New York City 

DarkMatter is a trans South Asian artist collaboration comprised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. The duo produce and perform art of immeasurable depth and power, poetry which reflects their individual and shared struggles and makes incisive observations about the world today.

After staying with us and participating in our Dear Reader series, the duo agreed to let us ask them some questions:

AH: Irony’s gained a lot of popularity over the past two decades as a foil for being jaded, disconnected, isolationist. DarkMatter, however, makes devastating use of a much more traditional dramatic sense of irony, which has the effect of bringing a weight or gravity to your work that would not be possible in a direct, one might even say “straight,” performance. At times, your use of irony feels like it allows you to engage audiences at radically different registers, creating alliances and rebukes, jokes and indictments at once. How do you approach the role of irony in your work?

DM: We’re not sure who said it but there’s this quote we always think of, “Make them laugh and then stick the truth in their mouths while they’re open,” and we think of a lot of our performance work this way. The reality is that as two gender non-conforming people of color, the “performance” starts even before we open our mouths. Our bodies speak before our text does. Many people haven’t seen humans who look like us. We are constantly made to be the butt of jokes, instead of actually being able to deliver the jokes ourselves. Under white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy, people of color and queer/trans people have to always be literal in order to become coherent. We have to endure the additional layer of violence of the labor of making our narratives palatable and digestible. That can get spiritually and creatively exhausting. Our use of irony — and humor more broadly — allows us to unsettle some of the power relationships operating in the space, disarm our audiences, and then hit them where it matters. And — to be honest — it’s also just a lot of fun! (lol)

Opening your chapbook with Alok’s Trans/Generation seems like an important decision. The piece directly engages the reader with lines like “you see” and “you have to understand.” From the onset, the reader is complicit in the text. How did you arrive at this choice in framing the project? 

Yes, yes, the “you” is a concerted effort on multiple levels. Growing up as queer and trans Indians in diaspora we are often seen as symbols of Western decadence and indoctrination. The logic from many of our families goes, “You picked up this ‘trans’ thing from white people.” In this way queer and trans people become forcibly erased from our archives — from both our historical and contemporary tellings of our people. There’s no recognition here that forms of gender nonconformity have always existed in our cultures. Using “you” in our poetry simultaneously gives us back subjectivity — the ability to have voice — and allows us to comment on bigger patterns and themes within our diaspora. 

Also: what we’re trying to do is here is unsettle the way that the art world with all of its white liberalism wants artists of color to share our stories as if they somehow exist in a vacuum outside of structural power. The frequent use of “you” in our poetry is about reminding our audiences that our stories can never exist separately from power — power which is often even operating in the seemingly innocent interactions of listening, reading, watching, spectating, commenting, gazing.

Your work on the page vibrates with energy. How does performing the poems transform them? Are there performative aspects to the work that are essential to its expression? (Follow up question: If so, how do you navigate the disparate gaps that exist between written and enacted?)

Only a selection of our work actually makes it into performance. These are pieces that we often write for the purpose of performing — so we write with a keen consideration of sound, and gesture, and rhythm. We try to perform our pieces every time as if it’s the first time we’re reading them — we want to tap into that initial sense of rawness. But we often change the way that we perform our pieces depending on our audiences. If the audience isn’t ready to laugh with us we might go a little more serious (and vice versa).

How does your work as artists impact and engage with your work as grassroots organizers for issues of racial and economic justice?

We have always had difficulty with the way that our society renders “art” and “activism” as distinct buckets. Art and activism have always been one and the same for us. It is profoundly political to write, to feel, to articulate in a world that is so determined to censor/silence us. We recognize that the only way we have the ability to say the things we do as the artists we are is because of a long tradition of activism and struggle. We are always thinking about better ways to use our art and the platform around it to link to grassroots struggles on the ground.

Today, online communities like tumblr offer a forum for the disenfranchised to empower themselves to share their stories, for the voiceless to speak their truths. What kind of a role have online communities or social media platforms had in your growth as artists?

There is no way we could have gotten access to the physical stages we have today if it wasn’t for the cyber platforms that helped carry us there. The internet has given birth to a generation of queer & trans people who are developing our own aesthetics, languages, politics on our own terms and all of this creative space consistently helps uplift artists and activists like us — who the mainstream has continues to neglect except in the most tokenizing ways. Cheers to self(ie)-determination!

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