The Feministing Five: Emma Sulkowicz

Emma Sulkowicz, center, with Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (L) and Gabriela Pelfinger (R)

Emma Sulkowicz, center, with Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (L) and Gabriela Pelsinger (R)

Emma Sulkowicz is my new favorite feminist artist, having displaced Frida and Queen Bey. This past week, Emma debuted her senior art thesis, “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight,” in the midst of her first week of her senior year at Columbia University in New York. For those of you who need a refresher, Emma has created a performance work where she will carry a mattress with her across campus unless her rapist is forced out of school or leaves campus. Her initial announcement was met with much attention across the national media. Here at Feministing, we have continued to cover her debut, as well as concurrent student protests against Columbia’s inefficient sexual assault policies. 

To be honest, as I prepared for this interview, I was expecting to mostly ask to Emma about her activism and organizing on her campus. But as we spoke, I was reminded again and again that “Carry That Weight” first and foremost is art. Emma has created an artwork that masterfully intersects personal experience, campus culture, and national conversations. It is her art that has moved us so and it is her creative perspective that causes us to reflect. Brava Emma!

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Emma Sulkowicz!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thanks so much for speaking with us today. Along with starting your first week of your senior year, you’ve also launched an evocative work “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight.” Can you update us on recent developments from this week? 

Emma Sulkowicz: “No Red Tape” had a rally on Friday where hundreds of people came. We all held our signs, we had a speak-out, and there were a ton of mattresses. People put red tape on their mattresses and wrote “Carry That Weight,” “We Stand with Survivors,” and other things like that. It was really amazing. I heard that a surprising number of people actually came out as survivors for the first time ever just because it was such an amazing sight to see and people felt so supported.

SB: Not only are you an artist, but you have also been involved with student activist groups on Columbia’s campus demanding policy change. Could you describe your different areas of involvement? Do you approach these different roles with different perspectives? 

ES: I was one of the founders of “No Red Tape.” A handful of concerned students, including me, got together and we created the group and that group has really taken on a life of its own, which is what I wanted. Since then, I have not really participated in that group so much–I’ve always called myself a “rogue actor.” I’m on their email listserv and I discussed a lot of things with them. I also participate with the Coalition Against Sexual Violence. The work involves talking to administrators.

But for me, I don’t see “Carry that Weight” as a protest, I see it as an art piece that I’ve made to cope with what happened in the past two years of my life. For me, “Carry That Weight” is how any artist would make any artwork to deal with what happened to them. Whereas, when I’m an activist, I’m going to protests, I’m going to rallies, I’m going to the Dean’s office and asking to talk directly with the Dean. When I’m working with the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, I’m helping to develop the policies we want our school to enact, I’m helping draft language and everything along those lines.

To me, my art and my activism are very separate and this piece is more a personal reflection on everything that has happened.

SB: How has your community responded to this event? 

ES: The community response has been so overwhelming and so wonderful. I don’t walk outside without someone approaching me and saying that they are really excited about what I’m doing. I get a lot of “Thanks Yous.” I’ve only had to do one trip where I have had to carry the mattress all alone. It’s been really wonderful and I’m so excited to see that other people are getting interested in trying to change the sexual assault policies on our campus.

SB: You’ve had an incredible amount of media coverage recently. What are questions would you wish people would stop asking? What are questions that you wish you heard more? 

ES: Let’s see, questions I wish people would stop asking me. Maybe this is silly, but I wish people would stop asking, “What are you trying to accomplish with your work?” and “What is your main goal for this work?” I never really know what to say. Imagine asking da Vinci what he was trying to “accomplish” with his Mona Lisa. Or, imagine asking Angela Carter what her “goal” was when she wrote Reflections. In no way am I assuming that my work can match the work of these great artists, but what I’m trying to get at is that people treat what I’m doing as a protest with a set goal rather than an art piece that I made out of personal necessity. I make artwork because it’s the way I think; it’s the way I digest and metabolize all the trauma I’ve experienced for the past two years of my life.

In regards to a question people asked more, well, I can tell you the coolest question I’ve been asked. It was on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. She asked, “As a journalist, I’m forced to say your ‘alleged’ rapist, because of legal matters, I have to say ‘alleged, alleged.” In your case, you’re making an art piece about him and you’re saying ‘your rapist.’ Why do you think it works like that?”

I explained to her, again, this is a personal art piece. I know exactly who my rapist is. In my mind, I’m making an art piece about what happened to me; this isn’t a press release, this isn’t a legal document, this is a personal work about something that happened to me and that’s why I feel confident when I say “my rapist.” I know who raped me, and I’m making an art piece about it.

SB: You’re stranded on a desert island. You get to take with you one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick? 

ES: Oh my goodness. Have you answered this? You have to come up with an answer! After I go, you go. One food: a giant head of kale which is my favorite vegetable. One drink: I don’t want to say water and I don’t want to say a White Russian, but I might do both. I have to take more than one feminist. I’m taking my two most inspiring feminist friends, Gabriela Pelsinger and Zoe Ridolfi-Starr.

Suzy 1 Suzanna Bobadilla would take a sloppy joe, a margarita, and her momma and great-grandmother who literally stood on a soap box and yelled about women’s rights to vote. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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