FS59: An Otobiography
Reviewed by Scott Schaffer
Friday, December 8 2000, 5:03 PM
The Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles this past summer included a little-recognized protest, hidden in the media coverage of "anarchists," the cruelty inflicted on people attending a Rage Against the Machine concert, and Rev. Jesse Jackson's nearly-Marxist speech. This demonstration, organized by Pride At Work, Transgender Menace, the Direct Action Network (the rabblerousers who brought us the 'Battle in Seattle') and alumni of ACT UP and Queer Nation, worked to bring queer rights to the mainstream political table. While it might not have been immediately successful -- candidates Lieberman and Cheney's weak attempts at supporting same-sex couples' rights during the presidential debates notwithstanding -- the demonstration served to reinforce the idea among activists that queer rights are an integral part of the 21st century quest for social justice.
FS59: An Otobiography, Ultra-red's latest sonic attack on inequality and exploitation , furthers this quest significantly. Billed as "the siren's song" (pun intended, I'm sure) of the reinvigoration of the queer left, the CD, available through Comatonse Records, FS59 serves to highlight the experiential struggle of transsexual and transgendered individuals everywhere. Focusing in particular on Michele Kämmerer, the first transsexual fire captain in the United States, FS59's primary achievement is the depiction of the everydayness, the ordinariness, of the struggle for equality and the ways in which this struggle -- and its solution -- can appear to us in the experiences of daily life.
Ultra-red, founded in 1994, is a Los Angeles collective devoted to exploring, exposing, and blowing apart all the contradictions of capitalism. Defying all genre classifications, but borrowing from musique concrêt, ambient, and "nu skool" electronica , Ultra-red uses those most fine products of capitalist ideology -- computers and electronic processors, Lord High Priests of 'planned obsolescence' -- to integrate the sounds of their subjects' everyday lives and situations and electronic enhancement to produce a generally scathing political critique of the system at large.
Their previous work, including Structural Adjustments -- Ajustes Estructurales, Second Nature: An Electro-acoustic Pastoral, and N30 has brought Ultra-red's unique activist social justice perspective to bear on the destruction of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village Housing Projects in LA, the policing of gay sex in LA's Griffith Park, and the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. In each of those projects, Ultra-red shows the hypocrisy and overtly exploitative aspects of each situation: a mélange of protestors and construction workers on Structural Adjustments; the sounds of nature and men having sex in LA's largest outdoor park; and a funky techno beat combined with excerpts of protest and WTO speeches on N30.
FS59 contains 9 tracks, each titled with different sections of the Transgender Bill of Rights, all providing a particular context for the piece. Using the key tenets of a transgendered/transsexual idea of social justice as the structure for the CD, Ultra-red make clear that the ideas of nondiscrimination, the prevention of harassment, confidentiality, and a general sense of respect for TS/TG individuals are not difficult things to achieve. The sounds are ordinary, for the most part -- dishes being done, telephones ringing, alarms coming in, fire engine sirens -- did reflect not only the mundane experiences of working in a fire station (in the same way Ultra-red captured the mundanity of life in Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, the ordinary interactions during the 'Battle in Seattle' and the natural backdrop to 'hooking up' in Griffith Park), but also the terrain for the quest for equity. The point of each track on FS59 is to show that these ideas of and actions for social justice can be grounded in the everyday, ordinary interactions of individuals, thereby laying waste to the idea that rights for homosexuals, same-sex couples, or TS/TG individuals are 'special rights.'
The opening sound of the disc -- that of a fire station door opening and dishes being done, setting a scene reminiscent of both one's own home and 1970s TV show Emergency! -- lays the groundwork for this: "Company policy and union contracts must include nondiscrimination of the basis of gender identity and expression" makes it clear that Captain Kämmerer is no different than any other member of her fire company. "Swift action must be taken if harassment occurs" presents both the image of a large gavel pounding in a harassment hearing and the nervous heartbeat of both harasser and victim. "Disclosure of gender difference to management must be kept confidential" brings out the important point -- a person's identity in the US is determined by the kind of work we do; because of this, transitioning at work -- the ability of a TS/TG person to make a smooth transition into their new identity -- becomes a crucial issue, and FS59 highlights in its other tracks the elements of that work life that have to be taken into account. Track 8 ("Medical benefits through employers should cover treatment for gender identity disorder") allows Kämmerer to tell of the support she received from a variety of unexpected places in the LAFD. And for those who would want to hear the shit that went down after she underwent her transition (because it could not have been easy), the fifth track ("Reasonable use of rest-rooms and other sex-divided facilities") gives that, though in muffled tones; Kämmerer's description of her experience in transitioning is severely undermixed, leaving the listener with two conflicting ideas ther this is the stuff no one wants to discuss in talking about TS/TG rights, or it's the minor counterpoint to her real story. Either way, "Reasonable use" shows that in any discussion of overcoming injustice, there is a dark side that necessarily must be talked about and worked out.
Like any good biography, oto- or not, FS59 is about its subject and their social and historical conditions of existence, and Kämmerer's biography seems to be intimately intertwined with that of her station. Engine Co. 59 appears as a major player in FS59 (serving as the aural background for the interviews with K?mmerer in many tracks, as well as the source material for a good deal of the processed and accentuated sounds on the disc), and is (along with the rest of the LA Fire Department) the secondary focus of the disc. "Reasonable use" lays out other people's responses to Kämmerer's transition; "Medical Treatment" gives us a dialectical discussion of the mutual support between K?mmerer and the LAFD; and "Management must take the lead" shows that, at the end of the day, transsexual Captain Michele Kämmerer isn't the person we need to focus on -- fire captain Michele Kämmerer is.
But ultimately, we are the focus of FS59. As with all of Ultra-red's work, FS59 requires a high degree of engagement; this isn't the fear-and-action-provoking groovy grooves of the late Christal Methodists, nor is this the ear candy Marxism provided by Rage Against the Machine. This is electronic music's socialist realism at its finest: Ultra-red demands your involvement, calls you to accountability, and implicates you in the creation of its art. Many of the tracks intentionally undermix and understate the point, forcing the listener to go back multiple times to hear the cries of those on whose behalf Ultra-red struggles. And ultimately, it is this quality of their work in general, and of FS59 in particular, that is most rewarding. While it depicts the struggle for liberation sympathetically by personalizing it -- be it Capt. Kämmerer in FS59 or the residents of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village in Structural Adjustments, it also emphasizes that all of us must struggle together for equity. It is in the haunting reminiscences of our own lives that Ultra-red sees the potential for struggle and liberation, leaving the listener to realize their own position in the journey for social justice.
FS 59 is available from True Classical (No Address or URL Listed)