Interview: Grandma Techno Is a 72-Year-Old Dance Music Badass
It’s likely that 72-year-old Patricia Lay-Dorsey, known to most as “Grandma Techno,” goes out more than most partiers a third her age. She has been a regular at Detroit’s Movement festival since 2005. And although multiple sclerosis has left her unable to walk, she traveled to the festival—and to far-flung places including Lebanon—by herself, with her motorized scooter.
She earned her nickname at Movement while making her way through the crowd on her scooter. “Grandma Techno wants to get through,” a person in the crowd yelled. “Let her through!”
With that, a scene star was born.
In 2012, videographer Clarence Johnson captured Lay-Dorsey’s Movement experience in the documentary They Call Me Grandma Techno. The video went viral, and she has since become as much a part of Movement as the techno DJs that she so loves (her favorites artists include Claude VonStroke and John Digweed). Grandma Techno also loves photography, and in 2013 her self-portrait book, Falling Into Place, was published by Fotogallery in Wales, UK. It chronicles her day-to-day life as a person with a disability. Another book is currently in the works.
We spoke with Grandma Techno about her life in and beyond the scene. Read the Q&A, and then click to the next page for her 20 favorite shots from Movement, along with her thoughts on each one.
What’s your strategy when it comes to shooting pictures?
My whole thing is getting the inside story with people. When I’m at Movement, I am the inside story. I’m right in the middle of the action. I’ll shoot for as long as I need to in order to get a bunch of different choices. My eye is always peeled to see if there’s something interesting going on.
How has your experience changed since They Call Me Grandma Techno went viral?
The video went viral a couple of weeks before Movement 2014. Paxahau, the festival producers, asked me if they could share it on Facebook, and if I minded going that public with it.I didn’t know what they meant until I got to the festival, because it was more than just being known—I had become a celebrity. Everyone knew who I was, which made it really hard for me to take pictures because I was constantly surrounded by people. I didn’t mind. The people were so heartfelt and sincere, I couldn’t turn them off.
The one downside is that I couldn’t do much dancing, which is terrible because I love to dance. I did the best I could to take pictures, but it’s just a different festival for me now. Now I understand why DJs hide backstage: because the minute they go into the public, they get mobbed. Thankfully, I was part of the Paxahau photo team, which meant I could go backstage every so often to take a break from the crowds. Then, it got to the point where the DJs were coming up to me too. That’s the thing about going viral—it can be tricky.
On your website, it says that you’ve been an artist for quite a while. What other work do you do?
I was working with kids at an inner city hospital in the mid-‘70s when I discovered I had some artistic talent. I’ve done everything from drawings to life portraits to sculptures to mixed media. I get funkier the older I get, and I’m weirder now than I’ve ever been; I love it. In the mid-‘80s, I started doing mask performance work in silence. It was really abstract and very wonderfully odd; I loved it.
In 1996, I started living a couple of months of the year in San Francisco, working with women communities, doing peace activism and making my art. In 2000, I started an online journal on my website with pictures (there weren’t blogs yet). I was obsessive. I made an entry on my blog every day for six years straight. After six years, I started getting tired of words, and all I wanted to do was take pictures. I got myself a good camera, but I knew nothing about photography. So I took a few classes to learn about the fundamentals, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
What are your favorite memories from attending the Movement festival?
I live only in the present; I don’t live in the past. So I’m apt to forget what has happened in my life unless someone reminds me. I do remember one time I was backstage, and there was a fabulous DJ from Italy, and his name starts with a B…
Yes! He was performing onstage while I was backstage, taking pictures and just loving it. He turned around and looked at me and just forgot about that audience and sang right to me. It was so sweet.
Another special moment was when someone asked to interview me about They Call Me Grandma Techno. It turns out the next person they were interviewing was Claude VonStroke, so I sat there and listened to his interview; and then he and I talked, and he was such a sweet guy. I think all of us think somebody like him would never be nervous, but he was. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I’m trying something brand-new tonight. I’ve never tried it before, and I don’t know if anybody’s going to get it. I’m uncomfortable and I’m nervous about it.” It was so human. I was very touched by that.
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