JD Samson on art, sincerity, and the L word
JD Samson is an artist and musician. As projectionist, then full-fledged member for the electronic feminist multi-media band Le Tigre, she became known as much for her butch presentation and style as for her songwriting, singing, and dancing abilities, sparking discussion even in the mainstream media about gender preferences and stereotypes. With her friends Brendan Fowler and Sarah Shapiro, she also makes music in a band called The New England Roses. She's toured with Peaches in an all-female band called the Herms. Together with Johanna Fateman, Samson dj's around the world as a group called Men.
Her artwork deals with ideas of Utopia, queers and queer visibility, among other things. She's made several calendars, and had a solo show at Deitch Projects.
JD is a proud lesbian who creates art and music that celebrates feminism and the queer community throughout history. Maybe because of her unabashed, uncontrived butch appearance, as well as her very public role as a performer in LeTigre, she has gotten a lot of attention in the press, and in the world. Maybe because of the amazing calendars she created, that position herself and her queer friends in a variety of public and private settings, she has become a bit of an icon currently, in both the queer and straight worlds.
I recently spoke with her when she was in Portland about image, identity, the collective queer memory, and art and revisionist history.
Sarah Gottesdiener: Tell us about the art you've created with the calendar.
JD Samson: JD's Lesbian Calendar was in 2003. In 2006, I did a totally different idea, a conceptual calendar called JD's Lesbian Utopia.
In both of those you are constructing the image of the lesbian.
Yeah, I think it would be possible to say that it was a personal creation, but it was influenced extremely by the community, and I feel like in a lot of ways the reason why I made both of those calendars was for the lesbian audience and for other people, not just myself.
I think it's interesting that you use the term "lesbian," very specifically, instead of "queer," or "post-dyke," which was the last one I heard.
I'm post-New York. What can I say about that?
Maybe some people use the term lesbian exclusively–but in terms of history, of when some people might think of the word lesbian, it might seem outdated, or a noninclusive term.
And that decision was made for a purpose. I guess when I was making the first calendar there were two reasons why I wanted to use the word lesbian. One was that I wanted to bring back that word from a place where a lot of people didn't want to use it because it was referring to some sort of medical issue with the gay women–and I'm not afraid of using that word. I think we should reclaim it just like as we have reclaimed dyke, and that it doesn't really matter.
The other reason was because the first calendar came out right when there was all the media representation of trans people, and I wanted to represent the butch lesbian community as opposed to the transgender community. Not completely, 100%, not have anything to do with the trans community; I wanted to say that I wasn't trans, because that was definitely discussed in the media. Whenever I did interviews at that time, it was like "So, what are you?" [Using the word lesbian] was an easy way for me to say what I was and what I felt, and it was also a way to give a shout-out to the butch lesbian community.
The most underrepresented image in popular culture.
It's interesting, though, I think it has changed in this weird way, you know. I think that obviously a bunch of things have happened. I don't know if you care about The L Word [the popular HBO TV show, which featured a character named Max]. Having a trans character, or at the beginning, when Max was a butch lesbian–that was huge. And Daniela [Sea], the woman who plays Max on The L Word, is a lesbian in real life. I think there are some steps being taken, of course, to show some visibility of the butch lesbian. But I think you're right; that's the reason why I made the calendar. I wanted there to be the image of a butch lesbian in a home, in a business situation, for 365 days a year.
And the pictures are in all different settings–there's one in the movie theater, in the red vest–awesome. There's one on a beach. You're in a variety of different settings.
When I first conceived of the calendar, there were meant to be different occupations that butch lesbians would have. Because I felt like a lot of times, primarily in my situation, I have found jobs where I didn't have to communicate that much with other human beings, or something like that.
You were a truck driver.
Well, I was a bulldozer driver.
That's what I think of, when I think of the butch lesbian, as a truck driver, solitary.
You find solace with animals and children, maybe, under the age of three, who aren't socialized yet. And everyone else you'd rather not deal with, because there's so much trouble. Too many things can go wrong.
I did think it was interesting when I Googled you, there was this talk about the way you look, as opposed to your art and music. When I saw the calendar, I thought maybe you wanted to reclaim your own image and poke fun at it–the pictures are all sort of tongue-in-cheek. I thought it was sad: it is sort of expected that people will be harassed or objectified if they're in a skirt, and their contribution won't be talked about.
It's interesting. Since I started to become a public figure, I was always this persona. That was always what was put on me. I think that's just what happens in general, when people know who you are and what you do–people get inappropriate. It's really getting an opportunity to talk shit about people. Since the beginning of Le Tigre, that's been the whole thing with me, and that's given me a lot of strength, I think, but also it's painful and weird.
Actually, I did talk to this class at NYU about my work, and this one girl asked me if that was part of the reason why I made my calendar, to just kind of turn myself into this object or persona so I didn't have to deal with my real life, and I was like, "Wow, you're really smart and should be a shrink!" Because in a lot of ways I did pigeonhole myself as the butch lesbian, so whatever people want to say about the butch lesbian, the lesbian with the moustache, they do to me.
People will make fun of themselves first before someone else has a chance to make fun of them.
That's what happened, in the beginning, remember that message board on Chainsaw [independent record label Chainsaw Records]? There were hundreds of threads about how I was the ugliest person in the world. This was right in the beginning of Le Tigre when I was first doing the projections. And it killed me so much. It was such a weird thing. There's this episode of Strangers with Candy about how if you say the bad thing about yourself before someone else says it, then you're the one who knows you have the power over a situation. That was a rationalization for the calendar.
Do you have any memories of early lesbian or queer representation?
I did spend a part of my youth in pop culture, thinking that I wanted to be like Tom Cruise. I didn't necessarily look up to lesbians because I didn't know of any, and the lesbians that I did know of were so mainstream. I grew up in Ohio, so it was like K. D. Lang, the Indigo Girls, and Boy George. Those people definitely had a huge influence on me in terms of sincerity. I think this was a time in lesbian musicianship that was completely sincere and that totally means something to our community, so I was influenced by that, for sure. In terms of style, I felt like I was able to dress however I wanted and I took styles more from men than from lesbians. When I found out about punk rock I was influenced by Tribe 8, and more punk rock.
Style-wise, for you coming to mainstream attention, you were touted as an original, whereas, if you were in New York or Chicago or Portland, your look wouldn't be considered shocking. It's just interesting, because the media doesn't want to recognize any diversity of queer style.
I think you can look at it that way. Some people say, "People wouldn't have had the courage to look like that if you weren't around to give them the strength." People write me e-mails every day saying, "Thank you for letting me look like a lesbian." You would have done that anyway. That's the thing: some days I think, I'm such a loser, I don't know why everyone's focusing on me ... my fashion is way worse than other people's fashion, I just wear jeans and a t-shirt every day. I feel like I am completely not an original. I'm like the old man lesbian person who wears the same thing every day since they were twelve–but then trying to be like that.
I'm making an assumption that the people writing to you are from Idaho. Now maybe they have one reference. That's a start.
It does make me have some confidence, doing a service to my lesbian brothers. I feel like we have a community full of really great people who aren't afraid, and we can do anything, and so times are changing little by little. There's other things going on in the world too, it's hard to say what's what.
Was JD's Lesbian Utopia a sort of revisionism? Were you looking back to this idea of the land, the second-wave separatism?
I was curious how you got started with the project.
My first calendar came out during this issue surrounding the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which Le Tigre played a couple of times. There were some issues that only women born women are allowed at the festival, and a lot of people feel bad about that, as do we. Because it's a really complicated decision to make, and I understand both sides of it and would never want to have any feelings of pushing people outside. Le Tigre got a lot of flak for playing the show, and I think it was really hard for us because we had mixed feelings. Also it is our job to go places where people want to hear us for money and personally, that's the case too.
We had a really hard time, though; it was really hard for me to even understand what was going on, and all of a sudden, the community was divided. It was just a horrible time. So I started thinking a lot about women's land and what was beneficial about it, and what was beneficial about separatism, whether it be lesbians, or lesbian and gay. There was a feeling that I'd feel at Michigan and at spaces that are only queer. I think it's really empowering. Also, at the same time, there were crazy things going on within the queer community in New York–specifically there was this roundtable discussion in Chelsea where we all sat around and talked about the end of gay art. I was like, "I didn't know it was over." The decline of the community seemed to be coming on strong.
Yeah. Larry Kramer wrote this book, The Tragedy of Today's Gays, that was about gay people not helping gays, among other things. These two things were yelling at me: People wanted this feeling of the community growing strong again, or else they wouldn't have written the books and had the roundtable, and attended, and discussed. But at the same time, no one was doing anything. And I wondered, like, is this an urban thing? Is this a New York thing? An art thing? Am I in the wrong community?
Also, I had been touring all the time, and driving around, and there's something about being in a vehicle and driving and seeing how big the world is and how small you are. I had this anthropological need to experience something other than New York, especially the gay community. We went out and tried to look for this utopia.
How did you find the places?
I got really into RVs and was searching the Internet one day because I was interested in buying an RV and wondered if there was a gay ... everything I do, I see if there's a gay thing, because I always feel like it's more comfortable and nice to represent. I looked at this Internet site called Rainbow RVs, which is a community for gay and lesbian RVers. I used the resources and joined the club and went to all these different places that they recommended.
Did you find a utopia?
I went on the trip with four different people who were all artists, but different kinds of artists, and none of them knew each other very well. It was really awesome to see how that whole thing worked out and everything possible could have happened to us, besides getting into an accident or getting involved with the cops–it was all crazy. It was incredibly interesting. There were total class issues within us and other people, there was crazy ageist stuff, and every different one of the campgrounds had a different way of explaining their separatism. Some of them were all queer-inclusive, some were only men, some were only women. This one place that was only men allowed us to come for one night, so we went to them, and actually the men's land was way more willing to include women than the women's land was to include men. The way they talked about each other was so interesting; the separation of that community was wild.
Are they just places where you can park your RV? Is it a compound?
Every one of them was different. Some of them you just pull up and it was the woods and it was just a piece of land you could park on. Most of them had hookups, water, and electricity. Other places had dance parties. We went to this place in Georgia called Lumberjacks, and there was a bear party going on, and we had so much fun. It was awesome.
Are there trends in history that you reference in your work? I just saw a cool documentary about the first year of actions by the lesbian avengers (The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too, directed by Su Friedrich), then I saw a movie called Itty Bitty Titty Committee (directed by Jamie Babbit), and I felt like everything they were doing in the movie was almost a direct reference to some specific action that the lesbian avengers had taken.
For sure, I mostly think of other artwork by lesbians. There is so much adaptation going on. For example, a band like Lesbians on Ecstasy can exist playing dance remix covers of women's music that we can't help but love. For me that was one of the best references in the last 20 years because it took something that was exactly what we needed and made it modern. I appreciate that a lot. That's the kind of thing I really look to.
At one of the openings for my second calendar we had the Ani DiFranco choir: we sang "Both Hands" together in the gallery, along with the CD while it was playing, so we were battling over who could be louder. People who weren't queer were just looking, like, "What is going on?"... There's this sense of embarrassment that you know all the words and that you are yelling it in this public space, but there's also this sense of power that we have. I think that kind of adaptation is so important.
I've always been into adaptation myself. Almost all my work is history-based. The idea of doing the lesbian utopia trip was almost to reference Cathy Opie's studies of lesbian domesticity in a more natural way. This calendar also references the dyke action machine posters as well as Cathy Opie's "Dyke Deck"–she made a stack of cards that had different lesbians on it. All of her sense of her visibility was to put lesbians on a recreational tool; mine was more of an angry statement, to put it on a calendar. Like, you HAVE to see this. I'm looking into doing my next project. I'm a direct descendent of the Mayflower–a historical, queering-the-Mayflower type of situation.
What would that look like?
I'm still learning all this stuff about what happened. It was an interesting voyage. They actually landed first in Provincetown.
My girlfriend and I were talking about punk and queer, and how punk rockers wanna go shopping and get grills now. I feel like it's the natural progression of the media coverage of anything real going down, wanting to buy lots of things, so we can keep this country and the war machine alive, going up. Of course everyone in the country is going to be affected by it. Everyone will go out to a dance party.
I thought before how the boundary between straight and gay is really thinning, so people have the opportunity to live a more straight life. I'm not sure if that has to do with the transrevolution or the capitalist notions. The queer community went through a total confusing moment with the transrevolution because there's all these different Prides now. There's not this one all-encompassing thing, it's all these little things that come out of it, and therefore people fight for their specific little group–I'm totally guilty of it, making a lesbian calendar. Then people don't come together toward a huge end, and that's part of what I was saying earlier of that's what makes people able to act straight. I think about that all the time, in terms of hip-hop becoming some huge part of lesbian culture. I've always loved hip-hop music; now it's like, either you're hip-hop or you're hipster. There's no one who's being old-school.
No one rocking the cut-off flannel!
Exactly. But that's what we should be doing.
Lesbian fashion from the land.
Bring out the loincloth and tie-dye.
There's the illusion of safety and security. There's the illusion that we as gay people and queer people have that straight life, when we actually don't. It's still the same, nothing has really changed. But now, because of the media, there's more lesbian visibility, more diversity of experience. We're like, "Oh, there's a magazine for me, I don't need to be out on the street corner. I can get my partner's dental."
All of those little things do matter. It's saying, "I'm going to live positively," and it's really important to me that these little things get us somewhere. For every [negative] decision that's been made about gay marriage, there are more people saying "Yes." We're moving somewhere, and that's really positive.
The gay people still need to fight for it, whether or not you believe in marriage. And that's my whole criticism of that whole thing. Maybe I don't want to get married because I don't believe in the construction of marriage. A lot of people don't feel that way, and I'm not saying that I don't feel that way. But then does that mean that your lesbian friend can't get married, if that's what she wants to do? I feel that people are so selfish about that specific issue: "I'm not going to fight for it because I don't want it." Would you have fought for anything in history?
We're all going to look back and feel really shitty about the way the past 10 years have gone. We sat through another four years without there being any protests–no huge ones. We let that happen? Are you serious? I can't even believe it. We let that happen, and then for the past four years, nothing. That was our chance to just blow up.
In Portland, the art world, it's very small; there's definitely the old boys' club thing. In my opinion, the more interesting stuff, done by women, queers, or punks, is being done in alternative spaces and being done with a different intended outcome, not trying to peddle to art galleries. I was wondering what you thought about creating your own community versus creating artwork that functions in the larger context.
I was talking about this the other day. A couple things had happened–I was speaking to a class, and one girl was asking me how she could get more involved in the queer feminist art scene in New York. I was talking to her about it, and she was like, "Do you think that it's actually an old boys' club of lesbians?" It's really hard to put yourself in that group of people if you're not part of it already. If there's some big lesbian art show happening, it's not like you can just show up and put your work in it. Unfortunately, and by no one's fault or inherent design issue, that is just the way community tends to develop. You want to think [that you'll be included in the art show] because it's the lesbian community and you're part of it, but it's not true. You have to be friends with the right people in that scene, too.
I did this article in the ANP Quarterly with my friend Emily Roysdon, who puts together this journal called LTTR. I think it's amazing, and she asked me if I thought the art world is as fucked as the music world or something, and I'm like, are you kidding? They're both businesses. As long as you try to make money from the art that you're making, it's a business. If you want to have a different job and then do your art on the side, then you have a different idea about your art. I'm sorry, but that's the way it works out. If you do music for fun you're doing something completely different than once you start trying to make a business out of it.
Does it change it? How does that feel?
It totally changes it. Working with Deitch Projects was a totally different experience than working with my bandmate [in Le Tigre] Kathleen [Hanna], who had the first Lesbian Calendar release show. I mean, it was totally weird, but I was really thankful to have that space. They gave me a huge space, a huge studio to work in before the show; they treated me so well. I think I was the only lesbian who's ever had a show there. I asked them when was the last lesbian they had, and they were like, "So-and-so was in a group show." It was a good chance to make that straight space gay, for however long it was up. I loved that.
And I love doing that kind of stuff. I've always been that kind of person; it's important to me to take my community into more mainstream spaces and have Le Tigre be on a more major label. I think that's more important than just putting yourself in a community and fencing yourself in. ... I love working with all my lesbian friends and I love all of them coming together for one purpose, but I want straight people to see it. I want these things to mesh. I want this queer art to be relevant in a straight world, and I want straight people's art to be relevant in our world. What's up with that? I'm really interested in separatist spaces for living, but then in terms of communicating and working with the world, you have to go past your comfort zone. I'm just learning that. I want lesbian utopia but I want that to exist in the world.
I know this seems really dated to talk about, but I'm still shocked about how the Internet has been. Especially to me, the difference between making art before the Internet–it was such a tangible process for me. I feel like people get stuck doing the business for their art, more than their art, and I think that's really a shame. I also think that that in turn has made people appreciate art in a different way. That has a lot to do with people's memory of what did art used to be? And what it is now? But I think it also gives us amazing collective memory of the history, which is way more accessible to us via the Internet.
That's why there is more adaptation-style work happening now. There is this look back into history with the ability to look deeper in archival material. There's a craftsmanship to making art when you need to for your psyche, and I really believe in that a lot. I still think about ...[Samson brings out a record, the Chicago Lesbian Choir] ... That's the shit, I mean, real lesbians. It's a real interesting topic to me, how the Internet has changed everything about our community, because the community has grown so big as to become international. People in New York have the same scene as people in London.
The Portland Lesbian Choir is performing on Saturday [for Portland's Gay Pride celebration]. That's the kind of shit I want to make famous.
There's something really ...
... Sincere ...
... Not jaded. It seems like the less free you are, the more free you are to be yourself.
You don't get stuck in the capitalism part of the rest of the world. There are plusses and minuses to wanting to be part of the general people or not wanting to be part of the general people. [On the RV trip] we found the utopia inside the vehicle. It was just really cool to experience that with each other and think about all the things that we went through, moving around, traveling.
A lot of times marginalized groups feel powerless to document themselves and put themselves in the larger societal history. Having the ability to choose our own reality and memory and how we choose to be is a liberating idea to me, too. Seeing the women's and feminist art shows in New York this spring was really inspiring.
Those shows are kind of weird to me. I dj'ed at the WACK! [Art and the Feminist Revolution] show at the [Los Angeles] MOCA and at the Brooklyn Museum for the Feminist show there, and there were things that I found incredible and exciting, and I felt like finally part of my world was being considered in an institution. I say that in the lightest way possible, but it's true. But it was also hard, in LA, to see so much work packed in such a way that was impossible to take it all in. It made it seem abnormal.
You get 4 feet by 4 feet.
There was so much text-based material, things that were written in so many different languages, and it was a lot to take it all in. I felt a little bit strange about what was put in it. I didn't want it to be that these institutions gave us these two shows that were really important: that shouldn't change the way we feel about history. We have to do that for ourselves; just because some big dudes made some decisions that we liked ... I guess my whole plug is sincerity. I just don't understand anything other than that.