For her senior thesis in visual arts at Columbia University, senior Emma Sulkowicz will carry around a mattress everywhere she goes as long as her rapist is enrolled at the same Ivy League school as she is. The public project reflects the fact that Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm bed at the beginning of her sophomore year.
“The piece could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate,” she explains in a video about her project published on the Columbia Spectator. “For me, it’s an endurance performance arts piece.”
The student who assaulted Sulkowicz currently remains on campus — even though two other women who attend Columbia University have also brought sexual assault complaints against him. Last spring, Sulkowicz joined a group of students to file a federal Title IX complaint accusing Columbia of mishandling rape cases. And since then, she’s spoken to multiple news outlets about her disappointment in the administration officials and police officers who failed to deliver her justice.
Now, as Sulkowicz embarks on her senior thesis — entitled Carry That Weight or Mattress Performance — her mattress has been transformed into a powerful symbol of her sexual assault. Under the terms of her performance art project, she’s not allowed to ask for help carrying the bulky object, but she is allowed to accept help from others if they take the initiative to offer.
“A mattress is the perfect size for me to just be able to carry it enough that I can continue with my day, but also heavy enough that I have to continually struggle with it,” the senior explains in her video. “I think the other thing about beds is that we keep them in our bedroom, which is our intimate and private space… The past year or so of my life has been really marked by telling people what happened in that most intimate, private space and bringing it out into the light.”
Although the art project just launched on Tuesday, it’s already received significant coverage in the national media and won the praise of sexual assault activists. The visual arts professor who worked with Sulkowicz to develop the concept, Jon Kessler, told the Columbia Spectator that her piece could ultimately impact campus culture. “As a physical metaphor, the piece has tremendous power,” he noted.
Columbia University is no stranger to bold acts of protest against sexual assault. Back in 1999, students there started using red tape to symbolize their administration’s inaction on issues related to rape and violence, proclaiming that “red tape won’t cover up rape.” This past school year, current students resurrected the so-called “red tape protests” again, which quickly spread to other college campuses. And last spring, fed up with the lack of progress on the school’s sexual assault policy, Columbia students made national headlines by scrawling the names of accused rapists on bathroom walls all over campus.
Administrators have attempted to placate protesters by making some updates to the campus sexual assault policy. Nonetheless, the controversy swirling around the school hasn’t abated. Just a few days ago, the Nation obtained and published an email exchange between school administrators that students say exhibits a disdain for the anti-rape movement on campus.