Emma Sulkowicz’s New Piece and What It Means… For Us

Mackie
06/06/2015

It’s a lesson I find myself learning again and again:

If you want to find the scum of the earth, look no further than a comments section.

If you really want to find the scum of the earth, look no further than the comments section on a post about rape.

It’s not like this is news. After all, anyone who has ever made a YouTube video knows the power a few trolls can have when they’re reviewing your work behind a keyboard. But there’s something special about posts on rape that bring out the actual worst in humanity.

For instance, remember Emma Sulkowicz, aka Mattress Girl? Or perhaps you know her by her names in the comment threads: “unemployable nutcase,” “retarded slut,” or my personal fave, “a pretentious and mentally ill troll.”

Emma made headlines when, after she was raped at Columbia University, she spent her senior year carrying a mattress across campus as a form of performance protest. Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) also acted as her senior project, and it was to continue until her rapist was expelled or left school. Her attacker was not expelled, and she finished her piece by carrying her mattress across the stage at Columbia’s commencement in May 2015.

(FYI: I’ll be using Emma’s first name to identify her in this post, because, probably like many of you, I’m not 100% sure on how to pronounce her last name, and I want her to be a real person in your mind’s eye, not a jumble of letters you don’t really understand.)

In a recent interview with ArtNet, Emma said she did not intend for the project to become a movement, saying, “I had no idea it would get noticed by anyone when I first made it.”

But as striking images of her carrying her mattress across campus appeared on social media, word began to spread. Emma was profiled by high-ranking news organizations and websites. 130 schools participated in a student-created Carry That Weight Day of Action, in which students carried their own mattresses in a show of solidarity and protest. Emma became the latest poster child for campus rape, raising awareness and calling for action through art, while her ‘alleged’ rapist still attended school.

Of course, this project came with its own set of challenges. Emma herself did not call out her attacker specifically, but as her story became more public, her accused rapist was revealed to be fellow student Paul Nungesser. While Nungesser was pronounced not at fault by Columbia, he was ostracized and harassed and is now suing Columbia for gender discrimination, claiming “the university supported a campaign to bully and harass him and that the administration would never have let a male student target a female student in the same way he had been targeted.”

(While this sounds like a fair argument, let’s not forget the other students who have filed complaints against him, or the relative absurdity of an accused rapist suing an institution for gender discrimination, regardless of its validity.)

Emma endured skepticism, threats, and attacks from all corners of campus, the Internet and the media. I could give a link supporting that, but the proof is in the Google: the first suggestion to come up when I type in “Emma Sulkowicz” is “Emma Sulkowicz liar”.

So just when it seemed the Internet was rid of the pesky, girl-who-cried-rape art student, that same “charlatan” is BACK!

And with a SEX TAPE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Instead of continuing with the facts, let’s go ahead with what I found when I discovered this story as a trending topic:

 

‘Mattress Girl’ Breaks into Pornography, Accuses Viewers of ‘Participating’ in Rape

^Gotta love clickbait.

 

‘MATTRESS GIRL’ EMMA SULKOWICZ JUST RELEASED A SEX TAPE: HERE’S MY REVIEW

^Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.

 

Columbia’s Mattress Girl Has Made An ‘Artistic’ Sex Tape 

^Nice use of air quotes.

 

So, the logical explanation is: the girl known for a long term performance art project dealing specifically with rape who just graduated from Columbia… is now a porn star?

By the time I actually found a pseudo-credible news source covering this story, Emma’s site, which was the only place to watch the film, wouldn’t load. When it did, the video itself was unavailable, which is apparently because of a ‘cyber attack’.

I’m not going to rehash this whole story, especially because there’s limited information out there as it is. Before you read further, I urge you to get some basic info, and then go look at the film’s website, the best source of information, and read her preface to the film. Due to the work of some actual pieces of human feces, the film is apparently streaming on PornHub (and probably a million other places by now) if you want to, as Emma says in the text on her site, “participate in [her] rape” by watching the film.

Otherwise, ponder her questions. Read and absorb her statements. You can also read this interview with her about her piece, which, despite what the true art aficionados say in the comments, is art.

If you can stand it, read the comments.

Remember how this piece is specifically made to engage its audience — not necessarily by watching the film, but by encouraging us to look at ourselves. Are we, as she asks, looking for proof? Are we being duped by social media? What does sexual assault or the objectification of women mean to us? What does this film or Emma’s public persona mean to us?

And, are we really participating in her rape?

As an artist (who hasn’t watched the film), I think the creation of this work and its engagement of its audience is kind of extraordinary, albeit a little disturbing. As a woman, it’s difficult for me to read about, but I do find it moving and empowering. As a person with a small shred of empathy, I find the response to this work despicably (and maybe intentionally?) predictable.

I had initially wanted to post a screenshot of every single comment I found infuriating and explain how each of these sometimes faceless or nameless cyberspace commenters had proven Emma’s exact point. Or, if there is no point per se, perhaps given her a desired response to a specific thought.

After a few tries, though, I realized that probably wasn’t the best way to go. However, I am going to share this comment made by someone called UnTrust, who jokingly (read: horrifyingly) suggested Emma do another film, this time focusing on solo masturbation because this commenter “really [wants] to see that pussy…………. in an artistic way of course ;)”.

I will also share this one, in which a guy casually explained, “Some people just like hard sex!” And I’ll mention the one in which someone expresses their sympathies about her rape, but claims that anyone who posts a video like this must be mentally ill and she should seek help.

I thought about sharing many more. I thought about the effect they would have, if any. I thought about the people who claim her film is just porn, not art. And I thought about my role, my participation in this piece. Should I discuss its artistic merits? Its effect on rape survivors and the fight to end campus rape? Should I discuss what it means for women? Or should I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s about?

As Emma says in her preface, the film is not about her rape–  “It’s about your decisions, starting now.” But that can’t be it. What about protest and art and the influence of the zeitgeist?

And what about rape?

After encountering her website, I have not chosen to watch the film because I do not feel I have met her qualifications as stated in the preface. Therefore, I have not decided to take one stance, but leave it up to you, to all of us. However, I didn’t really have a chance to watch it, as the film was no longer up on her website. By choosing not to scour the Internet for the film, am I making the right decision? By not taking action, am I doing the right thing?

And, if it was available, would I have watched it regardless?

 

“Watch kindly.” – Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (This Is A Not Rape.)

 


Did you watch the film? What do you think? Share with us below or on FB, Twitter, & more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *