DARKMATTER is a trans South Asian performance art duo compromised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. They are based in New York City and are emerging legendary performers who played at venues like La MaMa Experimental Theater, Nuyorican Poets Café, and have performed internationally at major festivals and universities in India, Amsterdam and Canada.
But mostly importantly, they inspire me. They empower me. They make me want to be an aggressively courageous individual. As a queer POC, although I am a buck rapper, I still find myself dealing with social insecurities in regards to my identity. DARKMATTER's performances help me not only feel erect in myself, but also educate me on learning how to communicate through my identity effectively and fiercely with no apologies. Seriously though, this is one of my most favorite interviews yet and is very lengthy so I want to leave this introduction short and end on this note: DARKMATTER AIN'T NOTHING TO FUCK WITH.
Which do you see as more vital: internal activism or physical?How do they work together? How does fighting policies/laws that work against the livelihood of qtipoc's interact with helping qtipoc's radicalize their identities within themselves?
DarkMatter: First of all, this idea that there is a “real,” offline self as opposed to an “imaginary” online self is so messed up. We are all cyborgs!!! We are all existing and resisting in multiple planes and dimensions. All of these binaries are false! URL & IRL activism are not oppositional, they mutually inform each other desperately and intimately.The battle has to be fought on all fronts: from the netroots to the grassroots. Not every person needs to be engaging in every type of resistance. We keep on stumbling through debates of what is, “real” activism, what is the “real,” work -- as if there is one path, one way to liberation.
However, it’s difficult to hold space for the legitimacy of so many different forms of resistance in a climate where people in power get to define the terms of engagement, the grammar of resistance. The racist and ageist media continually dismisses internet activism as a millennial generation just obsessed with clickbait activism. Actually, there’s a lot of dynamic and transformative work being done online -- life saving work -- that completely gets dismissed and sometimes even ridiculed. We think this is precisely the power of cyber activism -- its inability (and in fact its refusal) to be categorized and understood through what society regards as “activism” and “politics.” It’s often work that’s deeply cathartic, emotional, and paradigm shifting.
So we need both seriously and desperately. We need the types of consciousness and validation and representation and decolonial imagination that comes from living and being online as well as the direct action and marching and courtroom packing and fundraising to bail out people from cages that happens offline.
How do you feel about the separatism amongst oppressed people, does the theory of divide and conquer sound realistic for this situation? Also, do you believe in the idea that it's created by patriarchy/capitalism?
Yes there is a type of division that comes from systems of oppression like capitalism and white supremacy. I mean, dividing oppressed people is a state policy in this country -- it keeps people infighting rather than building the types of intimacies, solidarities, and coalitions that build our collective power. “Gender,” is one of the most explicit forms of social division. Gender was/is literally a colonial import created for the specific purpose of dividing colonized people so that “men” and “women” were fighting against each other rather and building internal hierarchies rather than organizing as a people against state violence. But not all divisions come from the state. Some divisions are actually created for safety, effectiveness, and strategy. It’s romantic to believe that all oppressed people can unify together, but on the ground it looks like people saying “community,” but really meaning “me.”. Often groups separate for survival and because they have been exploited and erased -- and that’s totally real and necessary, too.
How do you feel about the poignance of visibility and is it enough? What else should people be doing?
No visibility is never enough. The way neoliberalism and surveillance culture are operating today is that it actually uses visibility to do the work of racism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc. It uses the visibility of Caitlin Jenner to distract people from all of Black & brown trans people enduring so much violence, it uses the visibility of celebrities to distract from the real conditions of poverty experienced by so many. Unfortunately, in this system, visibility for some necessities hyper-erasure for most and individual emancipation requires collective degradation for most. Visibility -- and representation more generally -- cannot be the end goal. It has to be a means to an end. What is visibility actually doing? Is it redistributing resources, is it turning awareness into action, is it part of a bigger and more strategic campaign to change people’s day to day experiences and lives?
What is it to you to be an activist for South Asian queer, trans, intersex folk? Do you feel like the you have to activate for both South Asian QTI folk living in America and in India? How does India's caste system affect your mental mobility and ability in the struggle? For those who are little blank on warfare/structure India's caste system (like me), could you briefly share some insight on how it affects QTI identities and how it inflicts its damage on the people of India?
The caste system is an inherited system of social stratification with no mobility except for death. It’s inherent to the religion of Hinduism (though now it’s found across religions in South Asia) and positions Brahmins (the highest caste) on top with social, economic, and spiritual power over Dalits and other lower castes. Caste is wherever South Asians are (even in the United States). Queer & Trans Dalit activists are producing some of the most important theory and organizing about these very serious issues.
We are both upper caste people which meant that the subordination enacted by our peoples actually created the very real material conditions (like being able to immigrate to the US, get citizenship, attend schools here, succeed in conventional ways) that enabled us to be so visibly political in the ways that we are. We understand our activism as a form of harm reduction -- our people have been so messed up and have actually produced a lot of the things we’re protesting -- so our activism also comes not just from a place of oppression, but also complicity and responsibility as well.
How do you work with embracing your desi foundations with your identity vs your trans/queer identities? Or how does those two identities interact? Could you tell us about some work of legendary South Asian trans,queer,intersex people that inspires you?
So many queer/trans South Asians we’ve met experienced our sexualities and genders always as a “versus” in relationship to our desiness. So many of us grew up being told that queerness was a Western phenomenon, something that we picked up (or even were tainted with) here. What this does is erase a long and profound history of queerness and transness within various South Asian cultures and traditions. Part of the work of decolonization has to also be queer liberation -- a recognition of the queerness that already always existed in so many of our cultures across time. Oh gosh! There are so many trans/queer South Asians doing special and important work. Part of the best part of touring is we have gotten to meet so many brilliant people! We dance to DJ Ushka’s music, dream to Akshay Khanna’s unruly politics, scream to Richie Shazam Khan’s outfits, and are inspired by Vee and the rest of Dalit Women Fight.
How do you feel about being invited to be either interviewed for a white publication (often they too perpetuate white supremacy, classism, etc) or performing at a conference curated by white people at their schools, etc? Do you put forth extra effort to be also in Black spaces, South Asian spaces, or even trying radicalize folk from your communities who are of your ethnicity but don't support queer, trans, and intersex people?
This is always such a thorny issue. As you probably know well -- the art world is so white, masc, and heteronormative. Often *visibility* in the art world is dependent on how palatable you are to white interests and aesthetics. “Making it,” is often a code word for “having white people like you.” So often as artists of color we have to cater to and participate in white supremacist institutions in order to make money. But we try our best to build partnerships with local BIPOC activist groups in the city we’re going, fundraise from white/cis folks in order to give back to the people who really deserve it.
Speaking of...white allies, how do you see them working against and for you? Also a lot of POC frown upon activist of color who sex with white people or are in a relationship with a white person. What are your thoughts on that?
You know what’s a homonym for ally? A lie.
I def want to know how you feel about Tinder or social media dating. I often feel like I have to extra navigate them, not only because I am queer but I am underground, non-mainstream queer. Have you found success (LOL)? Also just to be nosey, what's your zodiac scenario? Sun, rising, moon?
Often we find we’re far too earnest for only social media dating. People are like, “What are you into?” and we’re like, “Talking to my mom on the phone and trying to destroy heteropatriarchy, how about you?”
Alok: Cancer, Leo Rising
What are your goals as artists and activist? How do your own personal lives affect these goals? What's the next step for Darkmatter? A tour (with Abdu Ali...lol)?
We want to keep on having fun and trying to make the world a little less fucked up. We’re not sure we understand the difference between our “personal” and our “political” anymore. So much of this is life work. Next step: responding to the rest of our emails in this inbox, step after that...trying to get some sleep before we wake up and do more work tomorrow! Taking it day by day! TTYL :P
Visit DARKMATTER's website to learn more about their work.