Emma Sulkowicz’s “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol”: An Explainer
Emma Sulkowicz has created a new performance artwork titled “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” (“this is not a rape”), which I’m just going to go ahead and break down here because it’s complicated and brilliant. The artwork consists of three parts: A graphic video simulating a rape in a college dorm room, featuring Sulkowicz and an anonymous actor engaging in a real sex act; an entrance web page explaining the video and asking questions of the reader/viewer about their intentions in viewing both the entrance page and the video; and a comment section through Disqus on the entrance page.
This is a participatory artwork, a digital conceptual artwork, and a performance artwork. The title “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” is a reference to René Magritte’s “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe,” the most famous of his artworks that challenged the viewer to understand the difference between an object, the word that signifies that object, and a visual representation of that object (so, an actual pipe, the word “pipe,” and a painting of a pipe are not all the same thing even though you could point to all three, say “pipe,” and be understood).
Similarly, Sulkowicz is challenging the viewer/reader to understand not the difference between an actual rape that happened to her and a simulated rape in the video, but to understand the difference between their own definition of rape, how they’ve applied it to her, and what rape actually is. She says on the front page:
“You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable. Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself. 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.
Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.”
It’s not about rape, or Sulkowicz’s rape, although it’s made clear in the comments portion that many viewers are trying to force an interpretation that Sulkowicz is using her (they believe actually nonexistent) trauma to make a name for herself (note the word “force” there, and you’ll see why Sulkowicz says that they are participating in her rape). 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.
Some commenters are saying that this isn’t art. Yes, it is. It’s art in the same way that Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” was art: She made a giant sphinx of a naked Black woman out of sugar, which drew acclaim and a huge number of viewers, and she encouraged them to use Instagram to post about it. What wound up happening is that people posed for lewd, joking pictures with the sphinx and posted them to Instagram with the hashtag Walker created, proving the point for Walker that Black women’s bodies are exploited, treated as sexual objects, and have been, in America, since the era of slavery and beyond (say, on sugar plantations). Sulkowicz is likewise providing the public with a sensational viewing object – the video – and inviting us to react to it, and how we react to it will reveal who we are and what we value to the public and, hopefully, to ourselves. She facilitates this by asking a series of questions on the front page, such as:
- Are you searching for proof? Proof of what?
- Are you searching for ways to either hurt or help me?
- What are you looking for? […]
- How well do you think you know me? Have we ever met?
- Do you think I’m the perfect victim or the world’s worst victim?
- 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?
- Do you hate me? If so, how does it feel to hate me?
I didn’t watch the video. I don’t have to, to have participated in, seen, and experienced the artwork. I chose not to because it sounds, from the description I’ve read (“The unidentified man open-palm slaps Sulkowicz, chokes her, removes the condom, then continues to have very rough sex with Sulkowicz, who whimpers and protests from pain”), like an experience that’s too close to my own for my psychological comfort. Had I watched, I wouldn’t have watched it as pornography, and I wouldn’t have watched it to cast judgment; I would have observed the act and probably felt heartbroken for her. That’s the only way to watch the video with her consent. Any other form of viewing – viewing for pleasure or disgust – is non-consensual.
That’s the great thing about consent – whoever has the most conservative, limited definition of what they’re willing to do sets the terms of consent. If those terms are violated, the act is non-consensual. And, after all, all artworks are a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. The artist can set limits on what the viewer is allowed to do without violating the artist or the artwork. This has some really interesting implications, too, about the idea we have in the modern day that the artist’s intentions aren’t as important as the viewer’s interpretation; that once an artwork is put into the public sphere, the only thing that matters is how the viewer interprets it. Sulkowicz is posing a powerful challenge to the idea that art is for the viewer alone, and that is a serious accomplishment on her part, because it’s a discussion that’s been going on the art world for decades.
Now, about the comments section: Sulkowicz didn’t have to provide a comments section. At first glance, I thought it was odd that she did. But then reading them, I realized what she was doing, because the vast majority of the comments are disparaging toward Sulkowicz herself as well as towards her art. Sulkowicz is giving the commenters who view the video as pornography or who view the video in order to bolster their presumptive hatred of Sulkowicz the rope with which to hang themselves. She is letting them reveal themselves to be hateful of rape victims, to be willing to impose their own subjective definition of rape on a person they don’t know (remember the question: “How well do you know me? Have we ever met?”) in order to disparage her. This is not indicative of their attitude toward only Sulkowicz: It’s indicative of their attitude toward rape victims in general. And although many of them talk in their comments about “real” rape victims, and how Sulkowicz is making things harder for them, it becomes quickly apparent that those commenters are the people who are making things harder for rape victims by prescribing to them – and to us – what they are or are not willing to consider rape, how “real” we are or not, and how worthy we are of their trust or their disparagement even though they don’t know us.
“Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” is, I hope you can see, an absolutely brilliant and tremendously nuanced critique of so many things: How viewers of artworks treat art; whether subjective definitions of rape are useful or objectively true; the public narrative that if a rape is found by an investigative body not to have happened, it automatically means that no consent was violated, regardless of the victim’s opinion on the subject, and whether or not those members of the public or of the investigative body were there; how the public tends to treat rape victims; the sensationalized, titillating way the public is willing to interpret rape; the relationships and differences between art, pornography, and rape; and on, and on, and on. She has done so much with so little, although I have no doubt that this was a difficult project to conceive and for Sulkowicz, especially, to produce.
Sulkowicz demonstrated a lot of tenacity and candor with the “Carry That Weight” performance, but “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” demonstrates just how good of an artist she is. I look forward to her career, I have no doubt that it will be tremendous.
[Image via Jezebel]