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A tweeted photo by Diksha Basu shows the rally at Columbia on Friday (photo by Diksha Basu/via Twitter)

Last Friday, nearly 100 students rallied at Columbia University to protest the school’s policy on sexual assault. They held signs, wore red tape over their mouths, and brought mattresses — almost a dozen, some of which had messages written on them in red tape too. “Carry That Weight” read three such mattresses positioned side-by-side. The phrase comes from the title of a performance art piece currently being enacted by Columbia art student and senior Emma Sulkowicz: she’s carrying a dorm-room mattress everywhere she goes, in protest of the way her rape case was handled by school administrators.

With the amount of attention Sulkowicz has received (interviews everywhere from Business Insider to Democracy Now), it’s hard to believe it’s been just over two weeks since the project began. “If you can measure success by how many countries have contacted me, it’s been really successful,” Sulkowicz told Hyperallergic over the phone. “I’ve gotten so many emails — mostly Facebook messages — of support that I’ve had to completely stop using Facebook messenger. I’ve only had to do one walk entirely by myself, and that was because there were reporters swarming me and no one was willing to break through the flock.” (Under the rules of the piece, Sulkowicz cannot ask for help, but she can accept it if it’s offered.)

In fact, another art student, Allie Rickard, has gone so far as to organize collective mattress-carrying sessions. These are meant to not only help Sulkowicz physically, but also to “give [Emma] and other survivors of sexual assault in our community a powerful symbol of our support and solidarity, and show the administration that we stand united in demanding better policies designed to end sexual violence and rape culture on campus,” according to Rickard’s website.

Still, the burden of the mattress ultimately falls to Sulkowicz, and she says it’s been hugely challenging, both physically and mentally. “There’s not a single day when I can not think about it,” she explained. “When I have a lot of classes, I end up talking to so many people and answering the same questions, people telling me the same exact thing over and over again, and I feel like a robot, in a way. It’s been extremely exhausting — I didn’t really even know what the word ‘exhausted’ was until this project happened.”

That aspect of “Carry That Weight” (alternately titled “Mattress Performance”) is also, crucially, what allows it to transcend protest and become art — the physical ritual, the action within limitations, the duration. “I think ‘protest’ sort of ignores the real endurance and performance aspect of it, and how I really have to start constructing my day and every thought around, what does it mean in terms of this art piece?” Sulkowicz said. “That’s very different from protest.”

She adds that when she came up with the idea — at the Yale Norfolk Residency this past summer — she hadn’t been thinking about other artists “at all — I had this image of me carrying the mattress, and I said, that would make a great art piece.”

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

“The impulse was there for her to carry the bed around, and she didn’t necessarily have the information as to how that would fit into the context or the history of performance art,” said artist Jon Kessler, a professor at Columbia who advised Sulkowicz on the piece. “So this summer we got involved in phone conversations about the nature of endurance art, talking about pieces by Tehching Hsieh and Marina and Ulay and Chris Burden.

“But what struck me from the get-go,” Kessler added, “is that, more than any of those people, Emma’s work comes from something which is so much more personal and so much deeper and so much less of a programmatic idea about what to do, but really about working something out cathartically and also making an enormous statement for change. And that’s what makes it so powerful.”

As she explained to New York magazine’s The Cut earlier this month, Sulkowicz has dropped police charges against her alleged rapist. “I just don’t have faith in that system,” she told us, citing an officer who “kept insisting that it wasn’t rape to my face” as one example of her experiences with the NYPD. She is still part of a group of 23 students who filed a federal complaint against Columbia in April over the way it’s handled sexual assault cases. Asked whether she’s heard from any administrators at the school regarding her performance, Sulkowicz replied, “They sent an email to the entire university: these are our new policies, we want to remind you how much we’ve been doing to change sexual assault on campus. And in the last paragraph, they wrote, ‘By the way, we support peaceful protest on campus …’ That’s the most.”

The central premise of “Carry That Weight” is that it will end either when Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist leaves Columbia, or when she graduates (along with him). She seems well aware of the prospect of carrying the mattress around for the next eight months, and to her graduation ceremony, just as she’s aware of how this performance is shaping her. “I think that so much of my future depends on how this piece ends,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to end up addicted to performance, or if I’m never going to want to touch performance art again.”

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

39 replies on “Two Weeks Into Performance, Columbia Student Discusses the Weight of Her Mattress”

    1. Think again, dude. Just because she dropped the charges, citing “I just don’t have faith in that system” (see above) – this does not cancel out the fact that she says she was sexually assaulted. The perpetrator (a student)was also accused of sexually assaulting several other female students. Most rapists do more than one rape in their lifetime. Statistically most women who were sexually assaulted do not press charges, and the number of rape cases that make it to a trial and conviction is about 1%. It’s not like law enforcement has a great history of handling sexual assault without a mega heaping of racism, victim blaming and indifference (see: tens of thousands of untested tape kits disintegrating in warehouses across the USA).

      1. So your solution is…..? Do away with due process? Do away with a presumption of innocence? Do away with the need to produce credible evidence? Let’s go back to old times – it was sure easy to convict those Scottsboro boys.

        1. In with the dudes and the fantasies of false rape allegations. Statistically there are far more false ROBBERY claims made to the authorities for the purpose of insurance fraud than there are false rape allegations. What does a rape victim gain by telling people she (usually she) was sexually assaulted ? Does she win prizes ? Are people extra nice ? Do the authorities run right out and arrest and convict the alleged rapist without any evidence or testimonies ?

          In reality, most women who report their sexual assault are treated pretty badly by law enforcement, often blamed for any aspect of their existence, appearance, location at the time of the assault – and most rapists are not charged let alone convicted.

          1. Florence G. – false rape allegations are an extremely small percentage of rape allegations. Most rapes go unreported and therefore unprosecuted. Educate yourself – be a human to sexual assault survivors.

          2. Note Florence G.’s comment history – limited 100% to making broad statements about false rape allegations. Florence G. – are you a MRA dude ?

          3. Sure, I am the “dude”. I can say the same about you – why are you all over the place on this board? I am a rape survivor, man (woman?), but I went to the police and my rapist went to prison. I was in college, too, but I knew the police was the right place to go to. My childhood friend who helped me through my post trauma struggle, however, was falsely accused of rape four years ago, and went through hell trying to clear his name. It took him three years! It turned out that the woman who accused him did the same thing to three other men, and had finally admitted that she lied. Was she charged? No. He almost committed suicide. So, all of us have our own reasons why we’re passionate about certain issues.

            I support rape survivors with all my heart as well as the rights of the falsely accused. And according to Columbia University Title IX audit and the police, this particular case deserved to be dismissed. Why do you still believe they are wrong even though you are not presented with a shred of proof? And why are you so ready to throw a person who may be innocent under the bus? Think about it.

          4. That’s great that your sexual assault investigation went to trial and that your rapist was convicted. However – that is NOT the experience of most women (or the few men who report) who attempt to follow the correct channels to report their assault. Why are you so convinced that Sulkowicz is lying about her assault ? Do you know her ? Do you know the person she has said is her rapist ? Why would several other women come forward to accuse him of the same thing ? They did attempt to contact the authorities via school procedures – and the school utterly dropped the ball.

            False accusations happen – but they are a minority – like 1 – 3 % by generous estimate. This is in contrast to most of the people who never report their sexual assault – or those who attempt to but who are dismissed by law enforcement officers due to racism, misogyny, the victim’s manner of dress or speaking, citizenship, level of intoxication – even when there is DNA and other evidence. Victims are scrutinized far more than rapists. When was the last time you heard of a judge chastising a rapist for what THEY were wearing ? Yet this happens to victims many times over. Most victims cannot even afford competent lawyers to represent them.

          5. It doesn’t deserve to be “dismissed”, it deserves to be made into a prosecution against the accuser with an equivalent sentence to the crime she was trying to falsely set up.

          6. How on earth do you measure with any veracity the number of rapes when you believe that most are unreported? Do you even give any thought to what you post or is it just copypasted from jezebel.com? Retard.

      2. According to the school magazine, and the police report. When they had sex, she was sober and he was drunk, which made her the rapist. When she said no to the anal sex, he rapped her until at which point he stopped without ejaculation. So they were just adults rapist raping each other…

        The other accusers in this case, one was an ex-girlfriend that said all the sex was consensual, but he was really rough. The other one said the guy kissed her without consent at a party, and nothing else happened. neither of which seem like rape.

        Statistics have no bearing on the facts. She have no case. The school board saw through this. The police saw through this. The DA saw though this and did not prosecute. Even her own lawyer saw through this and decided not to go through a civil trial.

    2. Your statement implies a complete faith in Columbia’s system of handling these cases, which is precisely what Sulkowicz and 100s of other Columbia students—including the 22 others who filed the federal complaint—are protesting and calling into question. If you think Columbia’s system is infallible, think for a minute about the larger legal system in this country: guilty people are let off and innocent people are convicted quite often. He WAS cleared, yes, but that doesn’t=”she’s not a rape victim.” Of course, we don’t know the truth about what happened, and we probably won’t, but a little respect for people would be appreciated, and is what we ask of commenters on this site.

      1. Out of 28,000 students at Columbia, there are maybe 90-100 that support Emma. The rest deserve the title of IVY league students who use their heads and do not succumb to group-think. False rape accusations are real! Google false rape allegations + Vassar + Brown + Dartmouth +Princeton…. It has become politically incorrect to say that a guy can be innocent and that a woman can, maybe, just maybe can be lying. Think about it, it has happened before (Duke lacrosse case !) and it is happening now. Now this is not to dismiss the fact that there are real women victims of rape. (we never, ever talk about men who are victims of rape as if they do not exist).
        However, victims of false rape allegations go through the same nightmare rape victims do, or even worse… being accused of such a heinous crime and be innocent can be soul shattering. And those who file false allegations should be charged as well.

      2. Are you incapable of reading the evidence yourself? It’s been posted all over the internet. If only there was hard proof of OJ’s guilt on facebook for the world to read.

  1. i am in support of the social awareness this has raised, but the fact that this performance was hashed out before the alleged rape makes it seem more like the rape “happened” as a vehicle for the piece; a missing link of sorts, a meaning where before performance alone would not have elevated the piece to the status of art. with the knowledge that it was planned, discussed with a prominent professor in the art world mere months before her ordeal ever began, i have a difficult time praising her efforts unbiasedly. something doesn’t feel right here…

    1. She says she was raped on the first day of her sophomore year. She planned the performance piece the summer before her senior year.

  2. The rapist’s ass needs to be capped.
    The performance avoids confronting the attacker directly.
    Your mind/body violated equals your right to mess the asshole up.
    Fuck performance art, this is your life.
    Demand justice or seriously fight back!
    .

  3. I fucking love this peice! Emma, you are a warrior. The comments on the other hand… You’re killing me with the comments to articles about this work, internet. I was hoping Hyperallergic might have been an exception, but no. Should never have scrolled down.

      1. ‘Snot your guys fault. I think it’s all the humans. And their rape culture. I see you guys are on to it with correcting people etc and that’s rad.

        1. Do you think we should all think the same? I don;t think so – we all have different information and do different kind of research and analysis of the case. There are many reasons to doubt her story even if you just consider her side. Just a few red flags: She admitted to having a previous sexual relationship with the guy; she admitted inviting him to her room that night; she admitted to getting in bed naked with the guy that night and expecting to have some form of sex. The thrust of her claim is that he attempted to have anal sex with her which she did not want, and that he continued to try for a brief time until he stopped. She did not report the incident contemporaneously to Columbia; she only reported it after convincing two other women to report “incidents” they had experienced with the same guy. She is a highly privileged kid (went to the Dalton School before Columbia) who is used to getting her way. I see this stunt / performance art piece as simply the tantrum of an overprivileged kid who is simply shocked that someone (in this case, Columbia and the police) denied her what she believes she is entitled to. She’s no activist – this is just another look-at-me, look-at-me wow “accomplishment” she can put on her resume and talk about in her interview with Goldman Sachs next Spring….

          1. So a person can never be sexually assaulted by a person they had previously had a sexual relationship with ? Two people engaged in consentual sexual activity can never have different expectations or boundaries ? If one of those people wants something and the other person says no – isn’t that where the line for sexual assault happens when it gets crossed ?

            So what if she is “overprivileged” (what does this mean – that her parents have money ?Able bodied ? Attractive ? On a scholarship ? What ?) What does that have to do with being sexually assaulted ? What is her sense of entitlement – expecting the university to competently investigate rape allegations made by students against other students ?

    1. as a ’78 alumna, I am very heartened by the artistic as well as socially engaged message of this art work. Rapists need to be stopped. This artist is both on point and politically engaged. Brava!

  4. Hopefully all this attention from the media changes things. I don’t think she should have dropped the charges because now it’s only her that Is carrying the weight of her weight. Although he is being embarrassed once he lives Columbia he is free of that shame. I hope she doesn’t have to carry her mattress for the next 8 months cause that sounds horrible.

  5. Great stunt, indeed! “There are many reasons to doubt her story even if you just consider her side. Just a few red flags: She admitted to having a previous sexual relationship with the guy; she admitted inviting him to her room that night; she admitted to getting in bed naked with the guy that night and expecting to have some form of sex. The thrust of her claim is that he attempted to have anal sex with her which she did not want, and that he continued to try for a brief time until HE STOPPED (her claim). She did not report the incident contemporaneously to Columbia; she only reported it 1+ year later after convincing two other women to report “incidents” they had experienced with the same guy (the claimed he was “emotionally manipulative”. She is a highly privileged kid (went to the Dalton School before Columbia) who is used to getting her way.

    I see this stunt / performance art piece as simply the tantrum of an overprivileged kid who is simply shocked that someone (in this case, Columbia and the police) denied her what she believes she is entitled to. She’s no activist – this is just another look-at-me, look-at-me wow “accomplishment” she can put on her resume and talk about in her interview with Goldman Sachs next Spring….”

  6. Rather than re-adjudicating the case here, deciding on the guilt or innocence of Silkowicz or her (alleged) rapist, and hanging the merits of the piece on that conclusion, I want to rather suggest that the piece is very strong in the kind of immanent opposition it describes: an object that is normally a means for relaxation and sleep becomes a kind of burdensome object that requires intense physical labor and leading to exhaustion. Perhaps the memory of the incident that precipitated the performance is being reified in the form of the weighty mattress.

  7. Hearing her on “Democracy Now” I pegged her as I complete liar. I am a gay male victim of a same sex assault in my college dorm and it took me years to discuss it with a psychologist and I still tear up in therapy. He probably dissed her off the morning after and she went to the police with “rape” charges and with no evidence and they told her so, which is why, she makes the claim against them of doing things like “blowing smoke in her face” despite being in a government building with the “clean air act.” As a college, same-sex, rape victim my self “college rape” needs to be stopped: but when you dissect this story and the other “girls” she is inspiring this is only inciting the nebulous “false rape” allegations. So, I feel bad for guy involved and the hate and stigma he is receiving from such a “thinly veiled” and barely legal reveal of his identity to the school and the nation for the judgement in the court of public opinion. Like I said this “protest” is pure revenge for a diss-off as she is not acting like a recent, or past, traumatic rape victim like she claims to be. (What is funny because of my rapist I do not use or dare post my face on social media like twitter or face book and only comment on disqus with a Nom de plume. But all the additional “hoops” would make almost any legitimate rape victims scared to dare contradict this silly-ness!)

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