Emma Sulkowicz started her senior year at Columbia University last week with some extra baggage that her peers were bound to notice: a dorm mattress that she is carrying everywhere she goes. In a video interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, she explained that the mattress—which she is carrying as a performance art piece, titled 'Mattress Performance' or 'Carry That Weight,' for her visual arts senior thesis—is partially a protest piece. She will carry the mattress everywhere she goes on campus "for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist," whom she says the school did not expel after administrators mishandled her disciplinary hearing for the rape. She tells the Daily Spectator that she was raped in her own dorm bed, and that "since then, that space has become fraught for me, and I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then."
As I listened to Sulkowicz talk about her art project last week, I thought about the Monument Quilt, another art project about sexual assault. The Monument Quilt, organized by FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, is a crowd-sourced quilt that collects quilt squares from survivors and supporters around the country to create a public space of healing and support for survivors of rape and abuse. The co-founders of FORCE, Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle, spent most of August touring the country with the quilt along with the project's healer-in-residence Shameeka Dream, and returned to their home base of Baltimore to display the quilt at Federal Hill Park on Saturday, Aug. 30. Brancato said in an interview before the quilt's Baltimore display that they decided upon a quilt because of "the crowd-sourced nature of a quilt. The fact that there's many different squares that are made by different people is important, because a narrative about sexual violence, when we do have mainstream media conversations about sexual violence, there's a kind of one-dimensional narrative . . . so it's [about] having that multiplicity of narratives."
Both 'Mattress Performance' and the Monument Quilt are using ostentatious physical objects to force the viewer to acknowledge sexual assault—the Monument Quilt is a bright streak of red wherever it's displayed, with the words "NOT ALONE" cut out of red cloth and spread out with the quilt squares, and it's difficult to ignore someone carrying a mattress into a classroom. But I also found myself thinking beyond how the audience receives the artwork, and more about how important the act of creation in itself can be to sexual assault survivors. Sexual assault can isolate you, can make you feel like you're no longer in control of your own body, like you're no longer in control of your own narrative and you can't talk to anyone about it. The very act of creating art about sexual assault, then, is a way of reclaiming some of that control that was ripped away. Sulkowicz's performance piece is a physical manifestation of the struggles she's dealt with as a sexual-assault survivor; what must it mean for her when someone on campus offers to help her carry the weight of the mattress (which, under the rules of engagement she's outlined for her piece, passersby are allowed to do)?
This idea of art as healing has certainly been central to the Monument Quilt—Brancato said that the quilt medium was chosen in part because of its history "as a healing process." When I spoke to Samantha Buker, a rape survivor who was working on a quilt square, a week before the quilt's display in Baltimore, she echoed that idea.
"It's nice that . . . you can have an opportunity to go beyond that situation to then be able to have a way to express it in art," she told me over coffee in Mount Vernon. "It's a neat thing to be like, all that bad energy, all that torment can be cocooned and then put into something new. And I think that's what's really neat and is what's really exciting me right now about the project." And a healing process is of particular necessity to rape survivors, considering that, according to one study, 31 percent of them will develop PTSD during their lifetime (for comparison, it is estimated that 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experienced PTSD).
I'm drawn to this concept of art as healing and testimony of pain because it's something I've been struggling with for several years. I left an abusive relationship my junior year of college, and it took me an entire year of struggling with doubt and self-loathing and writing terrible poetry about that relationship for me to put a name to what my ex-boyfriend had done to me. I had no chance of punishing his abusive behavior through the university disciplinary system, so all I could do with the hurt I was constantly feeling was write it out. I wrote 23 pages about his abuse for a class, then sat with my nails digging into my thighs as I listened to classmates discuss it in a workshop—it was painful and exhausting and terrifying, but I was determined to create something, anything, out of the pain.
Given that personal history, I wasn't quite sure how to prepare myself when I actually visited the Monument Quilt at Federal Hill Park. Forty-eight massive quilt squares filled up the open grass atop the hill, with eight more squares displayed with the words "NOT ALONE" on the side of the hill, so that they were visible from the Inner Harbor.
Many of the squares featured fastened-on flaps of fabric with a brief sentence on the outside; when you lifted the flap of fabric, there would be a survivor's story underneath. There were so many stories, from people who had been abused as children or raped when they ran away from home as a teenager or raped at a college party or abused by a spouse. Reading testimony after testimony from survivors who needed their stories to be heard, I was hit with an overwhelming wave of grief. How are there so many survivors? Why? On one quilt square, which was decorated with numerous smaller pieces of fabric that each held a message, there was a fabric piece that only said "believe me." That two-word plea felt like a punch in the gut, and I had to leave the monument for a few minutes.
Luckily, the quilt organizers understood that the quilt could carry plenty of emotional weight; volunteers in light-blue shirts that said "supporter" were hovering around the quilt, ready to provide emotional support to anyone who needed it. There were also tables for the local organizations involved in the display, including Phynyx Ministries and TurnAround Inc., whose services focus on aiding survivors, and a tent that was a designated safe space for female-bodied survivors of color. And while much of the quilt served as testimony to abuse and rape, plenty of it was hopeful as well: Whole quilt squares were covered with supportive handwritten messages from allies, and others contained messages of love from rape survivors to other survivors. One square read, "I contain multitudes/ I am still whole."
Several of the quilt squares were decorated with small pieces of fabric, with markers scattered about to encourage attendees to write their own messages. After an hour or so of hovering around the quilt, I finally picked up a marker and wrote my own small testimony on a quilt square.
Brancato and Nagle plan to collect enough quilt squares that they can decorate the whole National Mall in Washington, D.C. with them, using the squares to spell out "NOT ALONE." It's comforting to think that my small corner of fabric could join more than a thousand other messages of pain and support and triumph. There are so many rape and abuse survivors who are struggling to recover, but like the passersby in the 'Mattress Performance,' the Monument Quilt can help survivors carry the weight.