Emma Sulkowicz is an artist and activist who carried her mattress everywhere she went to protest her alleged rapist’s continued presence on the Columbia campus until her graduation last month. Rape has now become a recurring theme in her work, as her newest project is a disturbing video featuring herself in a sexual encounter gone wrong. It’s called “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” French for “This is not a rape,” a reference to Rene Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images.” The video is provocative and challenging, but it and the accompanying text are confusing, and Sulkowicz’s intentions for the project remain somewhat inscrutable. The text reads in part:
Trigger Warning: The following text contains allusions to rape. Everything that takes place in the following video is consensual but may resemble rape. It is not a reenactment but may seem like one. If at any point you are triggered or upset, please proceed with caution and/or exit this website. However, I do not mean to be prescriptive, for many people find pleasure in feeling upset.
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.
Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable.
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.
The 8-minute video shows security camera-style footage of an unsimulated sexual encounter between Sulkowicz and an anonymous man. It begins consensually and escalates in roughness (he slaps her face, and she says “hit me again”) until it crosses a line where Sulkowicz (the character) no longer consents. He begins to choke her, and then removes the condom and anally penetrates her. She cries in pain and tells him to stop for about a minute. The man then finishes and leaves. Sulkowicz lays there for a minute, then gets up, leaves the room, comes back, puts sheets on the previously unmade bed, and goes to sleep. It’s graphic and disturbing.
Conservative websites are calling the video “pornographic.” In an interview with Artnet, Sulkowicz mostly declined to explain herself, but did agree with her interviewer’s observation that it seems to be about her portrayal in the media and a comment on virality.
The project reminds me of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, where the filmmaker provokes and indicts the audience for watching such violence while delivering the experience of watching such violence. But where Haneke is clear in his intentions, Sulkowicz is intentionally muddy. At this point, it’s hard to tell what’s nuance and what’s immaturity.
The project is here, although the video seems to be down right now.