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Emma Sulkowicz

Artist & Consent Culture Activist

Emma Sulkowicz is an artist and activist whose work has drawn mainstream attention to campus sexual violence and the impact of rape culture. A Columbia University graduate, she is best known for her Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) art thesis project, in which she carried a dorm room mattress around campus for an entire school year to protest the university’s mishandling of her sexual assault case. Covered widely by various major media outlets, Emma’s action helped spark a campus anti-sexual assault movement – drawing the support of students around the world and influencing institutions to change their policies and practices.  

New York, New York, USA

Presentations

Carrying the Weight: Consent & Sexual Assault Prevention on Campus
Sharing her experience as a sexual assault survivor, Emma engages students and staff in a dialogue about sexual violence on campus. Following the failure of campus administration and the police in responding to her rape, Emma began Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) an endurance artwork and protest in which she carried a dorm mattress everywhere on campus for as long as she attended the same school as her attacker. Covered widely by mainstream media, this work became an international sensation and helped catalyze the campus anti-sexual assault movement. Emma helped to bring increased public attention to the severity of the campus rape problem and issues of victim blaming, shame, consent education, unreported cases, and the handling of reports & disclosure from survivors. Using her experience as a framework, Emma inspires students and campus staff to carry the weight and do their part in ending sexual violence and rape culture on campus.

More Than the Truth: Art, Activism, and Public Opinion
Emma addresses the nature of truth as it relates to sexual assault and art-making. Rape culture frames sexual assault survivors as liars, while those who go public become gospel-speaking saints. Where can we find the truth on such an extreme spectrum? How can we address the truth of “what really happened” in a system that relies on physical evidence to prosecute cases of sexual assault? In our current “post-truth” era, this presentation has ramifications beyond the realm of sexual assault. Emma encourages audiences to think deeply about the language they use when speaking about sexual assault, and increase their compassion for survivors.

Platform Plus

Workshop | Strong Shame: Finding Your Voice

This workshop is focused on healing and the development of leadership skills for marginalized groups, or people who have experienced trauma. Emma creates a space where people can speak openly about the isolating effects of shame, beginning with constructing a working definition for “shame” and identifying how and why it is experienced. Emma then moves the conversation towards leadership and activism, and activism’s power to lift people out of isolation. The group will also explore and discuss the role and qualities of a leader, and the value of our voices and opinions. Participants leave feeling empowered to speak about the things that society has conditioned them to feel ashamed of.

Panelist/In Conversation

Engage Emma for an in-depth conversation on the process of interweaving her personal trauma with public work, the unique experience of carrying a mattress in public, and what it means for Sulkowicz's art that she has become an Internet-based media phenomenon.

Awards

2016
National Organization for Women | Woman of Courage Award

2015
United States Student Association | National Student Movement Builder of the Year Award
Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine | Ms. Wonder Award

2014r
The Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine | Ms. Wonder Award
National Organization for Women | Susan B. Anthony Award

Summary Profile

On the first day of her sophomore year at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz was raped by another student. She, like many other rape survivors, did not report her case because of the shame she felt. Over time, she met a number of other students who had been attacked by the same perpetrator. Neither the university nor the police were helpful, and the survivors realized that they would never get justice for what had happened. Sulkowicz went public about her assault in 2013 to support NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campus sexual assault bill.

In 2014, for her final year of undergrad, Sulkowicz made Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), a nine-month endurance performance artwork that made tangible the weight of bearing the trauma of sexual assault. In Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz carried a dorm room mattress everywhere she went on Columbia’s campus for as long as she attended the same school as her attacker. She began carrying it on the first day of her senior year, and carried it through graduation. One rule was that she was not allowed to ask for help carrying the mattress, but could accept aid if offered. This artwork became an international sensation and helped catalyze the campus anti-sexual assault movement. Over 150 universities participated in an international Day of Action, holding mattress-carrying rallies.

As an activist, Sulkowicz gives speeches on a regular basis. She has spoken at The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, The Brooklyn Museum, International Center of Photography Museum, the New York Creative Time Summit, and the United States Student Association.

Since Mattress Performance, Sulkowicz has continued to make artwork. Most notably, she released “Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,” an Internet-based participatory artwork, “Self-Portrait (Performance With Object),” which was her first solo gallery show in Los Angeles, and “The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center,” which premiered with Philadelphia Contemporary Museum in January 2017. She is currently a studio artist in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.