Emma Sulkowicz with Kang Kang
“… 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.”
In the statement for her internet-based, participatory project Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (2015), artist Emma Sulkowicz challenges the audience to identify their own position in the matrix of relations, emotions, and projections—surfacing from her much-publicized Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014 –15) and participation in the campus anti-rape movement as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. Informed by the ever-growing field of reception of her work and activism, she creates durational and participatory conditions for performance that reframe questions of subjectivity, agency, and violence: however the viewers relate, the artist must endure.
Responding to shifting institutional contexts, Emma’s recent work seeks to generate more immediate, generative, and collaborative encounters with the public through a variation of strategies. Self-Portrait (Performance with Object) at Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles (February 27 – April 3, 2016) set the stage for interactions between the audience, the artist, and her doppelgänger, Emmatron—a life-size robot programmed to give pre-recorded answers to visitors who approached Emma with questions perceived as objectifying or fetishistic. The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center at Philadelphia Contemporary (January 13 – 30, 2017) created a para-fictional setting of the psychiatric clinic, offering one-on-one sessions between the audience and the artist-as-talk therapist.
In anticipation of her upcoming performance for the Whitney Independent Studies Program Studio Exhibition (May 20 – June 3, 2017), I sat down with Emma at her ISP studio to talk about the evolution of her practice and the state of critical art in light of the alt-right’s embrace of postmodern performativity.
Kang Kang (Rail): In your essay “Truth Inside, Truth Outside” from 2015, which you also presented this year at a talk with the artist Aliza Shvarts, you write very soberly about how public fixation on the “truth” of rape is detrimental to the interrogation of sexual violence and questions of agency, visibility, and consent with relation to the experience and production of truth. It seems to prefigure a lot of your later work. Was it written as part of your thesis project?
Emma Sulkowicz: I wrote it during Mattress Performance as I was setting up for Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol. My thoughts going into Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol are all over that essay. I’m now a little embarrassed looking back at it, even though it’s only been three years. [Laughter.] The writing was messy.
Rail: What’s the trajectory like from that talk to this more recent conversation?
Sulkowicz: In 2015 I was invited to give a keynote speech at Stony Brook’s Philosophy and the Arts conference and their theme was “Outsides.” That essay was pretty pivotal for me, articulating my theoretical standpoint on sexual violence and what art has to do with it. Based on Foucault’s lectures in 1976, I argue that art expresses the kinds of truths that science could never express. Thus, it plays a crucial role in giving voice to those who are historically the victims of, or oppressed by, science. I loved working with Aliza, who’s seven, eight years my senior and I look up to her as an older sister, because she has a way of really pushing me. We talked about consensus and dissensus, rather than simply consent/dissent, which was my concern in the original essay—the relations between fluid body-ownership and the ability to give consent or be part of a legitimate consensus. From Rancière, we conceptualized dissensus as the making visible of gaps in a dominant consensus. Then, via Chantal Mouffe, we argued that truly critical art has to be very different from practices whose primary objective is the creation of a consensus. Critical art unveils all that’s obliterated by the dominant consensus, even if that consensus is itself critical. Critical art highlights the disagreements; if a work is ostensibly a critique of hegemony but shows only one viewpoint, it’s not critical.
Rail: You’ve been framing your work as evolving around the double axes of endurance and relational aesthetics, essentially as a system or mechanism of using and subjecting yourself as a center of attention, and displacing that concentration of attention onto other forms of relations; there’s a question of force—actually, it’s an important distinction to be made that you don’t force people into these relations, but they force themselves into relations with you, and you become the bearer of it all. I’m interested in how this evolved from that original point of articulation.
Sulkowicz: Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) was my first art piece, and my biggest performance role model at the time was Tehching Hsieh’s yearlong pieces. What I love about them is the quiet, poetic intensity—it may be that no one was following him, but he was on the inside of his own personal experience. I only told a few people about Mattress Performance, as I thought I was doing a femme version of Tehching Hsieh. When it suddenly became so public, with news reporters sent to Columbia to hang outside my dorm on the first day, I was like, this is not what I thought I was getting myself into! [Laughter.] That experience of thinking about doing one thing, and it ending up being totally different, and all this attention was put on me—people were saying, “Emma is doing this for attention, Emma is an attention whore”—ended up informing a lot of my work: if you say I want attention, let me show you what it’s like to have all this attention. That’s how Self-Portrait (Performance with Object) came about, where this attention literally turns me into a robot. The witch-hunt is definitely part of it—the idea that if a woman gets attention, she must be an attention whore.
On the other hand, we had Yvonne Rainer come to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. She showed footage of a recent dance she choreographed with five dancers and she was in it wearing all back, walking around them as they danced. And one girl in my class asked, what informs your decision to put you own body in your work? What’s the theoretical justification? And Yvonne just pushed her chair back, stood up, and exclaimed, “I like being looked at!” There’s something to that. Why is it so problematic for women to enjoy being looked at? Whether I do or don’t want to be looked at, why the need for justification?
Rail: If, in the beginning, lots of the relations were largely non-consensual, in the sense that you were made to be part of someone’s story or spectacle, with the Self-Portrait show, and the month-long Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center performance, you also constructed more formalized, professionalized, consensual encounters within institutional structures. As the subject of attention, you seem to still be the more vulnerable one, but also in a relative position of power/authority in your role-playing of the psychiatrist or gallery artist. How do you handle these relationships—therapist-patient, artist-audience, or question-answer?
Sulkowicz: There were people saying that after Mattress Performance, I should never use my image again. But after seeing how my image has been used by other people, there was definitely the impulse in me to say, “If you’re gonna use my image, I will use my image more than you.” It’s definitely masochistic. I’ve been reading Deleuze’s Coldness and Cruelty, where he describes the perfect sadist as someone who finds someone who doesn’t want to be hurt, and hurts them—basically a rapist; if someone said, please hurt me, and the sadist hurt them, the sadist wouldn’t take pleasure in it. On the other hand, in Masoch’s stories, there were male characters who wanted to be hurt, so they’d find powerful women to hurt them. Everything is consensual, and these characters can feel pain without rape occurring. Deleuze’s reading of masochism also works along the lines of: you want to hurt me? I’ll hurt myself before you can. Like, my friend is going bald, and he asked me, should I shave my head? [Laughter.] That’s the perfect masochistic response: nature is making me bald, so I’ll do it myself before nature can get to me.
Rail: There’s pleasure to be derived from “winning” or “outwitting” the other at the expense of the self?
Sulkowicz: Yes. And it also has to do with creating matriarchal systems of power rather than patriarchal. Of course, these theories are all written from a male point of view, but I’ve been really inspired by it and I only began articulating it using this language a few months ago. It’s helped me understand why I do the things I do. The impulse is: since people want to usurp my image, I’m gonna use it first; many reporters treat me as a robot, so I’m gonna turn myself into a robot first; people treat my rape as porn and it’s exciting to so many people, so I’m gonna turn it into a real porno first… as artworks, of course.
Rail: This goes back to the question of agency, when people may assume you have or don’t have it, a moralistic judgment of intentions and the possibility of having agency that’s related to trauma. When you say you’re being a masochist, do you claim agency as such?
Sulkowicz: I do. This is another thing I talked about with Aliza: is there a way to have power from the position of dispossession and disempowerment? I’m interested in masochism as a potential method. I don’t want to egotistically claim greatness for Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, but it did have an impact on lots of people. I did the masochistic thing—it sucked filming that piece, it really sucked and it was painful—but from that position of enduring even more pain, I could make something powerful. I do think there is a way. One person who attended a talk I gave was moved by my work and told me—and it’s generous of her to put it like this: “people keep taking from you, so you give more.” I think that’s the move.
Rail: You also make a point of taking in absolutely everything from people, including the painful comments online. And whatever the opinions or biases may be, they tend to come with very strong feelings, attachments, and psychic investments, whose scale/magnitude doesn’t so often apply to aesthetic experiences. And you emphasize the public, performative dimension of these contacts. I wonder how framing things in an art context changes the encounters, for you as well as the audience?
Sulkowicz: Before every piece, I have this fantasy of “framing”—like there would be a moment when I’m performing, a moment when I’m not, and it’s gonna be clean. It’s a fantasy. For Mattress Performance, I thought I was going to be doing it on campus, and off campus I’d be totally normal, totally me. That didn’t happen. With Self-Portrait, I wanted to be strict about only talking to people when they stood on the platform; and I’d have 30 minutes to wind down after each day so I could be human again. It worked, but in general no matter how much I try to quarantine the performance section of my life from my personal life, mattress girl is always already there, you know? For The Healing Touch, the time limit of 30 minutes was useful, but something I didn’t expect was that all my “patients” are now part of my life. If you listen to anyone that intimately for half an hour, you just fall in love with them. I love all of them, and I’ve definitely extended my “doctor duties” beyond the time and place of the performance, no matter how I try to frame it.
Rail: Calling something “performance art” almost dispossesses it of the power of affecting “real” life and “real” relations.
Sulkowicz: Actually, I believe that performance art has real effects. Literally two days ago, The Huffington Post asked my opinion on Alex Jones and Infowars—the case blew up when his ex-wife didn’t want him to have custody because he’s “unstable” and his lawyer was like, “you can’t take Inforwars seriously because it’s a performance art piece.” Huffpo wanted my opinion as a “real performance artist.” I think the worst thing that could happen is if a select few artists or academics had the power to pick and choose who’s allowed to be a performance artist. Never would I say, even in the most dubious circumstances, that Alex Jones is not a performance artist if he says he is. This said, it’s even more important that, if he claims Infowars to be a performance piece, we think of it critically: does it harm someone? Yes, regardless of whether it’s “real life” or “performance,” it’s still bad. Is it a terrible art piece? Probably. We can judge performative acts with the same criticality we use to judge “real life” political action.
Rail: To the extent that your image has become iconic, it lends itself to be used in a way that doesn’t always account for the complexities and nuances that go into the making of that icon, and might even make for reductive silencing for the sake of political expediency.
Sulkowicz: People will never know how much time I spend playing Pokémon Moon. [Laughter.] Yes, by definition an icon is an image, and images are flat. They don’t really compute in my life. What you’re saying reminds me of Hito Steyerl’s essay A Thing Like You and Me. She talks about David Bowie as an image. Heroes used to be heroes because they could survive anything. But today’s hero is an image that can be clicked, dragged, dropped, sent, copied, etc. She urges us not to think of images as slick, clean, immaterial things. Rather, “Images are violated, ripped apart, subjected to interrogation and probing. They are stolen, cropped, edited, and re-appropriated. They are bought, sold, leased. Manipulated and adulated.” I want to promote this understanding in my own art practice. Even images can be gritty. Even images have material, painful histories.
Rail: In terms of your own performance as activism, being part of real political change, such as the anti-campus rape movement, how have changing political circumstances and motivations informed your work?
Sulkowicz: The biggest change is site-specificity—I’m not in college anymore—and everything I do has to do with where I am at the moment. Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol is site-specific to the internet. The Healing Touch felt like finishing a sentence. From Mattress Performance and Self-Portrait I’ve learnt about people’s desires to divulge in me, to touch me, the things they implicitly ask from me, and I ask how I might turn these things into an art piece. My process is usually very organic: I’d be in the middle of an art piece and something interesting happens, and I’d obsess over that interesting thing and come up with something else. I’m always reacting to things.
Rail: It seems like you and your work are always positioned in some kind of institution, existing or fictional, or both.
Sulkowicz: Yes. Andrea Fraser uses cannibalism to describe the relationship between the institution and the artist. An act of cannibalism is also an act of utmost respect, in that the cannibal literally takes in the other as nutrients. She basically argues that when one person eats another, they’re saying, “I think you’re worthy of being inside me.” The institution, in very obvious ways, eats the artist, but to what extent does the artist consume and take on aspects of the institution into our own bodies? This is Andrea’s language.
In my language of masochism, there’s a libidinal desire that I want to foreground in my new performance for the ISP show. I’m working with a professional Dom named Master Avery who will tie me up like one of those female figureheads at the front of a ship—there’s a whole tradition of having female figures mounted on the bows. He will be performing the role of the Whitney Museum. There’s an obvious metaphor of the new Whitney’s architecture like a ship in dock. I’ll be performing as an art student. When I have The Whitney beat me up and tie me up, we’re gonna do it like a kink porn shoot, and it’s going to be sexy. In this artwork, I’m getting at the part in ourselves that makes us want to be part of this clearly sadistic institution.
I do find that working inside an institution, as painful as it can be, is fruitful. Mattress Performance happened at Columbia because the school had a structure in which it could exist. After my first rehearsal for the Whitney final show I had all these bruises from the ropes. The institution, while violent, is strong and supportive enough to suspend me and hold me there. It helps as much as it hurts.
Rail: The most obvious sinking ship metaphor nowadays is the state—everywhere, but the U.S in particular. My personal feelings are that more recently—after the elections, let’s say—there seems to be greater openness or willingness to engage with attention, the intensifying affective economies of attention, as new and urgent political work. And you’ve engaged with that work from the beginning. Do you find these new political contexts and sensibilities productive?
Sulkowicz: Totally. To respond to the first part of your question, my inspiration for my new piece came from Bertolt Brecht’s 1935 essay “Writing the Truth; Five Difficulties”. In it, he directly compares the nation to a sinking ship. He writes, “They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life.” In response, my new work considers the limitations of political art in the U.S. by posing the question: What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?
The biggest terms that I’ve been desperate for, that finally emerged, are “alternative facts” and “fake news.” When a rape survivor says they were raped, their truth is not credible; their truth is debated. Rape survivors are forced to live a life of alternative facts. I’m actually excited that this is reaching a level of national conversation—of course, its connection to discourse on rape hasn’t reached that level, but it’s a beginning.
I bring this up because, as you point out, it seems that lately, the value of truth has been supplanted with the power of volume. I don’t think there was ever a truth era. We’ve always lived in a post-truth era and we’re finally reaching the stage where people are talking more openly about that. When a person is raped, they didn’t become disempowered; they were already in a position of disempowerment and the rape was another example of a long history of disempowerment and violence. I’ve also heard convincing arguments that I’m trying to integrate into my new work, namely, that my postmodernist stance on truth, my rejection of truth and my claiming that we need to talk about things in a post-truth way—are being coopted by the alt-right, like Infowars. The question becomes, does the left need to go back and, essentially, reclaim essentialism? The whole Pussy Grabs Back campaign was a huge reclamation of essentialism; it glossed over a ton of things but it also got many people out on the street. Is there a way to harness the power of these essentialist notions to promote anti-essentialist ideas?
Kang Kang is a writer and dramaturg. Her writings appear in The Brooklyn Rail, Artforum China, LEAP, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, among others.