Like Atlas who carried the weight of the world, or Sisyphus, who struggled with a weight on an incline, Columbia University Senior Emma Sulkowicz is carrying around her navy blue twin-sized mattress around campus. The visual arts major will use this endurance art performance as part of her senior thesis project. It brings a mattress – something that is intimate and personal – out into the light of the campus of community.
Entitled “Carry That Weight,” the project is the story of her journey, and her criticism of Columbia’s policies on sexual assault adjudication. It is an art piece, not a demonstration. At the end of her sophomore year, Sulkowicz alleges that she was raped by her date, a fellow student. She reported it months later, and filed a complaint, but the school found the male student “not responsible.” They also found him not responsible in two other complaints. For over a year, she has spent time healing and trying to convince classmates, administrators, and the police that a rape occurred. She has committed to carrying around the mattress everywhere she goes on campus, to classes and appointments, “for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist.”
Emma is one of 23 Columbia students who are currently part of a federal complaint against Columbia over its policies regarding sexual assaults among students and its alleged mishandling of complaints. It is part of a larger movement in the United States that seeks to define the legal standard of sexual assault on campuses. Governor Jerry Brown of California is expected to sign California Senate Bill 967 before Yom Kippur; it would replace a “no means no” standard to “yes means yes” – meaning that a lack of consent or silence or drunkenness does not mean “yes” on private and public college campuses.
In the video below, Sulkowicz explains her #CarryThatWeight performance. While she has found support from the campus community, she said that she was not prepared for the news crews and reporters that staked out her dorm and classrooms and demanded interviews (sort of similar to intellectually raping her). Many reporters were overly aggressive, some invaded her personal space: touching her mattress, person and backpack as if she is an interactive art piece.
You may be familiar with one of her other student art projects: “You Made Me This.” As a student of Japanese/Chinese-Jewish/Polish heritage, her four prints were of images and words and portraits of other “mixed” students explored being “half-this and half-that.”