A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.
A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.
It’s been about two and a half years since my first blog post, and I’ve decided to take a break from posting regularly. I started the blog because I felt the need to find a platform for some of my everyday thoughts on culture and the world in general. And the scroll layout of a blog lends itself to the montage of words and images, a format that I’ve always found compelling. But sometimes new demands on energy and time present themselves…For those who are just finding the site, there are many still-relevant posts to peruse by clicking on the partial list on the side, or by the month below.
Every so often, I’ll post something. And once in a while, I’ll post a reference to some kind of “do not miss” text, movie, art show, book, podcast, t.v. series, etc.
Do not miss “Occupied,” the Norwegian t.v. series available on Netflix – it takes place in the near future; Russia has occupied Norway for the European Union, because Norway has decided to independently stop producing oil due to the dangers of climate change. The oil hits the fan as the Prime Minister attempts to avoid suicidal military confrontation, the occupation breeds some militant resistance, and everyone else tries to come to terms with a contemporary definition of occupation.
It’s got a brilliantly terrifying script that has an intense contemporary urgency, but is not written, directed, or acted in a broad manner. It’s got the kind of acting that no longer exists in the U.S., where our obsession with starlets and leading men robs us of real talent. And it’s got a matter-of-fact inclusion of various types of characters that also don’t populate our t.v. series – starting with, they’ve got real complexity, not just 2-dimensional brooding temperaments, for god’s sake…
Enjoy – if you can!
It’s that time of year…
when ghosts return…
Guy Debord turns over in his grave…
Rosa Luxemburg wonders just what it is we don’t understand…
Jacques Derrida would like us to dwell on insidious terminologies…
Sylvia Plath decries the plague of toadstools overnight…
and Virginia Woolf reminds us…
…that you cannot find peace by avoiding life…
Violence haunts. It haunts all but those who are psychically defended against it – defended against it by fear, by the pleasurable intensity of vested interest, or by the emotional short-circuiting that is psychosis.
But more often than not, and certainly more often than cultural representations would like us to believe, the emotions precipitated by violence are complex and individuated, even for the basic neurotic personality. Violence is primal and simple, but also lousy with politics and discourse, and with repressed suffering.
Yet the more complex everyday violence becomes – rife with globalized power imbalances – the more stripped down and un-nuanced does American film-acting style become in American narrative films that directly involve violence. Instead of acting, we get acting-out. Often in such films, spectators are offered the comforts of being able to identify with a surprisingly deadened style of acting. Of course, it may have something to do with the reductive, one-note nature of the scripts of most American films. Or with the amount of botox that gets syringed in Los Angeles. But that desire to not have the face be an emotional, affective register is not simply motivated by a youth-crazy consumer culture. Nothing happens for a single reason.
In the last few years, it’s become evident that if you’re looking for subtle, layered, nuanced acting style, you have to look beyond American actors. This phenomenon generated a long Atlantic article a while back, though not a very enlightening one.
Recently, I watched the first two films in the Pusher trilogy. I was in the midst of moving home and studio, and unmoored from my digital connections, I watched them on my i-pad, able to pause and fast-forward when I wasn’t able to cope with the brutality of the violence it represents. I hope to watch the third film in just the same way, in spite of being re-connected to my domestic digital empire. The digital fast-forward mechanism allows me to see thumb-nail images at whatever speed I choose, and it’s only in that tiny form that I can tolerate the most violent seconds.
But in the midst of all that violence are the faces. Actor’s faces that register several emotions at once. Faces that manage to register both machismo and fear at the same time. Humiliation and brutal impassiveness. Pleasure, panic, horror, redemption, and resignation – all at once. Such is the face of actor Mads Mikkelsen in the last moments of the last scene of the second Pusher film- With Blood on My Hands- from which these gifs are drawn.
And in taking in the simultaneous affective registers that Americans tend to think of as mutually exclusive, the spectator is thrown into an identificatory conundrum. Something we should be thrown into more often these days, when politicians, journalists, and media producers and editors encourage reductive thinking about violence.
In part, this much-needed identificatory conundrum depends on the kind of remarkable actors you find in The Pusher trilogy. But of course, those actors depend on scripts written and funded by those who see subtlety, nuance, and contradiction as more than pesky obstructions to the bottom line. Without that attitude, it’s like being stuck in an endless gif loop…
Silvia Kolbowski I’ll start with the brief text I sent to all of you in advance of our in-person conversation. In the last few years there has been substantial reporting on the lack of responsiveness- on the part of American universities, police departments, and prosecutors – to the epidemic of rapes, both on university campuses and off. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground documents this criminal negligence as it takes place in universities. The film delves into some reasons for this behavior, including the willingness of universities to ignore allegations in order to maintain the positive branding (and therefore competitiveness) of tuition-hungry institutions in the U.S. education marketplace, and their reluctance to risk alienating, by holding them accountable, the fraternities and sports players that are the strongest generators of alumni donations. In addition, a recent report revealed that even repeat rapists are often not pursued by police departments and prosecutors because rape cases pose difficult challenges to both, and career-promoting successes in rape cases can be elusive. The fact that police departments are reluctant to engage in connecting database information across the country, which would greatly contribute to capturing and successfully prosecuting repeat rapists, indicates that there’s something in excess of careerist pragmatism at play in ignoring reported rape crimes.
The reporting and documentation of the rape crisis has been direct and thorough, backed up by compelling, not to say devastating studies and statistics, although of course the issue deserves even greater distribution. But such facts do not always convince when a culture doesn’t value women’s sovereignty. This is where non-legal and non-documentary representation comes in, raising the question of what art can contribute to intervening in a problem that is never disconnected from other aspects of cultural misogyny.
To that end, we’ll look at a number of art projects of the last few decades that deal with rape. I’ll start with two general questions – What are the particular ways in which art can intervene in the rape crisis? Which projects come to mind in this regard?
Siona Wilson Thinking about the range of different artistic projects that address the question of rape, from the late 1960s through the last few years, they seem to occupy the position of activism, assuming the voice of the artist as an activist voice. It’s striking that even the film The Hunting Ground, represents a range of artistic projects. There’s the photographic art project through which one of the central protagonists, from UNC Chapel Hill, came out to the campus community about her rape. And of course there’s the central example of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, with her Carry the Weight mattress art project, in which she uses a performance project as a way of putting pressure on the University to act on her accusation of rape by another student on campus.
Kolbowski Siona, are you defining an art project as activist if it has a direct goal, if it addresses the institution directly with a demand? Is that what defines the work as activist for you?
Wilson In this case, I think so. It’s the act of taking on the role of advocacy, with a speech address directed to the institution. And I think there’s another level in which we can see, if we go back and look at some of the historical examples, such as the Ana Mendieta work from 1973 – Untitled (Rape scene) – that the activist dimension of such a work was tied into a feminist politics of consciousness-raising, of discussions. It may not have been what she intended, but that was what arose from the work.
Kolbowski I would say, based on what you’re describing, that the Suzanne Lacy works on rape – the 1977 “Three Weeks in May” and its 2012 recreation, fit into your description. But I wouldn’t say that the Mendieta project did.Wilson I think it does in the sense that it’s a live work. The audience is invited into her apartment, where they witness her with blood on her body, a re-enactment of a rape/murder case that was recent in her college community, and the audience response is to stage a discussion about what happened. So that became part of the work, with a response that was actually the development of a discourse around the issue of rape. Even if Mendieta hadn’t intended it, it took on the role of advocacy.
Kolbowski I thought the point of the Mendieta project was to position the spectator as a voyeur through their witnessing a tableau in a personal setting. There’s an echo of the Mendieta piece in the Sulkowicz web video piece – Ceci n’est pas un viol. By virtue of using a surveillance camera format with a split screen to show sex enacted by herself and an anonymous male, Sulkowicz positions spectators as voyeurs.Liebert I think a crucial difference between those two pieces is that Mendieta is showing us a kind of after-image, so the spectator by necessity has to project what has preceded the tableau. But in Ceci n’est pas un viol, we’re actually watching the act start to finish.
Wilson But Ceci n’est pas un viol also provides an after-image, because it’s not the actual act.
Apter Ceci n’est pas un viol raises the question of address, of how you come to the work. Are you supposed to have the foreknowledge of Carry That Weight, and of the media spectacle around Sulkowicz’s rape accusation on campus and the fallout from all of that? There are several levels of reference involved.Kolbowski In that regard, what is different now – which didn’t exist at the time of the Mendieta piece, or with the first Lacy rape project– is the search algorithm. With somebody like Sulkowicz, everything gets attached to everything else, which is the nature of the algorithm. So you would have to assume that anyone looking at Ceci n’est pas un viol would be aware of her earlier accusation and of Carry That Weight.
Apter The Mendieta and the Lacy pieces, as you mentioned, Siona, were made in reference to actual rapes that had occurred to others. But the difference with Ceci n’est pas un viol is that this supposedly happened to Sulkowicz. So it’s not the re-presenting the rapes of even anonymous others, based on information that could have been taken from police files or blotters, but instead a level of self-situating that is very different from the other works. That’s a huge difference. The fact that with post-millenials it’s all about “me.”
Siona When I first watched Ceci n’est pas un viol, I was struck by that shift from a collective connection or advocacy to an individual perspective. But it’s really important to see this as a web project and this connects back to Silvia’s point about the connectivity of the internet. You immediately wiki Sulkowicz and find information. And that’s how she staged this work. I also think that the text that she put as a preface to the video on the project webpage, which raises a trigger warning, evokes a collective viewing response. And I thought the comments were crucial to the work.
Kolbowski Ceci n’est pas un viol is an enactment at a personal level, as you’ve pointed out, Emily. But of course the artist means to be representative; her claim on the project website is that she’s setting out to change the world. But to some degree that video as an artwork has a tendency to simplify and to reduce what rape culture is in general. There’s a lot of complexity around the role that rape plays in contemporary culture – whether it’s an aspect of a military war or something that takes place on a university campus, or if it is carried out in an urban context that delimits which areas women can traverse alone and which they can’t.
Apter And sex trafficking…
Kolbowski Exactly. So although I think that one of the main things that Ceci n’est pas un viol does well is allude to the way that rape is sexualized, when in fact rape has little to do with sex, I also think that the project does not bring to light the complexity of rape in our culture. What do you think?
Apter Yes and no. When I watched the video for the first time, it felt very staged and almost like watching something on a stage; a mock enactment. She doesn’t want to use the word “re-enactment”-
Wilson – a demonstration.
Apter But it’s very unconvincing as sex.
Apter So the fact that some of the comments left on the site refer to what takes place in the video as porn –in order to undermine her project, or to hurt her – maybe some porn has the same effect, but it really wasn’t very good as porn. It wasn’t convincing to me in that regard. But when I watched it the second time, I did think that it actually problematized the question of consent. And this gets into something that is maybe not critically profound, but I think that there’s a general misunderstanding about sex. People can enter into having sex, and it can be very pleasurable at one moment, and“consensual,” and then suddenly it’s not. Sex is risky in that way. And the question raised for me in this regard is, where is this pointing? Is Sulkowicz saying that sex should not be risky? That sex should always, in a sense, have an institutional eye looking out for you? Or the old cliché of the contract, where you’re signing onto this and this, and having everything spelled out? You don’t have to be a libertarian feminist to say, no way, I do not want that; I do not want the state intruding into my body, just as I wouldn’t want the state telling me whether I could have an abortion or not. So these are the kinds of contadictions that were raised for me on second viewing, where I felt that it did capture that menacing moment when she – maybe because the slap was louder the second time I heard it, and the “ow,” and I looked more closely at the moment where violence and risk come together, and not so much the sex itself, which I took out of the picture. So the question of consent and the question of a feminist position about risk within sexuality – that was what was raised for me the second time I viewed the video, linked to some kind of performative dimension. I would say that the work problematizes that issue for me.
Kolbowski I thought it was interesting that the sound of the slaps seems to be imposed in post-production. I’m almost positive that he’s not generating that degree of sound during the course of videotaping, because it has a different quality than the rest of the sound in the video.
Apter That actually changes what I’ve just said…
Kolbowski It seemed to me that the sound of the slaps was heightened in post-production. In regards to what you said, Emily A., I wanted to raise the article recommended to us by Emily L., written by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, in part on the 2008 senior project by the then Yale undergraduate art student Aliza Shvartz. The project was described in a Yale newspaper as “…a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.” One of the things that struck me in Carrie’s text – although obviously the piece by Shvartz is about abortion and not about rape – in terms of how an artwork can intervene, is Carrie’s point that Shvartz’s piece was intended to and did engage institutional mechanisms -the institutional frameworks of law, public discourse, popular definitions of morality, the media’s role in defining an act, the university’s enactment of what it perceived to be its legal privileges, the revealing alignment of pro- and anti-abortion public discourses, etc. And by virtue of smoking out these institutional elements, as Carrie points out, the work highlights the different definitions that could be accorded to the act in different frameworks. In one institutional context, the artist is thought to have performed self-abortions; in another context the event is considered a menstrual period; in another it’s a performance. Reading about the Shvartz piece made me question whether Ceci n’est pas un viol frames the existing levels of complexity in rape culture. That’s not to say that rape isn’t simply rape. In other words, where consent doesn’t exist, it’s rape.
Apter The question is, what is the act? Is the accent here on the consent or is it on something called genital penetration? I think you can be raped in different ways. It can shade into something metaphorical, a form of psychic violence that is absolutely devastating and leads to trauma, but doesn’t involve physical penetration or a form of violence with an object on your body…
Kolbowski Did you notice that in The Hunting Ground they refer to anything that is not penetration by a penis as sexual assault? And rape is the word that they reserve for the penetration of an orifice by a penis.
Wilson I wonder if they were using a legal definition?
Kolbowski But even if it were a legal definition, it’s still interesting that they chose that demarcation for the documentary –
Apter – even if it were legal, it doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blur line between assault and penetration.
Liebert The questions that you’re bringing up about consent and risk, which are maybe the complexities raised by Ceci n’est pas un viol, did they map onto issues of spectatorship for you or did they seem like they were located exclusively in the sphere of rape?
Apter Siona brought up the question of address. The question of spectatorship or auditory reception is important because there’s an active way of looking at the video, and then there’s the address of the instructions, the proviso or warning text on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website page. Sulkowicz writes “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.” Many of us would find that manipulative. And that’s what a lot of the comments on the blog are reacting against – “Oh, well, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz.” But the text presents a taunt – please, please don’t participate in my rape. Ceci n’est pas un viol – for me it’s spells “don’t do it, but do it.” It’s one of these double negative affirmatives. It’s Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même..” I know, but still.
Kolbowski But doesn’t that echo a large aspect of rape culture — the masculinist assumption that when women say no, they really mean yes?
Apter That was the most shocking thing in The Hunting Ground, the sign at a Skull and Bones fraternity that had on it “No means yes; yes means anal.”
Kolbowski Then how do you interpret the written preface to Ceci n’est pas un viol ?
Wilson I found it annoying when I first read the webpage preface, but only in so far as it seemed naïve. But that’s the nature of a student art project. She’s no longer a student with this work, but still it had that I-want-to-save-the-world naivete to it. But I also found the preface interesting, because it stages the very problem that the video itself seems to be presenting. And here I want to go back to the point that you made, Emily A., which is that Ceci n’est pas un viol raises some very difficult questions that The Hunting Ground as a documentary cannot raise; for example, the question of sexual practice in a more general sense, when it really isn’t clear whether consent is being given. Consent doesn’t cover the whole issue. I thought, how could anybody watch her video if you followed Sulkowicz’s directions, because how can we really know what she feels? It poses an impossibility.
Apter It leaves you with the possibility that if consent is ultimately unknowable, then what are you saying to the university, to the institution?
Wilson Exactly, this opens up a whole other issue.
Kolbowski But then isn’t there an element of so-called acting out in that preface?
Wilson That’s another form of juvenilia.
Kolbowski But what she’s setting up in the webpage preface is the very complexity that she’s denying in both her public accusations and in the video. I’m not, let me be clear, suggesting that she didn’t get raped. She may have been. But I prefer to treat this artwork as an artwork.Apter But is this a site-specific work, in the sense that it has to refer to knowledge about her case in order to make sense?
Kolbowski The preface implies that she would say no.
Liebert I agree that there’s a promise in the title and in the textual framework that the piece is about the impossibility of proof or of naming rape, and that in the space of that ambiguity is where the spectator would project. In the title and the framework there’s a promise that the piece will turn back to the spectator, and then to me that space is collapsed in the visual material, or reduced.
Kolbowski In that regard I would return to the Mendieta piece. Mendieta sets up only one condition for viewing – that of voyeurship. She sets up a peephole, in effect. She doesn’t prescribe viewer reactions and outcomes. It’s interesting that although the Mendieta work is owned by the Tate, they describe the work on their website, but there is a blank where the image would be, and yet the image is searchable. That raises the general question of what gets shown and what doesn’t get shown. In other words, in the legal courtroom the word and forensic evidence should suffice. The least likely thing is that there would be a visual representation of a rape. At the very best you’d have corroborating evidence, as in one of the cases presented in The Hunting Ground, where the rapist’s schoolmates witnessed parts of the assault, although it didn’t seem to help the case.
But in an artwork that addresses rape, if it isn’t a work that depends solely on data, the tendency is to visualize.
Apter And that ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, and whether seeing the footage is changing the nature of the trials or the possibility of a grand jury indictment. What seems to be so shocking is that you can come up with forensic evidence and even have footage and it’s still not making a difference in terms of how the law is responding.
Liebert I think this also goes back to Silvia’s framing. You asked what art can offer in situations where facts don’t convince. Black Lives Matter arose when proof was ineffective. In the incidences of rape – when facts don’t convince, what can come in? In important ways, the Sulkowicz mattress piece had real impact in terms of catalyzing a very broad activist effort, and there she used a symbolic object and her body’s relationship to that object to disrupt the routines on [at?]the site of an institution.
Wilson She used that project to connect it to the institution, and also to complicate the situation.
Kolbowski The mattress piece used a metonymic strategy and also the engagement of identification in a collective sense–
Wilson –because of those who helped carry the mattress, and offered support.
Kolbowski And maybe not only offered support, but also engaged in an experiential identification.
Wilson With regard to the question of the visual, the Eric Garner case on Staten Island made it very clear –since the whole assault was recorded on video, which did not aid in indicting the officer–that it’s always discourse that frames the veracity of the visual. I think it’s Ariella Azulay who has written that it’s impossible to photograph rape. The question of rape does not reside in the visual. It has to reside in a discursive framing of the visual. So even if you have a kind of reenactment of a rape event, the reenactment is doing other things than providing veracity and proof. Maybe it would be interesting to think about what kind of work the visual is engaged in.
Apter Just as a footnote, I can’t help pointing out that the subtitle of the Magritte piece, Ceci n’est pas une pipe is La Trahison des images. The Treachery of Images. It seems to me you could also apply that subtitle to Ceci n’est pas un viol.
Wilson, Liebert Right.
KolbowskI But the fact remains that the artist chose to–
Kolbowski Images, whether they be videos or photographic images, often serve to reinforce the prejudice of the viewer. Because that is an aspect of viewing. A comparable example that I’ve used in teaching is Slavoj Zizek’s point about the Austrian election in which Kurt Waldheim ran for president. The Socialist party that ran against him exposed as the major part of their campaign the facts of Waldheim’s Nazi role. And Waldheim won! So, as Zizek points out, by telling the truth, by exposing something that Waldheim himself could not have exposed but something with which voters identified or at least condoned, the opposing party was doing the work of electing Waldheim. That’s where the limitations of the image come into play. It’s like saying, I use this video to prove that something that is considered consensual is actually part of rape culture, part of a rape. But then you read the 4600 comments on the website, and you have your proof that people will distort by projecting themselves onto the image. The image confirms what they want confirmed. And that to me points to what you quoted, Siona, that…
Wilson …that discourse determines the image. It shapes the meaning of the image. Azoulay’s point that rape cannot be a visual thing.
Kolbowski Well, it is for both the perpetrator and the victim, but…
Apter And let it not be forgotten that in the culture we’re in, very often it is precisely for viewing that many women in these initiation rights of fraternities are gang-raped, and it’s filmed and sometimes distributed. So it’s not just that they are violated in terms of a legal notion of consent but that any sense of their privacy is violently attacked. And the loss of privacy doesn’t fall under sexual assault. But it does become rape by spectatorship.
Liebert In The Hunting Ground they discuss one fraternity that has a “conquest wall” of photographs.
Apter So even though a “post-feminist” generation describes itself as empowered, as sex-positive, as initiators as much as they’re being hit on, there is nonetheless – though perhaps it’s linked to backlash –also this idea of the woman-hunt. Silvia, you mentioned rape in war situations, but it’s also a form of sport that gets incorporated into hazings. One of the things that’s so troubling is that rape is ignored and blatantly condoned, especially when it’s to do with sports heroes on campus. Universities and police departments won’t go there; there’s too much money at stake, there’s too much male heroism at stake. So that old idea of the woman-hunt is strangely reinforced in such settings, and especially with the spectatorial aggression that’s attached to it.
Liebert And it’s interesting that there’s a sort of dualism, or an unfortunate contradiction here. On the one hand we’re talking about an extreme visiblity that you’re rightly saying is part of the rape, and on the other hand an invisibility that perpetuates rape culture. It’s exposure in the wrong places.
Kolbowski I wonder if it wouldn’t be more important for art to pursue the rape issue obliquely. Because one of the things that’s clear in reportage about rape, and documented in The Hunting Ground, is how the shame that rape victims experience often shapes their hesitation to report the crime. Even today, shame is often the reason why they don’t tell family or friends, let alone the police. And yet it’s telling that the women who are expressing shame in the film are the same ones whose rapes involved no nuances of consent at all. Female shame is a part of rape culture. By addressing the question of shame that women feel when they’re violated by rape or sexual assault, you’re not necessarily going to change the ways universities or cops react to accusations, but you would start to chip away at a huge part of why we’re not making any headway against the statistic of a rape every six minutes in the U.S.
Apter I just went to see a very interesting film by Sylvie and Florence Tissot about the French feminist Christine Delphy, which was, interestingly, titled Je ne suis pas féministe, mais…. A title in the line of those denials that affirm. There was a discussion afterwards with a group of feminists. I think it was Sarah Shulman who said in the discussion that there was no feminism anymore. And I objected by pointing out that there are many discussions of rape. Her point was that there was no real feminist engagement at the moment because there’s no anger, because there are no issues that women are angry about.
Apter I didn’t buy that. But it relates a little to what you’re saying, Silvia, in that we could ask if rape is a galvanizing issue. The focus on rape often refers to privileged women on campuses, but not always, or to date rape, and that kind of focus often get media attention. But is the focus on rape gaining traction as a rejuvenation of feminism at this particular moment? Is it one of those issues that crosses generational, class, race, and professional lines?
Kolbowski It should. Think about, for example, the link I sent to the performative piece by the art collective Blank Noise that was done in India, which has the third highest rape statistic in the world.Wilson I think that’s a great point, Emily A., and I do think that it’s a class-defined issue. For example, at the public college where I teach, we’ve only had student dorms for a couple of years. So students are not living on campus. If there isn’t a social life around the campus, if students work at night, if they don’t have social events–
Liebert –if they’re not drinking together.
Wilson They’re not drinking together.
Kolbowski But the one-rape-every-six-minutes in the U.S. is happening to women whether they’re on campus or not.
Apter But when the rape occurs on campus, the media is giving it another level of attention.
Kolbowski True. To bring the topic back around to art, I would reiterate my initial question. There’s obviously a necessity for data, for legal activism, for demands placed on institutions, and also to rewrite the discourse of women’s sovereignty, let’s say, but what do we see–
Apter – a necessity for sexual citizenship!
Liebert, Kolbowski, Wilson Sexual citizenship!
Apter But that’s for another discussion, since we should bring the discussion back to art.
Kolbowski Well, we’ve talked about visualization and non-visualization, and we shouldn’t exclude the auditory in discussing art about rape. Because there is an auditory dimension to rape, even though typically no soundtrack to rape travels beyond the perpetrator and victim. These are the things that art excels at – it excels at the visual, it excels at the auditory, and even at the discursive and the affective. So is there something that art can contribute to this ongoing crisis that it’s particularly well-poised to do?
Apter This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but it is something that comes back to the formal construction of Ceci n’est pas un viol. We haven’t discussed its four frames and what the different camera angles do or don’t do to the viewing of the act. The project overtly refuses the term reenactment, but it quotes surveillance footage, the way the surveillance camera is used when you’re reviewing a crime scene. The different angles – they’re probably false angles into a truth, but to address your question directly, there is still in art some claim to authenticity, some claim to truth – even if it is refuted or denied. In art there’s some claim to a higher angle of vision or a multiplicity of angles of vision, that may bring you to the aporia, to the unknowable, but they may also bring you to critical parameters. So the question is whether the technique that Sulkowicz used, of the four frames and the different angles is intrinsically important to how we approach Ceci n’est pas un viol? Does it actually go somewhere in answering the questions you raised about the topic?
Kolbowski It’s interesting that a lot of the comments on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website have to do with the surveillance aspect of the work. I read one comment that shocked me. The writer pointed out that the window in the room is not covered. The commenter then reasons that because of the exposed window, the impression that the man would have gotten in going into the room is that the woman was into voyeuristic sex and therefore the man would have gotten mixed messages about what sort of sex she wanted to engage in. I didn’t even notice that window when I watched the video a couple of times, and in fact there’s no way of telling from the window in the four frames whether anyone could actually look into the room. So for that reason among others, the comment is exposed as pure projection. In some ways, the most reprehensible and stupid comments on the site are the work of the piece. And that’s where I think art has the potential to intervene– at the level of the psychical. To understand that it isn’t just about proving a violation to a spectator, but rather to show how the spectator frames that violation.
Wilson And frames it through their own experience, through their own investment in their own sexuality, their own…sexual citizenship!!
Liebert Related to your comments on the piece itself, and to your question, Silvia, I think that art informed by feminism, specifically, can intervene in the rape crisis. The most successful elements of Ceci n’est pas un viol and Carry That Weight are in the ways they turn back toward the spectator, and that is one of the legacies of art informed by feminism that Sulkowicz is carrying forward.
Kolbowski Would you say that it’s art informed by feminism and psychoanalysis? Do you think that there’s an awareness in the work of the psychical dimension of spectatorship?
Liebert Yes, the work engages questions of desire—conscious and unconscious—in spectatorship.
Kolbowski Shall we end on that note?
Apter Sure, except there’s one last thing I’d like to bring up. You’ve said, Silvia, that there are several ways in which you find Ceci n’est pas un viol to be problematic. Can you pin that down for us? What was most problematic for you about the piece?
Kolbowski It has to do with what I pointed out earlier in comparing Ceci n’est pas un viol to the Shvartz piece. For me, Ceci n’est pas un viol doesn’t expose the institutional/discursive framework of how people are positioned in rape culture. There’s too much investment in Ceci n’est pas un viol in proving a smaller point – no less traumatic, but smaller. Sometimes a smaller focus can stand in for the larger, but for me in that work it doesn’t. Maybe it does for others. For me, the Shvartz piece continued to resonate after I read about it because of the way that it exposes framework and because of the nuanced ways that work displays how women are contained through naming. Because ultimately, while rape is a physical violation, so much of the violence of rape concerns language…in its aftermath, and in the continuation of that culture.
Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature, and Chair of Comparative Literature at New York University. Recent books include Against World Literature: On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (co-edited with Barbara Cassin, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood) (2014). Recent articles include “Occupy Derivatives!” in October, “Planetary Dysphoria” in Third Text, and “Women’s Time (Again)” in differences. In 2012 she was appointed Remarque-Ecole Normale Supérieure Visiting Professor in Paris. Together with Bruno Bosteels she co-edited Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Poetry and Prose (Verso 2014).
Emily Liebert is a Curatorial Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture since 2013. Prior to her current position she curated the exhibition Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (2013-2014) at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery and ICA/Boston, which was a finalist for an AICA “Best Exhibition” award. From 2008-2011 Liebert was a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2009-2010). Liebert holds a B.A from Yale (1997) and a Ph.D. from Columbia (2013).
Siona Wilson is author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015). She is Associate professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests are grounded in issues of sexual difference, sexuality and the intersection of art and politics in post-war and contemporary art in relation to experiment film, video, photography, performance and sound/music. Recent publications include an essay on Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (October) and a reflection on digital media and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (Brooklyn Rail).
This year, the little that I experienced of the Venice Biennale came through social and digital media. An intriguing post on my Facebook feed drew me to the project produced for the Polish pavilion. I searched for the project online and read about it on a few sites. There aren’t that many art projects of subtlety and complexity that travel and translate well through social media, but this project seems to be one, and it made me ponder why.
The project is Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” by the artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz. In brief, the project entails the recent staging by the artists of a production of an 1858 Polish “national” opera – Halka – in a village in Haiti in which reside descendants of the Polish soldiers who, brought by Napoleon to put down the anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti, are thought to have deserted Napoleon’s troops to fight alongside the Haitians who defeated the French in 1803.
In the curator’s catalogue essay, Moskalewicz has written a fascinating account of the histories of the opera and its place in the Polish imagination, and of the histories and mythologies that have grown up around the possible role of the Polish soldiers in the revolutionary event in Haiti. The account is fascinating because of the subtle intricacies of Moskalewicz’s argument, which she develops as a backdrop to the work, but also because Moskalewicz chose to write very little about the project she selected to curate for the pavilion. Even in an official video, she doesn’t really explain the project to spectators. The table of contents in the catalogue for the exhibition indicates that there are interviews with the artists and some statements by the participants, as well as a few other historical texts. But Moskalewicz devotes the great majority of her text to an analysis of the national mythologies that underpin the project; for example, the national identity role that the 1858 opera – stylistically retardataire even at its arrival – has persisted in playing for so many decades.
I don’t know why Moskalewicz chose to address the project this way. Perhaps she felt that the project could represent itself. Inversely, maybe she felt that the project needed a historical backdrop in order to represent itself. In any case, her choice creates a kind of respectful space around the project. By sticking largely to questions of how histories play out in the national imagination of the present, she allows the work to take on its separate role as art. She neither inflates nor underestimates its political and cultural role. Ultimately, she makes a case for questioning “nation” in general, which is a way of looking at the larger picture of an exhibition based, as she points out, on the very idea of the nation.
But why does the project itself succeed in traveling so well in such a condensed way through social media? There’s no question that being present in the space of the exhibition must have produced a different affective spectatorial experience of the work than reading about it and viewing images. But it’s unique when a work conveys the depth of its layered meanings through a several-sentence description and a few photos, unique when it can work at opposite scales without losing subtlety, and while still resonating and provoking thought.
Some of it must have to do with the sharp contrasts that the parameters of the project create. The inclusion of indigeneous and non-indigenous participants, for example (the opera is sung by professional Polish opera singers). But even there, the issues involved are complex. Because some of the indigenous Haitian participants in the project are descendents of the Polish soldiers who are thought to have aligned themselves with the revolt of the colonial Haitian subjects in 1803. And the insertion into that contemporary context of an opera that has been popularly and stubbornly accorded the status of Polish national representation – when Polish “nationhood” has been so historically fraught in general, and with a narrative about class disparity, no less – foregrounds how troubled the notion of the nation is once the colonizer’s ships hit the water, or soldiers cross national land boundaries or, for that matter, once money travels along digital signals. Even the word itself, indigenous, is ambiguous. It doesn’t depend on a definitive temporality of origin.
If we’re going to be subject to the dispersal of art by digital media, would that many other projects would travel this well. In this instance it’s especially important that the work travels well, because it’s discourse applies to so many contexts, while being intensely specific to one.
In the “overture” to her essay, Moskalewicz sets the scene by describing the anxiety felt by the artists and production team at the start of the filming of the project, due to what looked like impending rain that would have ruined the scheduled performance and filming. I wonder whether filming the project through the chaos of rain wouldn’t have added a fortuitous dimension to the project, given its allusions to the traumas of imperial and colonial legacies – in Haiti, in Poland, and elsewhere. Because the performative event that is just history, not art, is usually subject to chaos.
We may be closer than ever to Warhol’s contention that everyone will achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but the focus of mass voyeuristic interest is still reserved for the few and the particular.
Sometimes mass voyeurism is dreaded and feared by its objects for its capacity to break down the ego’s fragile borders, as with singer and musician Amy Winehouse, made clear in the frighteningly explicit documentary, Amy.
The film has to be seen to grasp the level of sadistic media hysteria that dogged her every move. Sadistic because the mass media (those who took the photos and those who displayed them) saw a ready opportunity to exploit the very deterioration they helped to precipitate. See the film to understand why drugs were the least of her problems.
Sometimes mass fixation and voyeurism have the quality of being attached to a particular person, but in part as a displacement from a related figure, as I experienced when I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at MoMA and encountered the artist herself, coming out of the exhibition and being mobbed by hyper-excited fans.
Not to diminish Ono’s own accomplishments and talents, but she may be the only conceptual artist in the world who could be mobbed by museum-goers. She will eternally be the object of displaced cathected energy directed at John.
Thinking about both the Amy film and the encounter with Yoko Ono’s hyper-excited fans brought to mind the new video by Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art student who accused a male Columbia student of raping her and held that the University did not take her accusation seriously. Sulkowicz subsequently set in motion an art work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved carrying a dorm mattress around campus, with the intention of carrying it, or having supporters carry it, until the subject of her accusation was expelled from or left the campus.
In the new work, a video called Ceci n’est pas un viol, Sulkowicz seems to literally enact what took place on the night of her alleged rape, captured in the form of a surveillance camera split-screen. In addition to what appears to be a literal enactment of sex, unforced and forced, the work’s website directs viewers as to how to perceive the video.
Why would thinking about Amy Winehouse and Yoko Ono, about the Amy film and the attention directed at Ono – or even the attention sought by mega-media-stars – make me think about this video? Because all involve being placed in the position of voyeur. There are cultural and political questions raised by all such gazing. But Ceci n’est pas un viol raises different cultural and political questions than viewing paparazzi shots or videos because it is an artwork, and not a cultural phenomenon per se. The main question raised for me by the work (and its 444 posted comments) is whether the work isn’t strongly compromised by its literal enactment by the enunciator of the accusation, the artist herself. Her own didactic interpretation aside, the work remains a literal enactment.
At the level of the law, a literal re-enactment is beside the point. On a political level, we should not need a literal enactment, a viewing of an actual sex act, to arrive at an assessment of whether we believe that someone could have conceivably been raped in a situation where the accused claims the actions were consensual. Language should suffice.
On a cultural level, shouldn’t the work contend with decades of distance from literalism, distance from verisimilutude in art? Because to make work that elides that challenge is to skirt the significance of why genealogies of aesthetic form have crucial meaning. Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, comes to mind, though significantly it was not her own rape that Mendieta was physically enacting in her art work, and that distance is a crucial aspect of that work for the viewer. Hopefully some of these issues will be explored in a future discussion posted to the blog.