Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress on campus as part of her senior thesis, a performance art piece called “Carry That Weight.” Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
One week after drawing international attention to the issue of rape on college campuses, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz still hasn’t heard from her school. “It’s given me a voice, but what is the use of a voice when the ears you’re speaking to are completely shut?” she says. It feels, in fact, as if everyone other than the administration to whom she’s speaking is hearing her. “I realize that the university is extremely stubborn and they may never move a muscle.”
Sulkowicz made headlines last week for pledging to carry her mattress with her everywhere she goes this year, part of a performance art piece she’s calling “Carry That Weight,” a reference to the burden she feels she’s been carrying since her alleged on campus rape two years ago. Sulkowicz and two other women reported that the same student sexually assaulted them, yet he remains on campus. “The University closed the case in November of my junior year saying he is not responsible for any of our rapes,” says Sulkowicz.
Feeling defeated, the Visual Arts major looked for a new way to battle the injustice, hence the literal burden she’s begun carrying around campus. She has vowed to continue carrying the mattress until her attacker is expelled, or leaves voluntarily. When she started the project, Sulkowicz admitted to having second thoughts about putting herself out there in such a public way. “I was shaking with anxiety and fear, but my friends gave me the strength to continue.” What Sulkowicz didn’t anticipate was the flurry of media attention, including reporters tracking her down on campus, and a generally aggressive press. "A reporter grabbed my backpack and threw his ID in there while I was holding the mattress," she says. “I couldn’t stop him. It triggered memories of being raped.”
The project has also taken a toll on her body. Lugging the mattress up stairs and across streets has been physically taxing. Waking up on the third day, she dreaded carrying the mattress anywhere. “My muscles hurt so much that I didn’t even feel like I could even get out of bed,” she said. She is allowed to accept help, but not solicit it, and luckily her fellow students have been largely supportive. “It has been so extremely humbling,” she says. “People have started rallying around me to help me carry my mattress, and even talking about carrying their own mattresses in solidarity.” A student group working to end sexual assault plans to hold a rally on campus this Friday; many students are expected to bring their own mattresses.
Sulkowicz is holding out hope that the university won’t just reach out to her, but change their overall policies. “I want them to reopen cases where students have been mistreated via the Title IX Act. I also want them to release the data of just how many rapists were found responsible on campus last year,” she says. (Sulkowicz was one of over 20 Columbia students who filed a Title IX complaint accusing the school of repeatedly failing to handle sexual assault cases properly.)
A week in, Sulkowicz says she’s already learned the power of tackling the same issue from a different angle. A recent article on ArtNet described her piece as one of the most important artworks of the year following in the tradition of female performance artists such as Marina Abramović. And given the noise she’s making, it will be tough for the University to ignore her. Says, “I feel like creativity is the answer.”