Columbia Student's Performance Art Takes On the (Literal) Weight of Sexual Assault

A 50-lb, 39×80-inch, navy blue rectangle is currently giving shape to the bulky conversations about rape that have been spreading across college campuses in recent years. It feels too obvious and literal to discuss “Carry that Weight/Mattress Performance” in terms of dimensions, gravity or language associated with bedding. It feels simplistic to simply celebrate the work in an op-ed, but its importance is tangible in the sense that it is actually tangible. With attempts at policy changes on college campuses as well as more discussion of gender issues in response to the Steubenville rape case, or even the song “Blurred Lines,” when can heightened cultural awareness and outrage leave the realm of talk and stated guidelines to produce justice?

If you haven’t seen the story in your newsfeed, “Mattress Performance/Carry that Weight” is an endurance performance art piece made by Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz as her visual arts senior thesis project. Sulkowicz began carrying the same kind of twin XL mattress she was raped on on the first day of her sophomore year around campus over a week ago, and she will continue to do so until her alleged rapist leaves campus voluntarily, through expulsion or through graduation.

The mishandling of her case has become an all too familiar story. After learning that the fellow student who raped her had also assaulted two other women, she reported the attack. Sulkowicz had to deliver her account over multiple interview sessions because the school’s Title IX coordinator did not record her story correctly during the initial interview, but rather jotted down insufficient notes. Her alleged rapist had the opportunity to write out an explanatory statement in addition to conducting an interview with the Title IX coordinator. Her hearing was postponed seven months after reporting her rape due to “academic conflicts” of the accused. After sitting through a disciplinary panel where she had to explain how anal rape was physically possible, her case was dismissed. Her appeal, which simply allowed the dean to review the case and rule upon his own discretion, was also dismissed. The accounts of the two other Columbia students who reported assault, which were not considered relevant evidence in Sulkowicz’s case, though perpetrators of sexual violence tend to be repeat offenders, were also dismissed. Seven months after her hearing, Sulkowicz was met with similar skepticism and callousness when she brought her case to members of the NYPD, one of whom said, “For every single rape I’ve had, I’ve had 20 that are total bullshit.” I am obviously not a lawyer, and these processes are complicated. That being said, even if you want to place full faith in Columbia’s ruling or the criminal justice system, Sulkowicz was denied the right to a swift trial, trained panelists judging her case and sensitivity to the fact that rape is not something that is so easy to report.

As some first-year who is just into art, feminism and writing, has never been the victim of sexual violence and has not witnessed the many discussions about gender in the Amherst community in recent years, I feel a bit awkward to be commenting on this piece. Nevertheless, “Carry That Weight” has become one of my favorite works of art and forms of protest. From an artistic and a bit of a pretentious viewpoint, the work drags away the concept of performance art as an esoteric practice where someone stares silently into space for their own emotional fulfillment. It does what the best works of art do: makes a highly personal experience both resonate with and change the perspectives of a wide range of people. It speaks to victims of sexual violence, women, college students and the general population who expect to find comfort and intimacy in a bed instead of enduring abuse, desecration and anxiety.

It is noteworthy that one of the rules of engagement with the piece is that other students can literally lighten the load of the mattress by offering Sulkowicz assistance. While there have been other courageous, moving and shocking commentaries on rape, gender violence or sexism, such as Angie Epifano’s op-ed, “I Need Feminism Because…” campaigns or the No Red Tape protests at Columbia, “Mattress Performance” lugs a blunt, concrete visualization of what may exist to us as frightening, cautionary tales or euphemisms in the media into the light of campus.

I was first tempted to argue that we can conceive of the weight in expansive ways — what it means to have conversations about sexual violence, what justice means from educational institutions and the police force. However, as a Columbia first-year I spoke to put it, “I’m a little troubled that the media that picked up her story has basically ignored an important part: that her alleged rapist was tried and not found guilty.” Her individual experience of injustice and failure to have Columbia directly respond to her main intent to get her rapist off campus raises other issues. Should colleges be transparent about their own mismanagement of rape cases where the victims have stepped forward, in order to explain how current changes are responding to past mistakes? Should they at the very least attempt to offer closure? In recent years, alumni from my high school began sharing accounts of sexual abuse from teachers over the course of 1962 to 1996. Though the current administration did not, might not and cannot perfectly amend past failures and silence, they at least acknowledged that abuse occurred in a formal apology.

There is no denying that these matters are complicated, and change does not happen over night. Schools are trying to create safer environments, and society has made some progress in confronting the subtle, stubborn cultural limits of sexism and racism that we so often attribute to distant “backwards” places or the past, but when and how should we start to measure the progress? Do Columbia’s or Amherst’s or many other colleges’ new and improved policies simply exist as distant, clinical and bureaucratic rules? Is it too soon to ask questions? Do passionate discussions with my roommate about cultural insensitivity ever leave our dorm room? I mean, it sort of does right here, but when do talk and awareness carry into a something more that is difficult to articulate? Should I ask more really open-ended questions? No, I shouldn’t, because you are probably getting frustrated reading them, and I have a deadline. Maybe the gaps between talk, action and change were best articulated by a speaker at a collective mattress carry/Stand with Survivors rally at Columbia last week: “…[W]e know that our shoulders and arms and backs will stop aching[,] not because there is silence[,] but because the conversation is building and building until all of us are carrying the weight so that none of us have to.”