Borders are Artificial, an Interview with Tess Miller of KEINHAUS
Would you describe the project you are doing for Porous Borders?
This project basically involves creating a musical send. It’s a sound based piece with frequencies, with rhythmic layers, it wants to present music as a space, as an opening with interactive elements to it. In the process of creating music from and returning to Detroit — there’s just been something with music from like my absolute love of J Dilla to a really interesting group like Underground Resistance and just thinking about that sound, but the whole sonic history of Detroit, but also the power of music. I think it’s something that just has incredible power on multiple levels, so it’s an interesting choice and it’s why music is such a big part of what I’m doing artistically.
The original title of my project was ‘Field Dance and Return’. That title now has an addendum on top of that — it’s now ‘Field Dance Send/Return/Joe’s Mothership… I believe that’s also it’s name because it’s basically the idea of building a musical mothership, a sort of space station — it’s a certain space of music and freedom. The frequencies of freedom—just sort of spreading this sound into the airwaves. It’s also about how music has power, how dance has power; it’s about the way that through these types of structures we can have a reactivation of our body. Music is a way in which we can reach different states of mind, express our mind. Music also contains within it this sort of ciphering — secret codes can be written in it, like poetry. It can express hidden meanings and patterns.
Personally I love dancing. I was kind of shocked coming back here to find that people didn’t dance that much or move that much. Music and sound have always been something for me that are a way to access these things.So I started this project with the idea of an outdoor dance floor—a painted stage—and share some of the music and things I’ve been researching… show a little bit of Keinhaus. But now, as I’ve started to work with things and the idea everyone has basically joined into the project of their own accord, so it has been shaped and formed by everyone who is here now building this thing—of whatever it is exactly. In many ways we’re making something that remains open—something that remains after the festival. It’s a beginning for what is to come. It’s a space for community, for development, for sound. A space in which everyone is welcome, as long as the frequency vibration is on a positive level. So it’s also an experiment in frequencies.
“I don’t believe in borders, they’re artificial constructions that don’t exactly exist. My goal as an artist and as an individual at this time is to stop the artificial borders that separate us from each other and to try to remove from my own self and my own consciousness the elements of fear of the other.”
It’s a lot like an 808 and the sound frequencies they can get—creating a music archive of essential sounds that will be available after the festival—posted on my own site or on porous maybe—of albums that I consider absolutely essential to my Detroit listening experience as well as the experience of the work. This is Drexciya, Underground Resistance, Saurock, Kraftwerk, Parliament, KRS1, Run the Jewels, Mykki Bianco, J Dilla and tracing these back to music that I am personally less familiar with such as dub, roots, reggae, into Caribbean and other rhythms that I continue to develop my own personal research about how sound functions.
In a previous conversation we had you mentioned your affinity for polyrhythms, frequencies and the 808. How does making and working with music affect your perspectives on borders, what comes to mind when you approach the question of borders in our time?
I don’t believe in borders, they’re artificial constructions that don’t exactly exist. My goal as an artist and as an individual at this time is to stop the artificial borders that separate us from each other and to try to remove from my own self and my own consciousness the elements of fear of the other. This is a really big part of the work. It’s a big part of everything that is going on right now, in the time I’ve spent living in Detroit after not having lived in Detroit for 6 years though having been from here originally. In the wake of the last six months focusing and studying real news and world political events, what has been the hardest for me is to realize how many people around are racist and how those ideas—racisms, xenophobia, homophobia, all phobias and fear of the other within them contain the idea of a border. A border is the boundary between the other and the non-other, which is said to exist in order to create a separation, but the separation isn’t there…the only separation is the fear and the training that you have put in yourself. It is in essence to find the courage to get over that fear and just let go, to be in a moment where the borders don’t necessarily exist, yet that you can still see the conditions that created the borders, that have formed the borders in your own mind.
I’m really interested in frequencies, I like heavy bass sounds, polyrhythms, layers and layers of rhythms, so it’s just something that I’ve kind of curved into as well as my interest in the synthesis of sound. It’s something that’s gotten stronger since I moved back to Detroit. I started working with music when I was outside of here, but then when I came back I felt some sort of inspiration from the city. [There was] definitely a draw to it conceptually, it’s just something that’s been happening really naturally here. I believe that these frequencies can heal us, maybe make us feel better. I believe that both our use of [frequencies] and dancing, we activate them. When it comes to borders, music is used as a method of power. Music contains within it a power that can never be taken away. As we begin to talk borders, it’s a very difficult time in the world when we see boats of refugees capsizing in the waters and drowning as they attempt to reach another land and another place — when Europe, almost jokingly, becomes ‘Fort Europe’ with locked down borders to keep everyone out, when these refugees would necessarily want to do that unless they were in dire need. I have no idea what to say about that, when these images come to my mind of refugee camps, of people crossing into the US border via Mexico — of people standing there shooting them, of the very divide between what is Hamtramck and Detroit and what is perceived on the other side of the border. Having lived here for some time, the side of Detroit is perceived in this way, of being a thing of fear — and people also react with fear to it because they carry these remnants of the fear of the other within them. In some cases, people haven’t taken enough effort to get them out—the fear is basically a product of our society, a programming that tells us that we’re not supposed to be connected to one another, that we are different, that we must fear the other. It’s not so much the fear of the other as much as the need for the other to assimilate and become the self.
In essence, then for me, the two signs of an 808 represent a double infinity, so as you get the doubling over of the other and the non-other and back again it contains within itself both the beginnings and the end, thus the frequency patterns also have the ability to take us from the beginning to the end and into a new regenerative place where we don’t have so many problems between things.
How did the Keinhaus come to be and how has it changed since its inception?
I got this house by chance. It’s as if this house needed to be here. I started it with a little bit of the intention for it to be a center for experimental music and media It was very clear to me very quickly that this house wanted guests, as also Keinhaus exists in terminology as a negation of the house. It’s non-house coming from a German poem translating to: whoever will not have a house, whoever yet does not have a house will not build one—there’s a double negation within it. So I started this as just a space.
It was in really rough shape, I’ve done every thing on my own, just using Youtube and tearing it apart and making it into whatever it was. It was very challenging to me on every level. But as it was shaped and as I moved forward, the structure of the house, which is its own thing — it has its own life — it has its own force and creation, I could clearly see it wanted to have people in it — it wanted more people. It really wanted to fill itself with this positive energy. As the house begins to fill with that energy, I start to find that I have more and more return visitors who come here, to this place in the world.
They fall in love with the energies of this city. I have for this project — and this is a really unexpected element because the people downstairs, the six people working in the backyard, the neighborhood kids, the drums are outside — I was planning to just paint a dance floor outside and share some music but it’s clear to me that there’s something that we’re doing that is really positive. That we all want to come back here and make this thing, this space to dance, to move, to eat together — all races, especially in this time post-Ferguson and Baltimore and every other thing that’s going on with an extremely racist world and the gentrification of Detroit, with people not seeing what is actually happening and how positions of power effect everything.
This house somehow is a point of positive radiation. I feel we are making something beautiful, we are making a space to dance, to drum, to come together. I don’t actually know what it will become, but now, as opposed to this being a project that in any way I could consider myself the individual artist of, though I am making it, I think that everyone who is now involved in it is involved in this mutual vision of the abilities of frequencies and music to heal and connect us and spread techno love. Even though some of those sounds may be very hard and abrasive, somehow in the hard sound there is a lot of calm and peace—and power.
Would you tell us a border story? Perhaps something that happened here on the border between Hamtramck and Detroit, or perhaps something from your time in Europe.
The people all just showed up, they’re all just here. I don’t understand why — they’re not my project volunteers, I don’t know where they came from, I don’t know why they all started working on this thing — they just are, they’re working on rebuilding speakers downstairs. We’re all working collectively and I mean I know them, but some of them are coming back, the way that the crew is right now, we all just came together and formed this mutual goal to make it. There’s Robert from Scotland, Emma is English, Diego is Italian, Clery is also from England, do we have more? Yes, there’s been more… and more and more and more! There’s a metal musician from Maine who has come and helped and done a lot — there’s the children from across the street (they only move in two months ago!), I don’t know where they came from — these lovely children, they’re new friends, we just met.
“I said it was too loud and turned it down. The neighbors came over and ‘I’m sorry, but excuse me, would you turn the music back up?’ So, we turned the music back up and sat out there…”
It all started for me because I’ve been blaring the music from here really loud, but one Saturday afternoon we were in their backyard, me and a few friends, playing Wu-Tang Clan — I said I really have to go home and listen to ’36 Chambers’ right now and I just blared it with the speakers, is anyone going to mind? I went upstairs, did a little bit of work, my friend was downstairs helping out with something and at some point I said it was too loud and turned it down. The neighbors came over and ‘I’m sorry, but excuse me, would you turn the music back up?’ So, we turned the music back up and sat out there… and as we sat every person who walked by had something to say about music. There’s guys walking by asking ‘do you know Kraftwerk?’ There’s others wanting to tell stories of Jamaican music. Suddenly there’s all these people who showed up and they’re making something!
– Interview by Levon Kafafian