Equity Services hosts Emma Sulkowicz

Carleton University’s Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) is hailing art as a form of healing and understanding. The school’s Equity Services brought Emma Sulkowicz, an award-winning artist and activist, to campus as the final part of Carleton’s International Womyn’s Week on March 10.

Nearly 100 people braved the cold on Friday night to listen to Sulkowicz, a Columbia University visual arts graduate best known for her senior thesis, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).

Sulkowicz began carrying her dorm mattress everywhere she went at Columbia in September 2014, intending to stop only if her alleged rapist was expelled or left the university. She carried the mattress for nine months until their joint graduation in May 2015.

“When it comes to sexual violence, proof can only get us so far,” Sulkowicz said in her speech at Carleton. “Words, actions, physical traces and security footage are an incomplete indication of what happened.”

According to her, interpreting art is similar to analyzing sexual assault cases because only the artist or victim has the full picture.

“Art presents the viewer with some visual information at the expense of all the other information on Earth,” Sulkowicz said. “So many possibilities can coexist in the same frame.”

She said she believes “triggering” people who interact with her art is important, as long as it is done in a supportive environment.

“I don’t agree with making art that actively upsets people but I do think that if we’re making art about really controversial and personal issues . . . we need to create spaces where people can feel the feelings they need to feel,” she said.

Carrolyn Johnston, an equity advisor and the co-ordinator of SASC, said art acts as a valuable coping strategy for some survivors to make meaning from their experiences.

“Art can increase the awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities and can also contribute to the validation of other survivors as they see that they’re not alone,” Johnston said via email.

Elisa Soto-Danseco, a third-year public affairs and policy management student who attended the discussion, said Sulkowicz sent a powerful message in the wake of backlash against Carleton’s Sexual Violence Policy.

“You don’t just come [to the event] for yourself, you come as a sign and as a vote that this is the kind of thing Carleton should support and this is the kind of thing that I think our campus benefits from having,” Soto-Danseco said.

According to Johnston, inviting Sulkowicz to Carleton fuels positive discussions about sexual violence and teaches SASC how it can better support survivors.

“Bearing witness to someone’s experience of sexual violence is powerful—both for the survivor to be heard and validated, and for the person listening,” Johnston said.

“My hope is that [Sulkowicz’s] talk will build empathy and motivate us to foster a campus community that is aware of the prevalence and seriousness of sexual violence, that is supportive of survivor testimony, and that actively cultivates a culture of consent,” she added.

According to Soto-Danseco, high turnout at the event “shines a flashlight” on the magnitude of students’ support for sexual violence survivors.

“We’re all still invested in continuing discussions about a more complete understanding of what sexual assault is and looks like and what can be done about it,” Soto-Danseco said.

Sulkowicz said she has been thinking recently about stopping art and activism surrounding her sexual assault, but that it isn’t an appealing option.

“When healing is equated with sucking it up and moving on, I’m not really interested in participating,” Sulkowicz said. “I’m more interested in a version of healing that’s radical feeling—feeling so much that you actually get productive with it—and I think that’s where good art comes from.”

– Photo is provided.