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Critical Writing

How Does It Feel to Be a Fiction?

Aliza Shvarts

How does it feel to be a fiction? is a text and digital performance which took place from April 13-June 14, 2017. During this performance, the text travelled through personal email accounts in a way that mirrors the operation of a viral “email worm”—though with the active consent of participants. Most participants first received an email invitation to participate in the piece sent from an email account that contained the name of someone they knew at a fictional email: The email invitation contained a link to this webpage. On this page were instructions that described the mechanism of the digital dissemination. The instructions explained that readers could participate in the digital performance by clicking on a series of buttons embedded in this page: one that first asked you to IDENTIFY yourself with your Google log-in information (entered into a separate window) and then one that asked you to CONSENT to participating in the piece.

Participants were advised that if they chose to click on the buttons, enter their Google log-in information, and give their consent, then they would be granted access to the text, which considers the many bodies that live as “fictions” to the State—i.e., female bodies that are a site of government regulation, undocumented bodies that lack representation, etc. They were also told that when they granted this consent, the site would simultaneously send an email in their name ( to all of the email addresses stored in their Gmail account—an invitation to new readers to participate in the performance identical to the one the sender initially received. Across these steps, no personal information was stored permanently, and participants’ contacts were not impacted by the “viral” mechanism outside of receiving this one email unless they followed the link and went through the steps to provide their own consent to participating in the piece. In this manner, the text reproduced itself by circulating “virally” and consensually through tens of thousands of personal email accounts over the work’s two-month duration.

I chose to disseminate the text through this performative viral mechanism for two reasons. The first had to do with the context of the commission from Recess. The invitation to make this work was extended in parallel with Public Opinion Laboratory/Andrew Lampert’s Session Faked/Out, which was responding to the role of “fake news” in the 2016 US Presidential election. After talking to Lampert, I was interested in how “fake news” named not just a type of content, but also entailed a uniquely intimate yet public form of dissemination through peer-to-peer sharing on social media platforms. Often the “legitimacy” of a fake news article comes not from the credentials of its author, sources, or publishing platform, but from the amount of times it has been shared and whether people in our own social networks have shared it. Part of my interest in the “viral” was its role in re-shaping the civic space of democracy—that is, how viral sharing in some sense displaces (but in another sense reproduces) the public square. Viral dissemination seems to blur affective relations and political ones. To this end, it resembles the intimate publics of gossip, which as I describe in the essay, bear a historical relationship to the endurance of female solidarities and knowledge-sharing in the face of the patriarchal and capitalist disciplining of the marital couple form. For me, the viral mechanism of the piece reclaims this illicit form of peer-to-peer dissemination, which fake news expropriates from a historically feminist strategy of resistance.

The second reason the piece took this performative form had to do with the way viral dissemination intervenes in the question of representation as a principle of both political subjecthood and art practice. The “one man, one voice” model of democratic representation is reproduced in many ways through the mimetic representations of digital life. The fact that we are our “real” (singular, agential, cohesive) selves online seems foundational to the attempts to monetize digital interactions as consumer data. This mimetic relationship to digital representation is not only imposed from without (for example, Facebook’s requirement that one use one’s real/legal name) but also internalized within. Despite the automation of email as a marketing tool and its porousness and multiplicity as a representational form, many of us continue to feel that the sending of an email necessarily represents an intentional act of authentic authorship—an illusion that allows for the smooth functioning of consumer choice within capitalist markets. Viral dissemination troubles these narratives of authenticity and authorship. The viral becomes a medium for highlighting the historical contingencies and inadequacies of the “one man, one vote” representational schema, and how that schema has been historically deployed to exclude rather than enfranchise different populations. These questions of representation, made manifest in the viral mode of dissemination, relate to the essay’s focus on those bodies and subjectivities that exist as fictions to larger frameworks of power.

Now that the piece has ended, this site contains documentation of the performance. I invite you read the essay and explore the visualizations that trace the text’s viral path, available through the buttons below.

—Aliza Shvarts

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