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.”
“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.”