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Photography by Andre Wagner

Can fashion help abolish gender norms altogether?

Performance duo Dark Matter explore how fashion can truly support the trans experience with new online project

The accessibility of information online has undoubtedly provided a number of platforms for marginalised people to speak out and construct their own realities. Away from a world in which their voices are often unable to be heard, the power of social media and all that exists as a result of its existence can be credited at least in part for initiating fashion’s recent push towards a more inclusive agenda.

Making the jump from IRL to URL, Dark Matter are the art duo hailing from New York using poetry and performance to dismantle our society enforced gender binaries and restrictions. Their latest project, ctrl/alt/gender (made in collaboration with Ace Hotel) uses the Squarespace platform to combine multiple formats such as poetry, imagery and ‘behind the scenes’ style tidbits,  creating an online zine examining the perceived artifice in constructing a gender fluid fashion image, vs the lived experience of those who lie outside of the gender binary.

We caught up with the duo just after the zine release to discuss fashion as a political tool, the gender restrictions wwithin the industry, and how online life has opened up new possibilities for queer and gender nonconforming people.

How did the idea for a digital zine come about?

Dark Matter: We were approached by the Ace Hotel to work on something together for New York Fashion Week.  A lot of people think of our work as primarily poetry but we do also have a strong commitment to style. We thought this would be a great opportunity to actually produce images together that reflect many of the aesthetic and political aspirations we pursue in our work.  As young, gender non-conforming artists, a lot of our work relies on the digital sphere--because traditional/formal media and arts spaces have been hyper-saturated with more normative (read: white, cis, hetero) bodies. So a zine it was!

What ideas did you want to explore with ctrl/alt/gender?

Dark Matter: We wanted to challenge the idea that there is something inherently gendered about fashion. More broadly, we wanted to push back on the idea that gender is what we look like to begin with.  So much of the dialogue about gender and fashion erases trans (and especially gender nonconforming people), so we wanted to see what would happen when we were present.

We also wanted to experience and think about what it felt like to ‘stage’ gender nonconformity for a fashion shoot when we both dress like this in our daily lives. What is it about the camera, about the pose, about the shoot that gives greater permissibility to gender transgression than the public more generally? What happens when the camera stops but everyone still thinks we are still dressing up?

Was the decision to time the production of the zine during New York Fashion Week a conscious one?

Dark Matter: We thought it’d be a neat interruption in the usual parade of bodies and aesthetics that occupy fashion week.  It’s frequently the case that gender nonconformity and ‘androgyny’ are valued as ideas in fashion week, but trans politics/issues have little appearance in how those concepts are laid out or presented. The representation of trans aesthetics in mainstream fashion often renders trans people as spectacles or tokens.  

What do you want people to take away from the project after engaging with ctrl/alt/gender?

Dark Matter: Recognise the expansive aesthetic possibilities of a world where people can dress the ways that represent them – and recognise that we currently live in a world where that is not yet possible. There are tremendous stakes for all kinds of people in something as simple as the clothes they wear. Additionally, recognise that we all have a stake in dismantling the gender binary and that doing so creates new ways of being and existing in the world for all of us (regardless of how we identify).

“What is it about the camera that gives greater permissibility to gender transgression than the public more generally? What happens when the camera stops but everyone still thinks we are still dressing up?”– Dark Matter

Why did you decide to make the platform a digital space as opposed to physical publication?

Dark Matter: So much of our art practice is about destabilising the binary of the URL & the IRL. Both of us grew up in the internet. The internet gave us access to aesthetics, ideas, and politics that we weren’t able to see IRL and those ‘images’ helped produce the ‘real’ selves we embody today. Something happens at the molecular level when you see an image shared on the internet of something you have never witnessed before. A new horizon or possibility is born for way more people who ‘stumble upon’  it.

How effective do you believe fashion is as a tool for sociopolitical change?

Dark Matter: Any artistic medium can be an effective political tool. It’s not the end game, but it is a strategy. Fashion happens to be one medium which contains broader structural/societal containment of gender. Destabilising fashion’s commitment to gendering clothing is one strategy, as is transforming the supply and labour chain through which clothes are produced (so people are paid living wages!), but it’s only one part of an overall vision of justice.