Accidently started listening to Gaahl’s old band Trelldom. Til et Annet… and right there I am reminded why I love black metal.
I’m writing this thrashing Against Me!‘s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues and all fucking sweaty excited cos they’re playing SO36 on December 22nd cos I thought I’d have to Leipzig to see them. (I like Leipzig, would totes go there to see them.)
Laura Jane Grace. Tranny. Best fucking title ever.
This is the second book in my trio of trans women* autobiographies I picked up on the weekend. Two down, one to go. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness barely lasted the weekend; Tranny got me till Tuesday afternoon; Julia Serano’s Outspoken (not strictly autobiography, more of a reader) might take a bit longer cos it’s doing tag team with a couple of other books, but unlikely to make it beyond next week.
I came straight off Redefining Realness and into Tranny. In so many ways they’re completely different stories and lives of growing up and living as a trans woman. Janet, a multiethnic woman of colour living in Hawai’i transitioning in her teens, going to university and getting an MA in journalism from New York University; Laura a white punk from Florida touring the world, drinking and drugging, transitioning in her thirties. Both of them though were in the public eye before publicly talking about being trans, Janet as an editor for People magazine, Laura as the lead singer of Against Me! and being public figures is what both their autobiographies and audience interest turns on.
When I was reading Redefining Realness, I was reminded of similarities in my life in New Zealand, something I wasn’t at all expecting to find. In Tranny, well, I was a teenage punk and getting smashed at gigs, squats, anarchist politics, wasted sex, not showering, all that, of course it was familiar. The year Laura started Against Me! I started full-time training as a dancer and had moved from punk into Warp records experimental electronic territory, only coming back to punk in the mid-’00s for a bit before going Very Metal since then. I’ve listened to Against Me! before, but it’s only since reading Laura’s autobiography that I’m actually listening to them.
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is a band memoir — the second part of the title gives that detail away — one in which the protagonist struggles for decades between living a white, hetero bro punk life and being a woman. Take away that and it’s still a solid, funny, harrowing story of an intense life lived in vans, busses, hotels, touring the world, pubs, venues, stadiums, and getting way too fucked up far too often to not expect horrible crashes. Laura kept journals since her teens, and these entries intersperse her narrative, co-written with Dan Ozzi. Without those journals, both as excerpts and informing her writing it would be a much thinner story, not the least because the incessant touring, drinking, drugging over years would blur into an undistinguishable mass more fictional musing on imagined past than lived, personal history.
There’s a scene where she’s on a tour bus somewhere, the other guys doing tour bus stuff, and she’s hiding in her bunk reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, afraid of getting sprung. This scene points to something Laura does a pretty good job of obscuring: she’s smart, intelligent, thoughtful, more than capable of stepping outside the intense world of bands and touring that forms much of her story and would otherwise make it a kinda generic ’00s punk band memoir — generic any era band memoir. Maybe that obscuring goes with her isolated, high school dropout, Crass punk history, a lot of believing you’re gutter even while revelling in it. Listening to her lyrics and Against Me!’s music it’s obvious she’s crazy talented and always was. It’s these nuances that make what she’s doing, and her herself qualitatively different, especially since she came out as a trans woman.
At the end of writing about Redefining Realness, I wrote, “I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” I think the difference between Redefining Realness and Tranny is one of audience. The former is for a mainstream audience; it was a New York Times bestseller. Tranny is for the weirdos, or whatever still isn’t or imagines itself isn’t mainstream.
As well, Janet is astute at media and is explicit in using her position to educate and effect change. This almost requires that transition memoir storyline, if for nothing else than to combat misrepresentation, to tell her own truth. Laura, there’s a lot more “Fuck you” in Tranny.
I’m also not sure Laura’s is a transition memoir in the way Janet’s is. Yeah, there’s that, struggling with arsehole doctors and taking hormones, bouts of guilty buying of clothes then trashing them, but these moments are not especially prominent amidst all the other chaos and drugs in her life. It lies over her life like smog, an unabating grinding out of her life over decades. She’s barely able to articulate it even to herself in her journals. Whereas for Janet it was a desperate flight always forward.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying one or the other was the right way to be trans, nor did I want to write this as a comparison of Janet’s and Laura’s stories, just that reading them back to back emphasises the stark differences in their lives and their experiences, and I’ve been thinking constantly about this. Particularly because I see pieces of my history in both and what reads as hopeless, profound misery, fear, deeply internalised transphobia is so familiar to me as to be unremarkable.
There’s an episode of Orphan Black where Cosima is challenged with, “So, you’re gay?” and responds, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.” For both Janet and Laura it’s evident this is also the case, for their gender, identity, selfhood. Yet it’s at the same time critical to who they are. By talking about this, they become and participate in representation for all trans women. We see something of ourselves in them, we’re no longer invisible, we exist. Without this, Against Me! would be just another white boy punk band I vaguely recalled the name of, no idea who the lead singer was. Instead, I’ve spent money on Laura’s book, been listening to her music and am gonna get my sorry arse to SO36 on December 22nd to see them play.
*A bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist. Tranny, though, totes fucking ok with that one**.
**In this context.
New books acquired on the weekend: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny, and Julia Serano’s Outspoken. Yes, there is a theme here, and I’ll be doing my usual writing on reading of these three pretty soon.
First museum in a while. Sunday I schlepped to Deutsches Historisches Museum to see the newly-opened Deutcher Kolonialismus and companion Kamerun und Kongo exhibitions. More on those later — much more if I can persuade the museum to let me photograph it.
Not being permitted to photograph special exhibitions is a ‘feature’ of Berlin museums, which doesn’t stem at all the liberal use of phone cameras, but there you go. For me, photographing enables me to engage far longer and deeper with the art — as well of course blogging them here. So, absence of camera and with a prior commitment of an evening performance I was to film, I fairly bolted through these two. Both are highly worth seeing and with audio guide deserve a full afternoon.
In the meantime, I remembered there was a painting I really, really wanted to see. My previous visit to the museum had not revealed it to me. This time I found it near the end of the collection (going up the left-hand stairs and u-turn to the right to cut back into the 19th century part, rather than going through the whole building).
Emil Doerstling’s Preußisches Liebesglück painted in Berlin in 1890. It’s on the cover of Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914, and is beautiful portrait of a young man in army uniform and a young woman, arms around each other, totally doing Liebesglück. The remarkable thing in this otherwise well-executed but not especially unusual imperial-era portrait is the army man is Afro-German. He’s bandmaster Gustav Sabac-el-Cher. His father was August Sabac el Cher, born in Kurdufan (then Egypt, today Sudan) and valet to Prinz Albrecht in Berlin.
I’ve included the full image caption in both German and English. A couple of additional points: The city of Königsberg is now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, about as far east as you could get and still be in Prussia and the German Empire. Königsberg was the capital of Prussia from 1525–1701, when the capital moved to Berlin. Senzig, where he opened a beer garden with his wife and two children is a community, now part of the town of Königs Wusterhausen in Dahme-Spreewald about 40km south-east of Berlin.
As is typical for the Deutsches Historisches Museum, the painting is under glass — and not of the new, non-reflective stuff used in the German Colonialism which I seriously had to provoke a reflection from. And as usual the lighting is bestial. It’s flanked by two wall lamps and hit from overhead by a spotlight, all throwing a jaundiced cast on a painting already yellowing. I’d forgotten how ghastly the lighting is in this museum. So my photos have had more work than usual to balance colour, salvage Gustav’s hair from a putrid cyan glaze — I think the closeup is a little nearer to what it would look like under neutral light but maybe split the difference (and I think the main difference in her skin tone comes from losing some of that yellow tint, rather than simply taking on a paler/bluer cast in the closeup). Apologies made for my bollocks photography.
I also wanted to say his skin tone in the painting really is that dark, it’s not just the lighting or age of the painting or anything else, nor does it read as an exaggeration of Emil Doerstling: this painting is about as naturalistic as you can get. Though compared to the one photo I’ve seen of and older Gustav, he might be taking some artistic licence. Either way, I’m kinda enthralled by the idea of rolling up to the family beer garden in Brandenburg, or the café at Oranienburger 39 (guessing in Mitte and still a café, just down the road from Neue Synagoge Berlin) they subsequently opened.
Preußisches Liebesglück — Prussian Joy of Love
Öl, Leinwand — Oil, Canvas
Gustav Sabac-el-Cher wurde 1868 in Berlin geboren. 1885 begann er seine Militärmusiklaufbahn in der preußischen Armee. Bereits 1889 bekleidete er den Rang eines Unteroffiziers. Von 1895 bis 1909 übernahm er die Dirigentenstelle beim Ersten Grenadier-Regiment in Königsberg. Danach arbeitete er als ziviler Kapellmeister und betrieb ein Gartenlokal in Senzig bei Königs Wusterhausen. Er starb 1934 in Berlin.
Gustav Sabac-el-Cher was born in Berlin in 1868. In 1885 he began his career as a military musician in the Prussian army, already gaining the rank of sergeant in 1889. From 1895 to 1909 he was bandmaster of the First Grenadier Regiment in Königsberg. He then worked as a civilian conductor and ran a beer garden in Senzig near Königs Wusterhausen. He died in Berlin in 1934.
As of right now, Isabelle is somewhere between Berlin, Germany, and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where she’ll be for the next week to perform Fugen, and to teach a workshop, as part of the 5th festival international de danse « Un pas vers l’avant » organised by Compagnie Ange Aoussou.
The Goethe Institut is responsible for bringing Isabelle to Abidjan, and it was Henrike Grohs who originally proposed this. Incidentally, Henrike also brought Das Helmi there earlier this year for Ivoire Marionette. Henrike was one of 22 murdered by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on March 13th this year.
Isabelle performs Fugen at the Goethe-Institut, Abidjan this Saturday, 17th September at 19h. There are also performances there and at Institut Français by companies from Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali. (& sad but true, I’m not there.)
I got a phonecall from Dasniya last night, back from Bern (and e-bikes!) and not in Berlin for even a day before off to Amsterdam on the train this morning. She said, “I’m performing in the Amsterdam Fringe Festival!” All quite spontaneous and unexpected. So, this is me blogging her performing there, and yes, she will be teaching, public and private workshops and classes and yes, rope sessions also.
You can get all the performance information on her blog: Harness — Amsterdam Fringe Festival, general Amsterdam info: Workshops, Private Teaching, & Sessions in Amsterdam, and this Sunday’s (Sept 4th) Shibari Bondage Amsterdam Workshop.
Amsterdam. Dasniya. Shibari. Why are you not there already?
A couple of weeks ago, Isabelle Schad offered me a second impromptu residency in her beautiful Wiesenburg studio in Wedding. I was there last week until this Monday. Some nights it rained, hard. The garden looked sepulchral. I also jumped around with my bike (not on the garden!), but that’s another story and another artwork.
I was banging out to Iron Maiden at Wacken last night, live-streamed on arte. It was fully metal. 80,000 in a rain-soaked and muddy field so loud they drowned out Maiden’s amp stacks. Around 11:30pm in their encore, Bruce Dickenson is doing his intro for Blood Brothers, “… it doesn’t matter what religion you are, doesn’t matter what race you are, doesn’t matter what gender you are …” pauses there then says, “there used to be two, now there’s a few more.” Fucking majestic. Iron Maiden, at Wacken, in front of 80,000 metalheads and live-streamed to the world, saying that. Followed it up with “we’re just here to drink beer and headbang! Plus brown rice!” Then Nicko McBrain led everyone in a round of Happy Birthday for Bruce.
Shaping up to be my least-blogged month in 12 years. Excuses include lack of motivation, busy with a new website project, umm… general lack of rhythm. I have been semi-infrequently continuing Black Metal rehearsals. No idea for what, but … art.