"If you're not happy, then you're a bitch"
DarkMatter is a Trans South Asian performance art duo comprised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. On their first trip to Vienna during their "It Gets Bitter/Anti-Pride Tour", the New York based duo met Sunanda and Sushila Mesquita for an interview. Unfortunately, Janani was feeling sick so Sushila and Sunanda talked to Alok about their politics, their experiences on tour and their artistic means of expression.
Could you tell us a little bit about the focus of DarkMatter's creative work?
Alok Vaid-Menon: Our work engages with a lot of different dialogues and conversations: One, we're trying to challenge this narrative that the US and the West and white culture is somehow more progressive around queer and trans issues, and to show how actually the US and white and Western culture have appropriated queer and trans issues in the service of their age-old racist and economic apartheid regimes. And to also destabilize this racist binary that all brown people and immigrants are homophobic and transphobic, which the US and other Western nations use to help justify their colonialism and war against our communities.
And then, two, we want to resist this narrative of the white-washing of queer and trans identities which positions queer and trans identities as just aesthetic signifiers without any political history, because we know that trans and queer people and bodies have been at the frontlines of anti-colonial resistance forever, so we're trying to articulate a type of trans-ness and trans politics that's not just about performing for white cis people, but is actually about dismantling the state, which is a very different type of trans politics.
And then, three, we're also trying to have conversations about trauma, both ancestrally and contemporarily, because we think that so much of what has happened in the Western world is a privatization of pain, where very few people can be public in their pain any more, and not only are we supposed to endure the relentless state violence and criminalization that our communities face, we're supposed to smile while they're doing it and we're not actually allowed to express our hurt and our pain and our rage. So we want to create spaces in our work to talk critically about depression and sadness and trauma, and not just the trauma that we are experiencing, but also the trauma that we have experienced ancestrally.
You named the European part of your tour "The Anti-Pride Tour" in addition to "It Gets Bitter" – how come?
The reason we are doing this European leg is really important, because we noticed that this thing called "Pride" circulates across the world without actually contextualizing what "Pride" was and is. A lot of people don't understand that the reason we celebrate this thing called "Pride" in June is because in 1969 low-income, gender-non-conforming and trans-feminine Black and brown people resisted the police. And a lot of these folks who were resisting actually are still homeless today and are still enduring incredible state violence and poverty and criminalization. So there is this really weird way in which Black and brown trans resistance in the US gets coopted and circulates around as a global aesthetic without an analysis of the bodies that are still under attack. I think that so much of what I understand trans misogyny to be is taking the political labor of trans people and having everyone else profit out of it, while these people are still living under poverty and extreme violence.
So I think it also felt really important to us to come and to push back on this discourse that the US has somehow figured out LGBT rights and is a safe haven, because that's totally wrong, we actually live in one of the most racist and classist regimes of power there ever was, and violence against LGBT communities of color is actually increasing in the US, specifically against trans women of color. And we really wanted to provide a counter discourse to conversations around "Pride" to tell and remind people that we don't actually have much to be proud about, but what we mostly call acceptance and visibility in the LGBT movement really is just capitalism, and we should be very honest about it.
Could you please say a few words about the "It Gets Better" campaign that you are referring to in the title of your show as well?
The way that LGBT politics work in the US, and I'm guessing everywhere else, it's basically the dominant framing of neoliberalism and capitalism, which is basically: pull yourself up by the bootstraps. So we blame people for experiencing homophobic and transphobic violence because they haven't somehow worked hard enough to get out of that situation. So "It Gets Better“ is a campaign started by Dan Savage, who is a white, wealthy, cis-gender man in the US, but I don't want to talk about it as just his project. I think it's actually the dominant framing of queer and trans life, where it's your fault if you're experiencing violence because if you just loved yourself a little bit harder or accepted yourself a little bit more then you would somehow be free from violence like him. So the campaign is essentially a bunch of older people telling young people that if you do xyz, then you're going to find love and happiness and you're going be accepted, which is totally wrong for so many reasons.
One, actually visibility harms so many members of our communities. Especially a lot of Black and brown folks cannot afford to be visible in our queer and trans identities because if we do so, we become criminalized or we become coopted and our representation is used in the service of justified incarceration and deportation and criminalization of our communities. And then, two, also as young queer and trans activists – we're 23 – it's really frustrating to us how the narrative is that you have to become an adult in order for things to somehow get better. It denies the ways in which young people have and continue to be on the frontlines of political work and that we're not just sitting around and dreaming of moving to the city and sucking white cock, that we're actually doing political work wherever we are. And then also this is really frustrating because there is no analysis of money in this, so actually it doesn't really get better for you if you're still poor. And I think queer poverty has been cut from so many of the agendas across the world, we don't actually talk about that homeless LGBT people aren't just young people, they're also adults. We also have a lot of homeless elderly LGBT folks, and it's not their fault, it's because we actually have a broken or perhaps never been working colonial social service infrastructure that continually fails to provide people with adequate health care, housing, etc.
So what "It Gets Better" does is that it puts the burden of progress on the individual and it makes a sort of moral standing of people who it has gotten better for, who just worked hard and did well, and then people who it has not gotten better for are just wrong and failures, which helps solidify the racial and class warfare in our country and in our world. So the reason that we call our tour "It Gets Bitter" is because we felt like there is no room for rage in this dialogue, that "Pride" has become a sort of compulsory mandate and that if you're not happy, then you're a bitch. And we're just re-claiming that, we're saying: actually we are bitches and we are angry and we are stale and mad.
What responses did you get so far? What are your favorite audiences?
I think our favorite places that we have performed are the places that the Dan Savages of the world would say are backwards. We did a show in Salt Lake City, Utah, which a lot of people see as extremely conservative, but we actually found that the conversations we were having there were much more dynamic and exciting than the conversations we had when we had the show in New York or Chicago or other urban areas. And I think that's because in queer and trans life in non-urban areas, there's a type of co-dependency that isn't just there in the bigger cities, because in the bigger cities it's easy to live a disposable life where if not everyone has your radical aesthetic and politics, you can just cut them out. But in a lot of places in our country you have to work with what you have, and so there's this really exciting coalitions that we witnessed in Salt Lake between homeless queer white kids who have been kicked out by their own families, and working-class, queer and trans people of color really coming together and saying: Oh, this marriage equality agenda is disenfranchising all of us, and so they resonate with our work a lot more because they just get it. It's not a theoretical sort of thing, it's an embodied thing.
It's in these conservative places that I think queer rage makes the most sense, because people have experienced so much violence and racialization that they really resonate with the work. One of the things that have been really frustrating for us is that in places like New York, L.A. etc., people are able to take our aesthetic and divorce it from our politics. So there's a lot of "Oh my God, we love your show, you're such great artists, you're so fashionable, you're so whatever." And we're like: "Do you understand what we're saying politically?" And what we begin to think a lot about is that so much of what urban queer culture is, is like an aesthetic, and not actually a political practice. And that for us our art is deeply linked to our social movement participation.
Could you elaborate the connection of activism and aesthetics in your work?
We're always fundraising for grassroots organizations, we're always talking about how to do political and activist work, because we know that it's very dangerous to divorce queer and trans aesthetics from queer and trans activism, that they've always been the same thing, and that in fact, our aesthetics especially as trans people and trans women have been one of the modes of our resistance. So it's been kind of frustrating to see how the liberal white supremacist bore can absorb our radical critiques and incorporate them and make it part of their conscious or enlightened liberalism. Like, "of course, I understand racism, of course, I understand colonialism." And you become much more about a sort of a checkbox, like, "okay, I've got the anti-colonial critique, I've got the trans critique, I've got the disability critique, I'm enlightened" and then it just becomes about consuming more art and not actually to shift or redistribute power. So, the reason we like performing in places that are more conservative or homophobic is because people actually ask questions, like, what do we do, after the show, not, how do we talk more, because I think what we're at with queer and trans politics across the world is we've done too much talking, we need a lot more resisting. And I don't actually think they are the same thing, I think we need less conferences and more campaigns. I think we need less discourse and more dissent.
So, I think, also what's been really interesting about putting this tour in Europe is it's been a really great place to build transnational solidarity with other Black and brown folks working with similar frameworks of migration and racialization and the after-effects and contemporary realities of colonialism, so I think that was really exciting for us because growing up in the US we have a very white-washed version of what Europe is, and we didn't really think that there were people like us in these areas, and so now we're seeing that there is a global South queer and trans consciousness that's emerging in all these places and it's been really exciting to build those connections.
I think "official" Europe has a very white-washed image of itself as well! Can you tell whether there are specific reactions to your show in Europe?
In terms of differences between the European context and our country – it feels funny to call it "our country" because it's not really – is that what we're confronting here is that a lot of white people are saying that colonialism is something that happened over there, so race isn't the same, because the US from its inception has always been about race, because of the genocide of 95 percent of indigenous peoples upon contact and enslavement of Black peoples and histories of racialized labor. So there is this theoretical and also emotional abstraction of racism as not an issue that is crucial to the building of these places, which is – we all know – bullshit because we need to talk about colonialism as circuits of capital as well and a lot of money that created this Western hegemony came from these colonial power tracks.
And then I think also another difference we're confronting is that we just have a lot more social movement infrastructure in the US and that has to do purely with the Black liberation struggle. And I feel like that's really important to say, because I think that what happened in the US with the Black liberation movement is really globally huge and created a social justice language and a social justice analysis and movement structure that the world has not really seen.
A lot of the reasons that we even as South Asian artists, as queer and trans artists are able to talk about social movements and participate in social movement culture comes from that foundational Black liberation organizing that continues on until today. So I just feel like we have a very different history of Black and brown resistance in the US, where there is a political culture of dissent that comes from and has been there since resistance to colonialism which started in 1492. I think that's a tension that has come up in the tour: a lot of people were saying: "You know, being from the US you have a lot more power, people listen to you a lot more, people understand your political frameworks." That's true, but I think to just talk about the US as if it's one entity and to not talk about how Black people have never been considered part of the US and have been resisting in that way erases a lot of the reasons that people hear what's happening in the US. It is just because of how absolutely pernicious white supremacy is in our context and how amazing Black radical organizing had to be because of that!
We just love how you use humor, as well as anger and pain in your work. Could you tell us more about your means of expression?
There's a quote that we often say: "Make them laugh and then stick the truth in their mouths while they're open." What I really love about humor and particularly drag – and when I say drag I don't mean white washed performance drag that's apolitical –, I mean campiness as a political strategy. I just think about how I've been able to say things on stages that no activist or policy-maker or whatever would be able to say because I'm joking. And I think the joke allows me to say a lot more things and ease a lot more tension, and there is more of a social permissible space when I'm making a joke. So I've started to really think of a lot of what I'm doing as comedy. I think we need political comedy because I think that actually so much of our pain is so tremendous that we need to laugh every once in a while, otherwise we just create the self-prophecy of our own failure over and over again, because abjection becomes the only way that we understand the world.
But that being said, I'm also really depressed, so I also have a space for non-humor too and just, like, real material sadness. I think that what I'm really trying to do in my art and with our project is just provide a space for people to feel the spectrum of emotions because I really do believe that colonialism has been about de-sensitizing us and muting so much of our affects that the only way that we're supposed to operate in the world is through our brains and not our bodies, so everything else about ourselves becomes discredited as sites of knowledge and I really think that feeling and crying together is really revolutionary.
Can you tell us a bit more about your inspiration? What inspires you?
Our moms, a lot of our initial writing and still today comes from phone conversations we had with our moms, because we think a lot about how as immigrants the first person we're expected to hate is our mothers, because they become a symbol of everything that we're running away from. So we think a lot about our relationships with our families of origin as extremely political, especially because white supremacy would have us to believe that our families are apolitical because they don't speak the appropriate languages and have access to the appropriate political registers. So our families of origin, our mothers inspire us a lot, and I also take a lot of inspiration from trans activism.
I just really think it's remarkable that considering all of the grave violence and criminalization of trans women and transfeminine people, despite all the violence that we are facing, there is still an incredible commitment to fabulousity, and I think fabulousity is actually incredibly political, I think vanity is incredibly political, I think self-worship and self-divahood is necessary in a system where you are continually told that you are ugly and wrong and doesn't even recognize you for something as simple as your gender. So I take a lot of my cues from trans femme activists, who have been doing this work, like I said, since the beginning of colonialism.
Interview by Sunanda Mesquita and Sushila Mesquita. The interview was originally made for and is available on the online platform for contemporary arts WE DEY!. It was transcribed by Nicole Alecu de Flers.