Late last week, Emma Sulkowicz, the recent Columbia graduate who spent her last year of college with her mattress strapped to her back, released a new rape-related performance piece to the public, titled “Ceci N’est Past Un Viol (This Is Not A Rape)”. Hosted on its own webpage, and existing entirely on the internet, the piece is a complex, and well-constructed, participatory art piece that, while at first glance may seem overtly literal and perhaps juvenile, is actually quite sophisticated and brilliant. While the piece consists of three parts, you’ve probably only heard of one: a “sex tape” that loosely simulates Emma’s alleged rape in August of 2012. What you probably haven’t paid attention to are the other, equally vital, parts of the piece: an introductory text that explains the video/makes requests about the audience’s participation and an open comment section.
At this point in time, the comments section contains nearly 2,700 comments. Every time I scroll through them, my blood boils just a little hotter, and I feel ill. Over and over, Sulkowicz is called a liar, a fake, a nut-job, a whore. People laugh at her. They tell her that what she has made isn’t art. They tell her that her rape wasn’t real. They tell her to go back to the kitchen, to go home. They tell her to shut up.
And yet, while a large portion of the internet has dismissed Sulkowicz’s latest work — what they don’t seem to understand is that the video isn’t the art piece. They are.
In the introduction, Sulkowicz writes, “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is not about one night in August, 2012. It’s about your decisions, starting now. It’s only a reenactment if you disregard my words. It’s about you, not him.” What she means by this is important — it is about your decisions, starting now. Essentially, what she is asking us is: how are you going to react to this video? How are you going to react to me? This is about you, not him. She continues with a simple request, “please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.” In a brief interview with Artnet (the only one she has given since the site’s release), Sulkowicz says, “I am (most) interested in what the public does with it, which begins with the way they deal with it from the moment it’s disseminated.”
The second half of her introductory text includes a list of “questions to help you reflect”. Some of them are as follows:
“Are you searching for proof? Proof of what? What are you looking for? Do you desire pleasure? Do you desire revulsion? Is this to counteract your unconscious enjoyment? What do you want from this experience? How well do you think you know me? Have we ever met? Do you think I’m the perfect victim of the world’s worst victim? Do you hate me? If so, how does it feel to hate me?”
Her titling of the piece, “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” is a direct reference to surrealist painter René Magritte’s famous painting, The Treachery of Images. The painting, if you are unfamiliar, features a meticulously rendered pipe with the French words “Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe (This Is Not A Pipe)” written in cursive below. The conflict between the text (this is not a pipe) and the image (this is a pipe) highlight the painful, and potentially violent, ambiguity that exists between reality, fantasy, and representation. Magritte’s painting, as Sulkowicz’s video, seeks to play with the audience’s perceptions of reality, with what they choose to see as true, and why. The similarities extend beyond the title — the webpage and video are depicted in a mundane and literal manner, just as Magritte painted his pipe, and her text is written authoritatively, its message existing in direct tension with the images represented.
Sulkowicz also very specifically chose for the whole performance to live on its own webpage, for it be leaked to the public through a Facebook post. This is because it is a piece about the internet and the way users of the internet participate in rape culture. The space she carved out for herself forces us to participate — whether we decide to watch the video, to comment, or to ignore it completely, we still must make decisions surrounding our engagement with her work at every level. It does so in order to raise a magnifying glass to that participation. As Rebecca Brink writes, in her astute analysis of the performance for The Frisky, “Sulkowicz (provides) the public with a sensational view object — the video — and invit(es) us to react to it…how we react to it will reveal who we are and what we value to the public and, hopefully, to ourselves.” Within that reaction, there is a lot to analyze.
The video, which I decided to watch for the purposes of this article, can easily be read as run-of-the-mill amateur violent porn (and many in the comment section do, while making glib jokes about masturbating to it), but it differs in one enormous way: it doesn’t end when the sex ends. Instead, we watch Emma lie there, curled in a ball: the aftermath. Her vulnerability is immense, it is heartbreaking. And yet, the crowd in the comment section wag their fingers, howl with laughter, ridicule gleefully. How dare she? they ask, over and over again.
How dare she lie there and ask us to empathize with the one being f—ked? How dare she show us the aftermath, the consequences, the pain? She wanted it, didn’t she? She said yes at the beginning, why is she allowed to change her mind? (It is interesting, and salient, to note that I didn’t come across a single comment that addressed the male’s role in the sexual encounter.) What I find fascinating, and devastating, about this exchange is… how dare she what? Speak up about her pain? Make claims to public space? Take off her clothes? Accuse someone of hurting her? Warn others about intimate violence? Just what is it about Emma Sulkowicz that makes everyone so upset? Why, as a culture at large, do we get so mad at rape victims for speaking up about their rape? Why are we so quick to believe the men that they accuse instead of them?
These are the facts: every 107 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted. 47% of rapists are friends of the victim and 68% of rape is not reported to the police. In total, there are about 300,000 rapes (of which we know about) every single year. Yet, 98% of rapists never spend a day in jail.
And in the midst of all this, we call Emma a whore and a liar — we say she is neither a “real” artist nor a “real” rape victim. By using this language, and this logic, we are asserting that she isn’t real either. It starts to make sense then: that in a culture where women aren’t valued as real, they are assaulted, without consequence, every 107 seconds.
The story of Sulkowicz’s rape isn’t an easy one — it’s ripe with conflict and contradiction. It pushes hard on our traditional views of rape as a purely violent, evil encounter that occurs in the dark. They knew each other, they had had consensual sex prior, she continued to communicate with him afterwards…. and yet, and yet… he hit her, he slapped her, she said no, and he did not listen. We watch the tape, we watch it happen, and still, the majority of the comments still find her to be the guilty party.
I walk away from this piece filled with dismay, heartbroken by the lack of empathy the world seems to have for the pain women experience. In its stead, we delight in hatred, anger, and cruelty. We laugh. We judge.
“This is not about my rape,” she writes, “this is about you.”
Think about it.
Hannah Rubin is an artist and writer living in Oakland, California.