Role Reversal

Why Has Columbia Rape Accuser Emma Sulkowicz Made a Sex Video?

She became famous for carrying a mattress around campus, after claiming she had been sexually assaulted. Now Emma Sulkowicz has set her experience to video.

06.05.15 10:50 PM ET

Having graduated from Columbia University and completed her “Mattress Project,” a performative protest against the school’s decision not to expel her alleged rapist, Emma Sulkowicz has officially embarked on her post-graduate career as an artist with a provocative new piece.

Sulkowicz stars in an eight-minute video which shows her engaging in sexual activity that “is consensual but may resemble rape,” she writes in her artist’s statement.

Titled “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol” (“This Is Not a Rape”), an on-the-nose reference to surrealist artist René Magritte’s iconic painting of a pipe (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), the film shows Sulkowicz being slapped and choked by a blurry-faced man while the artist “whimpers and protests in pain,” according to Jezebel.

The project, directed by Ted Lawson, was partially inspired by her “new relationship to the media,” Sulkowicz told ArtNet. “I am interested in what the public does with it, which begins with the way they deal with it from the moment it’s disseminated.”

I have not seen the film in full, as it hasn’t been loading properly since early this morning, not long after it went live. (Sulkowicz has attributed the video’s malfunctioning to a cyber attack intended to shut down her website by flooding it with traffic. That said, the site itself works fine).

But Sulkowicz, who insists in her artist’s statement that her new project is not a reenactment of her alleged rape (“it’s about you, not him”), gives her viewers’ clear instructions: “Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable…Please, don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.”

Sulkowicz is working in the realm of conceptual and performative art, following in the footsteps of Marina Abramović, who has spoken out in support of the fledgling artist.

But her desire to dictate the way people consume her work—to determine not just her narrative, but ours—undermines her credibility as an artist.

To be clear, neither the video nor Sulkowicz’s mattress performance undermine her alleged experience of being sexually assaulted and the trauma that she suffered.

But when you turn a personal experience into a public spectacle and declare it art, you invite criticism. Part of performing is being judged and critiqued on the merits and quality of that performance.

Performance art pieces like Sulkowicz’s video often intend to make a statement, but they transcend art when the artist demands that there’s a right and wrong way to interpret her piece.

Sulkowicz wags her finger at those who watch the video “without my consent”—in other words: pruriently, “objectifying me and participating in my rape.”

But the video is by nature prurient. It’s sex on camera, even if it blurs the lines between consensual sex and rape.

Viewers are meant to feel uncomfortable and guilty if we take anything away from the video other than unmitigated support for the artist and what she represents.

“You might be wondering why I’ve made myself this vulnerable,” she writes. “Look—I want to change the world, and that begins with you, seeing yourself.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

It’s great that she wants to change the world and alter our vision of it to suit hers.

But art is subjective. Sulkowicz is naive to hope that a majority of people will view her video the way she does. And she is disingenuous to insist her project has no political agenda despite clearly outlining one for viewers, couching it in arty language.

Sulcowicz’s mattress project made her a national celebrity. But she’s not a student anymore. And if she thought the criticism and “mattress girl” labeling on campus was harsh, she may be better suited to activism than the art world.