Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying a heavy load ever since starting classes Tuesday at Columbia University. Literally.
The visual arts senior has brought a twin-sized dorm mattress everywhere she goes and plans to continue lugging it around until her alleged rapist gets kicked off campus. She says it's a statement about the way the university has handled the situation, as well as a work of art, which will serve as her senior thesis project.
Sulkowicz said she was assaulted in her dorm room by a classmate on the first day of her sophomore year.She accuses Columbia administrators of mishandling the investigation into the incident, and has protested the dismissal of her case against the assailant, particularly as two other women have claimed they also were raped by the same man in separate incidents.
On the fourth day of what Sulkowicz calls “Mattress Performance/Carry That Weight,” she spoke with TODAY.com about her project, the widespread attention it has received and the tremendous encouragement coming from her co-eds.
TODAY: Did you expect to get such a response?
Emma Sulkowicz: I wasn’t expecting it to blow up this big. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response in terms of everyone that I know. Most of the negative responses have pretty much been limited to the Internet and grumpy commenters on blogs. And then there’s the reporters' response — I’ve never had this much reporter attention before, so it’s kind of frightening because I’m being watched so much, but it’s also a sign that people care, so it’s also a good thing.
TODAY: Have you had to carry the mattress around by yourself?
ES: I’ve only had one trip so far where no one has helped me at all, and I think it was because I was being flocked by reporters, which is pretty intimidating for a lot of people. I’ve met a lot of people just by us all holding the mattress and talking together while we’re walking to places.
TODAY: Do most people who come up to you know why you're carrying a mattress?
ES: Most people help me because they know why I’m carrying it, yet I’ve gotten some pretty annoying reactions from people who don’t know why. I’ve had four men come up to me and be like, "Oh I just want to lie down on your mattress." And that’s the opposite reason of why I’m carrying it. It’s some weird way of flirting with me, and, of course, it’s not what I want to hear.
TODAY: How did you come up with the idea?
ES: I was working on an art piece (over the summer) at the Yale Norfolk Art Residency and I had to move a mattress out of a room to make a video. The image of me moving a mattress got stuck in my head. I think it was because I was raped in my own bed — it was a place associated with a lot of pain and hurt. The idea of me having to carry around my pain everywhere I go was reflected in me bringing the mattress, which is kept in a safe place, out into the light and into the public eye. That mirrored the situation I was in and I felt like it was a good metaphor.
TODAY: Is your effort being interpreted correctly by the media and the public?
ES: I’m glad that people are moved by it, which is really important to me. I think a lot of news stations have been portraying it as a protest, my protest, but to me, it’s my artwork and something I’ve been considering an art piece. I saw one debate recently that Dr. Drew held on his TV show, where one man was arguing that I had artistic motivations in this piece. I was like, "Well, yeah — I'm making an art piece and that’s the whole point."
TODAY: Do you really plan to carry the mattress around until your school takes action?
ES: Yes. I plan on carrying it until I don’t go to school with my rapist anymore.
TODAY: Have you seen him on campus?
ES: I saw him on campus before school started, but I haven’t seen him since.
TODAY: Has this past week been therapeutic for you?
ES: Not yet. Right now I’m still shocked by the amount of press it’s gotten and that this is really happening. Everything feels so surreal right now. I haven’t really even gotten a chance to digest my emotions at all, but I think over time when everything starts to settle, I’ll be able to re-evaluate.
TODAY: Have you heard from the Columbia administration?
ES: They haven’t said anything to me yet. I saw (the college dean) yesterday, the one who flat-out denied my appeal, and it was amazing. He turned his entire body into a question mark. He was staring at his feet. He would not look up. He wouldn’t acknowledge that this giant mattress was walking by.
TODAY: Are you holding your college up to higher standards because it's an Ivy League school?
ES: Yes. I thought it was a progressive school. I though the resources they advertised from the beginning were real resources I could count on. I felt even more betrayed when they failed me and then refused to acknowledge my earnest desires and pleas for them to evaluate what was happening to me and how poorly I was being treated by the (administrative) hearing panel. It’s just been amazing how the bureaucracy has stifled me at what’s supposed to be such a progressive and liberal school.
TODAY: Has it been emotionally painful or helpful to continually publicize your attack?
ES: The most painful thing for me has been dealing with people who doubt me and think, "Oh she’s doing this art piece, she must be lying." Or, "This never happened to her. She's a (expletive) slut. She’s a liar.” All the people somehow are using the attention I’ve gotten to discredit me. I know what happened. Why would I lie about something that terrible? That’s been the most painful thing — dealing with people who don’t believe something that was really traumatic for me.
TODAY: Are you carrying around your actual mattress?
ES: I can’t take my dorm room mattress around with me because the Columbia occupancy agreement says that we’re not allowed to bring furniture out of the room, so I contacted the mattress provider for Columbia University to purchase my own.