vaid- Menon

Essay by Alok Vaid-Menon

 Photographer—Lula Hyers, Makeup—Slater Stanley

Photographer—Lula Hyers, Makeup—Slater Stanley

There are no contradictions if you believe in art.

Art is less of a method (poet! sculptor! painter!) and more a mode of living. Art is in life-making, as in the living is the work as the street is the stage as in the body is the canvas. You understand? Art as the place we go when language fails; art as the dimension where things do not have to be real to matter.

The natural state of the world is one of harmony, simultaneity, balance. When we encounter tension between ideas, aesthetics, ways of being-this reveals a failure of the imagination. Imagination is where we go to see harmony where they see dissonance. The particulars aren’t the problem, it’s the paradigm! Sometimes I just want to hug everyone in the world struggling and whisper in their ear, IT’S NOT PERSONAL, IT’S THE PARADIGM!”


As artists - by which I mean as people trying to make a better world - we are tasked with the challenge: How do we transcend the paradigm?

There’s this myth in Western culture that performance is where we go to pretend to be something that we are not. At every level we are taught to dismiss the things that are fleeting, ephemeral, contrived. But being an artist is about making an argument for the ‘artificial,’ and - in other words - against the natural.

Performance is one of the only spaces where we can be honest anymore. Something about simulation creates a more perfect reality. Perhaps this is why we run to cinemas or theaters to cry in the darkness. Perhaps this is why we avidly consume memes: #RelatableContent. What is me, but a stylized fantasy?

There are many joys to the non binary experience but among them are a dismissal of the real. We are told that there are two genders, two sexes, two ways of being. We are told that this is “science,” no “religion,” no “state.” In other words: we are told that we do not exist. We are told that we are delusional, disordered, narcissistic. And so we are tasked with the burden of authenticity. We can say “I AM REAL!” but then we have to ask ourselves why our legitimacy is dependent on the very logics which disappear us to begin with.

So then sometimes we have the audacity to say: “NONE OF THIS IS REAL!” And there’s a type of freedom that comes from that, a potentiality. We can look at this body they assigned us and say, “This is not a _____, this is a _____.” And for once the template becomes more of an open playing field, a fill in the blank if you will. We can look at the world and say, “This is not a democracy, this is a ____!” We can look to the television screens say, “This is not happiness, this is ____!” We can go to the stage and say, “I am not ____, I am ____!”


I do this workshop every once in a while called FEELINGS! I think workshops are essential because they’re about figuring out how to become a better person - or rather - how to become a person. We teach each other things that our schools forgot to or maybe even didn’t want to: how to process jealousy, how to grieve death, how to name boundaries. Sometimes I ask participants to approach a white board and answer some questions. Sometimes I ask, “WHO ARE YOU?” Most of the time people don’t know what to say. I mean they say things but I’m unclear whether it’s them speaking or someone else. “I’m a…”. [insert template] [insert assigned identity] [insert hierarchy].

There are not contradictions, there are just failures of imagination. And so I keep on asking, who are you? And eventually the only answer is always ? The answer to the question is the question, isn’t it? I find the best answers are the ones that disarticulate the question to begin with: Are you a man or a woman? No.

Living in fantasy is about embracing the infinite potentiality of the question mark. It’s about a perpetual ambivalence to the real, a sincere and earnest skepticism of authenticity as a project, a recognition of the constructedness of everyone and everything. “Natural" just like “normal” is an intentional and deliberate act. “History” just like “man,” is a performance art scripted so seamlessly it assumes the position of authority.

I believe the reason non binary people experience so much wrath is because we make the world confront the myth of its own naturalness. We unsettle the very grammar that they use to name themselves. Rather than saying, “I don’t know who I am” they scream and they shout and they hurt so loud and so forcefully that they do not notice us saying,



Welcome to the fantasy.