Emma Sulkowicz Talks Art And Rape Culture: BUST Interview

by Erika W. Smith

A year and a half ago, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress across the stage as she graduated from Columbia University. It was the culmination of a year-long performance art piece called “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which Sulkowicz carried a 50-lb. dorm mattress with her everywhere she went, pledging she wouldn’t stop until Columbia expelled the student who raped her in her dorm room — which never happened. Sulkowicz’s performance drew nationwide attention and, with a memorable appearance on the cover of New York magazine, she became a leader in the fight against campus sexual assault.

Sept22 2014Columbia


After graduation, Sulkowicz continued to make art, holding her first solo show in February. Now, Sulkowicz is preparing to hold another show. This weekend, in the performance venue Jack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, she will perform a new piece. Then, in November, she’ll speak about art and body politics at DC’s National Museum of Women in the Arts during their “Fresh Talks” series. She’s also doing the Whitney Independent Study with the Whitney Museum, a highly selective yearlong program that has launched the careers of artists including Jenny Holzer and Andrea Fraser.

BUST called Sulkowicz to talk about her upcoming projects, her activism, and more.

Screen Shot 2016 10 21 at 12.12.12 PM

Could you tell me about the Jack performance?

What’s weird about art pieces is that part of the decision about how an art piece will ultimately manifest itself comes from the installation, because when you’re in the space you realize how traffic will flow. It’s going to be like a party: There will be a bar, music, fun, dancing, and I’ll be doing a performance throughout where I’ll be interacting with each person who comes, and then at the end, something will happen.

I think there’s a popular conception of what performance art is, which is very much based on theater. And the canon of performance art has been mostly designed by people like Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann…big names like that. That’s how we’ve been taught what performance art is, if you were even lucky enough to have performance art on the curriculum in your school, and it’s very much, a person does something by themselves and everyone watches. It creates this aesthetic distance, whereas I’m more interested in art that makes it so the viewer is not just a viewer, but actually a participant.

Could you walk me through the planning process for your show?

For this Jack piece, when I went there and saw the space, which actually used to be a dance club, immediately I had this image of — it sounds so nerdy, but a party lecture. I’d been looking at Gregg Bordowitz’s opera lectures at that time, so I was like, “Oh, I’ll be doing an art piece in this place that used to be a dance club — party lecture!” Gregg Bordowitz does these lectures where he’ll talk about very dry things, like Freud, and have these people come out in costume and sing about these theories. So I was like, “That, except more fun.”

That was maybe 10 months ago. The piece has gone through so many different drafts since then. I’m probably on draft #7 right now. I start with that image, and then I start writing out a script as if I were writing out a play. It’s like, “So first, what will happen is people will walk into the room,” and I’m writing out how I will want the experience to unfold. Then I have to ask myself, “Why am I interested in this?” and I write a personal essay. And by the time I’m like, “Well, I have this memory of going to a dance club and then this happened, and it reminds me of this art theory,” it’s a sort of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts-type mixture of theory and personal stories. By the time I’m done writing that personal essay, I can revisit the script for how the performance will go, change it almost completely, and then go back and forth between the script and the personal essay. That’s how a lot of my art pieces get made. I start with an impulse, figure out why I have that impulse, and revisit the script.

I’m more interested in art that makes it so the viewer is not just a viewer, but actually a participant.

Do you rehearse before the performance?

No. The crazy thing about not being the kind of performance artist who stands on a stage, does their thing, and then walks off the stage, is that I have to write it as a play that will then get fucked up. I do this thing, and something organic will happen, and then that’s what the art piece is. These scripts are just starting points for something else to happen, and I have to keep that in mind the entire time. I’m also writing contingent plans, like, “If one person says this, I will do this. If another person says this, I will do this.” That sounds very abstract, but for example, I did this piece in LA where people would come and interact with me in a gallery, and if a person asked me a question that I had been asked too many times before, I would send them to this robot version of me.


How did you get involved with the National Museum of Women in the Arts?

They reached out and it sounded so cool. The prompt that they have is the kind of stuff I get really excited about. And I prefer presentations that are based on conversation, rather than one person speaking the whole time. Now that I say it out loud, it’s probably related to how I make art, because I’m not into one performer just performing for everyone, I’m interested in engaging people and seeing what comes out of that.

The prompt is, “How can the arts promote body politics?” I already know my opinion on that, which is that if art doesn’t advance body politics, then it’s making a mistake. People should be wary when they see an art piece that says something like, “I’m trying to take myself art of this artwork.” It’s like when people say, “I really love Woody Allen films, but I hate Woody Allen.” I think we’re at the point where we should realize that the author is connected to the artwork.

Every time I make another art piece, I’m adding another layer of history to my body in a way. 

The robot piece, as well as some of the other work you’ve done, seems like it’s in response to the media attention to “Mattress Performance.” Do you see these as part of a series?


I feel like “series” creates a set that’s close-ended, but I think that your history is going to follow you no matter what. Even if I got plastic surgery, I’d still be Emma Sulkowicz with a bunch of plastic surgery. My body is going to stay with me no matter what, and with that, I’m bringing my history, especially as a performance artist who uses her body. But what’s interesting about history is that it’s always changing and it’s always evolving. Every time I make another art piece, I’m adding another layer of history to my body in a way. A series means, at one point this will stop. But if we talk about a progression, it’s like, I made “Mattress Performance,” and every time I make another art piece, I progress my narrative forward. It’s an unending thing.

Mattress Performance rules of engagement copyvia Wikimedia Commons

With “Matress Performance,” you became such a figure of the conversation about how college campuses need to be safer from sexual assault. Now that you’ve graduated, do you feel like you need to be involved with that movement, or do you feel like it’s something current undergraduates should be picking up?

That question itself is one of the things that college campuses are having to deal with on so many levels. What’s interesting about colleges in general is that they’re able to become such hotbeds of activism for really short spurts of time, and students who come afterwards are trying to figure out how to continue these legacies. In some ways that’s the magic of college campuses, but it’s also their number one Achilles’ tendon.

Now that I’ve graduated, I’m realizing that sexual violence is not just a college campus problem. I see just how pervasive sexual violence is, and how sexual violence is more than just a sexual violence problem — it’s related to race, it’s related to gender, it’s related to the fluidity of both of those things. I’m realizing that I can continue to try to — it sounds really corny, but to make the world better, even though I’m not in the specific context of Columbia anymore. And in some ways it’s liberating, and in some ways it’s frustrating, because campuses have that weird magic of the four years where you can make a lot of commotion.

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons

More from BUST

Columbia Student Demands Justice For Her Sexual Assault By Carrying Mattress Everywhere She Goes

How College Students Are Right Rape With Art, Humor, And The Guerrilla Girls Broadband

Emma Sulkowicz Carried Her Mattress All The Way To Graduation


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.