I first met performance icon Ron Athey in the Mojave Desert, where he was running a “bootcamp” for performance artists. We were introduced by Jennifer Doyle, a feminist scholar who was writing about my work at the time. It was 2008 and I had just graduated from Yale amid international fury over my senior thesis for the art major, Untitled [Senior Thesis], which dealt with self-managed abortion.
For an academic year, I self-inseminated with semen collected from “fabricators” around the time I was ovulating. Two weeks later I took 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 piece was intentionally crafted so that not even I knew which.
The work highlighted the histories of how people have self-managed their reproductive capacities, as well as the ways in which the biological experience of our bodies is overwritten with interpretation: our own, but also the far more consequential interpretations of those more powerful than us. Whether a viewer saw something liberatory, monstrous, or mundane in the very long—and often quite boring—footage of me sitting in a bathtub bleeding was determined by their own act of reading, which was no more or less authoritative than my own.
Or at least it would have been. Once I became a news item, Yale banned the work from exhibition—meaning the media frenzy centered on an artwork no one had actually seen, only heard about. The fallout included death threats from neo-Nazi stalkers, the school dismissing the entire work as a “creative fiction,” and university officials advising me against attending graduation because they “could not guarantee my safety.” I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I needed someone who could understand what I had just gone through, someone who understood what it meant to pour your whole self into making an artwork you believe to be liberating—even beautiful—only to be told by the world that you are a monster. Jennifer thought I would find that in Ron.In 1994, the Walker Art Center presented excerpts from Athey’s performance work Four Scenes in a Harsh Life at Patrick’s Cabaret in Minneapolis. During one scene, Athey made shallow cuts into the back of another performer, Darryl Carlton (aka Divinity Fudge), blotted the cuts with paper towels, and then suspended the resulting blood prints on a clothesline pulley. A local critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—who had not actually attended the performance—wrote a front-page article falsely reporting that Athey had exposed the audience to AIDS. Although Athey is HIV positive, the blood used in the performance came from Carlton, who is not.
That inflammatory article was picked up by the Associated Press and quickly made national headlines. Former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms denounced the work as “depraved.” The National Endowment for the Arts had provided $150 in indirect support of the performance via the Walker. As a result, Athey’s piece became ammunition (along with other now-canonical works by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano) in the conservative push led by Newt Gingrich to defund the NEA.
It is difficult to say whether we are in the same national culture war as that which raged in the late ’80s and ’90s or in the midst of something new, but the parallels are hard to miss. This past year alone, we have witnessed the reversal of Roe v. Wade, state bans on gender-affirming care, and the College Board’s unprecedented erasure of crucial Black scholarship. This has all taken place against the backdrop of rising political polarization, a violent backlash to identity politics, and paranoia brought on by a pandemic.
The same political forces that made Ron and I subjects for the Senate floor and Fox News are still at work today—and in many ways they have gained traction. Just this week, Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho banned the work of a former student of mine, Lydia Nobles, for violating the state’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a 2021 law that prohibits the use of public funds for speech that would “promote abortion.” Lydia’s piece, As I Sit Waiting, is a series of sculptures highlighting the stories of people who have had abortions or were forced to carry their pregnancies to term.
The sculptural installation for my Untitled [Senior Thesis] has never been realized, but the video documentation will be on view next month at Galerie im Saablau, a municipally funded gallery in Berlin. This is the first time it has been shown post-Roe. I don’t know if it will ever be shown in the United States again. Its content might now be considered illegal in some states. The growing criminalization of what we choose to do with our own bodies, and how we choose to represent and speak about those experiences, is chilling—not just for artists, but for all of us.
The NEA survived the ‘90s but was significantly transformed, largely discontinuing its funding to individual artists. Since then, attempts to further limit the NEA’s funding and scope, including those of Donald Trump in 2017, have had relatively little bearing on the lives of individual artists. Overwhelmingly, it is not government funding that makes new artwork possible in the U.S. today. Some artists find traction in the commercial market, but for those making work that is not immediately appealing to the collecting class, the only other primary avenue to fund their work is arts nonprofits.
To that end, I am grateful to now be in a position where I can support other artists making risk-taking work. Through my work as director of artist initiatives at Creative Capital, I oversee one of the largest open call grants to individual artists in the country, as well as education and professional development programs that help artists build sustainable careers. Founded in 1999 in response to the new limitations on the NEA, Creative Capital believes that fostering free expression is critical to democracy. Throughout its 23-year history, Creative Capital has made possible the groundbreaking artists who have put their bodies at stake to challenge and move us. This includes new work by Ron Athey as well as artists such as Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser, Xandra Ibarra, and Indira Allegra, who are all 2023 grantees.
Now, as then, art is an important battleground for larger political struggle because artists consistently and creatively find ways to use their practices to address injustice. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which like the AIDS pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our healthcare system and public health infrastructure, Ron’s project, The Asclepion, returns to the theme of healing through the myth of the wounded healer: a figure who challenges the binary logic of injury and repair. Athey, who was raised as a child prophet in a Pentecostal faith-healing community and has since trained extensively as a structural bodyworker and healer, explores the possibilities of healing, including the value of pseudo-science and “shabby shamanism.”
While Tennessee is banning public drag performances in response to conservative uproar around popular drag queen story hours for children, collaborative duo Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser are working on Sleeping Beauty: She Woke. The project is an all-ages pantomime using drag and burlesque performers to retell the story of sleeping beauty through a feminist lens. As Fraser noted, drag and burlesque performers make the best family entertainers as they are performers who have honed a unique formal ability to connect with audiences.
As the U.S. considers reinstating the inhumane Trump-era policy of detaining migrant families crossing the border, performer Xandra Ibarra is preparing Unsettled Agreements (Or Political Constipation), which will consist of the artist and other invited performers undergoing colonic hydrotherapy while reading so-called peace treaties between the United States, Mexico, and individual sovereign American Indian nations. Following the performances, viewers and participants will be asked to participate in discussion to copy edit the more difficult, or “crappy,” parts of the examined treaties.
Amid the “shadow pandemic” of mental health crisis—as well as the intensifying conservative vitriol against safe spaces, trigger warnings, self-care, and other practices rooted in Black liberation and feminism—artist Indira Allegra is creating TEXERE, an art-based mental health app that weaves digital memorial tapestries from words, images, and soundbites about people’s losses. TEXERE then transforms anonymized stories of loss into digital threads that are woven into a larger virtual tapestry of entries from people all over the world grieving that same loss. The virtual tapestries serve as collectively-produced monuments, reminding us that we are not alone.
At that bootcamp in the desert with Ron, I found the understanding I needed. I also found something else: a deep and enduring conviction in the body as both a creative and political tool. When an artist puts their body at stake, they stage how the body is already vulnerable in the social, legal, and cultural spheres, and they also enact unrealized political possibilities. In my case an imagination of total bodily autonomy—that I can use the capacity of my own body however I want. In Ron’s case, a ritual of healing grounded in pleasure and ecstasy rather than pathology and shame. Both things we are still otherwise denied in our everyday lives. To call this kind of work perverse or depraved is to miss the real work at hand, which is at its core utopian. Such art is a vehicle through which to imagine and briefly enact a future not yet here.
I am grateful to have been able to make this kind of work in my career—and survive. But I am fearful for what the future holds for artists who have made and continue to make work that engages with urgent issues of our time. Their art might not hang quietly on the walls of a penthouse or plug in neatly to an institution’s fundraising platitudes, but this is exactly what makes it vital. When we do not support the artwork that challenges us by challenging existing social and cultural hierarchies of representation, we lose one of the most important functions of contemporary art, which is its capacity to posit something more inclusive, capacious, and ultimately, something new.
Aliza Shvarts is an artist, writer, and theorist whose work focuses on reproductive labor and language. She currently serves as the Director of Artist Initiatives at Creative Capital and teaches at the Parsons School of Design. She holds a PhD in performance studies from NYU.