For several months now, the cultural conversation around sexual assault has dominated virtually every medium, mostly for better and sometimes for worse. Much of the discussion has focused, in particular, on the problem of sexual violence on college campuses and the woeful attempts (or lack thereof) by university administrators to adequately deal with rape claims.
Perhaps no single figure has done more to publicize the issue than Emma Sulkowicz, an artist and undergraduate at Columbia University, who for the past several months has been carrying a mattress around campus until her alleged attacker is expelled. It is part of a endurance performance piece for Sulkowicz’s senior thesis, entitled “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” which synthesizes private trauma with public performance in what is, essentially, a long-term dare to those who have turned a blind eye toward sexual injustice, including but not limited to the Columbia administration. This Sunday, Sulkowicz brings the piece to the Brooklyn Museum.
Sulkowicz will be in conversation with Roberta Smith, the New York Times art critic who wrote an early profile of Sulkowicz that explained how a classmate allegedly assaulted her during consensual sex that turned violent; that that man was found “not responsible” in a hearing in front of Columbia adjudicators; that Sulkowicz filed a Title IX claim against the university for mishandling the case; and that, in September, she started carrying around campus a blue, 50-pound, extra-long twin mattress, the same type found in Columbia dorm rooms, where the alleged assault occurred. According to Sulkowicz’s own rules for the piece, she must carry the mattress everywhere she goes and may not ask for help, although she can accept help if and when it’s offered.
Since the Times article was published, in early September, Sulkowicz has become a highly-visible icon in the struggle for justice for campus sexual assault victims. The Brooklyn Museum is billing the conversation on Sunday as a continuation of the one that led to Smith’s article, covering the process of conceiving the work, the experience of enacting it, and “what it means for Sulkowicz’s art that she has become an Internet-based media phenomenon.” It is free with museum admission.
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