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Rami Karim

The trans performers merging art, fashion and fiction

DarkMatter is a New York-based performance art duo creating new scripts, images and platforms for people who have been told by society that they don’t exist

2015 was the year that gender fluidity and trans visibility went mainstream, but has amidst all the breakthrough in thinking, has gender become a buzzword? Wading through the think pieces and academic discussions, one thing remains clear – out of all the debate that emerged from the year just gone by, the most passionate and creative thought pertaining to issues of gender generally comes from those who have some sort of lived experience relating to the cause they are fighting for.

Poetic duo DarkMatter are the perfect example of this. Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian define themselves as a non-binary trans South Asian art collaboration. While their poetry creatively discusses and challenges the issues they care about, the curation of their online identity is an equally important part of their presence. Their newsfeed is a politically charged commentary covering issues that range from the trans movement to prison reform, creating the perfect matrimony of art and politics. Here, we get to know them.

Why the name DarkMatter?

DarkMatter: Dark matter and dark energy (physics-wise) together comprise over 90 per cent of the universe but are only understood in the way they affect the gravity of the objects around them.  A lot of the stuff we talk about shares this particular invisibility coupled with gravity (or anti-gravity) and power. Plus our names are too long to fit together on a playbill.

How did this collaboration begin?

DarkMatter: DarkMatter began as a conversation, a friendship, an idea pulled out of the air.  Alok went on tour while they were still in college to raise money for the now-closed Queers for Economic Justice (rest in power). A few months later, Alok asked Janani if they wanted to tour with them too, since the two of us had been performing and organizing together for some time and we shared (obviously) a whole lot of identities, politics, and vision. So we stumbled through our first tour and then kept going and by golly now we’re here.

What inspires and informs your work?

DarkMatter: Our lives, our friends, social movements, time travel, our moms, babies.

Although DarkMatter has a strong online presence, poetry seems to be quite a unique or less practiced art form at the moment. Why poetry?

DarkMatter: I think in the beginning our work was largely in poetry but now I’d say our work is more a combination of stand-up comedy, fashion, fiction, performance art, film, and more.

Do you think social media is particularly important to artists and activists of colour as they are regularly left out of mainstream platforms?

DarkMatter: Yes, absolutely. In many ways we could not exist at this scale without the internet because so many of us don’t fit neatly into formal media or literature. But hey, more and more of us are creating broad bases on alternate channels, and formal media is starting to wake up and pay attention.

To us, your work embodies the relationship that activism and a desire for change can inform artistic practices. In your opinions, what is the relationship between art and activism?

DarkMatter: Art and activism don’t need to be cleaved into neat buckets. For one thing, feelings can and should be an important piece of our broader changemaking strategies. We recognise 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, and that likewise social movements have always relied on cultural workers to create transformative visions and aesthetics.

In your video, The Pain & Empowerment of Choosing Your Own Gender, it is said that style is extremely political. Could they expand a bit on this for us?

DarkMatter: For both of us (in different ways) as femme, gender-nonconforming people, style and aesthetics does hold down part of our political work. We’re creating new scripts and images for who we are allowed to be in the face of a culture that continually tells us that we do not exist.

Did myths and pre-colonial ways of recording knowledge draw you both to poetry or storytelling?

DarkMatter: I think there is something significant about long histories of oral storytelling in our communities. Art also totally becomes an alternate and powerful pathway for people who have traditionally been seen as outside of professional or political discourse to make transformative critique and creation. Also we think dismantling the hegemony of boring is important.

What does the future hold?

DarkMatter: Climate change.  Also a fashion line, Janani’s upcoming novel, giggles, and ketchup.

In 2015, while there was a wider discussion about gender in the mainstream media, there was still a very high number of trans people of colour killed. How can allies attempt to support these communities best?

DarkMatter: As Indian Americans who do not experience this type of violence we’re also allies and solidarity activists in this regard.  Black and Latinx trans organizers are doing the brunt of the work to address these rates of violence. We should be supporting organizations like Black Trans Media, Trans Justice Funding Project, TNTJ, Transgender Intersex Justice Project, Familia, and Mariposas sin Fronteras.