DarkMatter inspires critique

Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon form a trans South Asian artist and activist duo. Photo courtesy of digboston.com
Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon form a trans South Asian artist and activist duo. Photo courtesy of digboston.com

DarkMatter, a trans South Asian artist and activist collaboration, visited the College this Friday. Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, who identify as “class and (hindu) caste privileged trans south asian artists and organizers” provided a workshop on diaspora, kinship and movement-building in the afternoon followed by a performance in Goodrich Hall that evening.

In their solo and collaborative spoken word pieces, the pair covered an impressive array of issues and topics: contemporary racism, patriarchy, Islamophobia, transphobia, neocolonialism, the modern food system, climate change, gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, ancestry and desire. The group works to expose the problem of a gay rights movement which they perceive to have been built only for gay white people and which ignores queer people of color. The well-attended event served largely as a space to facilitate support and affirmation; Alok asserted, “art is just public therapy.” For members of the audience made uncomfortable by their therapy session, Alok noted, “discomfort is what it means to be a trans person of color at every moment at this institution.”

The pair opened the night with the line, “When I tell my grandmother that I am not her grandson by piercing my nose…” introducing the recurring theme of the impacts of familial relationships on individuals who defy social norms and power structures. Janani and Alok suggested that all people, including their parents and grandparents, live in systems that determine and preclude certain attitudes and understandings, and that recognizing this helps Alok not blame their grandmother for her own violence and consider her a comrade even when she does not support Alok’s fights against oppression. In one of their pieces, Alok describes “join[ing] her [their grandmother] in not smiling in this family photograph,” which documents “all the violence that has been done to us in the name of gender.” Janani likewise recalled a mother who clipped their fingernails painfully short “like she remembers being scratched.”

DarkMatter presented on the aftermath of 9/11. Referring to attempts to alert their grandmother to violence against Muslims in America, Alok stated, “She will not believe me because she believes in America, because she will hear a Muslim name and what could be more incriminating than that?” Janani spoke of the intense suffering to which the United States reacted by “beat[ing] against the world,” and asserting, “victimhood is a chain reaction.” In the intentionally shocking “9/11: A Love Story,” Janani personified the United States as a mourning lover—“I’m sad you don’t love me anymore, that’s why I tapped all your conversations.” They decry that “it doesn’t matter what America does because America is heartbroken.”

Janani and Alok called out counterproductive members of all races, especially the ostensible hipster crowd: “Being a hippie doesn’t make you less oppressive.” They note the appropriations committed by “white girls who wear bindis,” and the irony of “white girls who like to do unpaid internships in Calcutta and pretend like they’re saving our children,” and they declare, “Yoga is not your ritualized butt tightener.” They are also not afraid to accuse their fellow Asians for acting as “a model victim minority,” and pursuing careers with corporations that exploit labor from their own countries. They denounce fellow “Asian Americans appropriating the black struggle for their own advancement, and then blaming black people for not working as hard,” while calling their success “progress.” They claim, “White people brought us here to make it seem better and we have done little to make it seem otherwise.” They assert the United States has a policy to “bring in brown to keep black down,” that is, to employ the success of Asian immigrants as smokescreen evidence against the reality of a continual system of racism against black people. They shame the Asians who “keep quiet and smile back.” Much of DarkMatter’s presentation related directly to liberal arts schools like our College, and their student bodies. They note, “We are too busy reading rather than revolting,” and there is “so much reading [that] we forget how to speak, how to feel, how to act.” They accuse universities of being motivated primarily by profit, and “teach[ing] you how to sell yourself, not how to love yourself.”

Both artist-activists ended with pieces about loneliness. Janani asked, “I can only use a Band-Aid if I understand why I’m bleeding.” After a little over an hour of catharsis, the pair answered a few audience questions about their personal histories and meeting at Stanford. They mentioned their “rich and white” friend who has created an email account at tokenwhitefriend@gmail.com for questions about race that (white) people might feel uncomfortable asking Janani and Alok about, as well as their own website, darkmatterrage.com. Highly engaged with technology and social media, DarkMatter also encouraged audience members to follow them on Facebook and Twitter after the show.

  • Concerned Alumnus

    I saw Alok at a vegan co-op restaurant in San Francisco (surprise!) and he did not respond to me when I said hello. Because I’m white? Because I was wearing a “persecute vegans” T-Shirt? Who knows.

    • b.

      well, you can’t even get alok’s pronoun right, clearly something is the matter with you.