Oh, Columbia

Today Taylor Grasdalen met with Emma Sulkowicz to discuss her Visual Arts senior thesis and the attention it has received.

Emma Sulkowicz is exhausted. The average college dorm-issue mattress weighs fifty pounds, and she’s been carrying hers around Columbia University for four days. But she is not without help: many passersby recognize and offer to assist Emma, having seen articles from Time, New York Magazine, Al Jazeera, or any of so many other websites, appear on their Facebook news feeds or linked on Twitter.

The attention began immediately. Since fall semester classes commenced this Tuesday, Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, has become the subject of a staggering number of news articles. Interviews inundating her schedule from that moment she began her senior thesis work — entitled Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) — Emma takes a brief call before she and I begin to talk, to arrange the car that Melissa Harris-Perry’s show will be sending for her tomorrow. And although interviews and questions personal are not new to her as one of the twenty-three “complainants” filing April’s Title IX case against Columbia University — again reported by the likes of Time and The New York Times — she is still working through her own feelings about the recent onslaught.

“Right now I’m still walking around in a daze and trying to comprehend what’s happening to me. But I hope that in a few weeks I do feel some great emotional shift,” Emma tells me. I ask if she feels stronger. “Physically, I guess it’s day four now, I’ve actually started to physically get a little stronger.” Emotionally, I mean, I clarify. “…Right now though, I’m still shocked, in that it’s-become-this-big-of-a-news-item stage, and I haven’t really processed my emotions.”

I ask about her other art created while at Columbia, and learn that she’s been “trying to experiment in all different forms of mediums,” though settling to perform Carry That Weight bore unprecedented importance. “To be completely honest, this is actually the first piece I’ve ever made that wasn’t assigned to me. Every other piece has been, like, ‘make a sculpture that is monumental.’ But this is the first one where I had the idea, I called in the resources I needed, I made the phone calls to order the mattress when I needed it, and I put it all together by myself, beginning to end.”

That her first completely independent work of art would be one vested in “elements of protest” as she told The Columbia Spectator, seems to speak as much about the university in which it is being produced as it speaks about Emma’s personal artistry.

“So I’m thinking of people who have gone on hunger strikes, or the classic image of an activist chaining themself to something they care about, or I think there are lots of classic activist images that I’m playing on, except I wanted to make this one more appropriate to the work that I’m trying to create.” I tell her that I do think it’s appropriate to the college campus, with the idea of protest and sit-ins, at Columbia considering its history. And there’s the idea of chaining yourself to things, chaining yourself to a mattress.

The protest in mind, I ask if she can articulate exactly what she wants to convey to Columbia.

“Get my rapist off campus.” She says it slowly, enunciating, putting into words what her piece shows. But she laughs and atones for her gravity: “…in those few words.”

She doesn’t find it funny, obviously; she laughs, and I laugh, too, because it’s all completely ridiculous to hear, to say. I ask whether anyone from the school’s administration has contacted her, in support or address or caution.

“They have not reached out to me at all. The only interaction I’ve had with them — if you can even call it an interaction — is I saw Dean Valentini walking by me, and he…he looked, like… he was trying so hard to avoid looking at me and the piece…that he looked ridiculous. He was looking down at his feet like this,” She mimics him: she shifts in her seat, one of those smallish metal chairs in the lobby of Dodge, pushing her shoulders up to her ears and turning her face downward, feet turned inward; it’s an entirely awkward stance to picture. “So, yeah. They haven’t sent me anything, haven’t reached out.”

Columbia has not returned on commitments to better campus processes, the reason for Valentini’s — and for Emma’s sake, hopefully other administrators’ — discomfort. She continues, “The new policy that Columbia released actually makes it harder for serial rapists to be expelled than even the old policies. The way it currently stands is that if, let’s say one person rapes a number of people in the same night, they can’t show any pattern of behavior to make a harder sanction, because those cases are technically all open at the same time.

“I think they need to listen to students more. It frustrates me that No Red Tape, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and so many other people are working our butts off to create as comprehensive a set of policy changes as we can — which we gave to the Columbia administration — but they haven’t listened to us. If they’re gonna make changes, why not listen to people who care and have thought about it and worked hard to create something that will be effective?”

Emma, as well, reported to the police. As much as her attempts to work with the New York Police Department have already been documented, she reiterates to me how disconcerting the experience has been. “The first responder told me that what happened to me was consensual because I’d had sex with him before. I have [heard from the NYPD since], but just after being mishandled by them as well, I just didn’t feel safe or comfortable talking to them anymore, and they passed the case on to the district attorney’s office, who contacted me and said it would take up to nine months or a year for it to go to court. By then I would have graduated, and if I sit around waiting for that, I’ll be missing out on other opportunities like creating this piece, or doing other work, it’ll just be a waste of my time.” In short, she has been unable to work with the NYPD.

Nonetheless, despite administrative and police inaction, Carry That Weight has been received incredibly well by the community. Columbia, at least, just seems to be the great exception. “I think it’s made me feel like it’s restoring my confidence in other people, that other people can care so deeply about the same issue that I care about.” Though she shares some “little daily scares” — both on the Internet (an email sent to her, “Mattress Girl,” letting her know that someone was “trying to get her”) and in-person (a man passing Emma on campus, telling her and the two other women helping her carry the mattress, that “I’m so tempted to just jump right on there”) — the foremost concern is the conclusion of her performance. Or at a minimum, the overarching response to its continuance.

The end of Carry That Weight would, to most, mean the disappearance of the ubiquitous mattress. To Emma, it would mean relief and success in her work, a tremendous effort to complete something she’s been working on for more than a year. It would mean, too, not the end of an incredibly broad issue, but of reaching a conclusion. Meanwhile, “it’s just been kind of surreal. It’s been surreal. That’s the only word I can use.” She tells me that after graduating this spring, she hopes “to just continue making art work. I know that this is what I need to be doing, and I hope that I come up with some cool ideas later on.”

But as far as Mattress Performance — and possibly performance art at large — goes, however, she tells me her theory is that “you come up with an idea, you set it in motion, and then whatever comes after that, is sort of the life of the piece. So I don’t really, personally, have some preconceived notion of where I want the piece to go, and I just believe that wherever it ends up going, is where it was meant to end, and that’s…” She sighs. “I’m ready just to go along for the ride, I’d say.”

 Columbia’s College Walk via Wikimedia Commons.