Emma Sulkowicz: 2017's Sexual Assault Reckoning Is a 'Marker for Change'

The performance artist known for "Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)" tells Broadly why this year marked an "historic example of the successes of intergenerational feminism."

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Dec 3 2017, 11:32pm

Photo by Linda Yang

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

Emma Sulkowicz is a performance artist in New York City who uses they/them pronouns. Most were introduced to Sulkowicz in 2014, when the then-undergraduate student at Columbia University made headlines for their senior thesis Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) which entailed hauling a twin-size mattress everywhere on campus to protest the university's mishandling of their sexual assault complaint against a fellow student.

Since then, Sulkowicz has continued their career as a performance artist addressing issues that are both personal and political. Shortly after President Donald Trump's election, Sulkowicz performed as a medical doctor to meet one-on-with with visitors who needed a "cure for desire" at Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center. This May, Sulkowicz graduated from the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program (ISP) and performed a graduation piece in which they was bound, berated, and hung from the ceiling to ask: What is the value of art under the Trump administration?

Shortly after that performance, Sulkowicz told Broadly, "I know how important it is to set an example of [being] outspokenly feminist and angry, and also visibly having a personal life and having fun about it. It's the only way that we can continue to make feminism contagious." As 2017 comes to a close, Broadly caught up with Sulkowicz to learn their thoughts about the fallout from sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and others, and what they hope to accomplish in the new year.

BROADLY: Looking at the past year, you’ve done so much—there is the Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, you also graduated from Whitney ISP—is there anything you could narrow down as what you’re most proud of? It feels like so long ago, that I profiled you in May.
EMMA SULKOWICZ: Holy shit, I did the Healing Touch Integral Center this year? Wow, I’ve done a lot in one year. It feels like years ago... So that honesty is the answer to your question: I’ve done so much, how did I do so much? So I’m pretty proud of how much I did.

There is so much bad news every day—do you have important habits to take care of yourself?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I exercise a lot. Keeping that as a practice is almost my version of meditating. When I feel good in my body, it allows me to have the mental space to create art and to be a reasonably social person. Definitely exercise and healthy eating has been something that I practice.

Otherwise, I feel like I've been having really healthy relationships. I think my relationships have been really healthy both with friendships and love-wise. I think I’m in a good and well-supported place. There have been times in my life that I’ve felt like I’m in unhealthy relationships. It’s kind of not talked about. I think that people really only talk about their relationships when they’re unhealthy and they’re not happy with them. But now, I’ve noticed a real improvement in the quality of my life because my relationships are healthy.

What do you have to look forward to next year?
My next solo show coming up in March. And what I’m working on for it is potentially the most calm art piece I’ve ever made. And I think it’s because I’m in such a solid place with my community and my friendships.

This show is something I’m really excited to do. It’s at the Invisible Dog Glasshouse. I’ll be doing a sculptural installation and I think there will be a sound piece, too. It’s completely new for me to do something that doesn’t have performance art in it. Who knows, maybe by the time the show happens I’ll find a way to put performance art in the show. But what it looks like right now, it’s just a sculptural piece and I’m so excited about the language that I’m filming for the show. I’m hugely excited for this and I’m working really hard on it. If I’m ever MIA in the next few months, it’s because I’m deep in this.

Also! I’ve started asking everyone in my community to start using the pronoun "they" for me. I’ve identified as gender nonconforming for a few years now but only recently have I actually decided to, I guess it’s like coming out, which is a weird term to use because society has given the phrase so many meanings. It’s hard to begin to think how it would fit in my life but it is a coming out of sorts. I’ve been navigating that with my friends and family.

How has your community responded to this new chapter in your life?
It’s actually been—I’m surprised at how rocky it was at time just because I think that I exist in a pretty liberal community. But I guess that’s just the nature of these things. But lately, it’s been pretty good. I think it’s a good thing for me to start asserting my identity which is really nice for me. Maybe this connected to why I feel especially calm lately.

You change your hair for new art projects, are you going to change your hair for this new solo show?
This is a thing I decided literally yesterday. You’re one of the first to know but I think I’m losing my hair. Because I’ve been bleaching it for five or six years now. There are certain parts of my scalp where there is no hair and you can see the skin. I think I need to give my hair a break. It’s really upsetting to me, this might be one of the most upsetting things to me right now.

This can be cool; it’s like your rebirth.
I don’t know how long I will have to do this whole hair healing period. Hopefully it won’t be too long but I won’t able to say whether I’ll change my hair for the solo piece until my hair gets a bit healthier.

There is a show I have coming up. There is also a piece I’ve been sitting on that would be an outlandish performative reaction to the Trump administration. Kind of like the first time I’ve had an idea for a piece that would be so specifically related to that. But I’ve been feeling lost about how to make it happen as of right now I’m still sitting on it.

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For many, you’re on the continuum of people who have brought sexual assault dialogue into open society. Now we’ve seen that after Harvey Weinstein, the floodgates have opened. Do you feel hope? Frustration?
I know there are many skeptics, but I’m thrilled. Finally the whole Harvey Weinstein fallout has many things. For one, I’ve been going around telling people this. There is this theorist named Stuart Hall who talks about real political change happening on the level of language. He gives this example of the word "black"—he was a black theorist—and he talks about how he noticed the difference between when the word black meant bad versus when black started to mean beautiful. He really focused on when the nuances surrounding a word change and how that marks a huge victory over racism. That suddenly people were saying black is beautiful.

I loved reading that and with this Weinstein stuff, I think we’ve made a new word. When we talk about political change at the point of language, to me, it’s really crazy that we have a word for a “Harvey Weinstein.” When various publications were saying this is the Harvey Weinstein of this industry, or the art world, whatever. We were seeing them use a new word in the english language. It’s a more specific term than a rapist, or a guy who sexually harasses women. It’s now a man in a position of authority in a certain industry that uses his position to take advantage of women or people that are in lower positions of power. I was really excited that our language gained a new word. I think that’s a real marker of change. It enables people to speak out.

The other thing, is the Weinstein fallout is a historic example of the successes of intergenerational feminism. Having a person like Weinstein taking advantage of women in many years. To bring these stories to life, women of all ages had to band together. I’ve been to so many talks, roundtables, and discussions that all ask: What does intergenerational feminism look like? I think that these men who are being taken down, are the examples of this intergenerational feminism and show us what it looks like.