Beginning this week, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz has vowed to carry her mattress around at all times until her alleged rapist is expelled from school. The performance, which doubles as Sulkowicz’s senior thesis, instantly went viral and has been splashed internationally across Facebook, Twitter, and even the Today Show as the latest chapter in the ongoing conversation on how colleges handle sexual assault cases.
Sulkowicz, a visual-arts major, says she was raped by a classmate in her dorm bed sophomore year, and when she reported the incident to Columbia administrators they botched the report, the investigation, and the hearing. In April, Sulkowicz filed a Title IX complaint with 23 other students alleging Columbia has mishandled sexual assault cases.
But Sulkowicz insists this project is more art than protest. She recognizes Columbia may not respond to her endurance piece, but she is fully prepared to carry the mattress until she graduates. While she has found support from students and professors, she says hungry news crews have treated her like a spectacle, hanging outside of her classes and demanding interviews.
We spoke with Sulkowicz as she prepares for day three of what she calls Mattress Performance/Carry That Weight. She is sore, overwhelmed, and surprised by the feedback. She has dropped the criminal charges against her alleged rapist, and does not plan to pursue civil charges. But despite her experiences, she still believes colleges can learn to handle these crimes.
How’s it going?
Rough. I just never really anticipated how big this would be, and I thought I was prepared, but I just wasn’t.
In terms of the response?
Physically, I’m really sore. The reporter response has been really aggressive and not what I expected. It is a sensitive subject, and I can’t be accosted in the middle of campus to talk about it. One guy, while I was carrying the mattress, he just opened up my backpack and threw his business card in, which was a real violation of my space and made me really upset and triggered a lot of memories of being raped.
How did you get this idea initially?
Over the summer, I was lucky enough to get into the Yale Norfolk Residency, and I worked on a video where I had to move a mattress out of the room. The idea of carrying a mattress got stuck in my head the way a song gets stuck in your head, and I unpacked why carrying a mattress is an important visual for me. I thought about how I was raped in my own bed at Columbia; and how the mattress represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens; and how I have brought my life out in front for the public to see; and the act of bringing something private and intimate out into the public mirrors the way my life has been. Also the mattress as a burden, because of what has happened there, that has turned my own relationship with my bed into something fraught.
Were there any artists whose work you were thinking about in developing the project?
The first performance artist I ever learned about when I was 16 was Tehching Hsieh. He’s the one who lived in a cage. I also recently saw the Chris Burden show at the New Museum. He also did pretty radical endurance pieces.
How have students responded?
So far students I have never met before have helped me carry it. As I was walking across campus last night I heard someone shout, “Go, Emma!” and I’ve gotten such an overwhelming positive response on the internet. One girl seems to be organizing some sort of website that will allow students to organize and figure out how to help me carry it to all my classes.
What was yesterday like?
Yesterday was really stressful because of the reporters on campus. I had a class at 8:40, so my boyfriend helped me carry the mattress to class — we slid it along the sidewall so it wasn’t distracting. Then my next class was at 2 p.m. and that was when two news stations started following me and taking pictures of me. I finally got to class and the people waited outside. I received an email from one reporter, “Subject line: Mattress Girl. Content: I have her contact info and I am going to get her.” I didn’t know that he was a reporter at first so I thought I was going to die, and so I was so scared and really fearing for my life. My boyfriend came and picked me up because I was so afraid of the reporters.
What will your day look like today?
I only have one class today, but it is a class that is really far away.
How are your professors responding?
I have only had three classes. I’ve sent an email to all my professors before classes started just to warn them I might be bringing this to the classroom. Two of my professors have been really polite and have said that sounds like an amazing piece, bring it in, it is fine. One professor was like, Please hold off on bringing the mattress in because it is the first day of classes.
Have you run into your alleged rapist since you’ve been carrying the mattress?
No, I haven’t.
What would you do if you saw him?
There is a no-contact order so there is nothing I can do without getting expelled.
Is there anything you want to add or clarify [about the project]?
In the news, people have been calling my piece a protest, and just ignoring the fact it is not really a protest but a performance-art piece. Yes, I would like for my rapist to get kicked out of school, but I realize that the university is so stubborn that it may never happen and I may be carrying this mattress for a while.
Are you prepared to carry the mattress until graduation?
Yeah. I would prefer not to obviously — it is really painful and tiring — but I don’t think it is a protest. It’s an art piece.
The last time we spoke you said you had filed a report with the NYPD and they were starting to investigate. What is the status of that?
It got transferred to the district attorney’s office, and I decided I didn’t want to pursue it any further because they told it me it would take nine months to a year to actually go to court, which would be after I graduated and probably wanting to erase all of my memories of Columbia from my brain anyway, so I decided not to pursue it.
Did the police seem to think there was a case there to pursue?
Yeah, they were going to contact the other women who reported against him, and they would have subpoenaed the information from the university files.
You were also hoping to file a complaint with the police regarding how you were treated. What happened with that?
I was contacted by an investigator who was really, really annoying to work with. He would call me randomly, and make me repeat everything that happened. He kept telling me I had to come into the station, and obviously I don’t want to deal with the police any more right now. It’s so disorganized, and it’s really upsetting to work with them at all.
Have you considered pursing a civil suit?
No, I haven’t. I think right now I have a lot on my plate.
What do you see as the main issue that campuses, both students and administrators, face in handling these crimes?
Right now the policies are defunct. Columbia just released a new policy, but in the new Columbia policy it is even harder than it was before to try a serial rapist, and have him expelled. Now they have explicitly stated that each case will be treated separately until the first one has closed. If one person rapes three girls in one night, those girls won’t be able to testify at each other’s cases, the way it currently stands. That to me is really sickening. In my case, the biggest problem is there is no retroactive motion to open closed cases and to get our rapists off campus, which would be admitting that they’ve done wrong, which is what they need to do right now.
Do you think that the college is capable of handling these cases?
I do. The police don’t seem very well equipped either. It is going to take an administration that is willing to admit that they have done wrong, and make real tangible changes. I think administrations are actually in a better place to make these changes than the police right now.
I feel like it would take that much longer for [the police to] change, but the universities are filled with people who are progressive thinkers, and who can come up with creative strategies to solve these problems. We have so many intelligent students who think about and care about this issue way more than any of the administration.
Has the Columbia administration gotten in touch with you?
I’m still waiting.
This interview has been condensed and edited.