In 2010, the launch of the It Gets Better Project made the phrase synonymous with LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer) rights, promising a better future for youth facing harassment and violence. But late last Friday evening, art/activist duo DarkMatter pointed out in a packed McGill lecture hall that in reality, this promise was reserved for white, cis LGBTQ individuals. Through spoken word pieces that were sometimes vulnerable and occasionally aggressive, but always intensely personal, DarkMatter took on the intersections of hierarchies that continue to dominate queer movements.
DarkMatter’s performance “It Gets Bitter” was the keynote event in the five-day Culture Shock series held by the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) McGill and SSMU, with an introduction by Kama Maureemootoo and Kai Cheng Thom. DarkMatter is a duo composed of Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, two trans South Asian activists and artists. Their spoken word poetry, performed sometimes individually and sometimes together, was interspersed with explanations and discussion of their work. The interplay of poetry and conversation allowed for an informal atmosphere that belied their no-holds-barred approach to concepts such as colonialism, gender-race relations, and transnational movements.
This head-on style of performance was exemplified in the poem “It Gets Bourgie” project. Performed by both artists, the poem was framed as a letter addressed to Dan Savage, the founder of the It Gets Better Project. The phrase “it gets bourgie,” a direct reference to the “it gets better” movement’s bourgeois undertones, and pop culture references such as “Like. Share. Colonize. Repeat!” were laden with irony, grounding DarkMatter’s critiques in the everyday. The poem moved at a brisk pace, enhanced by the fluid back-and-forth between Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon. It was during these collaborative poems that the duo was at its best, their overlapping voices creating both a dialogue and a rant.
While their delivery was impressive, it was the personal nature of DarkMatter’s poetry that gave it weight. The duo exposed their pain to the audience, sharing searing memories of the damage they have experienced through a racist queer hierarchy. When Vaid-Menon asked, “Can I show you what it means to wear my body as a wound?” or when Balasubramanian declared, “I can only use a band-aid if I understand why I’m bleeding/It might not be my blood,” they presented real, tangible effects of oppression in their lives. This emotion was met with snaps, shouts, and cries from the audience – DarkMatter knows how to connect with its crowd.
When Vaid-Menon asked, “Can I show you what it means to wear my body as a wound?” or when Balasubramanian declared, “I can only use a band-aid if I understand why I’m bleeding/It might not be my blood,” they presented real, tangible effects of oppression in their lives.
But the duo were equally as skilled in using humour as in using raw feeling to make a point. Balasubramanian performed a piece on the ingestion of others’ intestinal microflora, a microorganism of the digestive tract, by consuming their feces, hence constructing a metaphor for the internalization of white colonial histories through elaborate poop puns and pinpoint commentary. Another lethal combination of comedy, popular culture, and scathing critique was the collaboration “An Open Letter to the Basic White Witches of Hogwarts, from Parvati and Padma Patil.” The audience teetered between laughter and solemn shock, caught off-guard by the brutal blend of humour and truth.
DarkMatter ended the evening with a Q&A during which they noted that, often, people take in their shows as art distinct from the social movements that inspired them. It is important, they emphasized, to actually partake in activism and real-world efforts against the harmful structures of colonialism, queerphobia, and racism. In making explicit the link between their art and their activism, DarkMatter was able to not only critique a white, hierarchical gay movement, but to also suggest effective ways of dismantling it. Their performance was not only an experience and a revelation, for the attendees: it was a call to action.