Encountering the Mattress in the Virtual Feminist Museum

by thomasmagnahastings

This paper was first presented at Architecture & Feminisms: Ecologies, Technologies, Economies (13th Annual AHRA Conference, KTH School of Architecture, Stockholm, Sweden).


I begin with an epigraph from art historian Griselda Pollock, whose 2007 book Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum, shows how artworks may be read as cultural practice:

‘The virtual feminist museum’ aims… [Pollock writes] to create a feminist space of encounter. [It] is not, like the modernist museum, about mastery, classification, definition. It is about argued responses, grounded speculations, exploratory relations, that tell us new things about femininity, modernity and representation.[1]

The sanctuary, the gym, the proscenium, the lounge; the lecture hall, the campus path, the dorm room, the classroom –– settings that in their dailiness narrate the mise-en-scène of a generational encounter between two performance works. For there are few obvious representational similarities between Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965) and Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) (2014–15). And for the record: Yvonne Rainer is a choreographer and film-maker, who began making work through the Judson Dance Theater, a weekly dance workshop ran out of the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, New York, from 1962 to ’64; while Emma Sulkowicz was up till last year a senior in the Visual Arts undergraduate programme at Columbia University.



What these two works do share in common – apart from the city of New York, that is – is the mattress or, in Rainer’s case, a set of mattresses. In both these works, the mattress is a centre around which differently sexed subjects congregate as if they were at table; it facilitates movement through space; and like the performers or students who assist in carrying the mattress around, this prop tells us something about the boundary between private life and public exposure that is here at the Judson Memorial Church, there on Columbia University campus, policed by the milling of onlookers. Through its sheer bulkiness, the mattress pays witness to the lived experience of those involved in the more-than-one nature of the task of lugging it from a to b. Yet this prop signifies quite differently in these two works, and it is this difference which is the subject of my paper.

Taking my cue from Pollock’s “Virtual Feminist Museum,” I discuss these two works on their own terms before conducting a feminist reading of the interval that separates them. Reading with Hannah Arendt, contemporary feminist political theorists such as Bonnie Honig and Linda Zerilli, as well as Jennifer Doyle’s timely book Campus Sex, Campus Security,[2] and Sara Ahmed’s recent letter of resignation to Goldsmiths University in London, I think through that which is here, there, made visible by the mattress.

Part One

To begin with Rainer: the mattresses were primarily a means of choreographing task movement; that is, the quite pedestrian and everyday chore of moving performers around a stage. The mattresses were sometimes stacked in piles, sometimes leant against the wall upstage, or else they were spread in a single layer across the proscenium floor. Often, during rehearsals (as can be seen here), performers were individually thrown onto the pile, or the pile was disassembled and redistributed through the studio. The mattress in Rainer’s performance work of the mid- to late-sixties, so it seems, was divested of its meaningful attachment to the home and treated much like any other kind of prop, to be manipulated by the performer as “neutral doer”.


As art historian Elise Archias has recently claimed: ‘However uncomfortable we might be in the present with the notion of universal address, it is historically accurate to view [Rainer’s] early works as reaching for an understanding of embodiment that could not be… claimed by a single identity category.’[3] There was, according to this widely held art-historical view on the sixties, no kind of feminist analysis or awareness of sexual difference at stake in these configurations of body and prop; only fun, amusement and moments of staged collectivity. There is, however, an undercurrent to Rainer’s presentation of ‘task movement’ I would like to draw upon; it is one that troubles the way questions of gender and sex are often bracketed in such art-historical analyses.


Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets, otherwise known as “a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses,” is notable for its strict organisational structure. Every thirty seconds, all performers on stage were obliged to stop what they were doing, and switch to a new task; and all tasks were assigned to the ten performers by Rainer prior to the performance according to a chance procedure that involved the throwing of a pair of dice over a large 2-D chart. This procedure, derived from the teachings of John Cage, determined who did what, and when. As a result, the dance was very hard to learn, involving kinaesthetically discontinuous movement-series that forced each performer to switch like clockwork between apparently arbitrary tasks. Art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, whose 2008 monograph is wholly answerable to Rainer’s choreography, sees in her presentation of task movement a mediated apprehension of the experience of industrial work, increased automation and the deskilling of labour under Late Capitalism. Reading with the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s analysis of the factory’s clock-time, Lambert-Beatty comments on task movement’s entanglement with the rationalisation of “playful activity” along increasingly industrial lines, seeing in Parts of Some Sextets a ‘warning that leisure industries like television were already absorbing nonwork time into industrial logics and economies.’[4] Accordingly, this dance might be situated alongside attempts in other media to render the experience of work; as, for instance, is achieved by Women and Work 1973–75 –– a collaborative project between feminist artists Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly.


There is, in hindsight, nothing wrong with this kind of symptomatic analysis of the dance’s strict organisational structure – it makes sense of Judson dance’s rejection of narrative against the backdrop of accelerated urban development – yet Rainer told me in interview that such a reading, one that is itself representative of the way sixties dance has been folded into the discipline of art history and welcomed into the museum, fails to capture the actual embodiment, the vertiginous feeling and rush, of being on stage. To give a sense of this, here is a description by Rainer, written in 1966, of an improvisation involving the mattress, that preceded Parts of Some Sextets:

I was excited by a particular piece of business: 2 of us carrying a mattress up an aisle, out the rear exit, around and in again thru a side exit. Something ludicrous and satisfying about lugging that bulky object around, removing it from scene and re-introducing it. No stylisation needed. It seemed to be so self-contained an act as to require no artistic tampering or justification.[5]

There was, as can be garnered, something complete about this mattress movement; it did not point to anything offstage, beyond itself, out there in the “real world” or social life. It was this matter-of-fact quality, and the foregrounding of the ‘actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions,’ so called, that has led to a slightly flattened understanding of task movement.

For as Catherine Wood, curator of performance at Tate Modern, has written: task movement ‘did not literally represent the nature of work in an increasingly industrialised America… [and Rainer’s dance] has much more to do with image and illusion than [her] discussion of work, task and the elimination of stylisation seems to admit.’[6] Wood’s gesture to ‘image and illusion’ is important, because it suggests that the mattresses did something other than merely corroborate the task-oriented temporality of a dance like Parts of Some Sextets. Indeed, in a miscellaneous note from the mid-sixties, in which Rainer reflects on the process of selecting props for dance works, she concludes that what is needed are (and I quote), ‘Objects that in themselves have a “load” of associations (e.g., the mattress – sleep, dreams, sickness, unconsciousness, sex) but which can be exploited strictly as neutral “objects”.’[7]

Far from the unironic display of disaffected labourers at work, one we are by now familiar with from museum-friendly forms of art-as-social practice, Rainer imagined a situation in which a preliminary reading of task movement could itself be tested, by the inclusion of props that, no matter how unfeelingly they were manipulated, disclose chains of signification that point beyond the task in hand.

What actually happens, then, to the mattress’ “load” of associations, when it is carried up and around the stage? Do sleep, sickness, sex – and by extension sexual difference – simply hover around the dance like a heuristic appendage, one that is ultimately dispensable to the workings of task movement? To give room to these questions, I turn to a second performance context, in which task movement is rematerialised as a daily imperative to negotiate the scene and site of sexual harassment on the University campus.

And here it is worth saying that I’m not speaking from a place of personal experience. The following section is a presentation of the accounts of Emma Sulkowicz and a range of feminist scholars. I also include a trigger warning for sexual violence.

Part Two

On May 16 2016 Sara Ahmed, feminist killjoy and former Director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths University, published a resignation letter on her blog, ‘in protest’ [as she writes] ‘against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment within universities.’[8] What this letter addresses, as will surely be obvious to everyone here, is an everyday phenomenon. The imaginative preservation of the University campus as a “safe space” in which students who aren’t read as white, straight and male, are able to progress uninhibited is a neoliberal myth that is upheld by apparently helpful, yet in reality often totally damaging and unhelpful, administrative support systems.

In her far-reaching book, Campus Sex, Campus Security, UC Riverside professor Jessica Doyle considers the real effects of one particular policy, Title IX, on the student population of the American University campus. ‘Title IX,’ the reader is informed, ‘is civil anti-discrimination law designed to bar sex/gender discrimination in education.’[9] Doyle explains how Title IX produces the campus as a paranoid structure, in which administrators honour its legislation by actively managing “risk” to the point of seeking it out, seeing in each and every encounter the “conditions of possibility” for a violation, a complaint, a complainant, a “young girl”. The language of safe spaces, of “feeling safe” – and the image of the “young girl” that underwrites the recuperation of these terms – become cause for cops on campus, as if police are emotionally equipped to intervene in sexual violence. Doyle writes:

Retaliation, for the university, is a beast; it is often far easier for a victim to demonstrate a case of retaliation than the original complaint. A Title IX complaint, when poorly administered, will take on a mind-numbing fractal complexity––it will grow, and replicate itself in complaints about complaints… And the victim is the engine of this administrative trouble. She (again, always she) is a walking situation. This is her appeal: at risk, she is risk itself.[10]

Crucially, Doyle recognises that risk, taking risks, making oneself vulnerable, feeling exposed, even, at times, threatened, is part of experiencing desire for others; of deepening the ties of friendship. And because of the way this risk, and its individual degrees of situational consent, are mimicked, if horribly distorted by legislative procedure, stories which accompany complaints can take on ‘their own libidinal economy.’[11] As Doyle writes: ‘The victim reports the rape; she makes people think about things they don’t want to know (about themselves). She is responsible for the jury’s predicament. This is why she, eventually, is the one put on trial.’[12]

Part Three

Enter Emma Sulkowicz, a practicing artist and former student of Columbia University who has dealt with this situation head-on. In 2013, Sulkowicz filed a complaint to the University, after having been raped in her dorm room by a fellow student, requesting that he be expelled. Though she had initially kept it a secret, informing the University became an imperative after she learned that the same man had subsequently assaulted other women. The complaint was duly rejected. The following year, Sulkowicz went to the NYPD, who responded with the invasive and offensive tactic of asking impertinent questions; querying the terms of her relationship to her rapist – as if to suggest that any prior relationship immediately vitiates the claim (on grounds of what, one might ask, property rights?) – and consistently calling her “sweetheart.” Sulkowicz played a tape recording of her police statement to me, one she made knowing in advance how the police would likely respond. The police’s gross misogyny and race discrimination was indeed shocking to listen to, if wholly unsurprising. For, as Doyle wisely observes, ‘Victims report because they need help; a campus receives reports because it is bound by law to do so. This asymmetry warps their interaction.’[13] In other words, “learn to expect nothing” is, from enforcement’s standpoint, the most desirable outcome of a risk well-managed.


It is here that Rainer’s and Sulkowicz’s stories converge; when, in 2014, the latter began preparations for Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) by drafting a set of instructions. For the entirety of her senior year, up to graduation – a period of nine months – Sulkowicz would carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere she went within the boundaries of Columbia campus. The performance would terminate as or when her rapist was expelled. She was not allowed to ask for help, though offers of assistance were welcome. Sulkowicz did add one amendment, though: the mattress could be stored in a safe location, provided she was in the same campus building at any one time. All professors were to be notified in advance of classes, and if the mattress was not tolerated, her spot in that class would effectively be denied. This never happened. Indeed, she told me that Professor Lydia Goehr began to treat the mattress, propped against the wall, much like a teaching aide.

Sulkowicz kindly shared excerpts with me from a diary she had kept over the course of her senior year. In an entry dated October 14, 2014 she writes: ‘If pillows were an apt metaphor for rape, I would switch to carrying a pillow in a fucking instant! However, I carry a mattress because rape is a big deal. It’s overwhelming, serious, grave, heavy, and hard to deal with. I struggle with my mattress. Pillows are cute, fluffy, light, and easy. You hug a pillow, but you grapple with a mattress.’[14] This mixture of indignation and self-reflection arose in response to a national day of action that had been called by a group of Sulkowicz’s closest friends and allies, who had taken up the mantle after the mainstreaming of Mattress Performance activated the campus imaginary. What started as an inclusive gesture on the part of the demo’s organisers to those students who wanted to participate but were physically unable to carry a mattress, risked devolving into Sulkowicz’s stated ‘worst fear’: ‘That’ (and I quote) ‘at some colleges 100 people will carry pillows and be taking selfies using the hashtag #carrythatweight or #emmasulkowicz or #carryingtheweighttogether while a few brave souls struggle to carry their mattresses for the day.’[15]


To be clear: Sulkowicz’s worry about the integrity of Mattress Performance is not based on any kind of ableism. Instead, ‘grappling with a mattress’ must here be understood categorically as an action. Indeed, the words themselves convey this weight. For Hannah Arendt, action is not a being but a doing; it is, as Bonnie Honig has written, ‘always unfinished business, committed… to the settlement and unsettlement of identities, both personal and institutional… it is an activist, democratic politics of contest, resistance, and amendment.’[16] An action cannot be reproduced or ascribed conventions; it is totally unique, a rebirth through the asymmetrical plurality of voices. What Sulkowicz was grappling with, in other words, was, as she reported a few weeks earlier, ‘something larger than me.’ (Oct 15, 2016).


How, then, does Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance bear on the mattresses that are lugged around the stage during Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets? There is no easy answer to be found in what Griselda Pollock calls ‘the modernist museum’; for Sulkowicz was not familiar with Rainer’s performance, nor for that matter did she know about Ana Mendieta’s early interventions on Iowa University campus that also involved the mattress, nor did she know about the landmark exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, held at MOCA in 2007, nor, indeed, was she clued up on histories of feminist politics, practice and theory. Such precedents only came into view later on.


In fact, Mattress Performance was championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and laterally, Roberta Smith, art critic of the New York Times, both of whom historicized the work, and publicly framed its timeliness in the face of those effects of Title IX described by Doyle. Thinking instead through the Virtual Feminist Museum and its openness to “exploratory relations”, what Sulkowicz did have a clear conception of, was this: a set of instructions that would direct the task in hand; actual experience of the actual weight of the body; the force of good that is having friends around; knowledge of the unreliability of the world, and, finally, a sense of what it means to act in that world.


I end with two receipts of purchase, from 1965 and 2014.




[1] Griselda Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum (London: Routledge, 2007), pp.10-11.

[2] Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (New York: Semiotext(e), 2015) I am grateful to Professor Jason Edwards, University of York, for recommending Doyle’s book.

[3] Elise Archias, The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), p. 27.

[4] Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 95…97.

[5] Yvonne Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses Called “Parts of Some Sextets.” Performed at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965”, The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965), p. 168.

[6] Catherine Wood, Yvonne Rainer: The Mind is a Muscle (Afterall, One Work Series), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), p. 81.

[7] Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961 – 73 (New York: Nova Scotia Art & Design, 1974), p. 106.

[8] Sara Ahmed, http://www.feministkilljoys.com

[9] Doyle, op cit., p. 23.

[10] Ibid., p. 30.

[11] Ibid., p. 38.

[12] Ibid., p. 38.

[13] Ibid., p. 33.

[14] Emma Sulkowicz, Private manuscript.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of the Political (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 77.