Consent/Dissent: A Talk by Aliza Shvarts and Emma Sulkowicz

Consent/Dissent: A Talk by Aliza Shvarts and Emma Sulkowicz

Wednesday, March 29, 2017
6 to 8pm

At the heart of most theorizations of democracy is the idea of consensus: the capacity for people to come to an agreement, to achieve a group mentality and feeling. This idea rests on the philosophical imagination of a citizen-subject: that autonomous individual who possesses the capacity to consent—to give permission, to willfully negotiate power difference in a manner that preserves the supposition of agency. Consent is not only a mark of liberal democratic ideals, but also of specific concern within feminist discourses.  As the recent minimization of sexual assault in the 2016 presidential election attests, the call for affirmative consent—the demand that we equate consensual sex with verbal affirmation (“Yes means yes”)—remains vital.  It offers a legal tool that makes certain types of misogynistic violence both visible and prosecutable.

At the same time, consent marks not only a supposition of agency, but also historical positions of power and disempowerment.  When consent  is a coerced, interdicted, or inadequate framework for imagining our capacities, we might turn to another democratic concept: dissent—that is, the right to resist, to protest, to voice opposition. This talk by Aliza Shvarts and Emma Sulkowicz explored the relationship between the political traditions of consent and its opposite—dissent—which marks the capacity to resist and refuse.  Using their practices as a starting point, the artists invited viewers to consider a set of increasingly urgent political questions: How can we hold in tension the liberal requirement for consent with the radical capacity for dissent?  How might consent and dissent inform a feminist capacity to act? Those attending the event were encouraged to look over the following readings, which were referenced in the discussion:

Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century AmericaSaidiya V. Hartman Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts, Rae Langton DISSENSUS: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière Non-Consensual Collaborations, 2012-present: Notes on a Shared Condition, Aliza Shvarts Truth Inside, Truth Outside, Emma Sulkowicz


Aliza Shvarts (b. 1986) is an artist, writer, and scholar whose work deals with queer and feminist understandings of reproductive labor and temporality. She holds a BA from Yale University, where her 2008 senior thesis - Untitled [Senior Thesis] - became the subject of international debate insofar as it dealt with questions of abortion. Her artwork has since appeared at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, MoMA PS1 in New York, and Tate Modern in London. Her writing has appeared in TDR: The Drama Review, Extensions:The Online Journal of Embodiment and Technology, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. She was a 2014 recipient of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, a 2014-2015 Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program, and is currently a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is currently completing a PhD in Performance Studies at New York University and teaches at The New School.

Emma Sulkowicz (b. 1992) is an American artist of Japanese-Chinese-Jewish descent who lives and works in New York City. She earned a BFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University in 2015 and is studying studio art in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. She is perhaps best known for her senior thesis at Columbia University -- Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) -- an endurance performance work in which she carried a dorm mattress everywhere on Columbia's campus for as long as she attended the same school as her attacker. Her more recent works include Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, an Internet-based participatory artwork, Self-Portrait (Performance With Object), which was her first solo gallery show, and The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, which premiered at Philadelphia Contemporary in January 2017. Her awards include the National Organization for Women’s Woman of Courage Award (2016) and Susan B. Anthony Award (2014), the United States Student Association’s National Student Movement Builder of the Year Award (2015), and the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine’s Ms. Wonder Award (2015).