Something of a small revolution is taking place at Columbia University. Each day, Emma Sulkowicz, a 21 year old 3rd year student can be seen carrying her 23 kg mattress around campus. It’s not that she’s found a drastic solution to tiredness at lectures; but rather a powerful performance art piece. Carry That Weight is Sulkowicz’s final year thesis in which she vows to carry the mattress on which she was assaulted until the man she says raped her is removed from campus.
The piece itself, even removed from her story, is powerful. It brings to mind Tracey Emin’s My Bed, now being exhibited at the Tate Modern. The two pieces, quite aside from the obvious superficial similarities share a confessional element; Emin’s piece was designed to open up dialogue about mental illness and preserved the artist’s bed as she had left it after suffering from a nervous breakdown; Carry That Weight aims to throw light on rape and sexual assault across college campuses. Sulkowicz’s gesture is especially powerful as so often victims of sexual violence remain silent because they are afraid of the stigma they face in talking about their experience. “In my case, I was raped in my own bed’, Sulkowicz told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman. “[My rape] desecrated one of the most intimate and private places of my life and the way that I’ve brought my story from a place that I keep secret out into the public eye sort of mirrors carrying the mattress out into the light for everyone.”
Women who have been raped often say that they feel branded as a victim or, worse, a liar out to ruin a man’s life, when they speak out about their past. Sulkowicz is no exception. When she revealed her story as part of her thesis, she too faced stigma. Writing for TIME she said “I’ve lost friends because some people just don’t understand what it means to be raped. One friend asked me if I thought that my rapist would be expelled from school. I said, “I really hope so.” And he said, “Poor guy”.”
She may have lost friends, but Sulkowicz has also gained a wide group of supporters. Part of her performance is following a set of ‘rules of engagement’ that include allowing herself to be helped in carrying the mattress if someone spontaneously takes it up with her (though she cannot ask for help) – a deeply symbolic and literal gesture. Indeed Sulkowicz says that she has garnered so much support that she hardly ever needs to carry the mattress alone, someone invariably helps her to carry it from class to class.
On 29th October, No Red Tape, Carry That Weight, and Student-Worker Solidarity organised an international day of protest. The protest saw students across 130 campuses – from Stanford University to Central European University in Budapest – carry mattresses in support of Sulkowicz; demonstrators at Columbia University dumped 28 mattresses outside the home of Columbia President Lee Bollinger, in the hope of showing that ‘the ball was in his court’ to take up proceedings against the student who alledgedly raped Sulkowicz and two other women.
Performance art and political movements have always been closely intertwined. The hacktivist group Anonymous wore Guy Fawkes masks to protest police brutality in the killing of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In London in 2011, a performer lay naked on the floor of the Tate Britain’s Great Hall splashed with oil, emulating a bird caught in a oil spill in protest against the Tate accepting sponsorship from BP.
It is yet to be seen whether _Carry That Weight _will have a political impact; almost three months after Sulkowicz started carrying her mattress around, her alleged rapist still remains enrolled at Columbia. Following the October protest, students at Columbia were charged $471 for ‘clean-up’.
In America, it is estimated 1 in 5 women are assaulted in college, and the picture doesn’t look much better on this side of the pond; In 2010, a study by the National Union of Students found that one in seven women experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. Speaking to The Telegraph in May of this year, Sarah Pine, Vice President for women at Oxford University Student Union, says that in the last year alone she’s heard just under 50 stories of rape from female students whilst working for It Happens Here, the student led Oxford University organisation that aims to raise awareness about sexual assaults at university.
Earlier this month, The White House launched_ It’s On Us _a new campaign aiming to raise awareness of issues of sexual assault and rape. It is hoped that by bringing more attention to the unsavoury reality of these crimes, whether through government projects or the bravery and eloquence of people such as Emma Sulkowicz, that sexual assault can be eliminated from university campuses.