on reexamining her creative practices, facing off


from Women in Sound #5
released February 12, 2018
interview by Madeleine Campbell

photo by Josh Sisk

“Facing off” means that you’re willing to give yourself up to forces that are bigger than just yourself. It implies a risk or sacrifice.

Can you tell me about the name TRNSGNDR/VHS?
It’s complicated. I try to minimize how much I allow myself to feel emotional attachment to the name because I feel like it’s just a brand that I’m privileged enough to put some labor and thought into. It also depends on context. In general there’s a difference between someone coming up to me and saying “Hey, Alexandra” versus “Hey, TRNSGNDR/VHS.” The latter is such a mode, too.

Where does the name come from?
That’s a myth of its own.

I’m always curious what leads people to get started producing. What was the starting point for you?
My first step into sound was learning to play alto saxophone at age 11. I took a music production class when I was in high school and learned the basics of music software. This was around 2011 and ‘12 and I was living in suburban Washington D.C. at the time. My family moved a bit while I was growing up and making music in my room was a grounding outlet. After I started college I got into being a performing musician IRL. I did that solo for two or three years. I was so noisy!

I’m still in college, actually, and I’m wrapping up my bachelor’s studying digital communication and there are a lot of cultural studies components to the program that forced me to reconsider how and why I’m engaging with a lot of media/cultural hegemonies as a creative being in general. Making self-expressive art made me feel like I was submitting myself to an echo chamber. I accepted that being “a musician” in the performative and publishing sense wasn’t my best option, so I retired that phase. Nowadays, I’m still putting up performances and designing sounds, but my practice has changed a lot. I’m just beginning to document my newer content and I haven’t gotten to publishing any of it yet, so you may not know what I’m doing.

No, I don’t. I’m well-versed in your mixes and the Condominium EP.
That’s ok! I feel like I’ve stepped my game up a little. For the past year my live practice has consisted of taking audiences and venues and turning them into forums where we discuss the roles that “art scenes” have towards “communities”—the two are separate. That’s it in a nutshell. I don’t really “play music” but I make a soundtrack for it. There’s a lot to explain about what that is, but I’ll go into detail about what my format is. It fluctuates with the environment sometimes. This tends to go on over the course of an hour:

1) I start the set off with an invitation to people of color to come to the front of the venue and for white people to give spatial priority to us.
There are a few reasons I do this:

  • A lot of “underground art scenes” that I’ve witnessed in can be summarized as mostly-white subcultures that tend to embody individualist cultural values; i.e., they thrive on self-expression, and those scenes facilitate themselves in urban Black and/or Latinx neighborhoods, which to real estate is a catalyst for gentrification and class-displacement.

  • Because people of color are underrepresented in the hierarchies of art, the economy and private property, I feel it’s necessary to interrupt these actually undemocratic spaces with a demonstration of how you actually give people fair representation.

2) My artist statement (labor delineation)
I give an artist statement that’s just me summarizing the whole function of TRNSGNDR/VHS. Part of why I do this is because most performing artists are inexplicit and I think it partially allows for them to be co-opted easily. The subject matter includes:

  • How I started the project as a musical outlet for my experiences in being a Black trans woman

  • How that project became a commodity (putting out music, merch etc.), and how self-commodification means that TRNSGNDR/VHS as a series of physical commodities is disproportionately owned by white cisgender people, which ties in to the economics of DIY, race, and gender.

  • How white supremacy causes people to consume my experiences without considering their potential contributions to Black queer/femme collective trauma, which was an essential part of the message of my previous work.

  • “Interrupting the platform”

3) Lecture
This is a lot to summarize but some of the topics critiqued/considered include:

  • The historical functions of art vs. art in the internet/consumer age

  • Self-expression

  • Austerity

  • Social ecology

  • Privatization

  • “The social vision”

  • Individualism and white supremacy

  • Gentrification

  • Classism

  • Private property

  • Consumerism

Some key themes are that:

  • Art’s social function in the millenium is mostly based on self-expression. At prior points, art’s collective-expression was arguably due to scarcity and lowered amounts of consumerism.

  • Art scenes must not be viewed as communities. Art scenes are networks of like-minded, self-interested individuals that are facilitated by communities, i.e., neighborhoods of working class people, families, etc.

  • Those facilitating communities suffer with the presence of scenes and gentrification. Gentrification itself is individualist because it is connected to property privatization.

  • Counterculture and art scenes for the past several decades have thrived on individualist values. Individualism has a larger role in consumerist culture than at previous points in history due to technology, so radical self-expression is increasingly beneficial for systems its participants may oppose.

  • Individualist values in art subcultures serve to reinforce white supremacy and the class system. A lack of ideology or a general social vision also coincides with heightened consumer-individual values in the artist identity, which further serve to distance the “artist” from their “community” that they may be damaging. It’s like reverse class-consciousness.

This lecture sets a lot of information intended to facilitate the actual dialogue of the forum. It’s just to get people thinking.

4) Forum
I present a question to the audience and give some guidelines.

  • Question: “Because our scenes thrive on cultural individualism, and individualism is essential for free-market capitalism, how are our scenes beneficial for the communities that facilitate them as they are being displaced and gentrified by capitalism? Considering that “scenes” are separate from “communities” (“communities” consisting of neighborhoods of people, families etc., who share infrastructure intergenerationally).

  • Guidelines: Answer using collective pronouns (“we,” “us,” etc.) instead of using individual pronouns (“I,” “me”). This is done to break down the individualized notions of identity that are inherent to free-market capitalism and white supremacy.

  • And the rest is basically up to the audience; they’ve got it until we run out of time. I know I’m going to look back and realize I missed something, but it’s really hard to describe that in one paragraph!  So yeah, that’s what I do.

Are you still at all interested in having a recorded product?
Yes! Starting this year I’ll be filming 360-degree videos of the live forums and building an audio-visual anthology. I’ve wanted to enter multimedia for a while and never had the right resources or worthwhile material. Release dates TBA.

You mentioned the 360-degree camera but what other tools are you utilizing to do your work?
I have a phone, laptop, synth, mixer and some MIDI controllers. I actually hate thinking about gear like that.

That reminds me of an article I read on Bandcamp about a performance you did at a Baltimore museum. Towards the end there were comments from the audience like “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s uplifting.” People were talking about all the tension they could sense in the people around them. It was pretty great to imagine that—progressively feeling more and more uneasy and sensing that other people were feeling that, too.
Want me to talk about that performance?

I don’t have anything positive to say that isn’t already in that article. The performance was a lot of…noise. I didn’t feel as if it was a very mature composition, but I’m a self-judgmental Capricorn. I was definitely trying to bring about the energy of the Black African experience in European art, and that subject matter concerns racism, which at the time I felt wasn’t something I wanted to present in an uplifting way. I think I’m a bit more skilled with presenting information like that, though, and I know how to navigate people in a way that I wasn’t considering at the time. Also, I’ve been told my live sets nowadays are way more uplifting.

I read something you said in another interview that I really loved. You said, “If you’re willing to be an artist you should be willing to face off.”
Yeah, but also “facing off” means that you’re willing to give yourself up to forces that are bigger than just yourself. It implies a risk or sacrifice. As of this second, I am barely facing off.
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- Women in Sound 2019 -