Love in the Time of Crisis: An Interview with DarkMatter

Parsa Sanjana Sajid

Lailee and Majnu 1, 130x107cm

DARKMATTER is a New York City-based trans performance art duo – Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. They occupy the necessary but difficult place where celebrating and standing up for trans and queer lives are inextricably linked with how perilous those lives can be. So far in 2016 alone, more than fifteen trans individuals, many of them black, have been murdered in the U.S. The mass shooting in June at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on the club’s Latinx night was another reminder of that searing reality. And if it weren’t already clear homelessness, poverty, and unemployment data tell us how raced violence and poverty is in the U.S.

But inflecting our consciousness on the spectacle of death and violence is painfully inadequate, almost as if these lives are easy spoils for us to instrumentalize in death, to use as merely teachable moments. So, celebrating trans and queer lives becomes necessary as acts of defiance, as acts of reclamation in opposition not only to the violence itself, but also to the appropriation of the meaning of the violence. DARKMATTER and many others push against a comfortable politics of easy solidarity and isolated, regimented, branded tropes and narratives of queer struggle. Their struggle is against weaponizing trans and queer liberation for imperial machinations as much as it’s against pervasive bigotry.

Fragments conducted this interview via email with Alok Vaid-Menon in January 2016. More about them here.

Fragments Magazine (FM): What was the impulse or impetus behind DarkMatter?

DARKMATTER (DM): There are many origin stories, but we’ll go with this one for now. In the Fall of 2012 I did a short solo tour called, “Reclaiming Our Color from the Rainbow That Stole It From Us,” in order to raise money for Queers for Economic Justice – an organization that was very near and dear to my heart. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I figured that people would pay me money if I shared art and not just my politics, and low and behold they did! People told me I was onto something and encouraged me to keep on sharing my work. I reached out to my friend Janani who I had already been organizing with for a couple of years and asked them if they’d like to join me on a Spring Tour and they said sure. So we brainstormed a name and the rest is history.

FM: A lot of what you do and talk about challenges the liberal understanding of race, religion, gender, and identity. I feel we are at a time when the failure of liberal politics couldn’t be more apparent but this has perhaps been true for at least the last two – three decades if not more. An incredible body of work and activism has gone into contesting such liberal progressivism. What kind of passage or trajectory have you gone through or want to go through to arrive at this juncture and from here to the next one?

DM: What feels so dangerous about liberalism these days is that we keep on mistaking incorporation as liberation, representation as revolution, rights as justice, and individuals as villains. There’s just been a complete collapse of talking about things like “gender” and “sexuality” as structures and systems – instead we only understand them as “identities” and “prejudices.” So many people as you have mentioned have eloquently made powerful critiques of (neo)liberalism, but something is not working – people just aren’t getting it and we keep on making the same mistakes. As organizers and artists we have to find new (perhaps old) ways of getting people to understand how liberalism will never save us. Logical arguments just aren’t going to cut it – liberalism is always a project of emotions. I’m interested in using my art as a way to build and imagine forms of intimacy, empathy, and respect that help people understand how liberalism isn’t actually good for any of us and we are worth so much more than this. I don’t think “conservatives” or “liberals” are bad people – I think they are – like all of us – desperate people searching for meaning, hope, and purpose and I think the State is often better at giving that than our movements.

FM: Related, what are your thoughts on #lovewins? Not so much as a hashtag campaign but more as a gesture towards inclusivity that actually elides and flattens queer and trans issues and activism into digestible, marketable sound bites?

DM: The day same sex marriage was legalized in the US was the day I was helping to coordinate one of the biggest trans marches in the country for racial and economic justice. They were talking about marriage and we were talking about murder and it was one of those moments where I felt both incredibly lonely by how isolating it is to actually care about people in a world that cares about profit and incredibly happy by the enduring resistance of the people at the march. Let’s be clear: love did not win. If love had truly won we would have abolished marriage, ended borders and citizenship, given healthcare to everyone, etc. etc. When they say “love,” what they mean is the privatization of property in order to worsen the (global) racial and gender wealth divide. When we say “love,” what we mean is that absolutely no one is disposable and every single person on Earth (and beyond it!) deserves justice.

FM: How do we stop treating people as disposable? If #lovewins is inadequate, the converse is also not desirable, which is, the atomized individualized subject. I feel “freedom” is such a limited term here. Where does that leave us?

DM: Why is the converse of #LoveWins the individual subject? Why does the state, why does capitalism, why does white supremacy get to own love? I don’t think that they actually are practicing Love when they fight, but I think that we are when we continue to dissent, imagine, grow, push, organize. I think it leaves us where most movements are left: An always too small group of people committing to the long struggle, committed to everyone’s liberation even if they aren’t committed to ours. Which goes to say that there are always multiple stories: In one telling we could say that we are losing, that everything is becoming incorporated, that there is no hope. In another we could say that despite all of that we are still here. We are still having this conversation, we are still expanding people’s horizon of what justice can actually look like. And I don’t know, to me there still feels something tremendous about that.

FM: How do you reconcile the confines of pre-conceived, almost prefab, notions of identity (with regards to gender, race, sexuality, etc.) with the desires of building a community that is both outside of those notions and has regenerative potential? In other words, what are the possibilities of disavowing these identities while still reclaiming them?

DM: I don’t know if I do reconcile these tensions – I just hold them both. I totally believe that we have to name our differences and talk explicitly about power and identity, but I also believe the world that we are fighting for is one in which we recognize that people are far too complicated and infinitely transformational to ever fit in any category or identity. I think as with most things in my life it’s about finding a way to generate the sorts of pragmatism that allow us to actually operate and organize in the world and the sorts of idealism that means we don’t lose hope.

FM: As a gender-queer, gender-fluid person(s), what do you fear the most? Considering gender identity doesn’t exist in isolation but with other markers such as race, religion, and ethnicity.

DM: I don’t feel comfortable answering that question and I’ve been sitting here thinking about why and I think it’s because I suppose that the only way that we as trans people – let alone as gender non-conforming people – get a seat at the table is through a performance of our trauma. It’s because transmisogyny is so easily invisibilized by the mechanisms of the world that we have to not only experience pain and fear and trauma but we have to prove to the world around us that we are experiencing all of these things. I worry that the only way that we can get people to care about us is if we cry or scream or bleed and I worry about what that says about our movements.

FM: Why is style important to you? On a lighter note, do you have a style crush (or crushes)?

DM: Style is about survival. Unfortunately I don’t really have control of my body in this current iteration of society. Society has made everyone (falsely) believe that my body belongs to a man, belongs to a family, belongs to a color, and does not belong to me. So with style I’m actually able to imagine what my “self” would look like in my own terms.

My style crushes will always and forever be South Asian aunties.

[Image Credit: Syed Quomer Hossain Sheerajy (Bahram). Lailee and Majnu, 2011. Courtesy: Depart.]