Emma Sulkowicz discusses art and activism on college campuses

Artist known for Mattress Carrying performance art piece comes to AU

Emma Sulkowicz discusses art and activism on college campuses

Emma Sulkowicz (left) speaks in the SIS Founder's Room. 

Women’s Initiative hosted artist Emma Sulkowicz to speak about their year-long performance art project at Columbia University to combat sexual assault culture on college campuses.

Sulkowicz discussed their viral project, “Carry That Weight,” in which they carried a mattress around for their entire senior year in order to call attention to the mishandling of their own and others’ sexual assault cases on campus.

Sulkowicz’s inspiration for the project came after meeting other sexual assault survivors from the same perpetrator, who Sulkowicz said did not get receive consequences for his actions.

“What bothers me about the way mattress performance has been left in the sediment of history is that it’s talked about as only being for me,” Sulkowicz said. “Really, it's for the group of us. I would have never cared so much about this if had it not been for all these other survivors and we had not formed this team.”

The project was widely covered by news outlets from the day it began, Sulkowicz said. The media “only got crazier as the year went on,” they said.

“I went into shock for nine months, I was walking around totally freaked out all the time,” Sulkowicz said.

In the wake of Sulkowicz’s project, Columbia has given $2.5 million into a program called Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT). The program focuses on researching sexual health and violence of Columbia undergraduate students.

Sulkowicz is still unsatisfied with the university’s actions.

“To me, it's like saying if you ask someone to do the dishes and they're like ‘I'll try,’” Sulkowicz said. “You can spend 2.5 million dollars researching sexual assault, or when the survivor looks you in the eye and says why you can just be like, ‘oh wait, let me be a good person.’”

Since their breakthrough project, Sulkowicz has performed several pieces that they reflected upon during the discussion. This included a reenactment of their assault titled “Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol,” which translate to “this is not rape” in French, or as Sulkowicz referred to it, “the proof I wish I had.”

Sulkowicz also created a piece entitled “The Ship is Sinking,” a performative piece about institutional art stampering creativity. This project was completed during their time as a student in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.

Another project of Sulkowicz included covering their body in asterisks and taking photos in front of famous art of alleged assailants and art that Sulkowicz sees as degrading female bodies, including a Pablo Picasso piece. They said this was in support of adding asterisks to the artwork of abusers.

“I think that when you put a trigger warning on something, people will be prepared so that when that part comes into the room everyone is ready to discuss,” Sulkowicz said. “So much of the artwork that gets shit done politically is artwork that triggers.”

Sulkowicz said that while these projects are often difficult and draining, this is the way they speak and make their voice heard to others.

“When I make art, I’m saying, ‘I’m still here I’m still doing it, nothing that you’ve said has stopped me,’” Sulkowicz said.


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