Trying to describe multidisciplinary artist ALOK in a short, snappy introduction is a near-impossible task. The gender non-conforming luminary has produced an astonishing variety of creative work across countless media: they are an artist, a writer, a poet, a performer, a comedian and a fashion innovator who pushes (and, more often, demolishes) the boundaries of white, cis-hetero-patriarchal society through their inimitable body of work. With palpable emotion and transcendental wit, ALOK is an undeniable force — and whether you’re drawn to their art to learn something, to feel something or simply to be seen, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for. On May 26, at the Rio Theatre, they’re performing their unique brand of standup as part of the Vancouver Just For Laughs festival. We caught up with ALOK to talk comedy, inspiration, fashion and resilience.
In a New York Times interview, you spoke about the therapeutic nature of comedy for marginalized people — you said, “When you spend your entire life being on one side of the joke, it’s actually quite therapeutic to be able to make a joke.” How did you enter the comedy world? What was the process like of coming to realize you could control that narrative?
For so long, the only relationship I had with myself was through pain. Through a lot of personal self-work, I am realizing that I am worthy of pleasure, levity, frivolity, complexity. My turn to comedy reflects this new era of my healing journey. I want my art to reflect both the difficulty and the joy of trans life. I want all parts of myself to honour duality: my poetry needs my comedy, and my comedy needs my poetry. My grief needs my gratitude, and my gratitude my grief.
I also feel more confident about who I am and what I have to say. While humour has always been an integral part of my personal life, I haven’t let it have enough space in my public life. I want to show the world who I truly am. And that’s someone who, in the span of one hour, can break down complex academic theories, tell the most heart-wrenching story about trauma and deliver a crass joke. I’m all of the above, baby!
Tell me about your live shows. What’s the energy like? What can audiences expect?
My favourite art births new genres. And that’s what I try to do with my work. I braid poetry with comedy with storytelling. My shows are interchangeably intense and zany: at once both hilarious and heartbreaking. One constant through it all is feeling. Be prepared to feel: grief and loss for sure, but also joy, mirth.
Who are some of your personal or artistic inspirations?
My friends inspire me the most. Travis Alabanza teaches me so much about setting a scene. Shea Diamond teaches me how to use my voice. Jonathan Van Ness teaches me so much about how to tell a story. Ocean Vuong teaches me how to paint with language. Cynthia Erivo teaches me how to practice self-worth.
What was it like being a performer over the pandemic? Did you find new ways to connect with your audience?
It was truly awful. After years of being on non-stop tour, I had to suddenly halt and I felt so much grief. I missed live performance so much! I tried to do some Zoom performances and those were just … awkward. There’s something about being together in person that makes the work transcend. One thing it did do, though, was make me think about my future as an artist and realize that there were so many new avenues I wanted to explore, like acting.
Tell me about your relationship with fashion. What do fashion and beauty mean to you now?
Style was one of the first languages I had to express who I was and what I believed on my own terms. Clothing gave me permission to fashion my own identity, my own narrative, my own life. Words can only say so much — clothing remains an intimate form of communication for me. Now, fashion is a forum to me to practise self-worth, to be my own kind of beautiful.
You’re an incredibly prolific creator with groundbreaking work in countless media. What do you think of when you think about your purpose as an artist? What inspires you to create?
“Artist” is the only identity I’ve chosen for myself. What I like about it is the focus on creation. Artists understand that reality is an ongoing construction project and that the purpose of the work is not just to represent reality but to recreate it. What I’m trying to do with my work is present new frameworks that shift the ways that we look, live and love. In order to accomplish this, I have to work across [media ]. In that way, I work backwards. I begin by focusing on the kind of world I want to create and then I figure out how to get there.