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Emma Sulkowicz’s lesson on complaint

I am intrigued by the difference and distinguishment of formal and informal complaints. The book Complaint! By Sara Ahmed mainly addresses formal types of complaining but encourages complaining in all forms and shapes.
“Formal” complaints are consider here those ones that follow procedures given by the institution, and “informal” are those who don’t ask for permission, are done without premeditated or stablished frame.
I know filling forms and reporting in legal ways is the lets-say-propper-way to do things but is the informal way of complaining that captures my attention.

As Sara explains in Part III “Participation and protection”, there is a power when an action or protest reaches and interferes the reputation of the institution. It is this moment when the structure moves and reacts to an “attack”. If the procedure is kept in the shade of a folder it is less likely to success. I suggest that the procedures kept in the silent corridors of the institution can benefit when they are combined with posters, megaphones and graffitis.

But for sure there is a risk to sound radical, to make “too much noise” and be seen as over exaggerating. This might cause “neutral” people reject the original cause because of the “extremism”. This makes me think about what I have heard from (other) adults around me when protest and riots happen in the street and urban furniture or public properties are damaged. You can often hear things like “yes, I think the same but they have tho mind their manners”. I am sorry I do not care that much about those trash cans. Anyway, I can understand this but I will try to explain my point in the next paragraphs. I would like to add that writing about this confrontates my insides as it has been a while since I do any non formal complain that has this kind of impact. I am -just- writing in the internet.

In any case, here I share an overview of a good example where formal and informal types of complaining collide and work together. This is Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). It is mentioned in Sara Ahmed´s book in page 290 as an example to “turn spaces into complaints”. This case of complaint activism consist of complaining about the sexual assaults that happens in the campus of Columbia University. (Morningside Heights, Manhattan, in New York City). In this case, the former art student Emma Sulkowicz alleged to be raped by another student of the University and the institution never positioned in order to protect the victim. Her aim was to get the University to expel the alleged rapist. She made paperwork as well as act of protest in order to call attention to her situation.

She carried a mattress around campus as showing the physical place and physical burden that she has to carry. It was a 23 kg university dormitory mattress that she would have to carry following the rules of engagement she decided until her rapist was taken out of the University. The rules were written in the walls of her studio and she considers the piece as an endurance performance art. He was never expelled from the University and the paperwork procedure finished without charges, as a lack of reasonable suspicion.

Emma Sulkowicz’s performance, Carry The Weight. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Emma’s complaint was filled 8 months after the encounter and she made it mainly after knowing that two other female students who said they had also been victimized by him. After Emma’s complaint, these other students also filed complaints with the university against the same masculine student. This is a clear example of the behavior of complaints.

“One story coming out can lead to more stories coming out”

Sara Ahmed, Complaint!. Pg 8

Having the both paths to show discomfort about a rape situation (paperwork and performance), I would like to proceed and evaluate them as in different stats that can define the “power” of a complaint. Inspired by the interner phenomenon of “Tier lists” where users subjectively rank for example the characters of a video game based on stablished criteria, I will try to rank complaints as my own established stats.

I thought about five parameters to calculate how good a complaint is:
The importance for the person making the complaint. Does the person complaining feel satisfied with this action.
The impact on the environment. How did it affect to the mates, colleagues, team, family…
The impact on the institution. How did it affect the people that work in the institution/are part of the structure that the person complains about.
The changes on the institution. Did it change any rule or policy in the institution
The safety for the person making the complaint. Did the complainer expose themself to any possible external attack (example: revealing their names or face, being a body in a hostile space, compromising their career…)

This Emma Sulkowicz’s complaint comparison would look like the image below

Radar chart with the comparison. (Media created in

Knowing the performance has better stats than the paperwork, I would suggest the performance would be in a higher rank in the list than the other option. But could the performance live without the paperwork? I could also consider if the complaint was only consisting about the performance, it would have been taken completely different by the public. The paperwork, the boring folder, is what grounds the procedure for the “real world”. Me personally, I hate to say this as I do find this ethically good but I also have to acknowledge the structure in which the institution positions us.

In my opinion, Emmas performance was a great example of the fruitfully relation between these two types of complaining. The performance made its way to media so it could gather attention of viewers. Therefore, the so mentioned environment grew. On the other hand, none of the paths had any “real” change in the institution. Should we think this complaint was a failure? I would leave that to the consideration of the viewer as I consider there is no way to have an answer for this. That also makes me think, how would a complaint with impeccable stats be? Is that even possible?

Rethinking the image, it also comes to my mind that it is overall sad. Despite the effort and time spent there was no real change in the institution. For sure, the noise being made and the attention in the case is not bad and it is better like this than without it. The times I am feeling weak and tragic I look at the “real” results and it just gives me hopelessness. Is it worth doing it?

As a conclusion, I understand the importance of the tedious filling forms format but I will always reassess and support the other kinds of complaints. (maybe they could be called in German as “bunte Beschwerden”?)

Ahmed, S. (2021). Complaint!. New York, USA: Duke University Press.

By Belén Arellano Cañizares

a body that breathes. everything else that happens is just decoration.

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