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EMMA SULKOWICZ ON THE PERFORMANCE OF LIFE AND THE MAGIC OF PARTICIPATION

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

EMMA SULKOWICZ lives and makes art in her hometown, New York City. She is best known for her senior thesis at Columbia University, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), an endurance performance artwork in which she carried a dorm mattress everywhere she went on campus for as long as she attended the same school as the student who assaulted her. Her more recent works include Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, an Internet-based participatory artwork, and Self-Portrait (Performance With Object), in which she made herself available to answer questions from viewers, but referred questions she was not willing to answer to Emmatron, her life-sized robotic double.

 

 

Odyssey Works: A lot of the work you do is long durational, and that’s unusual in our age of fast-paced media and fast-paced lives. However, you also heavily utilize technology. What inspires you to work in these differing forms?

Emma Sulkowicz: Well, how boring would it have been if I had carried the mattress for only one day? For that piece, it seemed like long durational performance art was the only form in which anything productive and interesting could happen, given what I was trying to work with. Two of my pieces have been long durational; however, most of my other work is not. I consider myself an artist who works in many different mediums, but for Mattress Performance and Self-Portrait, long durational performance art was the best way to convey my ideas.

All of my work falls under the umbrella of relational aesthetics, which, the way I understand it, includes not just the performance or the objects in the room, but also all the audience reactions to the performance and the objects. Framing things that way changes the way the audience engages with your work. The mattress performance was kind of a crash course in relational aesthetics when I saw how much it took off on the internet, more than it even took off on the ground. So in a way, the technology is unavoidable, because everything, at a certain point, is going to get reproduced for the internet.

 

The parameters of  Mattress Performance.  Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

The parameters of Mattress Performance. Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

 

OW: What influences led you to start creating these more experimental kinds of art? And what is your current process like?

ES: I would have to point to a specific moment in time when I went to the Yale Norfolk Residency.  You know, when you’re a student, you make a certain type of  work that you’re assigned to make, whereas when I went to this residency, and I was so fortunate to be able to do that at such a young age, we were encouraged to make really anything we wanted. That was my first taste of what it’s actually like to be an artist, because once you leave school, no one’s ever going to give you an assignment again. So being in the residency and having all this freedom to make whatever I wanted led me to explore new forms.

When I’m working on a project, I do research. For example, right now I’m working on a piece that would take the form of a fake doctor’s office that would be open for a month. In some respects, I started getting interested in it when I read Derrida’s writings on hospitality. From there, I figure out what I have to read next. Maybe I have to refresh my Lacan, or I have to revisit a Freud essay. One thing leads to another, and throughout my readings, I’m picking up material to use for my art.

And sometimes I find inspiration from more concrete objects or experiences. I did this one piece recently where I saw advertising on the subway for the Alberto Burri show at the Guggenheim that made me really angry, so within the same week I made a counter advertisement of my own and installed it on the subway. I didn’t need any theory for that. It just comes from an impulse. I see something, it either upsets me or gets me excited for some reason, and then I decide how to engage with it. I think that I speak most clearly through my art, so it just sort of naturally comes out as an art piece, rather than, say, an essay.

 

I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself.

 

OW: Your recent piece in LA spoke to how you are perceived and mediated. And a lot of your other work is in public space and is very engaged with the real world. So how do you view the relationship between reality and performance? 

ES: I think that when I began Mattress Performance, I really thought there was a distinction between when you’re performing and when you’re living, and I worked really hard to delineate the two. But whenever I see some sort of binary forming, I try to break it down, so in Self-Portrait, my goal was to perform as my usual self on the platform. I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself. I was interested in how people would—because I was on a platform in a gallery—treat me differently from how I expect they would have treated me had we met somewhere else, like at a party. They approached me differently simply because I was in a different space, in a different context—when my assignment, on the other hand, was just to act normally.

I mean, if the person I was talking to was pissing me off, I’d be very blunt with them, and if the person was being really nice and I enjoyed the conversation, I would engage with just as much excitement as I would normally. I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.

 

Self-Portrait . Credit JK Russ. 

Self-Portrait. Credit JK Russ. 

 

OW: Do think that the piece was successful? And how do you define success in your work?

ES: Yes. I learned a lot from it. I saw how some people would come in and really engage with the piece, and would leave feeling like they’d learned something, too, whereas other people would not be willing to give themselves over to the piece, and would then come away from it not having gained anything. For example, this one guy, who was a professor somewhere, came in, sat down on the platform across from me, and just decided it was his time to give me sort of an artful critique. However, he seemed to know nothing about political performance art. You know, I’m really excited to talk to people no matter how much reading they’ve done, but it’s frustrating when they’re then going to feel entitled to educate me on their beliefs, when I haven’t asked them to educate me. His combative mode of conversation was really off-putting. I explained why he was wrong, and I think he left feeling not so great about the piece. Overall, I think everyone’s reactions to the piece were so dependent on how they entered the room. This guy decided that he wanted to have an argument with me, so he left with kind of a sour taste in his mouth. But people who came in wanting to have fun or something like that tended to leave feeling happy. It was full of nuance and different for every person.

I definitely had envisioned it initially as a piece in which I’d show people that I’m human and not this robot they think I am, but as the piece evolved, I realized that actually there was something else going on. A lot of people came not because they wanted to engage with this game of “Is it Emma or Emmatron?” but because they had an agenda for something they wanted to tell me or something they wanted to give me…I can’t even tell you how many people brought gifts. A lot of people brought gifts as if they were offerings, a lot of people cried. That’s not really engaging with the artwork as I set it up, but I realized that everyone had their own agenda for coming.

 

OW: Mattress Performance was centered around an object that carried a symbolic meaning you and others put on it. Did you consider the mattress a magical object? 

ES: I certainly did not, but I think other people did. Marcel Mauss’ A General Theory of Magic is a really interesting book to me. One exercise you can do with that book is actually replacing the word “magician” with “artist” every time it comes up. I think that you can really understand why people might consider the mattress a magical object when you read that book that way.

People would come up to me and say “You know, I’ve been sitting in the middle of campus all day, waiting for you to walk by, so that I can help you carry that.” And I was so surprised. Because to me, at that point…the mattress was dirty. I had to wash my hands after I touched it, it was so gross, and all these people thought they were going to have some crazy transcendental experience touching it? In a certain sense, that does mean it was magical, because if it made people feel a certain way when they touched it, then sure, I guess it worked a kind of magic.  But from my perspective, we were really all just touching this dirty rectangle thing.

The sign of the mattress functions on two levels. There’s the purely symbolic level, which bears all this meaning, and perhaps magic, and then there’s the level at which it could have been any mattress. It’s just another object.

 

Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?

 

OW: What do you see as the purpose of participation in your work?

ES: What I took away from Marcel Mauss’ book is that magic works because people believe in it. There’s an old example in the book, which is Moses at the rock producing water in front of the people of Israel, and Mauss says “…while Moses may have felt some doubts, Israel certainly did not.”  Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?  So, if I didn’t have participants, there would be no magic. And if art is very similar to magic, then there would be no art.

 

OW: At Odyssey Works, we try to cultivate an inner journey for our participant. Did you feel that Mattress Performance was transformative in this way for you and for those witnessing it?

ES: It was extremely transformative for me. The final product was something entirely different from what I had planned, and it was amazing to see how it took on a life of its own. I am not sure if people were immediately transformed upon seeing the performance in person. However, if we are to believe that it transformed the discourse on sexual assault, it must have been transformative for others. At least, I hope it was.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

TODD SHALOM ON POETIC DECISION-MAKING

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

TODD SHALOM works with text, sound, and image to recontextualize the body in space with the vocabulary of the everyday. He is the founder and director of Elastic City, a nonprofit participatory walk organization. Elastic City makes its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit. Shalom leads walks alone and in collaboration with other artists, and works with artists in different disciplines to adapt their expertise to the participatory walk format. Walks use sensory-based techniques, reinvented folk rituals, and other exercises to investigate and intervene in the daily life of the city, its variously defined communities, and its identity politics.

We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

 

Odyssey Works: You talk about framing and the way that you direct people to essentially draw a line around a thing to be beheld—and there’s some kind of magic action that happens when you draw that line. It’s an action upon attention, on the way we see. How does that magic action inform your work writ large?

Todd Shalom: The framing is a prompt I give on a walk in which I say that one person’s going to make a composition with their fingers, drawing a frame, and the other person’s going to name that composition.

Each artist comes to a walk with different things that they can offer, given their practice, and we’re really hoping to shape the participants' relationships to the group and themselves and the neighborhood in a new light. We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

If we choose to use props, they’re generally very purposeful. Really, everything is purposeful on a walk. For example, the route—how we get from here to there—is just as important as what we do when someone gives a prompt at a spot where we’re all standing. The route is part of the walk. The walk is not about a thing, the walk is the thing. The walk is the performance.

 

Ideally  by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

Ideally by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

 

OW: What constitutes good in that moment? What constitutes effective? What constitutes where you’re trying to go?

TS: First, I want to make sure that the prompts are poetic, that they’re clear and concise, and that they give just enough information and boundaries to direct someone to do something, while still giving them space to dream. I think if you’re super specific, it can be really limiting, and someone can really shut down and not open up to the prompt. And if you’re too open, it’s overwhelming. I think there should be a balance.

In rehearsals, I’m always imagining the worst possible participant, and this is someone I love playing. I play the person who reacts against the prompt, who doesn’t want to follow it, who takes someone’s words and twists them into the disruptive or obnoxious.

A good prompt can really hinge on a keyword. If I say "box" instead of "frame," or if I say we’re going to make a “thing” instead of a “composition,” it changes the prompt. It’s good if people are participating, period. But it’s not great. I want more than that, so I change and tweak the prompts. The person leading the walk has so much agency, and I think that I really like to be in a spot where I feel comfortable enough to give that agency back. But again, if you give too much control to the group, the whole thing could kind of fall apart.

If the prompt is good enough, I think that it will get people to see the poetry in the words, and they’ll come up with new meanings. In one sense, this whole project has been about taking poetry off the page. So when people are thinking about the prompts in a poetic way, then I think the walk has been successful.

 

All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones.

 

OW: Tell us about your journey from poetry to your work with Elastic City.

TS: What I’m really interested in is what I call "poetic decision-making." All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones. What one names the file on their desktop, what one chooses to wear today, what route one takes—these are opportunities. In my work, I really want to bring forth these opportunities. Beauty or wonder or sorrow or nostalgia can be aspects of the decision-making process. So I think that everyone is in that way an artist, you know. Whether or not they’re making compelling work is for someone else to judge, but I think my work seeks to foreground the opportunities we have in our decision-making.

After studying poetry for a while, I felt dissatisfied with it. I just didn’t feel like poetry on the page was the best way in which I could express what I wanted to. And the performance of poetry felt limited, because I would have to read a poem aloud a bunch of times for someone to be able to get underneath it. I thought there had to be something else.

I’d always been interested in sound, and especially in how I could combine text and sound. Then I took some courses at Mills College, and someone told me to check out the work of Robert Ashley, and so I did. Then he was on the cover of The Wire, the UK music magazine, and the article following the feature on him was about acoustic ecology, which is the study of sonic environments. It was as if, all of a sudden, I’d found poetics in sound that were gorgeous and accessible. It didn’t seem wrapped in academic jargon. It was something I could easily get into. I especially loved the idea of soundwalks, walks that focus on listening to the soundscape around you. That's what gave me a way into this form. But I felt that the silent soundwalks with maybe some prompts given at the very beginning were a little too purist and a little too boring to me. While that serves a purpose as an academic exercise, I felt like there could be so much more engagement.

I started using a bunch of soundwalk prompts from an acoustic ecology handbook I found in the Mills library. Then I started to create my own. And then I got sick of giving soundwalks, because I’d been giving them for almost five years, and I started to wonder what else I could incorporate into the form.  And I knew poetry, so I realized I could play with text, or maybe make a visual poem. Then I thought, “How can other artists work in this form?” At this point, I knew the walk form. I knew how to get people to participate. So I decided to find artists and work with them to take their knowledge in a given discipline and adapt that to the walk form. In the process, I’ve learned so many different ways of experiencing a place—from designers, therapists, photographers, choreographers—all these different artists. My experiences of many places, but especially of New York, are so layered now. For example, I can tell you what kind of sound a specific manhole cover is going to make when a car goes over it. I have this really weird knowledge of the city now, combined with memories from all these walks and personal memories. It’s saturating.

 

OW: How does the idea of personal or collective histories being part of the space inform the work?

TS: I gave Lucky Walk with Juan Betancurth, and we went near where I used to live on 15th and 6th. We looked around and gleaned text from the signage we saw on the street, and then we performed our text in chorus, almost like a Jackson Mac Low poem. My own personal history is definitely built into the walks, especially into why I may create a given walk. But it's more important to me to make room for a participant's experience.  

 

OW: There’s an idea that to be participatory means to be democratic in some way. If you’re literally and figuratively guiding the participants in one direction or another, do you think that’s still true in the case of what you do, or does it not really apply?

TS: Well, I don’t necessarily think it’s democratic, but the participants are co-creators of the work. They complete the work. Since I use the trope of a walking tour, people are looking to be led. And people are already participating without realizing it, just by walking, so that’s a nice thing that's built in. I’m facilitating, essentially. Everyone is given the option of not participating if they don’t want to. No one is being forced. (And we don’t use blindfolds, for instance, because I think that’s dangerous, especially in the city. It doesn’t allow you control if you need it in a split second, which you may. You may need to see because a bus is coming, who knows.) There’s no control over someone, there are just offerings. It’s up to the individual whether or not to accept them. But if no one goes on the walk, I’m giving prompts to no one, so we do need people to be on the walk.

I don’t think I’d call my work truly democratic, because that would imply total shared authorship, or maybe consensus, and that’s not it. I feel like when I’ve experimented with that, it's felt good, because everyone was involved in the decision-making, but aesthetically, I wasn't usually so pleased with the results. You often end up with a lowest common denominator aesthetic. I want to give some agency or authority back, but I don’t want to give it all over. I think it’s important to lead or facilitate, and it’s just a question of to what degree at a given moment.

 

Fabstractions  by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

Fabstractions by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

 

OW: Can you demonstrate what a prompt for this space might look like?

TS: Well, there’s a fountain here, and it’s not being activated. The obvious thing that comes to my mind is to throw a coin in there and make a wish. The other thing would be maybe to blow a wish into the fountain, so that you could see a ripple on the water. There’s something about a wish. When I see a fountain, I want to make a wish. Or, since the fountain’s not currently moving, perhaps it’s more melancholic. Maybe it’s a moment to think about someone who’s died, and place all of that in that bird that’s resting there. Our prompt can be, "If the bird were to fly away and travel with a message to someone who’s died, who would that message be to, and what would that message be?Take a minute or two, construct that message, and silently send it to the bird to deliver. We will not share these messages with the others who are seated here.”

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Interview by Abe Burrickson and Ana Freeman. Adapted from the live interview by Ana Freeman.