Monday, August 6, 2012

An essay about The Human Body Project at the 2011 Victoria Fringe contributed by Donald Brennan

“The Human Body Project” 
Victoria Fringe Festival  2011 
by Donald Brennan

I went to this event curious of people’s reactions and impressions about being naked in public. I knew the performer was going to be nude, but she was not billed as a bombshell stripper and I wasn’t interested in attending a superficial strip tease. This event had every indication, instead, of being visceral and the performer outwardly candid. It would be, to excuse the innuendo, doubly revealing. The audience might be invited to disrobe, too. I wasn’t certain of what I would do in that case. I rushed after a hot yoga class to get to the venue on time and wondering several things. What are the ramifications and complications around a lone naked woman talking about the experience in front of a clothed audience? What kind of responses does it trigger in people, especially nowadays? How difficult is it for a naked person to remove their nudity from the realm of sexuality and create a “transformative and healing theatre of encounter?” As a concept for initiating discussion and creating controversy, it’s hardly novel. Nudity in performance art is fairly standard practice. Would it be a disastrous catharsis of self-indulgent emoting in a manner more fitting for private therapy? Or would there be an intelligently provocative evening with insights about nature and culture coming out of the concept of nakedness?

Diamant is a 49-year old mother of two who, in her desire to be an agent of social change for the well being of those who are most vulnerable in society (women, children, and the homeless), chooses to stand exposed to all, eliciting dialogue from the audience as she relates her feelings about what she is doing in the moment. She stands in a long line of like-minded performance artists seeking an intimate and different experience. Her nudity could be construed as confrontational to those people who take offence at what they perceive as being brazen behaviour. It is plain from the outset that this is a woman who comes to grips with vulnerability by being vulnerable in solidarity. She makes her entrance straight off with no preamble, no demonstrative shedding of clothes, no expected warning of ‘I am going to get naked now.’ She just steps out, wearing nothing but glasses and a smile while silently surveying the audience of approximately 40 people. She looks more like a grade school teacher than a practiced actress. Disarmingly ordinary and unabashedly sincere. She says hello. A few of us say hello back. It’s a moment of awkwardness, almost sublime in the myriad of possibilities. An absurdist playwright would have a field day with it. It’s also a moment of reckoning. This is the advent of the experience and the tone is irrevocably set from here on in as each audience she has “performed” in front of create their own dynamic between themselves and her, the focus “performer,” or facilitator. She relaxes somewhat, saying that she is happy to see smiling faces and not grim, confrontational looks. Already, we are intimates drawing into a centre of trust. She feels the need to apologize for not having a script or a set routine, suggesting that she has faced confused Fringe audience-goers in the past who have walked in without a clue of what the show is about. Her admission of unpreparedness warms up the audience further, bringing the initial tension of expectation between her and the audience down to something sympathetic, conversational and familiar. We are never quite nullified to the level of just a casual gathering, but the audience, if that is what we might be called, soon feel inclined to start addressing questions to her.

Out of curiosity and simple questions of why, what and where comes a seemingly disparate yet connected dialogue detailing our reactions, her views and feelings, and our collective state of mind. What’s the point, you may ask, and why naked? You would think she might enjoy exposing herself if she engages in such a production. But it’s the perfect “costume” for what she intends. This is, after all, an event meant to reclaim and revalidate humanity through frank conversation, and what more pointed way to do this than to bare all, literally embodying humanness, as it were? And the physical nakedness isn’t as important as just stepping out of our defensive comfort zones, out of what I said was our “siege mentality,” a comment she liked. She says she is highly nervous being naked in front of people, despite doing this for several years now. On top of it, she says she finds being openhearted more difficult than being just naked. She is not a habitual exhibitionist, and says she would actually prefer not to have to do this. (And even if she is a practicing nudist or naturist, it has to be asked what difference would it make? Should she be judged with all the accompanying presumptions if she was comfortable being naked? ) That she feels compelled to do this is testament to the urgency of her fervent desire to foster an atmosphere of open dialogue.

She first mounted the event in Lethbridge in 2006 and has vowed to present it annually until her death. No doubt, she wants to upend notions of concealment of the aging body when she performs in the future. Facilitating such a controversial piece in conservative Alberta must have been something of a challenge, possibly at some personal cost to her own safety. She and her husband, David, whom she points out is in the audience, have recently moved to Victoria from Lethbridge where she taught at the college. (It is plain that her husband supports her in her ideas and executions.)

What Diamant au natural taps into is intimacy, and not sexual intimacy. With full frontal focus, she becomes the “Other,” in a twist illustrating the Hegelian concept that Simone de Beauvoir elaborated upon. Diamant is the one, at least for a time, not like the rest of us and so she gets our attention. (Yet, perversely, if I can use that term, she is obviously us under our clothes.) There is also the phenomenon of our attention being held because of her situation, and similar to the final words of a dying person, her words carry weight and gravitas precisely because she is so vulnerable. Here is a naked woman talking to a group of clothed people. More than getting our attention, her nudity is a reminder, and a challenge, that we are thoughtful, compassionate and sensitive human beings and we are to address ourselves as such, especially when we are undressed. In her vulnerability, the audience, unless they are completely callow, find their own vulnerability. It’s no surprise that many of our expressions for fostering open dialogue and honest communications are couched in terms of exposing ourselves. Diamant says she tends to listen more rather than engage in debate or arguments when she’s naked. (And so we would naturally, once we lose the armour of our clothes.) As each of us comment and ask her questions, she reaches out to hold our hands as she listens, saying she finds the physical contact reassuring. (Is this also a move to assure us she is an engaged person, not a remote and detached nude simply parading about?)

We talk about her entrance. Diamant says she has thought about disrobing on stage but this has the stigma of stripping for entertainment and money. The very act of removing clothes in public view is such a convention for building sexual suspense that it is difficult to separate commercial titillation from the uniquely sincere, as one elderly gentleman pointed out. If we were artists anticipating a life drawing class, it would be another matter entirely, and we’d be rolling up our sleeves for a working session. Context is everything; here we are contemplating this naked woman in our presence, but in relating to her empathetically, talking with her and learning what she feels, we are removed from the dynamic associated with having ‘paid to just see a naked woman.’ The conundrum is that we have paid for nudity, in a way. Ahh, but we’re also curious to SEE an audience SEEING a naked woman, and the resultant reactions and dialogue. And something not touched upon in this particular evening, though Diamant may have encountered it before in previous discussions, is the whole aspect of nakedness versus nudity.

In a brave and brilliant stroke near the beginning, she also says she knows it can be as awkward to look at a naked person up close as it is to be naked up close, and in that spirit, she announces she hereby bestows permission for people to stare, and walks down the centre aisle. It’s also a humorous moment, as if we need to get this over with, but it also subtly encourages people to side with her, to feel empathy and open ourselves up. “It may be mine that you’re looking at, but it’s yours, too,” she says, her gender generalization forgivable as she paces in front to both sides of the theatre, the purging and absence of shame putting us at ease with viewing her unadorned, “non-surgically altered” (except for a caesarean) 49-year-old-mother’s body. Never does she raise her arms or pirouette around. “It’s real,” she says, “and so be real.” No shaving for her (except for legs, I notice.) She makes reference to the oddity it is as difficult for some people to talk about nudity as it is to see nudity. Some members of the audience refrain from speaking, whether in introspective contemplation or inhibited restraint. “We live intimately in the world and our skin is our connection to others and to the environment,” says Diamant. Her underlying belief is that there is disconnection between the world and our humanity. We’ve cut ourselves off from feeling, and she fervently believes this is the source of almost every sociological ailment of this “deeply troubled planet that our children are inheriting.” She says she has the hope for engaged audiences to discuss and participate, striving for shared responsibility. That being said, she adds that two men once joined her naked on stage, one standing on each side of her, but their presence suggesting naked bodyguards caused friction and agitation in the room. Apparently, they were perceived by women in the audience as threatening, the women who attend this possibly more feminist oriented than most. That is an inescapable aspect about this event, and it is how being naked in this context is essentially pro-feminist, and rejection of patriarchal conformity. (I question whether it’s a successful jump to conclusion to say, as Diamant did, that her actions are also against “linear, male-dominated thought” and all that is “compartmentalized and competitive, rather than conscious and cooperative.” Gender politics are never quite as simple as easy labels and groupings.)

Out of discussing that it is natural to be open-hearted when one is bereft of clothes, and Diamant “wanting to take myself and audience beyond comfort zones and learn a different way of cohabiting our planet” and that “eventually, I may have an audience who will all join me naked and we will walk out on to the street” comes the inevitable question put to the audience; who will join her in being naked? It is actually a young woman in the audience who requests Diamant to ask us. The young woman says she wants to hear the invitation spoken aloud. She’s possibly fed up with all the intellectualizing and wants to see if people are committed to what they are saying.

I decide to act, not content to just be a theorizing observer. I’m not one to shy away at such a challenge, and Diamant deserves support. I had been thinking that I might have to perform a little nude mime if I was pushed to back up my assertions that the naked self is the basis from which we all emote, the fundamental corpus of our humanity. To that end, I imagined having to strike the Vitruvian Man pose as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, possibly getting an appreciative laugh and lightening the mood if my spoken contributions were deemed too serious and meeting resistance. Interesting that the young woman who proposes the question, an actress in another Fringe play examining sexuality and who has been active in promoting it throughout the audience discussion, fails to follow through on her challenge and remains seated. Could it be she doesn’t want to contribute too much to a production in perceived competition with her own? Then again, she may have valid and personal reasons to refrain. Still sweating and having jogged to the venue, I announce “I will” and stand up where I’m seated at the front and peel off. From being nearly naked and then naked showering a half hour before, it doesn’t feel like a large leap to just be naked again and to get some air. As I step beside the smiling Diamant, I say that I have just come from hot yoga, and “I need to cool down, anyway,” a remark that gets some laughter.

One woman stirs from the audience and moves up at the same time I do. She had been fairly prominent in the discussions and her manner of dress (full-length gloves, tight black dress striving to contain a curvaceous figure, and a lacy pill box hat), set her off from the other members of the audience. Some time into the audience discussion, I recognized her from news stories and feature profiles as the outspoken burlesque performer “Miss Rosie Bitts.” She is willing to answer Diamant’s invitation (an unanswerable challenge possibly to most of the audience) and she leaves her tall, dark male formally-dressed companion to come up to the stage. Interesting that she does not want to disrobe in front of us, but chooses to go up on stage and into the temporary wings, saying she feels more comfortable doing this behind the scenes. I can appreciate that Miss Bitts (I like her playful stage name) has professional considerations when it comes to getting nude or nearly nude in public. Her career is based on teasing with nudity and challenging boundaries, and there must be a feeling of odd contradiction if she is to strip completely and all at once without “making show.” She quickly joins us and it occurs to me that we two are suspiciously like confederates or plants in the audience. People might readily think Diamant had pre-arranged this with us because, (a); we engage in the discussions with avid interest and helped further them along; (b), we seemed so willing to get naked without hesitation; and (c), that we stripped down quickly and without fussy delay. (Miss Bitts refrains from stockings and restrictive underwear, I suppose, to keep unsightly marks from showing on her publicly displayed body.) My loose clothing and sandals on this summer evening made for simple disrobing. I leave them on my chair.

We three stand at the front bared to the public, male and female on either side of Diamant like bookends. It must make quite a symmetrical show of support, like Adam and Eve posing in the Garden of Eden (Diamant as the central figure of The Mother?) Perhaps another representational image would be the man and woman etchings on the plaques attached to the roving deep space probes, Pioneers 10 and 11. Here we are put less on display than we are willing participants in an experiment of what it means to be absent of garment demanded by society. We ponder with the audience the baring of not just our skin, but by association, the essence of exposed soul and the depth of our plain humanity. It’s not as if we automatically made more genuine by simply showing our genitals, but I do believe we show we cherish life by being unabashedly naked. In an analogy I give that Diamant said she liked, we are as permeable and sensitized as newts in the forest.

After we are welcomed and thanked by Diamant, I’m asked by one woman how I feel. When I start to reply, she offers her hand to hold, as have most of the audience members offered to Diamant while she’s talking. I walk into the audience and tell them it feels a little surreal to be doing this and that I also feel somewhat removed and distant, mostly because I am aware of the audience-performer separation (even with the hand holding.) I mention that I have had some experience performing. I can’t deny I feel I am in the performer role now, yet, to use that overworked word, it also feels indelibly “authentic.” I walk back to the front, and another woman raises the point that it is more daunting to undress in public if there are friends or partners in the audience. It is so true. In front of strangers whom one will probably never see again and in a setting conducive to non-judgemental discussion, it’s not difficult to be bare. One would think that the familiarity would make it easier for physical exposure, but it is the opposite. There is a group of five people in their twenties sitting in the front row who are keen on engaging in discussion. Behind them are several couples of varying older ages, a few single older men, one gent who looks bored and tired, some younger men and on the stage right side of the main aisle, and many older women sitting alone or with a friend. On the far right are a couple of young female Asian students who I notice are careful not to engage in eye contact with me, emphasising cultural morales and differences around nudity. A young man with a still frame camera around his neck and a video camera on a tripod stands in the small balcony. (A sign on an easel in front gives an explanation that the event is being filmed as part of the art piece.) It is in many ways a typical Fringe audience.

A couple people ask Miss Bitts about whether she feels she is working in a professional capacity or in an experiment by doing “the full Monty.” She replies that it does feel different, but also reminds people that it is perfectly natural to be nude and it is only a societal norm that makes us feel we are required to cover up. The problems society has with exhibition of the female body are manifold, of course. (And, I would add, portrayals of the male sexual organs, especially in an aroused state, are taboo altogether.) She asks the audience “we’re all born naked, so what is the big deal?” She says she finds this way of being naked very interesting. I’m sure it does feel significantly different for her, because here there is a dialogue and interaction with the audience that are absent in her traditional burlesque shows. She talks about her recent run-in with the B.C. Liquor Board shutting down her planned “Naked Women Reading (Fairy Tales)” in Fernwood due to a technicality in the licence agreement that Miss Bitts says was just an excuse by the mainstream establishment to censor her show. I remember the show closure received some press coverage earlier this year. From that experience, she put together a new production just for this year’s Fringe about her trying to put on a show of burlesque, music and theatre that is meant to explore “the politics of female nudity,” and being faced with censoring herself or getting arrested by the police. The topic gets many women talking about misunderstandings about nudity in general. Miss Bitts obviously likes to buck the trend for older woman who have had children to hide their bodies and retreat from sexuality. She encourages women to be “perfectly imperfect” with the way their bodies look and not to bow to the narrow confines of what the media portrays as a desirable woman. In her own appearance and choice of liberation through burlesque, Miss Bitts certainly promotes a playful and fun celebration of our corporal selves.

Diamant mentions that there are sketchbook pads and pencils at the front for people to make sketches or notes if they so desire. I was wondering what the pads were for and jump at the chance to catch some thoughts on the fly. (I’m not even sure I have captured a lot of the interesting salient points while writing these notes after the fact.) Miss Bitts and I sit on the edge of the stage beside Diamant and I jot down three points I wanted to remember and elaborate on; 1.) We use clothes not only to conceal our bodies, but by extension of thought, to hide our emotions, 2.) We who are naked around others who are clothed are rather like blank slates, and 3.) We may perversely form as a defence when we’re publicly naked a feeling of distance and removal. (I now know I certainly do this, and I wonder if it’s akin to the “professional distance” prostitutes say they use with clients.) There’s also a parallel with standing naked in front of a mirror and looking oneself in the eye. There are people I know who are incapable of doing such a thing. In using clothes, and as has been noted by writers such as Desmond Morris, we treat this as licence to hide our emotions and true selves. We put on our clothes as much to play roles as to become our social selves, all hidden and complex and disingenuous. When naked, we can become blank slates and we can have all sorts of things projected onto us regarding our supposed values and tendencies. Yet we are almost easier to get to know when we are so exposed, so that preconceptions can quickly be dispelled. (I personally believe that if a couple is going to have an argument, they should both be naked.)

I attempt a profile sketch of Diamant during the evening, and as usual, my life drawing skill is lamentably somewhere between cartooning and rough drafting. A few of the women have entered into more discussion about the burlesque trade with Miss Rosie Bitts. From there, the talk has led to strippers and the misconception that all strippers are supposed to be desperate and abused drug addicts who are forced into the trade by patriarchal, sexist values. As pointed out by Miss Bitts, many strippers don’t fit into this mould and, like her, greatly enjoy their work in the public eye. She mentions that in this place, the here and now, she particularly feels alive and receptive from being able to engage in stimulating dialogue with people. Who are we really beneath our clothes, she ponders. There is a palpable feeling of liberation and support in the room as people have been sharing their feelings and ideas. I speak about that to be naked in this space at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, a former church, albeit de-sanctified, is especially appropriate. It is ultimately an act of spiritual cleansing, and a fitting act of reclamation for this space.

One woman says she feels much warmth in her heart for the “bravery and honesty in the room tonight,” then stops short, speechless from emotion. Diamant pauses as she does periodically to close her eyes in silence. She continues again on the subject of motherhood. Becoming a mother was the initiative to embark on this project. She remarks that since she’s had children and has bonded with them with such great love, she feels immensely grounded. She says she doesn’t understand love songs on the radio anymore, because they speak of a love that seems far removed from the heavy, earth binding love with her children, a love that includes “blood and shit and vomit.” I’m not sure what her husband would think, but she is obviously expressing her belief that she has a deeper level of love and connection for those who came from her own body.

This is understandable, though points to life experiences that many women may have had in society today, and that is relationships with men fraught with a lack of trust and respect so that the only real deep and abiding love is felt with children. Men have largely made a mess of relating to women on a level where a double standard is absent, among other things, and it is no wonder that the mother-child bond is held as sacrosanct, the old “Virgin Mary and Jesus” bond that is supposed to outshine all others in comparison. The contemporary secular view has come around to believing romance is shallow and the only truly valid and enduring love is the love of mother and child. Cannot one person’s love as given in completely loving and conscientious sexual union be as equally elevated and “real?” When two people share the pleasures of their bodies, this can properly constitute also a sacred ‘bond of the flesh,’ with or without procreation. Still, Diamant believes in what she does, and as I am a male and not a mother obviously, I can’t know the particular bond she feels for her progeny. This is the part of the power of Diamant’s art activism piece; it’s a Rorschach test. She is honestly stating where she is coming from, and we all come away with our own fixes, our own positions we have arrived at.

Daimant does not present herself as a model of the enlightened mind that chastises and goads us to reach her seemingly liberated and evolved level. She is genuine in sharing her emotions and thoughts. She readily confesses to having many human failings. She tells us she loses her temper at times, she can be “petty and vindictive and jealous of other artists.” She admits she has a low tolerance for joyful celebrants revelling in nakedness, and says she has little empathy for women gleefully shedding clothes in her shows to be “at one with all loving peoples,” treating the event as their own new age, peace-and-love bonding session (though it does come inevitably close to being an illuminating, almost therapeutic encounter.) Diamant relates about a woman who joined her at an Edmonton show who swore in front of the audience, and then caught herself apologizing and asking permission to swear, realizing the “ridiculousness of being naked, yet asking if it’s all right if I swear,” a situation exemplifying not only the conflation of nakedness with vulgarity, but, more to the point, censorship with heartfelt, uninhibited communication.

It’s this interaction with the audience, the unscripted reactions and responses that make this show. Some critics may deride this production as being alien to the concept of theatre. Yet it is not the complete opposite of theatre, or art, for that matter. Without getting too picky on definitions, the work has the ingredients of a good theatrical experience: stimulation, provocation, revelation and a modicum of denouement. While it may be argued that “nothing happens,” there is an active frisson within the event, like a background soundtrack that keeps running throughout, to the tune of ‘this woman is naked and talking to us.’ It is never boring. The pauses and silences all have a conscientious weight. As so true of many art forms, it has the same return for how much you engage with it. If you’re conscious, curious, explorative and questioning, something intriguing can be had from it. Some people, in write-ups and web logs, consider this performance art activism to be “the most relevant and powerful” work at this year’s Fringe.

Diamant finishes by thanking us for coming and for participating. She tells Miss Bitts and me that there are standard model release forms for us to sign if we choose to, giving permission for ourselves to be shown in a publicly broadcast video. For signing this, Diamant’s husband David pays me a token $1 as part of the agreement, and Diamant gives me an information handout about following and staying connected with the project. David thanks me, too. So I may be on video as part of the Human Body Project. I think of it as an honour.

The experience makes me think of what Henry David Thoreau wrote in the essay “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World:”

“We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it

with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artefacts like

clothing to intervene between ourselves and the Other. To apprehend it,

we cannot be naked enough.”

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