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Language at the Edges of Legality: Aliza Shvarts at Artspace New Haven

“What aesthetic potentials lie at the margins of legibility?”

Let’s begin with testimony:

Untitled [Senior Thesis] is a project that explored questions of biological and epistemological reproduction. It consisted of performance, video, and sculptural installation components. The performance, which took place over the period of an academic year, entailed a precise bodily intervention: from the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle, I used semen samples (collected from “fabricators”) to privately self-inseminate; on the 28th day of my cycle, I would ingest an herbal abortifacient, after which I would experience cramps and heavy bleeding. This bleeding could have been either a normal period or a very early-stage self-induced miscarriage—the work was intentionally crafted so that not even I knew which. As a result of these formal constraints, acts of biological reproduction were collapsed onto acts of reading (my own reading no more authoritative than that of any spectator). I intended this piece to exist in its telling—a telling that was to take textual, visual, spatial, temporal, and performative forms, opening on to questions of material and discursive reproduction. Yet because the video and final installation for this work were censored and deemed a “creative fiction” by the Yale University administration, the piece only exists as a narrative circulation, which has largely taken place online.” — Aliza Shvarts, on Untitled (Senior Thesis)


On a cool evening in mid-May, scholars, artists, historians, and cultural producers, among other visitors, gathered at the opening reception for Aliza Shvarts’s solo show at Artspace New Haven, Off Scene, to participate in a roundtable discussion entitled Living Fiction: Performance and Politics in the Space of Interdiction, centered on the legal and aesthetic frameworks of free speech, reproductive rights, and performance. If the roundtable is a discussion format that posits everyone present has equal right to participate in the conversation at hand, it offers the potential for a more democratic or collective format than a panel or lecture, in which authority rests with a few or one expert. So it was fitting, then, that Shvarts convened a roundtable to mark the opening of Off Scene, an exhibition that maps a decade of her inquiry into testimony, a mechanism of language that actualizes performance and the body, and perhaps which defines the margins of legal existence at all. Shvarts invited Robert Post, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School, to contextualize the conversation by speaking on historical and contemporary legal contexts of free speech and power. In a lengthy introduction that wound through the fraught terrain that constitutes speaking publicly — considering, for example, the complicated case of Charlie Hebdo — Post also expressed a kind of astonished admiration for Shvarts’s practice of fingering language at the edges of legality through her visual and performative practice. The hour-long discussion was a display of mastery. Shvarts’s dedication to her practice and obvious love for the discipline of performance sparkled through sincere and truly kind encouragement for audience members to participate in the discussion. A few people — scholars, primarily — accepted her invitation and kept pace with the depth of research and linguistic polish modeled by Shvarts and Post. It was marvellous and exciting and repulsive.

Aliza Shvarts, “Banner” installation view at Artspace New Haven. Photo courtesy of Phoebe d’Heurle.

Consider the roundtable as a kind of off-scene performance to the exhibition. As integral to the show as the binder full of laminated articles and think-pieces on Untitled (Senior Thesis), Shvarts appeared to use the mechanism of the roundtable and its promise of equal opportunity to clarify potentiality and power. To keep up with this live conversation, let alone participate, would require a significant amount of education and access. So what do you do when you have rights you cannot exercise? What happens (or doesn’t) if you understand the language but cannot speak it? Where does command of language — or command of privilege — silence others’ right to testimony? With other semiotics of authority, language — and the ability to perform — stand out as access points to power. Watching Shvarts coolly, confidently, respond with aplomb was a mark of talent, of course, but signaled also a tart and knowing mockery of the hetero-patriarchal systems she’s worked so hard to penetrate. (It’s unclear if Post was in on the joke.)

What’s so remarkable here is the distance between the talking about and the experiencing of Off Scene. Shvarts frames the exhibition as one of testimony, as language that gives voice to experience. Walking through the exhibition, I wondered how many visitors would viscerally know, as I did, what a circle of assorted rape kits on a pedestal might mean. How many of us have received barrages of verbal assault, bullying, and harassment online? Who among us have experienced stalkers and death threats for speaking, let alone speaking out? We can know, in our cores, what these things mean and what it means to live through them. But Shvarts also knows that we’ve been ignored, dismissed, and deemed “fictions” because heteropatriarchal systems do not allow for the irrationality or the “untrustworthiness” of feeling. So the talking about isn’t simply a theoretical exercise — it functions to force legibility in power systems where there was little or none before. Required here is an expert grasp of language and linguistics, a rational authority, that allows Shvarts to play at all. If the dynamic that dictates rather gendered oppositions can be made to change, Shvarts suggests that the only route may be sabotage, “to act out of time with it, to trouble the linear narrative of progress, to stymy cause and effect.” The roundtable-as-performance works as a contemporary détournement which seriously questions whose margins of legibility we are working and living under.

Aliza Shvarts, “Relational Clocks: I, You, We” installation view at Artspace New Haven. Photo courtesy of Phoebe d’Heurle.

In contemplating the who, we understand Off Scene as evidence that Shvarts is actively working to sabotage the actors within these systems. She targets the flamers — those bellicose, usually unthinking, participants that emerge online in hordes under an anonymity that is somehow legitimized by the assumption of maleness. Banners (2018) physicalizes this volatility on heavyweight vinyl scrolls that capture continuous digital screenshots from YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and email threads of vitriolic comments that number hundreds to thousands long. Shvarts also points to the trolls — online commenters, lawmakers, and journalists, among others  — who gaslight with a more sinister, calculated efficacy in order to derail not only conversations, but work. What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that while we may be frustrated or disgusted by the vast linguistic spectrum from insult to hate speech to hate policy, I’d wager we’ve likely also normalized (i.e. internalized) this kind of behavior as part of contemporary life.

Aliza Shvarts, “Cite/Site (detail: stanza 3)”, 72 18inx24in inkjet prints, 2018
Shayne Jacobs, “DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving the ‘saint of gay life’”, The Daily News, 16 December 2012; Shulamith Firestone, “I Remember Valerie Solanas,” Airless Spaces (New York: Semiotext(e), 1998) 131; “Actress Shoots Andy Warhol,” The Daily News, 1 June 1968: A1; Angela Carter, “In the Company of Wolves,” The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (New York: Penguin Books, [1979] 2011) 146; Karen Finley, “Chocolate-Smeared Young Woman,” The Washington Post, 19 May 1990: A23; Frances Farmer, 1943; Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, (New York: Routledge, 1996) 139; Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris, 1972; Carolee Schneeman, Interior Scroll (1975); Hortense Spillers, “Mamma’s Baby, Poppa’s Maybe,” Diacritics, 17:2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection. (Summer 1987): 74; Linda Taylor, 1974; August Jackson, 1997; Norma McCorvey, c. 1982; Venus Extravaganza, c. 1987; José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts,” Women& Performance, 8:2 (1996): 6.

Throughout Off Scene — off scene and on — Shvarts illuminates the thinking and the work that’s done so people can think. Throughout the roundtable, even in its potential for impenetrability, Shvarts’s performance linked the space of talking to the space of feeling, pointing out the performative nature of language and its relationship to power, as if to usher us into the exhibition with a linguistic and emotional understanding of the legal, aesthetic, and conceptual underpinnings of the work inside. We can see this, too, as the connection between protest and policy, in the many roles that are vital in shifting the language of power and the systems which govern all bodies — including the roles of bodies which lack the capitalist definitions of access or power.

As I witnessed the performance of this discussion, and of course the discussion itself, I wondered how a massive shift in legibility could happen. The discussion, or its performance, did not exactly answer this question, but it did shine a light on the ways in which seemingly impenetrable systems of power (political, institutional, linguistic, educational) form and can fail, almost as if in invitation. It laid out, wryly, the layers of access possible in the physicality of artwork (or the body) to oppose to the language that literally governs it. Testimony can work to manifest anxiety in systems designed to create oppression, and the work, then, asks us to consider our participation with language in political and social governance. Shvarts, like so many before her, manipulates the language of rage in order to lift it from the margins. What saturates Off Scene so fully is the thinking that ultimately leads to cultural and political revelations. As Shvarts tunes us in, welcoming — no, summoning — our untrustworthy, irrational potencies, we see that evidence of emotional labor is everywhere.


Aliza Shvarts, “Off Scene” is on view at Artspace New Haven through June 30th, 2018.

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