Last year, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz was allegedly raped by a classmate in her dorm room. Since then, she’s made it her mission to ensure the safety of other students, reporting her crime to authorities, speaking out against her rapist, joining 22 other students in filing a federal Title IX complaint against the school for their handling of sexual assault accusations. Despite her efforts, Sulkowicz’ rapist remains free and enrolled at the school.
“Every day, I am afraid to leave my room,” Sulkowicz wrote earlier this year in Time Magazine. “Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. 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. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.”
Hoping to highlight the invisibility, injustice, and embarrassment rape survivors are all-too-frequently subjected to, Sulkowicz has decided to turn her pain into performance art. For the remainder of the school year—or until her attacker is no longer enrolled—she will carry her dorm mattress everywhere she goes on campus.
Titled “Mattress Performance/Carry That Weight,” Sulkowicz’ performance piece serves as her senior visual arts thesis. Everywhere Sulkowicz goes on campus, she will bring along her mattress. Though she will struggle with it, she will only accept help from others if offered. The mattress was chosen for a number of reasons, one of which being that Sulkowicz “[wants] people to see how it weighs down a person to be ignored by the school administration and harassed by police.”
“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,” she says in a YouTube video describing the project. “We keep [beds] 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.”
Campus assault has been and remains a concern at schools nationwide. A 2007 Department of Justice report found that 13.7 percent of female undergraduate students had been victims of at least one sexual assault since entering college. It’s entirely possible that number is far too low, as some respondents may not feel safe or comfortable enough to disclose their assault. Sadly, recent and accurate data on this topic remains hard to come by, as reporting and discussing one’s assault comes with a huge amount of stigma.
As for Sulkowicz, she hopes her demonstration will lead to increased visibility, lessened stigma, and justice.
“The piece could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate,” she says in the YouTube video. “For me, it’s an endurance performance arts piece.”