In August of 2012, Emma Sulkowicz was a high-performing student at Columbia University. She was eager to begin her sophomore year amid the certain stress of the rigorous academics, extracurriculars, and peer relationships. What she didn’t know would be added to her plate was a sexual assault by a fellow classmate in her own dorm.
Columbia, among many other universities across America, has long been criticized for poorly handling sexual assault cases. Emma’s case proved to be no different. After she filed a complaint with two other students who shared her same experience, Emma was outraged to have her case dismissed with their rapist set free.
Instead of submitting to keep her story within herself, she decided instead to share it publicly in a way that she knew best- by making “art that elicits a powerful response”.
To visually express the burden of her assault, she began carrying her dorm room mattress wherever she went on campus.
Shortly after this project began, other students began to take notice. Peers would help carry the mattress between classes, and began to support her cause by filing complaints to Columbia’s administration against the case decision. Soon, other sexual assault awareness movements began to crop up around the state. As the girl with the mattress gained more publicity, the project spread to other colleges across the country. News and radio stations began to take notice.
Despite the growing body of activists and demonstrations protesting for change, Columbia did not yield. They began prohibiting students from carrying large objects on campus and fined students nearly 500 dollars for leaving mattresses outside of the college president’s house.
While the case remained dismissed by the university as Emma graduated, Columbia has since taken steps to amend its sexual misconduct policy to better hold rapists accountable. Furthermore, this project has planted seeds for hundreds of other activist projects centered around making the epidemic of sexual assault heard. Groups from California to Canada have credited her with helping change the conversation about rape at their institutions. Emma has also been credited as one of the most influential voices in the global #MeToo movement.
Though Emma graduated without seeing justice, she continues to make performance art that challenges our understanding of rape culture and how to effect change.
Carry That Weight shows that even in the face of backlash, making your voice heard can empower and spread awareness in a butterfly effect. What started out as one teen girl with a single, plastic mattress, grew into a widespread movement creating legislative and social change thousands of miles beyond Columbia’s campus. This project helps us think about how we can still speak even when words may fail us. Using the tools we know can help bring familiarity to uncharted territory. And of course, reminds us that art can change the world.
Learn more about Emma and by watching the 20min short documentary above, or clicking here.