The power of Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight mattress performance art/protest project is undeniable, even to critics who derided the artist as Mattress Girl — her work spawned dozens of news items, profiles, and imitation protests, both clever and ill-informed, across American campuses. Last week, just after graduating and carrying her mattress across the Columbia stage on the way to receive a diploma, Sulkowicz released her next art project: a website, video, and comment section called Ceci N’est Pas un Viol (or This Is Not a Rape). It’s a play on that famous Magritte painting (and series of paintings), a piece of art that deliberately calls attention to its own artificiality. An early meme, if you will:
Ceci N’est Pas un Viol centers arounds a video directed by Ted Lawson, whose content happens to be violent, explicit, and hard to stomach. The video, essentially, features a very graphic depiction of apparently unsimulated sex that looks a lot like like rape, but which Sulkowicz avers is consensual, planned, and filmed — unless you’re watching it for the wrong reasons, in which case you’re essentially participating in her violation. She writes on the site, “If you watch this video without my consent, then I hope you reflect on your reasons for objectifying me and participating in my rape, for, in that case, you were the one who couldn’t resist the urge to make Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol about what you wanted to make it about: rape.”
To further complicate the situation, Sulkowicz let the news of her project trickle out, first via her standalone site, then via ArtNet News. Inevitably, then, it was picked up by every major news blog, and got swarmed with traffic — and an attack that temporarily shut down the video. Yet that was part of the intention: “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012,” Sulkowicz writes. “It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words. It’s about you, not him.” The news cycle responding to her piece ended up being a part of the performance. At the Frisky, Rebecca Vipond Brink breaks down this aspect of the piece:
Sulkowicz states here that the artwork is about the viewer, and we have to take her word for that, because it’s her artwork. And indeed: It’s about how the reader/viewer chooses to engage with the front page and the video. She’s leveraging virality and online comment sections to obtain a wide audience and put readers/viewers in a position where they have to make a decision about how to treat the artwork, which is why this is a participatory artwork. You encounter it, and you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do. Even if you’re just reading a news story about “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” you choose to click through to the front page or not; once you’re there, you choose to comment or not, you choose to watch the video or not. You, reader, are right now participating in her artwork.
When the video was taken down by a DDos attack on Friday, I found myself tracing a long journey through various comment sections discussing its content. In feminist-friendly spaces like Jezebel, I found incredibly thoughtful and critical responses, not all expressing understanding or approval of the piece but at least attempting to decipher what it was trying to accomplish. Many brought up the piece’s exploration of the ethics of consent, as well as the time-stamp of the video, which refers back to the night Sulkowicz says she was raped in a dorm: “She’s giving everyone what they claimed to have wanted — a look at her rape,” wrote one commenter. “And then she’s holding up a mirror to the hypocrisy of our perceptions about rape and women like her. ” “Most [victims] never come forward at all, specifically because their assault becomes a thing to be gawked at, sensationalized, and publicly critiqued,” said another.
Conversely, on the project’s website itself, there was virtually nothing but garbage. Explicit anti-Semitism, rape apology, crude objectification, harmful memes, poorly spelled insults dripping with misogyny and hatred — and the thread connecting it all: the belief that Sulkowicz is a self-promoter, the wrong kind of victim, not a “real” rape victim. Some rare safe-for-work examples: “Great porno Emma”; “Hitler was right about jews”; “Someone who was raped would be very unlikely to do this”; “i can ruin innocent guys lives too by lying about being brutally raped.” All signs point to the likelihood that the artist was anticipating this virtual blowback, and the open comments section was part of her piece — a moderator has been quietly responding to some comments, in fact.
As Sulkowicz put it in her questions before the film:
- Do you refuse to see me as either a human being or a victim? If so, why? Is it to deny me agency and thus further victimize me? If so, what do you think of the fact that you owe your ability to do so to me, since I’m the one who took a risk and made myself vulnerable in the first place?
Anyone who writes or speaks publicly about campus rape receives backlash, but something about Sulkowicz’s project has struck a particular chord of hatred. I’ve found that there are simply some topics that are powerful troll magnets — one was Obamacare’s birth control provision, and Sulkowicz is another. Sulkowicz “truthers,” ranging from trollish to violent-seeming, jump out of the woodwork anytime she’s mentioned online. So why does she bother her haters so much, when there are very similar date-rape cases on every campus in the country, many of them a matter of public record?
That she has chosen to turn her violation into art and empowerment is what drives people so nuts. She reimagines her experience, transforming it from one of passive victimhood to active, even aggressive, challenge — putting her pain out in public and demanding our witness. This certainly makes misogynists uncomfortable. It even makes some feminists uncomfortable. Yet that discomfort makes her art particularly effective; it very much lives on in our reactions.
Even if you can’t watch the film because of its content, and even if you don’t love Sulkowicz’s brand of provocative performance art, I think it’s worth reading just five or ten of the bile-filled comments on her site. As she did with her mattress, the artist has done something to draw a type of endemic misogyny to the highly visible surface of the discussion, exposing it for all to see. And while what happened to provoke her initial mattress protest took place behind closed doors — both of her dorm and of her hearing — the attacks she received subsequently are now festering in the light of day, thanks to this new project.