Alok on performance, emotional survival, and loving in a violent world
By Siena Oristaglio
Alok Vaid-Menon is a NYC-based gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and educator who writes about dismantling the gender binary, misogyny, white supremacy, and more. They released their inaugural poetry chapbook in 2017 titled FEMME IN PUBLIC, and have been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and more. I chat with them here about touring, their relationship with the internet, and building sustainability within their artistic practice.
I know you’ve recently left New York for a performance tour. What aspects of touring and/or performing internationally are you most looking forward to?
My favorite part of touring is connecting and collaborating with other gender non-conforming artists. My creative practice is deeply enriched from hanging out with my friends — my muses, my colleagues, my greatest inspirations. This time around I'm going to be performing with Travis Alabanza and Malik from London, Keith from Munich, Kami from Paris, Angel-Ho and Tazme from Cape Town, Umlilo from Johannesburg, the list goes on and on! My art — no, myself more generally — is the accumulation of all of the energy and spirit and joy I get from the other artists I love. Without them, there would be no art!
Are there any aspects of touring your live show that you find particularly challenging?
I feel like I give it all on the stage. My performances are so intense and personal because I genuinely want to destroy everything trying to destroy me and hopefully create a different, more kind world. After performances I sometimes feel really sad because I have to confront my limitations and the limitations of the stage more generally. The performance ends, but the world feels the same. The status quo continues — perhaps a little bit more frazzled — but it continues. It can feel impossible, like I'll never make the change that I want. I have to remind myself that even if one person in the audience was transformed — that did something. There is meaning there.
How does the internet (and your relationship to your audience through it) impact the kind of art that you make?
I grew up on the internet and it's always been a component of my art practice. It's a relationship that goes both ways: I put so much into it and get so much back. I think at the most fundamental level I didn't have an audience for my — unapologetically queer — work in real life, so I used the internet to find people who understood what I was doing. That sense of, "Is there anyone else in the world who feels this way?" is still how I approach the internet — assembling a hodgepodge and growing community of people across the world who feel like I do.
What types of support feed you? Can you think of an example of a time you deeply appreciated an interaction with someone who had experienced your work?
The biggest compliment is someone making a work of art inspired by mine. Of course I appreciate when people compliment my work, but when they go on to create something informed by it that gives me total joy! To know that I sparked creativity in someone in a world that tries to dispossess us of it, that just feels great. I recently got the chance to meet drag artist Sasha Velour who unbeknownst to me had been engaging with my work for the past five years! She told me how it informs the images she's putting out into the world and I geeked out because I was like OMG NO WAY, SAME!
What’s one action you’ve taken that has helped you to cultivate sustainability (emotional, financial, spiritual, or other) within your practice?
A few years ago I started keeping a detailed diary of everything that I do/think/feel during the day. This has been one of the most important exercises for me that keeps me grounded in who I am and who I am becoming. My writing practice was always a means of my emotional survival, so when it became a means of my income...I felt like I still needed an intimate relationship with it, unmediated by public spectacle. This type of quiet writing and processing allows me to rejuvenate and engage in the public-facing work.
How do you hope to grow as an a writer and/or performer in the coming year?
I have so much room for growth. This past year I've been allowing myself to be more and more funny, writing more jokes. Comedy gives me so much joy. Make them laugh, and then stick the truth in their mouths while they're open! I want to start doing more comedy clubs next year — expose my work, my body, my politics to audiences who never would have encountered it any other way.
What questions are on your mind today?
How do we get people to realize that they deserve to be free? How do we move beyond the imperatives to be beautiful and powerful? What does it mean to need one another? Is it possible to love in a violent world? What is the role of art in that violent world? And of course: Who am I, anyways?
ALOK (they/them) is a gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and educator. Their eclectic style and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. Alok was recently the youngest recipient of the prestigious Live Works Performance Act Award granted to ten performance artists across the world. In 2017 they released their inaugural poetry chapbook FEMME IN PUBLIC. They have been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker and have presented their work at 350 venues in more than 30 countries.
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