Emma Sulkowicz performing "Mattress Performance" or "Carry That Weight" (screenshot via YouTube)

Emma Sulkowicz performing “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight” (screenshot via YouTube)

A Columbia University student who says she was raped in her dorm room on campus is launching a performance art piece to call attention to her experience as well as the larger epidemic of sexual assault at US colleges. Emma Sulkowicz, now a senior majoring in visual arts, will carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere she goes “for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” she told the Columbia Spectator. “The piece could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate.”

Sulkowicz claims she was raped on the first day of her sophomore year of Columbia. She reported the assault to the college, along with two other women who claimed to have been raped by the same man, but all three cases were dismissed. Sulkowicz detailed in an interview with Time magazine the university’s alleged mishandling of her case, from a panelist who “kept asking me how it was physically possible for anal rape to happen” to a dean with authority to unilaterally decide the outcome of all sexual-assault case appeals. An article in Al Jazeera America details her experience of going to the NYPD, which was hardly better, as officers insinuated that she was lying and hadn’t been raped because she couldn’t remember the color of her assaulter’s eyes.

Sulkowicz is also part of a group of Columbia students who, earlier this year, filed complaints against their school with the federal government “charging systematic mishandling of assault claims and mistreatment of victims.

In the piece for Time, Sulkowicz explains the trauma she’s faced over two years of having to share a campus with her rapist. “Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating,” she wrote.

Her senior thesis project, titled “Mattress Performance” or “Carry That Weight,” makes that burden visible and tangible. It also relates to how sexual assault survivors, if they choose to speak out, are forced to make extremely personal information public. As Sulkowicz told the Spectator:

I think the other thing about beds is that they’re — we keep them in our bedroom, which is like our intimate space, our private space where we can retreat if we don’t want to deal with anyone at that moment, but I think 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. So I think the act of like carrying something that is normally found in our bedroom out into the light is supposed to mirror the way I’ve talked to the media and talked to different news channels, etc.

Columbia promised earlier this year to revisit and reform the way it handles sexual assault, according to the New York Times, but there’s been no comment on Sulkowicz’s case specifically. It will be interesting to see how the school responds, if at all, to the attention the performance piece generates, and what will happen if Sulkowicz shows up at her, and her alleged rapist’s, graduation ceremony with the mattress in hand.

h/t Daily Intelligencer 

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

32 replies on “Until Alleged Rapist Is Disciplined, Columbia Art Student Will Carry Mattress Around Campus”

  1. OK, so we know school administrators whitewash rape and sexual abuse because they want to protect the school’s reputation, which in turn protects their own job security and bank accounts. But what reason do cops have for being likewise belligerent and unethical?

    1. Cops don’t do shit when it comes to rape, child molestation and even most murders these days.
      sickening how many cases of each sick up on the shelf never even looked
      into. It’s not all the police’s fault (although it seems alot of them
      don’t take it very serous) it always stems from not enough man power to
      the legal system being a system of money and not of morals. Morally bad
      crimes are treated with a slap on the wrist where in money crimes
      (drugs, stealing large sums of money, etc aka anything that makes money)
      are treated very harshly.

      Yes there are a few cases where
      people will lie about being raped. and in some cases it’s hard to prove.
      But I’ve seen first hand someone with ALL the right evidence be turned
      away or the paperwork will be “lost”.

      Summed up. Police aren’t
      the protectors they used to be. They’ve been reduced to fascist ticket
      providers made up of old school bullies. And the good cops? the ones who
      really want to do good? The system is so broken that they get in trouble for trying to do good.

      1. While both of the points above about school administrators and cops are valid, there is a far more insidious, underlying attitude to both, and it’s the same reason rape is so common: the prevailing presumption, among both male predators and the institutions that are supposed to punish them, that just by virtue of being female, women are powerless, and they are “asking for it.” Just like the perpetrators of these crimes, these institutions treat women as irrational liars, as bodies rather than people, as second-class citizens not worthy of the protection of the law.

    2. Are you really that naive? Do you have any idea how poor rape investigation records are amongst police forces throughout the world, including supposedly ‘developed’ countries? How often victims are blamed by police and by judges? How judges get away with comments like ‘rules are like women, made to be violated’?

  2. How is carrying a ”mattress” performing? If she did get raped that’s messed up but the mattress thing makes it really silly. I’m guessing that there must be some medical evidence after you get anally raped so why wasn’t she pursuing that?

    1. It’s performing because it’s a live action that happens with the human body in real space and with an awareness of the audience.
      And i don’t think it’s silly.It’s making sure this allegation doesn’t get swept under the carpet – it keeps it in the public eye, it makes both the people who see it on the campus, and me, reading about it in the uk, think about what happened in a very different way than if we just read about the alleged rape.
      As for your question about medical evidence, i think ur being a bit presumptious if – from reading an article in Vice – you feel you’re in a position to decide what evidence should or should not be available.

      1. I doubt that when you get ”anally raped” that there is no evidence. Perhaps trying to shove a wide object down your anus with force might convince you otherwise. As far as the ”performance” goes, I would call it a statement but definitely not a performance. Since it takes zero artistic skill to wear a mattress around campus and considering she is an art student I seriously doubt the talent this girl is supposed to have …

        1. Your adorable MTV to focus on the “artistic skill” which is the equivalent to craftsmanship. The entire history of art is to say something compelling (a statement) and to focus on skill is as silly as carrying around a mattress because you’ve been raped.

          I do hope the mattress makes it to the Whitney as cultural evidence of educational institutions continued disregard of sexual crimes in the early 21st century.

          1. Would have said it, maybe not as well as MTV, but I agree with her views. There is, or ought to be. something more to art than just declaring oneself to be an artist, and then expressing an opinion about something. That she is getting academic credit for carrying a mattress around a University campus illustrates just how far things have fallen. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.

          2. I had already seen that article, and I understand that there are those who accept this kind of thing as Art; it’s just that I am not one of them, and that I actively deplore it. I do accept it as a form of polemics and of attention-getting, and that’s fine. I argue against it being considered as art because it is not “artful” or “aesthetic;” it only carries a message. I feel the same way about the “work” of Marina Abromovic, and others who have gained attention, notoriety, and/or praise for doing similar things. I don’t think Abromovic belongs in a museum, and I don’t think the Art Department at Columbia should be recognizing the mattress thing as an art project. I understand that I am expressing a personal point of view, with which others may not agree, I do not present this paragraph, in which I express my opinion and point of view to be a work of Art or of Literature: it is merely an attempt to communicate my views to others. In that sense it is like the mattress (or the mattress is like this paragraph).

          3. The purpose of performance art is to move away from “aesthetic” for it currently has an association to market driven forces. To elaborate an aesthetic is reserved to a certain look or guiding principles to “artful” work. These guiding principles have been used historically to manipulate taste and not discuss the reason for the work. What is it attempting to communicate? If something does not look like art hence it has nothing to say.

            There is not an “aesthetic” distraction with a mattress. So what are we left with? The message. I suppose EdP would prefer nothing but pretty objects that will appreciate in value which is fine. The rich do deserve something aesthetically pleasing to hang on there wall. It is impressive.

          4. You are perfectly entitled to your opinion about the quality of the work, I don’t always get along with work that has similarities with this myself (eg. You mention Marina Abramovic, and her work leaves me very cold as well).

            Where you you fall into a bit of a trap is when you start declaring things “not art”, when clearly there it is a creative endeavour which exists to communicate abstract concepts through aesthetic means to its audience (a rather limiting definition of art in itself) what’s more many people seem to be getting a lot from this artwork.

            It would be like me saying that Michael Bay’s transformer movies weren’t films. They clearly are, they’re just films that I don’t enjoy.

            In the case of this piece, it clearly is art by several definitions of the word. So saying it isn’t will do nothing but provoke people to correct what they see as a misunderstanding on your part; which in turn may very well seem like a patronising attempt to change your opinion… And the cycle continues.

            If your complaints where centred more on your opinion of the relative quality of this piece you might find the discussion feels like bashing your head against a wall.

          5. The purpose of art is to influence the direction of humanity whether you have skill or not. Your assertion is nothing new and history is chalked full of case like yours. From impressionists, photographers, filmmakers, and digital art (video game art). Always is this weak and pathetic argument regarding skill.

            True art moves beyond skill and option. The reason it has always existed and continues to exist is because it affects people and brings about fundamental change.

          6. Although I disagree, I understand that yours is now the accepted, or prevalent, view. That is why Art Schools no longer teach skills, and why Art students have little interest in learning them. They assume all they need is the ability to communicate their ideas and opinions. What they are doing may or may art lacking in skill, or it may be a presentation or performance masquerading as Art. Your definition allows anyone to call him/herself an artist, and to claim that what they do is art. I like to think there is an objective standard, or that there ought to be.

          7. I too question the validity of an art education due to the growing presence and efficiency of the internet. Take this site and comment section for example. We do not require an art school to carry intellectual conversations regarding art. Just a genuine interest in the subject matter and adequate research and a theoretical discussion is implemented. EdP your right, perhaps there should be an objective standard but based on my research that it is something that has and will continue to change. There will be a time in the future when performance art is seen as conventional and go the way of painting, photography, and video art.

          8. Ok, well let’s put it like this: Most ”artists” or rather art school majors lack the skills they need in order to make a meaningful statement. Be it skills in a craft of just skills in general. Henceforth I can and will not call it art because it is simply a very silly way to get your point across which only has an impact on silly self proclaimed ”artists” like yourself.

          9. Clearly Sulkowicz has sufficient skills in the 21st century to make a statement. Which begs the question, would you consider Sulkowicz’s statement meaningful?

          10. A group of people spread across the world are discussing her work, all of whom having a clear understanding of her intended meaning, right here on this comment thread. In what way does she not have the skills to make a statement in the 21st century?

  3. Jillian, admittedly, among the email art newsletters, Hyper is tops in news sense, but this story is inadequately reported, as other commentors have suggested. More questions are left open than answered, and as a result the takeaway could well be “this is too outrageous to be true.” Don’t tell me to read Time or the other links! I want the “radical” thinking your slogan promises!

    That sort of approach was certainly also missing on the report on the São Paulo Bienal boycott as well! South America, for 70 years a Nazi refuge, is not a neutral site for anti-Israel politicking! It is hardly “radical,” either, when the know-nothing art-world sheep herd bleats in agreement. “I don’t hate Jews, I just hate their historic homeland,” says one of your deep-thinking readers. Come on! How about standing up against genocide?

  4. ” She reported the assault to the college, along with two other women who claimed to have been raped by the same man, but all three cases were dismissed.” That’s a lot of women all saying the same thing.,

  5. is there a follow-up to this story @Hyperallergic? Has any response by the police or the school been issued? Also would be curious if Sulkowicz is blogging/tweeting this live where we can follow?

  6. It is funny how many people believe this rape story even though there is no shred of evidence presented. They believe the girl’s word alone and are ready to lynch the guy, call him “rapist” and oust him from the society. The girl filed the claim almost two years after the alleged incident. When after two years, in order to investigate thoroughly and get some evidence on the guy, the police asked more question, the girl dropped the case, called the police “incompetent”, and “annoying” (“a guy from the police would call em randomly and ask all these questions” – NY mag). The case was, then transferred to the DA, but she didn’t like that either because it would take another 9 months to start the case (NY MAG interview). I guess she is not afraid that this so-called “serial rapist” would harm other women, and she didn’t care to pursue the case in order to get him off the street in order to protect others. So, the school investigated, didn’t find the guy liable, the police investigated, found her story not believable; her actions speak loudly that she does not want to pursue justice – she wants to “put all that behind”, now that she has stirred a lot of s***. So, what does the world want the NYPD or Columbia to do. Send a guy to prison just on her word alone? What kind of justice system would we have if “because I say so” becomes a norm? Rape is a heinous crime but what if false allegations happened to you? And… how old do you have to be to know that if you’re sexually assaulted you do not go to the kangaroo college court comprised of “trained administrators and faculty” but you go to the police? But the kangaroo court is exactly where many want to go to because it holds the lowest standards – preponderance of evidence, where the accused is basically guilty until proven innocent. Or… the media will never give you a chance to prove that you’re innocent because, once the shit has been stirred, the lie takes a life of its own. Please stand for due process. It gives both sides a chance to prove guilt/innocence and with less speculation.

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