (The New York Review of Cocksucking) says. “For example, I do not book ‘straight white guy bills,’ because that’s not an environment that I want to be in socially, creatively, or promotionally, so this means I have to push myself to become acquainted with more diverse artists whose work I like. […] I’ve made some minor efforts in the past to get LGBTQ+ publications to advertise some events but never with any success.” Having said that, however, the recently established “Queer Trash” series of improvised music, free jazz, and electronics that Foster has been organizing has gained traction, as well as an audience from both inside and outside of the noise underground. After relocating from D.C. to NYC, Eames Armstrong is more than happy to relay that “I am super pleased that one of the first shows I’ve played since being here was the wonderful Queer Trash series.” Such a report is inspiring, especially when compared to an earlier event in D.C. where Armstrong “did a noise set with a friend at a queer film festival party—we did a shitty cover of a song from Les Misérables (“I Dreamed a Dream”) and we got booed and shouted at, cut off, but mostly ignored. I sort of get it; this was like a fun love-fest dance party situation and they didn’t like us screaming and making a mess […] they just wanted to dance to a recognizable beat, not be confronted with whatever the fuck we were doing, loudly.” When faced with such an audience, I say set the house P.A. to eleven.
- Michael Barthel
- Body Stress
- William Cast
- Faggot Front
- Forced Into Femininity
- Hard Ton
- Richard Kamerman
- Nervous Gender
- Cory O’Brien
- Politically Involved Girls
- Melanie Riehle
- Alison Rowe
- The Soft Pink Truth
- Matthew Solondz
- What Nerve
- Where Is This