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The Activist Aliens Proposing a New Normal

By Bianca Husodo

 
 

It’s a fact that Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran provoke everyone they encounter. The duo, known as Fecal Matter, incites the extreme on the constant. How could they not?

On their joint Instagram account — @matieresfecales, a direct French translation of the unusual moniker which boasts 360,000-strong followers at the time of writing — are freakish, enthralling visuals bound to halt all jaded scrolls.

One of their recent posts has Dalton, 23, tiptoeing on clear, see-through platforms with bare legs and what seems to be abnormal growths of curved flesh protruding from the heels of her feet, supporting her perch in sturdy claw-like pointe. Shifting up, swathes of blooming flowers form her shoulder-baring dress. They continue to sprout on the wide, cascading trumpet sleeves. Cinching the bodice is a white corset, sculpting the mini dress’ waist-nipping New Look silhouette. Her lips and neck are chained with restrictive metal hardware chokers. Her head is smooth and hairless, save for two vestigial kelp antennas. Her face, browless and powdered to pale perfection with a slight fuchsia tint around black pitless holes that served as eyes.

Fecal MatterHannah Rose Dalton in Fecal Matter’s Spring/Summer ’19 closing look. “Our fear is what inspires us,” says Dalton.
Hannah Rose Dalton in Fecal Matter’s Spring/Summer ’19 closing look. “Our fear is what inspires us,” says Dalton.

All this isn’t achieved by deft sleight of Photoshop. The visual stab is, mostly, unedited: Dalton’s mutated feet are part of thigh-high skin boots made to replicate the look and texture of pale ivory human skin, of which are up for US$10,000 a pop; her ethereal floral dress is the grand finale look of Fecal Matter’s first-ever fashion show presented in London last October; the antennas are glued to the scalp; scleral contact lens and dexterous makeup skills polish up her warped, romantic jumble.

In another, Dalton and Bhaskaran, a 24-year-old half-Guyanese half-Sri Lankan non-binary, pose together on a sidewalk. Each has on a pair of 15-inch backless platform boots. Dalton is in an all-pale emerald outfit topped with a thorny necklace, while Bhaskaran sports a strappy all-black number, a pod-shaped cranium, his mouth invisible under prosthetic wraps. Behind them, an average pedestrian shuffles away with her dog. The caption reads, “When your neighbours always run away from you”.

In a video call with the partners, I re-learned that first impressions are, almost always, incorrect. Despite their abrasive wardrobe and blank glower on Instagram, Dalton and Bhaskaran are the politest, most genial of interviewees. As they sit together in a living room in London, complete in their half-bald stringy ’do and reptile mono-contact lens, Bhaskaran bashfully revealed, “Hannah and I are very shy people, believe it or not. We have a lot of anxiety and honestly, we’re very private people. Dressing up like this is such a part of our natural everyday life that sometimes we forget to take photos. Putting ourselves out there, we have this mission to present alternative point of views, presenting a way out of the codes of normality, which we felt we were always trapped by.”

Said “codes of normality” is a self-coined phrase the pair often use, which entails the modes of conformity that are aligned to fit society at large. To Fecal Matter, tackling that head-on with their strikingly subversive lifestyle is the key to achieving a goal that involves more than just the two of them. “Our whole generation is starting to develop and feel the impact of how we look. They want to see things the way we see them,” said Bhaskaran.

Dalton and Bhaskaran first met at a “very technical fashion school” in Montreal, bonding over their shared aversion for the limitations the school posed on their creative expression. Unbridled freedom without the risk of prejudice, as they deduced, can never flourish with the looming existence of heavy censorship. Not stopping at their personal wardrobe, the tangible translation of their outlook torrents into other channels. They make eerily acidic electronic music hellbent on grating your eardrums; they DJ these tunes in underground clubs; they sew and make clothing and accessories for themselves and their namesake label.

Last month, their inaugural Fecal Matter fashion show was held at London’s Mandrake boutique hotel. Titled ‘Non-Human’, their Spring/Summer ’19 collection was a bricolage of materials — wood, leather, chain, tulle, jersey — fashioned into the pair’s ghoulish tropes. Their tagline, “Provoke Society”, was seen emblazoned on a black hoodie worn by Bhaskaran. Borne out of society’s abusive rejection towards their quirks and a dream to see their work experienced beyond the digital sphere, Dalton says, “It’s a little capsule collection we’ve created talking about the human form and so we wanted to present that — not online — but in real life, where people can see and attend.”

Fecal Matter is divisive. While a large number of people are bewildered to the point of utter revulsion, it should be noted that just as many are enamoured by a perspective so foreign, yet so imperatively human at the core. They are the faces of today’s shift that’s most palpable online — but the end goal was never about being beauty influencers. They crave the inception of a new normal.

Knowing that I was calling from Singapore, Bhaskaran chipped in a fun fact: “We ship a lot of stuff to Singapore. There are very niche individualistic type of people movements going on there.” Considering the sterile and strait-laced clime of the city-state, the existence of a pool of Fecal Matter acolytes is an indication that their aesthetic and its underlying message, have indeed, globalised.

Here, the Fecal Matter collective unmasks what matters most to them: activism, dismantling censorship and the importance of not building a thick skin.

BIANCA HUSODO: What spurred you to take up this stance against what you call “the codes of normality”?

STEVEN BHASKARAN: I’m half-Guyanese and half-Srilankan. There are a lot of limitations where I grew up in Guyana, especially for a person who wanted to express himself in different ways. Society can be very cruel. That has always been a big fear of mine. It wasn’t really until I met Hannah at fashion school. There was always this feeling of wanting more. This was something both of us bonded over. We’ve always had these insane ideas. Everybody told us that no one was going to wear them. So we went, “Well, why not we wear them?”

Throughout my life, I was bullied. It was always due to the things that weren’t physical. It was due to my mannerism, the way my mind worked. I realised that no matter what I wore, I was always going to be bullied. I tried dressing up macho and normal, and I would still get bullied. I tried to fit in and people would still point me out. There’s no winning in this. It’s a lose-lose situation, I might as well just enjoy my life. So I shaved off my eyebrows.

HANNAH DALTON: I was always — maybe not in terms of how I look like — thinking against the norms and what was being taught to me in school or by friends. I got into fashion, because at 14, I started researching what was behind the clothing industry and seeing the women in Cambodia and Bangladesh, for example. These factories were burning down and people were hurt. Understanding the real cost of these products, it hurt me in a lot of ways. I try to use myself as somebody who can talk about these issues even at a very young age, even when I was still dressing super normally. I had long hair, eyebrows. It was when I met Steven that I started to translate my inner-self into my outer-self.

SB: You had long blonde hair, and you wore librarian looks. You were very into Prada-ey type of stuff, trying to look like a fashion person. For Hannah, she always had this shot at fitting in. I never had a shot at fitting in. That was something that worked for our advantage. Because of our step-by-step transition, we could actually relate to a lot of people of all walks of life. In total, it was a one and a half year of process, but for us it was specifically how many steps we went through in terms of dealing with our family and school. We went through a lot of societal reactions. That’s when we really tackled the codes of normality.

BH: People comment all sorts of things, from the hateful to the revering, on your posts. But what do you encounter on the streets? Are the reactions as overwhelming as they are online?

HD: When we walk out of the house or when we’re on the Metro, everyone is staring, pointing or laughing at you. Some people are into it, some aren’t — you can’t really tell. It’s definitely very hard at first.

SB: A lot of the fashion icons in the history of time, most of them, the ones who become faces of avant-garde style, they only start expressing it once they become famous, once they have security,...

HD: … a secure job position,...

SB: … with drivers and bodyguards. For us, we didn’t want to wait until, and if, we become famous. Physical violence occasionally happens. People spit on us, push us, terrible things. The most interesting that ever happened was when I got physically abused on a bus. Hannah and I were at the back of the bus, and a group of kids started to beat me up. They stole my headphones.

BH: How do you tackle or cope with these real-life negativity?

SB: We try to put ourselves in the minds of people who laugh at us. We think critically. Perhaps it’s not personal, that it’s not specifically about us, or perhaps it’s because it’s brand new. It’s the same reaction as when somebody offers you, “Do you want to have burgers and fries or do you want to have this intricate, layered, multiple fish sushi that’s completely distorted with flowers and mustard and these interesting complicated layers?” Most people will turn down the sushi. It’s this reaction of discomfort. We’d be lying if we said that that’s not an intention of ours. Our intention is to disrupt and not only just to dress up and be ourselves, but to naturally know what’s happening. We see ourselves in the mirror, we know how different we look from the everyday person.

We’d probably die before society considers this normal, accepting it as it is. We don’t want to have thick skin — we’ll become jaded and isolated — we want to keep our own skin. Our own skin is that we are humans and we are sensitive. We do get hurt and take things to heart.

BH: What did you come to realise through your transformation?

SB: Everything became so transparent for us. Before, we weren’t at the edge, we didn’t really realise, whereas when you put yourself out there in your authentic form, the bottom line is: society will declare you as crazy, mentally ill, or that you have something wrong with you, because why would you want to go against everything? We physically, mentally saw that. This is who we are and we’re going to live it. We’re not going to think about anybody else except ourselves. In the beginning, it was a selfish transition. It was self-discovery. But through this, we realised that us being ourselves is helping other people.

BH: How so? 

SB: If anything, more than our alien fashion, more than anything we’re trying to do — yes, that’s all fun for us — we’re trying as much as we can to help individuals — either somebody who is from a farm to somebody who is born into a family whose parents are autistic. We want everyone, no matter who they are, to not be afraid to think about whatever they want to think about.

There shouldn’t be any fear in thinking. This is something that we’re fully fighting for. We will die trying to do whatever art, project — that’s the main point when we ask ourselves if we want to take up a project or not. Whether it can promote free-thinking, a space where people can be free of fear. The irony is that when people come to our profile, they’re very afraid. It’s fear. Our goal is to hold these people’s hands and walk them through it and make them realise that it’s not that scary. That nothing is.

Fecal Matter“Freedom is having the ability to try. That’s essentially something so many people in different countries will never get to feel. This is why we take the risk. We go on the train, to the airport, we put our faces on social media and we don’t mind being labelled, because hopefully it encourages people to try,” says Bhaskaran.
“Freedom is having the ability to try. That’s essentially something so many people in different countries will never get to feel. This is why we take the risk. We go on the train, to the airport, we put our faces on social media and we don’t mind being labelled, because hopefully it encourages people to try,” says Bhaskaran.

BH: The existence of Fecal Matter seems to be built upon the fundamental idea of dismantling censorship altogether. Why do you think it’s the root that needs to be tackled?

HD: Even back in school, we would come up with projects and ideas to talk about something unusual and they would be shut down. It was always, “You can’t talk about that.” The truth is: you can’t put a limit to our minds or expressions. We’re very much about going against what we’re not supposed to do, wear, think about. We try to help other people think outside of what is considered normal. We always put that in our work, for people to look at it and think critically and start questions. Questions about our reality, who we are, about the planet and everything else. It can be very difficult to start talking about things you’re told not to talk about. For us, it’s a catalyst, almost, to help people to get into that mindset of no judgement and the journey on looking at things differently.

So much is censored, even on Instagram. We run into so much censorship on the Internet around the work that we’re posting. It could be quite difficult. We don’t see our work as something negative.

SB: Censorship is created to protect from seeing certain things — pornographic imagery, visual trauma, etc. Some people can’t handle the truth. As soon as you go with public domain, or anything connected to mass society, you’re dealing with a very wide range of tolerance level. Censorship acts as an umbrella to protect these people. It’s an estimation of what people can and cannot tolerate. That’s why female nipples aren’t on Instagram.

We totally understand why it exists. Without censorship, you may have chaos. But at the same time, our goal is not to abolish censorship for what it is. It’s to expand the ability to have it more flexible. Censorship should be something that you can deal with individually. People should have the choice to see what they want to see, and not see what they don’t want to see. More importantly, it’s not healthy to live in a society that’s afraid of dealing with reality. People need to see that it’s not bad just because it’s different. A huge part of what censorship has become is it causes this immediate association with whatever things are censored with negativity. We’re fighting to destroy that. The beauty of the human mind is that it’s literally a search engine with all the results on its own. You can really delve into creativity, imagination. But imagine if one day you come to a point where someone can’t even have the capacity to imagine anymore. It’s horrible. That, in itself, is the act of fascism; the act of terrible things. It has implemented so much fear about things that you might think is uncomfortable.

BH: Both of you are trailblazers of a current ongoing shift in beauty, where a yearning to be freed from the shackles of conventions and standards is taking form in unbridled anarchist outputs. Your idea of beauty is, clearly, unconventional. What’s your definition of being beautiful?

HD: It has more to do with a feeling. It’s not about how your hair or face look like. When I feel beautiful, it’s a feeling or a reflection of how much I love and care myself — being appreciative of my own body.

SB: To us and our brand, we find everything can be beautiful. Beauty exists in everything — and especially in ugliness. We believe in things that are unconventional; we find ourselves running towards the territories on this realm that are considered rejected, isolated, ugly, unattractive.That’s not expressed enough in our society. Mainstream culture is based upon what’s wrong and what’s right. You’ll see Hollywood magazines: best dressed, worst dressed. Long hair is beautiful, short hair is not. It sounds cliche, but beauty stems from within. Clearly, you can’t avoid how this world works. Just see who’s getting likes and followers on Instagram to know what current beauty standards are: tall, slim, model-like or whatever.

BH: Though statistically speaking, Fecal Matter does have quite a large following as well.

SB: Well, my mom thought Hannah was the most beautiful girl in the world; that she looks like a living Barbie. People also tell me that I’m handsome. On Instagram, I don’t know if we will be in the position that we are if we look different; if we were way shorter or chubbier. We do have advantages in terms of conventional beauty. When Hannah wears a lot of the pieces that she wears, the very challenging looks, sometimes people see it as fashionable because she’s skinny — which is absurd. The stereotypes and limitations of beauty affects everybody. That’s why we feel most beautiful when we are challenging those norms.

BH: Why does it have to take the specific form of Fecal Matter’s extraterrestrial mutations?

SB: We find aliens, anything that is non-human, very beautiful. It’s not because we don’t find the human body beautiful, we think that it — along with its engineering, the complex textures — are wonderful. But it’s similar to if you go to a grocery store and see so many bananas, apples and oranges. We’re the type who would go for the dragon fruit. The fruit that is more exotic. We see humans everyday, all the time. It’s exciting to play around something that is entirely different.

Fecal MatterTitled ‘Metamorphosis’, Dalton’s dress is sculpted plastic, structured with wire boning — a blooming artificial flower which alludes to a plastic world where humans uncritically adapt to their environment.
Titled ‘Metamorphosis’, Dalton’s dress is sculpted plastic, structured with wire boning — a blooming artificial flower which alludes to a plastic world where humans uncritically adapt to their environment.

BH: Where do you mine your inspirations from?

HD and SB: Science.

HD: Science is definitely a big part, though we don’t have a background in science. Our fear is what inspires us. My whole life I fear dying. We all fear death. But why can’t we face that fear and use that energy we feel from, “Oh shit, one day I’m going to die” to express something? A lot of times we look into those types of fear and turn that fear into something that can make it approachable.

S: In terms of aesthetic, we’re inspired by science, aliens, technology, nature. We look a lot to nature — its colours, textures, underwater sea creatures — especially for inspiration for makeup. Nature contains so much beauty and creativity. It’s way more nourishing than any fashion magazine photo or any designer whatever. We always go to the source. We’re very analytical. Another big level of inspiration is normality. We’re very inspired by family, the sense of things that are normal. If we ever feel like we have nothing to say, we ask ourselves: what are we experiencing right now, what are we afraid of right now, what will be the worst thing that can happen to us — and we go from there.

Also, we are two people, we have two different lives and upbringings. There are a lot to feed from. We’re in a relationship together. Our relationship can be very loving and peaceful, but it can be the worst nightmare ever and it could be toxic and explosive with a lot of passion and intensity. That’s something that will always fuel some type of idea. We are never resting. Our eyes are always open. Our minds are aware as much as possible. More than anything, there will always be a cause to fight for; an ability to fight for something that is bigger than us. We barely sleep.

BH: Ultimately, where do you want to bring your platform to? Do you see your vision for Fecal Matter evolving?

HD: Currently, we’re focused on music and continuing that and sharing our message in the real world. So going to different places that are not just London, Paris, Los Angeles or New York but really going all over to spread this message to a lot of people. The one-on-one IRL connection is so much different than just online.

SB: At the same time, we’re investing our energy to visual and physical. We do everything on our own right now. We have our own label, clients, online shop. We’re still the ones sewing everything. It has become time to expand, release some of those responsibilities from us. We are on a journey of expressing ourselves in all shapes and forms, doing whatever we feel like doing in that moment. A big goal of ours is to expand our reach but also maintain that impact and authenticity. We can have everybody watching us, but if we have nothing to say, what’s the point of all that?

It’s going to be a focus and prioritisation of the truth. The truth that we feel, what we want to express and the vulnerabilities of us. That’s going to always lead into complications. It’s easy to start off with a message that’s so intense but when more people start to come in, that’s when you start to dilute it, making it more palatable. We’re trying to go to a territory that hasn’t been done before or has been done before but has been very difficult for a lot of people. We’re trying to stay true to ourselves, maintain that level of artistic dignity and purity as much as we can.

One day, we could feel like can’t go any further because we have pushed ourselves too far. Our ultimate dream is to deliver and express all of the ideas that are in our minds, which honestly, we have been expressing 100 percent. It’s a tall order to fulfill, but we’re trying.

This interview has been edited and condensed.