You might not know the following figures—but you should. In Campus Characters, The Blue & White introduces you to a handful of Columbians who are up to interesting and extraordinary things and whose stories beg to be shared. If you’d like to suggest a Campus Character, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, is a synesthete. She sees some people’s personalities as colors, like greenish yellow, teal. Some people are even gray, but she’s quick to point out that there’s no implied value system in her chromatic perceptions. “Gray is perfect for them!” she assured me. “It doesn’t mean that they’re boring, they’re just gray.”
There’s a sweetness to her—mid interview, she excitedly asked if she could Facebook stalk my boyfriend because his name is the same as her favorite food, kale. When I asked about her classes at Columbia, she couldn’t decide on a single favorite or specify any she didn’t like, for fear of offending any professor that she didn’t name. Throughout our conversations, her gratitude and appreciation for her friends and fellow activists was palpable. She laughed, often. As Gabriela Pelsinger, CC ’15, who met Emma during their first year, told me, “Emma’s happiness can make everyone in the room smile. She has a contagious effect.”
But Emma can also be relentlessly determined, as she has proven to a national audience over the past year. “The reason people make art is out of necessity,” she told me of her work, “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).” The piece, in a certain respect, represents a process of self-actualization. She’s growing into her identity as an artist. Unlike her previous work from high school and here at Columbia (a school that she applied to because her college advisor suggested it, and first visited only after she’d been accepted—despite growing up on 74th Street), “Carry That Weight” is entirely and uniquely hers. “This is the first artwork that I’ve made from an idea that I had. I wanted to execute it. No one assigned it to me.”
Regarding the media avalanche in the wake of “Carry That Weight,” Emma resists being objectified. “There’s a certain type of journalism that humanizes people […], rather than what I mostly see, which is, ‘Oh look, little rape girl wants to share her story, let’s jump on that and victimize her again […] to sell newspapers.’” She’s also acquired an astute understanding of media itself. “As soon as I cried, I knew that was the clip they were going to use […] to show me as the victim,” she said, frustrated.
More than an activist, Emma sees herself as an artist. When she came to Columbia, she quickly abandoned her original intention to major in physics to pursue a degree in visual arts. Her friends were happy to tell me about her immense knowledge of the Met, that she’s never missed a Whitney Biennial. Emma thinks about art and artists so much that she told me she’d be hard-pressed to name a favorite. Gabriela is excited to see where Emma will end up: she’s proud of her friend, although she’s also nervous about the continuation of “Carry That Weight” in the snow and rain. “I want her to know she’s not any less brave if she stops. She has nothing to prove to me.”
I asked Emma where she saw herself after graduation—where she would be, what she’d be doing. She couldn’t tell me specifics: she’d miss her friends and the community that she’s found on campus here in New York, but doesn’t seem daunted by the prospect of moving elsewhere. One thing will remain constant, she says: “I’m going to make art at all costs.”
— Tamsin Pargiter