Courtesy of Comatonse Recordings

The disturbing cruelty of Terre Thaemlitz’s “Deproduction”

Content warning: References to sexual content, situations and violence

The final line of Terre Thaemlitz’s Deproduction reads: “Admit it’s killing you, and leave.”

It is a neat summary of the work—a deeply nihilistic critique of contemporary family values and neo-liberal queer politics. But, as this last piece of text scrolls off the screen, it also seems like a cruel meta-comment on what the audience has just experienced.

Deproduction’s form is simple: the audience reads Thaemlitz’s writing—first a series of short anecdotes, then an essay—which is superimposed on footage and accompanied by a soundtrack.

The task itself? Not so simple. The anecdotes range from the mundane to the nightmarish, describing different experiences of childbirth and family-making. From rape, to failed pregnancies, each serves as a grimly explicit depiction of the trauma of having children. The essay that follows is written in a dense academic register, constantly fading from the screen and scrolling slightly too quickly to be completely legible. This is overlaid on a montage of hardcore pornography—a compilation of painfully artificial incest porn, then gay porn, that follows bizarre and childish plotlines. Distorted by a kaleidoscopic filter, the footage multiplies and blurs into even more disturbing repetitions. All this is drowned in a soundscape of cellos, birds, screams and blistering drones that make the entire auditorium tremble.

It is impossible to get a firm grip. Each aspect competes against the other, assaulting the audience with its own extreme. Quickly, we realise that the full 86-minutes of the performance will continue in this way. You can feel the room seize up, collectively holding its breath. All the while Thaemlitz sits below the screen, hunched over a sound desk to control the performance—a presence that only exacerbates the tension. Some in the audience look away, but the work is unavoidable; the sound vibrates through every seat of the auditorium. Whether people are transfixed or disgraced, it is impossible to tell, but no one leaves. Overwhelming, disturbing, and with no means of escape, it is a kind of artistic kidnapping.

And this is exactly the power of the work. Deproduction sets out to have its audience consider the way family and reproduction enforce oppressive power relationships, both on interpersonal and a broader, socio-political scales. It takes particular aim at liberal queer politics, which, in recent decades, has advocated for the assimilation of queer bodies into heteronormative structures, typified by gay marriage campaigns and the dramatic increase in medical interventions on trans bodies. The essay itself, (which you can read here) is often obtuse and condescending. Although this seems particularly hypocritical given that Thaemlitz continuously advocates for the dismantling of repressive hierarchies in favour of “radical democratic projects”, Deproduction seems conscious of these tensions. It describes a trauma and an outrage too great to be contained in writing alone, so it instead offers us other means to comprehend it.

Bound up in the low quality, cringe-worthy porn, and the obscene violence of the written anecdotes, we become oversaturated with an incredible misery. We gain access to a deep nihilism that escapes description because it is something that must be experienced physically. It overwhelms the body and creates the psychological space necessary to momentarily step outside the certainty and stability we have surrounded ourselves with. To consider, momentarily, that the values and assumptions we have built our lives on may not be as perfect as we thought. It is emphatically queer. Unconcerned with artistic convention or even your comprehension, Deproduction finds a way for Thaemlitz’s fears to invade our bodies.

In the days following Deproduction, I have wrestled with the value of the work. Considering that Thaemlitz’s argument offers very little that is new to pre-existing queer discourses, the work resorts to excessive means to make a point that has already been made. Every performance is followed by a Q&A with the artist, which offered little elaboration, mostly because the audience was unready to begin articulating their experience so soon after seeing the show. In these moments it was unclear why we had been subjected to this draining and confronting experience. It is understandable that many audience members felt hoodwinked into giving time to what appears as a deeply narcissistic project of didacticism and self-promotion.

Reflecting back, however, this frustration and disorientation are the very purpose of the work. Deproduction is intentionally manipulative and cruel because it is a repetition of what it seeks to critique. It is determined to expose our own complicity in the social systems we are able to recognise but seem content to do nothing about. Much like every one’s refusal to walk out, we are unable to admit it is killing us, and leave.

Deproduction was presented on 15 February 2019 at the KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre Large Studio, as part of the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (TPAM). Another review of the same production, written by Patricia Tobin, can be found here.

For more articles on TPAM 2019 presentations, please click here.

About the author(s)

Luke Macaronas was born in Australia, and is currently studying in Japan at Waseda University. Luke is an emerging artist and writer who works in theatre and dance, focussing on how performance practices intersect with ethnic, spiritual and queer mythologies. He is taking part in a residency at Gekidan Kaitaisha in Tokyo while also completing a Bachelor of Arts through the University of Melbourne.

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