18 Apr 2008

All Just Performance Art

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Artist scamp hard at work

A new report from the Oldest College Daily advises the well-and-truly-grossed-out news-reporting and news-reading worlds that Aliza Schvarts (Y’08)’s miscarriages-as-art project was merely a naughty undergraduate joke intended to spark conversation and debate.

Aliza Shvarts ’08 was never impregnated. She never miscarried. The sweeping outrage on blogs across the country was apparently for naught — at least according to the University.

As the news of her supposed senior art project chronicling a year of self-induced miscarriages was greeted with widespread shock on campus and elsewhere, the Davenport College senior traded barbs with Yale officials on Thursday over a project she described as an exhibit documenting a nine-month process during which she claimed to have artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” while periodically inducing miscarriages.

But while Shvarts stood by her project and claimed that administrators had backed her before the planned exhibition attracted national condemnation, the University dismissed it as nothing more than a piece of fiction.

“The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said in a written statement Thursday afternoon.

Klasky said Shvarts told Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and two other senior officials Thursday that she neither impregnated herself nor induced any miscarriages. Rather, the entire episode, including a press release describing the exhibition released Wednesday, was nothing more than “performance art,” Klasky said.

“She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art,” Klasky said. “Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.”

But in an interview later Thursday afternoon, Shvarts defended her work and called the University’s statement “ultimately inaccurate.” She reiterated that she engaged in the nine-month process she publicized on Wednesday in a press release that was first reported in the News: repeatedly using a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself, then taking abortifacient herbs at the end of her menstrual cycle to induce bleeding. Thursday evening, in a tour of her art studio, she shared with the News video footage she claimed depicted her attempts at self-induced miscarriages.

“No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” Shvarts said, adding that she does not know whether she was ever pregnant. “The nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”

Told of Shvarts’ comments, the University fired back. In a statement issued just before midnight on Thursday, Klasky told the News that Shvarts had vowed that if the University revealed her admission, “she would deny it.”

“Her denial is part of her performance,” Klasky wrote in an e-mail message. “We are disappointed that she would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”

Yale’s response to the supposed exhibition came at the end of a day of widespread shock. The blogosphere erupted in stunned indignation over Shvarts’ detailed description in Thursday’s News of her supposed exhibition, which she said would include the display of blood she preserved from her nine-month endeavor.

As more news outlets posted their stories online early Friday morning, Shvarts responded to the University’s second statement, asserting that her project was, in her words, “University-sanctioned.”

“I’m not going to absolve them by saying it was some sort of hoax when it wasn’t,” she said. “I started out with the University on board with what I was doing, and because of the media frenzy they’ve been trying to dissociate with me. Ultimately I want to get back to a point where they renew their support because ultimately this was something they supported.”

It was a media frenzy that Shvarts triggered herself. The article in Thursday’s News was prompted by a press release Shvarts circulated on Wednesday in which she discussed — in graphic detail — what she called a cycle of self-insemination followed by “repeated self-induced miscarriages.”

The Drudge Report linked to the News’s story early Thursday, overloading the newspaper’s Web site with traffic and attracting the attention of news outlets across the country. The article generated more press inquiries from the University than any matter since the controversy surrounding Yale’s admission of former Taliban diplomat Rahmatullah Hashemi flared up in 2006, according to a Yale official.

In an interview for the article in Thursday’s News, Shvarts explained that the goal of her exhibition was to spark conversation and debate about the relationship between art and the human body. She said her endeavor was not conceived with any “shock value” in mind.

“I hope it inspires some sort of discourse,” Shvarts said. “Sure, some people will be upset with the message and will not agree with it, but it’s not the intention of the piece to scandalize anyone.”

Shvarts said her project would take the form of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall. Shvarts said she would wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around the cube, with blood from her self-induced miscarriages lining the sheeting.

Recorded videos of her experiencing her miscarriages would be projected onto the four sides of the cube, Shvarts said.

And while some news stories late Thursday dismissed Shvarts’s exhibition as a wholesale hoax, the Davenport senior showed elements of her planned exhibition to News reporters, including footage from tapes she plans to play at the exhibit. The tapes depict Shvarts, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed, alone in a shower stall bleeding into a cup. It was all part of a project that Shvarts said had the backing of the dean of her residential college and at least two faculty members within the School of Art.

Davenport College Dean Craig Harwood — whom Shvarts said supported the project — and Shvarts’s thesis adviser, School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman, could not be reached for comment Thursday. The director of undergraduate studies in the School of Art, Henk van Assen, referred a request for comment to Yale’s Office of Public Affairs.

Which denoument makes a lot of sense. The whole business did sound just a little too far out there in a variety of ways to receive academic approval. And it’s true, we all gaped and marveled, but accepted the story at face value.

Does this prove that news organizations and bloggers are unbecomingly credulous? I don’t think so. The alleged miscarriage project was not all that far removed from any number of real examples of purported art featuring unlikely materials of organic origin, in some cases personally provided by the artist.

Aliza Schvarts’ alleged art project made news on the basis of its man-bites-dog outrageous character, but these days the relationship of major universities and the arts to perversity and shock is so warm and intimate that it all had a distinct air of plausibility.

Despite the unfortunate aesthetic and moral aspects of her prank, my own disposition is to smile and extend congratulations to Aliza Schvarts for successfully pulling so many legs. What is undergraduate life for, if not for shocking and outraging the adult bourgeois world?

Well done, Aliza.

Her taste may be questionable, but she demonstrated admirable quantities of imagination, flair, and enterprise. The world should keep an eye out for this girl. What an advertising campaign manager she is liable to make!


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