Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol
|Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol|
Opening scene of the eight-minute video
|Year||Released 3 June 2015|
|Type||Performance art, participatory art|
|Subject||Sexual consent, campus sexual assault, social media|
|Location||Columbia University, New York City|
|Preceded by||Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014–2015)|
Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol ("This is not a rape") is a work of performance art by American artist Emma Sulkowicz. Released on 3 June 2015, the work consists of a website hosting an eight-minute video, introductory text and an open comments section. The video shows Sulkowicz having sex with an anonymous actor in a dorm room at Columbia University in New York City. It was directed by artist Ted Lawson in early 2015, while Sulkowicz was in their final year of a visual-arts degree at Columbia.
The film illustrates the shift between consensual and non-consensual sex. Named after "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" from René Magritte's The Treachery of Images, the scene shows Sulkowicz and the actor engaging in what begins as a consensual sexual encounter and ends with what appears to be non-consensual anal sex. (The text notes that the sex was consensual and only appears to be rape.)
The online response in the comments to the video is a central part of the work, described as an example of participatory art. Sulkowicz wanted to know "what the public does with [the video], which begins with the way they deal with it from the moment it's disseminated." Shortly after it appeared, the video was taken offline by a denial-of-service attack. By 9 June 2015, there were 2,700 comments on the site, most of them negative or ridiculing. Sulkowicz said they strongly believed in the video's importance, but that making it had been a "traumatizing" experience.
Emma Sulkowicz, a non-binary artist who uses they/them pronouns, obtained a degree in visual arts from Columbia University in 2015. Their senior thesis and first notable artwork was Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014–2015), which consisted of Sulkowicz carrying a mattress wherever they went on campus during their final year, in protest against campus sexual assault and the university's handling of a complaint they filed against a student they said anally raped them. The university cleared the student of responsibility; the district attorney's office declined to pursue criminal charges, citing lack of reasonable suspicion.
Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol consists of a website that hosts a video, an introductory text and an open comments section. Its existence was made public by a Facebook post from the video's director, Ted Lawson. Sulkowicz says they had the idea for the piece in December 2014, and that performance artist Marina Abramović put them in touch with Lawson to direct it. Lawson told ArtNet that he thought the piece was "super risky" and courageous. Sulkowicz stressed that it was a separate piece from Mattress Performance.
Sulkowicz wrote the script and introductory text, chose the position of the cameras, the lighting and the appearance of it having been filmed by security cameras. The scene was filmed in one continuous take three times during the Columbia spring break in March 2015. According to Lawson, Sulkowicz had "insisted on it being completely real. ... That's what makes it a performance art piece." Sulkowicz told the Guardian that making the video had been traumatizing, and had left them in a "very scared, emotional state for days." They said elsewhere that vulnerability is part of what makes performance art good.
The introductory text said that the video was not an enactment of Sulkowicz's rape allegation. Rather, "Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol ... [is] about your decisions, starting now." Sulkowicz gives only provisional consent to view the video:
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.
They then ask a series of questions: "Are you searching for ways to either hurt or help me? ... Do you think I'm the perfect victim or the world's worst victim? ... Do you hate me? If so, how does it feel to hate me?"
The scene is shown on a split screen from four angles, with a timestamp in each corner, beginning 02:10 and ending 02:18. Lawson said the security-camera perspective "removes the wall between the viewer and the action." The video begins with Sulkowicz and the actor, whose face is blurred, entering the room, undressing each other, then kissing and engaging in oral and vaginal sex, the latter with a condom. Three minutes into the video, the actor hits Sulkowicz several times, then removes the condom, pushes his hands and their legs against their neck or throat, and penetrates them anally. They scream, tells him to stop, and put their hand over their face. After a short time, the actor stops abruptly and leaves the room with his clothes in his hands. Sulkowicz is left curled on the bed in the fetal position, with their back to the camera. After wrapping themselves in a towel, they briefly leave the room, return and make their bed, then appears to fall asleep.
Lawson told the Columbia Spectator that Sulkowicz and the actor had captured the shift from the consensual to non-consensual: "I think the video expresses the possibility that you don't forfeit that [consensuality] ever."
Lawson said Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol explores the relationship between art and social media, "this giant, polluted ocean." A key part of the work was the online reaction, particularly in the website's comments section. The 2,700 comments within the first five days were mostly critical or ridiculing. They included sexual, sexist and racist insults and threats. There were remarks about Sulkowicz's physical appearance, ethnicity, mental health, and that the scene did not depict rape. Someone posted the video on a porn site. Comments on other sites were both positive and negative. The video was the victim of a denial-of-service attack by hackers on 4 June, according to DigitalOcean, which hosts the site, and on 5 June there were technical problems caused by the numbers attempting to access it.
Newsweek called the video a "harrowing document," while Priscilla Frank in The Huffington Post described it as "simple yet stinging, providing imagery that lingers like a nightmare, never quite comprehensible but impossible to forget." In the German edition of The Huffington Post, Benjamin Prüfer was less positive, calling it an "art video that can only be described as pornography."
Hannah Rubin, writing in The Forward, called it "sophisticated and brilliant," and despaired of the lack of empathy on display in the website's comments section. According to Julie Zeilinger, the video was "unsettling" for Sulkowicz's supporters, and several questioned their approach. On Slate's DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Hanna Rosin argued that the split-screen forces the viewer to embrace the subjective, in terms of choosing whether and how to watch, and how to interpret, which is the opposite of activism because it is too nuanced. The broadcast noted that Sandra Leong, Sulkowicz's mother, had written on Facebook in support of the work.
Suzannah Weiss wrote in Bustle that Sulkowicz's provisional consent to watch the video is a metaphor for sexual consent. The video is there to watch, but the viewer has a decision to make. No one has consent to watch with hostility or if they are unsure of the artist's desires. No one has consent to post it to a porn site. If the artist's terms are disregarded, the viewing is non-consensual. Rebecca Brink argued in The Frisky that, as well as illustrating the nature of sexual consent, Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol challenges the position that art, once made public, is removed from the artist's control and is for the viewer alone to interpret.
- Hernan, Business (5 June 2015). "Emma Sulkowicz Creates Sex Video As Performance Art, 'Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol'". International Business Times. Retrieved 14 June 2015.
Lauren Gambino, "Columbia graduate who carried mattress releases video depicting 'rape'", The Guardian, 5 June 2015.
Megan Friedman, "Emma Sulkowicz on Her New Project: 'Please, Don't Participate in My Rape'", Elle, 5 June 2015.
- Hannah Rubin, "This Is Not About Emma Sulkowicz's Rape — It Is About You", The Forward, 9 June 2015.
- Cait Munro, "Emma Sulkowicz Breaks New Ground With Troubling Video Performance", Artnet, 4 June 2015.
- Priscilla Frank, "'Mattress Performance' Artist Emma Sulkowicz's Newest Work Is A Video Of Violent Sex", The Huffington Post, 5 June 2015.
- Teo Armus, "Sulkowicz films herself in a violent sex scene for newest art project", Columbia Spectator, 5 June 2015.
- Charlotte Alter, "Student Who Carried Mattress in Rape Protest Unveils New Project", Time, 5 June 2015.
- Erica Schwiegershausen, "Emma Sulkowicz Made a Film Addressing Rape", New York Magazine, 5 June 2015.
- Cait Munro, "Emma Sulkowicz Speaks Out About Her New Video Performance", ArtNet, 4 June 2015.
- Lauren Gambino, "Emma Sulkowicz's This Is Not A Rape site taken down by cyberattack", The Guardian, 9 June 2015.
- Sarah Seltzer, "Vile Comments Are the Most Important Part of Emma Sulkowicz's Graphic New Video", Flavorwire, 9 June 2015.
- Tolentino, Jia (2018-02-05). "Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
- For age, "Carry That Weight", Emma Sulkowicz interviewed by Roberta Smith, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, 14 December 2014, c. 48:50 mins.
- Vanessa Grigoriadis, "Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault", New York Magazine, 21 September 2014.
- Roberta Smith, "In a Mattress, a Lever for Art and Political Protest", The New York Times, 21 September 2014.
- Emma Bogler (May 16, 2014). "Frustrated by Columbia's inaction, student reports sexual assault to police". Columbia Spectator.
Max Kutner, "The Anti-Mattress Protest", Newsweek, 28 April 2015.
- Suzannah Weiss, "Emma Sulkowicz's 'Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol' Site Was Temporarily Disabled By Cyberattacks, But Her Opponents Are Missing The Point", Bustle, 9 June 2015.
- Lauren Gambino, "Columbia graduate who carried mattress releases video depicting 'rape'", The Guargian, 5 June 2015.
- "Hackers Disable Emma Sulkowicz Website to Censor New Artwork", ArtNet, 9 June 2015.
- Melissa Chan, "Columbia University anti-rape activist Emma Sulkowicz releases sex video as newest art piece", New York Daily News, 6 June 2015.
- Paul Mejia, "Columbia University Mattress Protester Releases Video Addressing Rape", Newsweek, 6 June 2015.
- Benjamin Prüfer, "Kunst oder krank? Angebliches Vergewaltigungsopfer dreht verstörendes Sex-Video". The Huffington Post, 11 June 2015.
- Julie Zeilinger, "Emma Sulkowicz Isn't the Only Artist Taking on Sexual Assault. Here Are 5 Others", 'Identities.Mic, 8 June 2015.
- Hanna Rosin, Noreen Malone and June Thomas, "DoubleX Gabfest: The Triple X Edition", Slate, 11 June 2015, from c. 09:00 mins; c 18:00 for Sandra Leong.
- Rebecca Brink, "Emma Sulkowicz's “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol”: An Explainer", The Frisky, 5 June 2015.