A talk with the trans South Asian performance art duo
Dark Matter poetry is not your typical performance duo. Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian deliver a broad range of insights with each performance, often with a crippling hilarity underneath. Through their blistering portrayals of everyday trans-misogyny, racism, and homophobia, the pair captures audiences around the globe, enticing watchers to alternatively laugh and cry. Their goal? To revolutionize the LGBT rights movement.
Today, the movement is suffering from deeply problematic undercurrents. Media representation of the community is glaringly white, while the movement itself has become dangerously commercialized and cisnormative. Within the community, racism and trans-misogyny still run rampant, posing a threat to non-cis members of color, estranging and endangering the very people to whom the LGBT movement claims to provide solace. Through their performance art and strong internet presence, Dark Matter confront these issues head on, highlighting the discrimination prevalent in cultures and in the LGBT community itself. We spoke to the duo about their intentions as a group and what irks them about liberals in 2016.
The Wake: For those new to your medium/subject matter, could you give us a quick rundown of what Dark Matter is and what you do?
Dark Matter: We run around the world crying on stages about our moms and the status of the world while wearing ridiculously fun outfits, and some people call it poetry.
How do you use your different formats (poetry, nursery rhymes, photography) to convey your messages?
Every message can be communicated in a million different ways. We are constantly searching for different templates to express ourselves. One of the neat things about being an artist is that you have permission to experiment.
What inspired you to use performance art, specifically poetry, to address these issues? What have you found are the pros (and cons) of this medium?
It’s not so much that we chose to be performance artists, it’s just that we started to do this thing and people called it “art.” Neither of us feels particularly wedded to any particular method or format or structure, we’re always open to adapting to how we feel. We want our shows to be organic, to be reflections of where we’re at in the moment. We’ve been known to just stop saying poetry and start ranting. Sometimes that just feels more important.
Looking back, how have your performances and your content changed from your debut?
Our art changes as we change in our lives. Our politics are constantly evolving, the things we care about are constantly changing, so often when we look back at things we wrote a couple of years ago we’re like, “What, really?” We’ve also had a lot more practice than when we first started so technically we’re probably getting better, too.
Many of your narratives critique mainstream liberals (i.e. NPR enthusiasts, white yogis, pink-washing in general). Have you received backlash from this community, and if so, how do you usually respond?
Yes of course. The thing about liberalism is that it likes to pretend that it has everything figured out. Even though it pretends that it’s open to everything and embracing, when you dare point out its contradictions people are up in arms. The response has to be tailored to each episode—whether it comes online or at a show. But we’re pretty good at shutting it down and reminding people what’s really important.
How do you think your life would have been changed had there been a group like Dark Matter while you were growing up?
Well we probably would have resented how everyone told us that we look just like Dark Matter, [because] everyone thinks all Indians look the same, right? But more seriously, life would have been a little bit easier, that’s for sure.
Give us a quick recap of what is problematic in the current LGBT rights movement.
Number one: It’s racist. Number two: It’s trans-misogynist. Number three: It’s more interested in representation than reality. Number four: It mistakes media moments as movements. Number five: It married capitalism.
Finally, for students just learning about the gender binary, what sources do you suggest they look at to learn more?
“Powerpuff Girls,” “Teletubbies,” “America’s Next Top Model” (boys v. girls, special edition), the Olympics, and the mall.