Review: Beatrice Gibson. Camden Arts Centre, London.


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Interview: Mark Wallinger, The Human Figure in Space. Jerwood Gallery, Hastings.

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Review: Sriwhana Spong. a hook but no fish. Pump House Gallery, London.

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Johnnie Cooper: Sunset Strip

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Pleased to announce: I will be writing a monograph on the artist Johnnie Cooper, scheduled with Black Dog Publishing for late 2018. Peter Murray, founder of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, is contributing a foreword. The launch of this publication will coincide with a London-based retrospective of Cooper’s recent work.

Speak, Body Call for Papers: 21-3 April, 2017

Please click on the below link!

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Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture – Lampe VIII (1970)


Why I’m not talking about my artwork

*This paper was first presented at the World Picture Journal, Property conference, Cambridge University 13–4 December, 2016.*


 My paper will consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist and distributed through social networks, as an ambivalent expression of property ownership. I will consider two letters, written by Adrian Piper (2015) and Yvonne Rainer (2011), which differently intervene into the art world’s dominant conditions, in order to arrive at an understanding of “why property” –– a description that may at first seem counterintuitive, given these letters’ avowed critical function. This will mean thinking about the movement of exceptional goods through civil society, and, in turn, the livelihood of “public opinion” as a historical bourgeoise category, but ultimately I want to reflect on questions of style and rhetoric in two instances of literary culture. 

But first, an epigraph from the artist Mary Kelly, whose 1981 essay for Screen journal, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” usefully sets this inquiry’s scene :

The Work of art, filtered through the institutions and discourses that determine its specific conditions of existence, produces artistic authorship in the fundamental form of the bourgeois subject; creative, autonomous and proprietorial. In a sense there is no ‘alternative’ to that passage; for the very moment that the work of art enters into circulation it is sanctioned by law as the property of a creative subject (but not to enter into such contract would be to forfeit even the possibility that the artistic text, in the process of its construction of meaning, could indeed interrogate that form).[1] (46)

The artist is compelled to circulate her person through gallery openings, collectors’ dinners and Instagram, or be circulated retroactively as a personage in history; for the art-historical prestige that attaches to the indestructible form of the work of art springs from the social practice of conversational exchange. The art historian George Kubler understood this perfectly when he wrote in 1962 that ‘The most valuable critic of contemporary work is another artist engaged in the same game’; and hence the determinate vitality, in the mid-60s New York context, of a critic like the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston, whose weekly dance column squared current trends of aesthetic theory in art-making with the latest Downtown loft-party gossip.[2] The artist’s entrance into those beckoning material circuits is better for being well-timed, for unlike other commodities, artworks come alive when they are recognised as the products of, or, in the case of time-based media performances of, an artist, who either maintains a proprietorial connection to the aftermath of production or risks having that aftermath foisted upon her; and like other classes of symbolising goods that uphold social distinction, the artist must as a condition of her entry be seen to lavish that Liberal dictum [Slide: Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.][3] which is everywhere else under the Capitalist mode of production, being congealed to a pulp (Gallerte) 24/7.

Of course, artists do attempt in a number of ways to demystify the distinction that is achieved by their artworks. Where one artist mimics the labour contract that accompanies the sale or acquisition of a work, another might test the institutional apparatus that displays or markets those products – and these patterns of recuperation and détournement certainly, and importantly for my purposes, feature in the early practices of both Rainer and Piper. By way of a more recent concretion, note that the artist Maria Eichhorn sent all employees home for the run of her London show at the Chisenhale Gallery, titled 5 Weeks 25 Days 175 Hours. Writing for Kunstkritikk, Josefine Wilkström responded with the valid point that demonstratively “giving back time to the staff” does not equal the suspension of wage labour, nor does it stem the wearisome back-piling of administrative duties.[4] In fact, and this is the crux of the matter, such committed attempts only consolidate the “possessive individualism,” to borrow a term from the political theorist C.B. Macpherson, that emboldens the artist whose person provides quality insurance –– with each renunciation more conversations are galvanised, the valorisation process speeds up.

A paradox materialises – and this is what Kelly and other artists writing for Screen were getting at –; it is more likely that the artwork will be spoken about, its value as proxy to a talking-point enlarged, if the artist treats the aftermath of its life in the workplace as an occasion to publicly comment on the conversion of moral values to market values that sanctions its circulation. For the mingling artwork should be seen to possess a share, however immaterial or remote, of the artist’s “body” and “hands,” comportment and signature; while the artist is encouraged by her representation, to act as an ambassador on its behalf. In this sense the contemporary artist is distantly related to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise, who, as Marx responds to Bruno Bauer in his 1843 article, “On the Jewish Question”, leads ‘a double existence––celestial and terrestrial… liv[ing] in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he acts simply as a private individual.’[5] Leveraging some distance from the mechanisms of circulation, the late-career artist emerges as a concerned citizen who challenges the general loss of political obligation that, in Macpherson’s diagnosis of liberal democracy, accompanies the systemic privatisation of individual needs, with the only means available to her; namely, by broadcasting protests over the adulteration of her product at the hands of ‘alien power’. Yet something unexpected results from all of this: abetted by those same institutions and discourses that force the artist’s hand, these protests make their way back, via a ladder of progressively fattening stylistic rungs, to the artwork’s original point of social entry. By saying this I merely point to those contractual benefits that Kelly relegates with good conscience, which profit from the artist choosing not to forfeit the possibility of interrogating the form of the bourgeois subject. And true to form, placards are one day filed alongside programmes and pictures at the Getty Research Institute.

Too quaint an image? Played back, such a conclusion starts to sound as robust as the artist’s protest it sets out to criticise (and here I also have in mind Adam Curtis’s vulgar depiction of the critical artist Martha Rosler as a normalising agent of Neoliberal forces); for my characterisation courts the same charge of “positivist Ideologiekritik”; of a kind that, as Raymond Geuss explains, ‘can have the right effect… but cannot give an account of its own activity in bringing that effect about.’[6] As an art historian, I covet exactly these spiralling conversations, however wrongful that may be. By seeing in each material thing the ‘reflection’ of a conversation, and by bracketing that material, the artwork, so as to get a little closer to what went on in the wings or behind closed doors, I risk obfuscating what T.J. Clark once called the ‘network of real, complex relations between the two’. [Slide: I want to discover what concrete transactions are hidden behind the mechanical image of ‘reflection’, to know how ‘background’ becomes ‘foreground’; instead of analogy between form and content, to discover the network of real, complex relations between the two.][7] To address this blind side – my own lover’s disbelief – I want now to focus on a historical genre whose vocal passage from the terrestrial to the celestial interjects some requirement to reflect, and to dwell with these statements as effects of the work of art, by intimating for-us the join between critical theory and literary subjectivity.

And here I’m thinking of the open letter. It is one of those instrumental mediums that, in Habermas’s foundational account of the public sphere – which I read cautiously, with Miriam Hansen, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge over my shoulder – enables the organ of public opinion to jostle with public power for control over the regulation of social life. The open letter is a vital force for the bourgeoise, because, encoded in its DNA, is the repressed knowledge that the public, what Nina Power christens “the good public”[14], is the perverse efflorescence of a now-lost ‘sphere of purely human relations’.[8] Encircled by the novel pathos of Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and Goethe, this sphere crystallised in the eighteenth-century, which Habermas refers to, with some valedictory feeling, as “the century of the letter”. ‘Through letter writing,’ he writes, ‘the individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity… [Understood] as the innermost core of the private, [subjectivity] was always already oriented to an audience’.[9] Now, it is important that the German word Publikum here translates to ‘audience’ and takes in its predicate, ‘the innermost core of the private;’ for this word captures how, as Habermas goes on to write, ‘The sphere of the public arose in the broader strata of the bourgeoise as an expansion and at the same time completion of the intimate sphere of the conjugal family.’[10] Comically, we might say that the public desires nothing more than to be chided, then caressed, with the tender unconditionality of a good telling-off. Of course, as Negt and Kluge argue in their book Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, published in 1972, ten years after Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, such close-knit address immediately negates the experience of the majority class subject’s Lebenszusammenhang, that subject’s “context of living”; in fact, and this the authors simultaneously denigrate and re-imagine as a resource for future proletariat movements, publicness is nourished on the negation of that “context”.[11] Having said that, and here the paradox returns, this utopia does not hold for a phenomenon like the art world, whose token counterpublics horribly parody its promise; through its exceptional status vis-à-vis civil society, the art world subsists in a weird homologous relation to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise public sphere, classically imagined. Its labour, as Marina Vishmidt contends, is speculative; its context, spectral.[12]

From this world-historical view, I now want to read Piper’s and Rainer’s letters against themselves, as anachronic missives; that is, less as artist statements and more as peculiar emissaries of a disenchanted global microcosm.

Why I’m not talking about my artwork is the header of a PDF communication written by the artist Adrian Piper and posted last year on her official website.[13] This statement signals the renunciation of the artist’s engagement with her own work past and present; though to my mind it formally sabotages that same gesture, eliciting the following sort of ambivalence: [Slide: But what is the artist doing, if she is not talking about her artwork?] For within that perlocution [Slide: Why I’m not] lurks the contrary sense that however an artist chooses to sign, or simply “is present” as a minimal condition, something is being ‘oriented to an audience’.

Piper’s letter is interesting because, while it objectively criticises what I take to be a normative conception of the public sphere, its style defaults on that criticism. ‘One of the reasons I am not doing interviews or talks about my artwork for now,’ the letter opens, ‘is that I have already said more on this topic than any sane person could possibly want to read or hear… At the time… I felt the need to add my… concerns to the general discourse.’ Here, Piper evokes art criticism as a shared and enclosed world capable of mediating subject and object; something like Habermas’s ‘rational-critical debate in the world of letters’. As she goes on to say, ‘Circulating those ideas within the shared discourse also had the unwanted side effect of sabotaging those ideas themselves… I in effect mediated that relationship through my discourse about it, thus undermining the ability of viewers to enter into it!’ In this passage, the concentration and transference of discourse from the ‘general’ to the ‘shared’ to ‘my own’ shows Piper to be cognizant and critical of the processes by which an artist’s utterances are fashioned into an intrigue surrounding her life story, around which in turn, artworks link to form an incontestable halo. Piper’s acknowledged sabotage and the intrigue to which this gives rise is not attributable, however; this intrigue does not appear (at least) to possess a “sense of having”, but instead manifests a “being”. By her mere authorial presence, Piper admits, the artist has heretofore excluded viewers from entering into an exchange with her work; yet underlying this, too, is the subjective feeling that it is the artist who is interpolated by the viewer, as a “block” to such an exchange, and never so acutely as when her status as artist is under threat or in question –– a tautology that is painfully and contradictorily expressed by the work of art. Piper thus clarifies a worldly truth about artworks, which is that they often stimulate bad feelings about relationships; the artist, we may infer, sometimes experiences other people as a reflection that is dazzling –– her unshakeable “individualism” harshly exposes what Marx calls ‘the real energy and movement of private property’[15] that is everywhere transmuted through the division of labour. It is for this reason, I argue, that Piper’s letter can only retreat from such a recognition, by recapitulating the above conversation through an image of her own practice. [Slide] ‘That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ Here the artist employs an analytical formulation that summons her early interventions into a set of 1960s art world discourses, propagated in the main by the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. The designation “P” functions as a second-order motif, one that signifies the author’s formative practice; the authorial voice is synchronised with the artist’s timeline, and this letter’s renunciation is most succinctly expressed in terms that are, if not self-referential, at least evocative of that self’s reservoir of signs.

The second letter I want to read does foreground ‘the totalising logic of Capitalism,’ as Ellen Meiksins Wood would reassert it; here I see a genuine attempt to muster something like a counterpublic from within the art world.[16] In 2011, Yvonne Rainer wrote an open letter to Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, decrying a performance, orchestrated by Marina Abramović, that was to be held over the course of a donors’ gala dinner. “It has come to my attention,” wrote Rainer, after having been informed of the proceedings by a renegade auditionee, “that a number of young people will be ensconced under the diners’ tables on lazy Susans and also be required to display their nude bodies under fake skeletons.”[17] Rainer’s disgust over a performance situation in which young artists, in search of a break by any means, have been asked to remain immobile for a period of three hours while their protruding heads steadily rotate through an arrangement of dining table glory holes, when it cannot be promised that donors won’t try to touch, feed or insult them, is buttressed by the cool fact that they are prospectively being paid $150 for two days’ work. Rainer’s letter thus treats Abramovic’s entertainment symptomatically, as indicative of the generally exploitative working conditions that undergird the art world’s uppermost tiers, predicated as they are, on a ramping up of absolute surplus value:

This description is reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramovic and MOCA have no such credibility, only a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact.


Rainer’s elaboration imbricates the work in a discursive tangle that situates the art world against dominant social conditions: For the mention of Salò invokes, via the figure of the Marquis de Sade, Adorno and Horkheimer’s “culture industry” thesis and their joint analysis of entertainment as a primary site for the extraction of value from bodies under capitalism, which in turn indicts Abramovic and MOCA’s lack of credibility along an axis that renders those schooled in such references somehow complicit too. This is a deliberately refractive gesture, then, which properly points to the social limits of criticism in the process of raising, collectivising and distributing a concern through the art world.

But isn’t this now too overweening? For on the other hand, these sentences are patently representative of Rainer’s idiosyncratic patterns of speech and writing; and the “flimsy rationale about eye contact” which she does concede as a positive remainder of the Abramovic x MOCA spectacle, seems to usher her own performance histories in with the criticism’s punch line, (note that “eye contact” has posed a theoretical problem throughout Rainer’s career.) Descending a few more rungs of the ladder, images of Rainer’s signature work, Trio A, fall behind others of a formative Abramović, immobile, immaculate, touched, fed and insulted, resembling Salò more closely still, perhaps, through their coeval reduction to a body abused by hand and prop –– the person of the artist becomes the pedestal to a banquet.


I have been curious to know how such authority silently reendows the form of the bourgeoise subject; where Piper looks to for redress; why Rainer serves Abramović on a silver platter; and what this says about the artist’s achieved career. I don’t want to say “competition” because that could be construed as a dirty word in this context, but there is something palpably going on in the open letter form, which warrants such reflection.

[1] Mary Kelly, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” Screen 22:3 (1981), p. 46.

[2] George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale UP, 1962), p. 23.

[3] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1689) Section 27.

[4] Josefine Wilkström, http://www.kunstkritikk.com/kritikk/a-not-radical-enough-gesture/

[5] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” (1943) Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 220.

[6] Raymond Geuss, The Idea of Critical Theory: Habermas & the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), p. 29.

[7] T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art, Image of the People: Courbet and the Revolution of 1848 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1973), p. 22.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1992), p. 48.

[14] Nina Power, http://www.tkh-generator.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/tkh-20eng-web.pdf

[9] Ibid., pp. 48-9.

[10] Ibid., p. 50.

[11] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (London: Verso, 2016).

[12] Marina Vishmidt, http://transformativeartproduction.net/the-politics-of-speculative-labour/

[13] http://www.adrianpiper.com/docs/Piper2015OnNotTalkingAboutMyArtworkWebsite.pdf

[15] Karl Marx, “1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844), Early Writings, p. 341.

[16] Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 2016).

[17] http://theperformanceclub.org/2011/11/yvonne-rainer-douglas-crimp-and-taisha-paggett-blast-marina-abramovic-and-moca-la/

Encountering the Mattress in the Virtual Feminist Museum

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.