Interviews

Why Are People So Afraid of Nude Performance Art?

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Michael Ano, “BlurBlur copy (Educational Complex)” (2015) (image made by one of Dominguez’s UCSD MFA students to distribute online in solidarity with Dominguez, courtesy Michael Ano)

SAN DIEGO — Over the course of the past week, Electronic Disturbance Theater co-founder Ricardo Dominguez has been at the center of massive media controversy. Dominguez is no stranger to media frenzy over his works, including when he created a locative media tool to help Mexican immigrants crossing the US border to find water, orchestrated virtual sit-ins in solidarity with Zapatista communities in Chiapas, and staged acts of communal online civil disobedience against many institutions. This time, however, Dominguez’s teaching has reached clickbait center stage. After a student’s mother went to ABC 10 News to complain about a project called “Nude/Naked Self” in Dominguez’s elective undergraduate performance class “Performing the Self,” a maelstrom of news stories about it emerged. The mother, who prefers to remain anonymous, told to ABC 10 News, “It bothers me, I’m not sending her to school for this.” From Fox News headlines like “Get Naked or Fail” to the Washington Post’s “The final exam students take in the nude. Really” to what seems like infinite amounts of coverage, everyone appears to have a stake in this particular aspect of Dominguez’s course. Fueled by a frustration with the public’s fundamental misunderstanding of the breadth of what artistic research and practice can entail and a desire to ask critical questions about the course itself to understand its value in a university arts education context, I reached out to Ricardo (lately mislabeled as Roberto Dominguez and Ricardo Rodriguez by clearly reputable news sources). By initiating this interview, I hoped to get a more complex explanation of the intentions and parameters of this performance art course than the shock-for-clicks mainstream news discourse that has surfaced so far.

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Angela Washko: You’ve recently found yourself at the center of media controversy, but it’s certainly not the first time. The focus of the controversy this time, however, is a class that you’ve been teaching. What is the name of the class and how long have you been developing it?

Ricardo Dominguez: The course is entitled “Performing the Self” and I have been teaching this class for 11 years.

AW: The course in question contains a “nude gesture.” Can you describe the assignment and the overall framework for the rest of the class?

RD: While I have always changed some of the gestures (short performances from 3 to 10 minutes) from time to time, the “nude/naked gesture” has always been part of the class. The class is offered to upper-division students in the Visual Arts Department at University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and they are free to select and take it. It is not a required class.

The “nude/naked gesture” is one “gesture” among several other gestures that takes place in the class. The class has a number of prompts for the gestures. These include “The Story of Your Life: With 3 Objects and 3 Sounds,” “The Confessional Self,” “The Administrative Self,” “The Media Self,” “Erotic Self, ” “Ritual Self,” “Public Self,” and the “Nude/Naked Self.”

Doing the gestures is the core requirement for the class and each student can interpret each prompt as they wish: they can select where they will do the gesture in the Performance Studio; where they want the rest of the students and I to be while they do the their gestures; and they can also decide what the lighting and the environment will be for their gesture. Students are graded on each gesture in terms of creativity and risk within the context of their previously produced gestures. Each gesture is followed by a period of commentary by the other art students in the class and at that end of that commentary the artist can respond to the comments or not.

The students are aware of the “nude/naked” gesture choice from the start of the class. The options are clarified on the first day of class and are also on the syllabus. Students learn that they can do the gesture in any number of ways without actually having to remove their clothes. There are many ways to perform both “nudity” (to do a gesture without clothes) or to do a “naked” gesture (laying bare of one’s most fragile and vulnerable self). One can be naked while being covered.

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Ricardo Dominguez at University of California, San Diego protest in support of Dominguez’s Transborder Immigrant Tool (courtesy Ricardo Dominguez)

AW: It is unfortunate that debate about the class is taking place in shock media rather than within performance art communities. I think one of the most important questions that has been raised is about power dynamics. How do you create a safe space in the classroom for something that has been socialized as taboo here in the US? How do you view your role as a facilitator of these gestures?

RD: Well I view my position as being that of a privileged, male professor teaching student artists about a few core gestures that have been established by performance art/body art during the 20th and 21th centuries. I maintain an open dialogue with all the students about any concerns or questions they may have both individually or as a group during every 3 hour class (which meets twice a week). Part of the process is to understand that the history of this type of art is often about pushing back and crossing the line of the socialized taboos that we in contemporary and post-contemporary cultures have been struggling to define, impose, change, delete, break, and invent — and that battlefield is often about and around the question of the body or what bodies are allowed to do or be, about how they are controlled or imagined. And while these wider issues are at play and are discussed in class in order for each student artist to understand how each gesture might speak to the above themes, the students also focus on how performance/body art expands or crosses the lines of their own developing body of work. Sometimes crossing the line of their own aesthetic sensibilities is more difficult for the students than transgressing a social taboo.

It is also important to understand that over half of the students in “Performing the Self” have taken my lecture class on the history of performance art/body art before they take this class and they have good sense of what the practices in that trajectory have been and currently are. In the performance art history lecture class they also do a “nude/naked” gesture — only in that class they can use film, video, photography etc., and do not have to do it in a live setting with a group of other nude art students and the professor (for those students who opt to do the nude gesture without clothing). Students also talk to each other over the school year about this class and what to expect. They also check in with their peers who have taken the class to see how they feel and think about it. So everyone coming into the course is well aware of what the “Performing the Self” class will require of them.

Our advising team here at UC San Diego has also been very willing to discuss the options for doing the performance without having to be actually nude/naked. If students feel that the gesture will be too difficult for them to do, they can also drop the class during the first three weeks.

AW: As a performance artist, I used to use my body quite a lot. I’m of the opinion that using the nude body shouldn’t be a default stock shock performance tool, but an intentional decision, especially because of the way audiences respond to nudity in the US and the culture of voyeurism around (particularly women’s) bodies in relationship to the ubiquity pornography. How do you talk about the decision to use the body in performance to your students? What context do you provide? Why should students have this experience?

RD: Yes, the issue of the “nude” body as an aesthetic process can often be used to shock. That is why the class offers multiple types of gestures to consider and explore that have nothing to do with the “nude” body. This allows the students to become aware of how the “self/selves” can be material for them to use that is not attached to the “nude” body but the bored body, the biographical body, the confessional body, the erotic body, the “naked” body, the silent body, the queer body, the durational body, the absent body, the administrative body, the networked body, the body as installation, the forgotten body, the gendered body, the class body, the race body, the lost body, the erased body etc. The students come to understand the many ways an artist can inhabit, dislocate, relocate, erase, expand, question, and disturb the social body, the aesthetic body, the market body. I hope the students come to understand that the performance art body can be a cliché, can be aesthetic research, can be re-performance, and can just be the “everyday” body-among-bodies. At least it’s my hope that this is what they learn by doing these basic gestures and that it allows them to consider and decide how, where, when, and why they might use the “nude” body as part of a performance in their work in the future.

For many performance artists (such as Marina Abramovic who we just had doing a workshop at the University Art Gallery here at UC San Diego) their core canvases have been and are the “nude/naked” body. If students are to learn about performance art/body art as practitioners, it is crucial for them to experience this history of the medium in a direct way. To learn the practice —it is not just a matter of reading about it or viewing slides.

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Michael Ano, “Nosferatu 6 copy (Educational Complex)” (2015) (image made by one of Dominguez’s UCSD MFA students to distribute online in solidarity with Dominguez, courtesy Michael Ano)

AW: Why do you think so much of the public is so afraid of what your course offers students?

RD: Perhaps it has to do with the post-contemporary entanglement of the ubiquitous “porno” body and its double: the ubiquitous “puritan” body on a global scale. The “public” is afraid of the closeness and intimacy that this social body-doubling foregrounds. The puritan body is one with the porno body. The porno body is the puritan body. The fact that there are art students not only thinking about this issue, but then also creating embodied work about it … this creates a state of social insecurity that is often about projecting desire and fear. Everything becomes a “leering state” or a “nasty state” or a “veiled state” or a “pure state” and all at the same time. This leads to an imagined “crisis state” or a wide area “click-and-bait state” — all under the “Fox News State” of simulated fears and anxieties about the question of the body in general and specifically the question of using living beings in art. Fox even blurred a Picasso panting at the same time “forced nude final” was trending.

AW: Throughout a variety of universities, I’ve heard a lot of educators say that the climate has changed a lot in recent years regarding lawsuits against professors who give students low grades, elevated levels of parental involvement, and overall increasingly conservative attitudes towards what should be taught at the university level. In your teaching career and experience, how has the overall university climate changed in terms of experimentation and the students enrolled?

RD: Well I am not alone in sensing the change that has occurred with the rise of neo-liberalism in its many guises on a global/local scale and universities have followed suit. We are now in a society where only a specific sector of the world can profit from economic crises — there are those too big to fail (as the saying goes) as everyone else lives in debt and precarity. As a result, the conservative stance of parents and students is understandable in that universities are made up of people, mainly students, who are economically speaking very vulnerable and in a state of infinite debt.Students are “loan leashed” in a climate in which there may be no social support net, no health care, and no job security — it is extremely tenuous.

So for a student to decide to experiment and risk doing and learning something that is not going to “guarantee” a bare life minimum salary for survival, it is becoming rarer and rarer. Parents and students feel they must treat university education as a service machine that will guarantee the students will be embedded immediately into the ravaging machine of neoliberalism’s war engines. Ultimately these students and their parents dream that this education will help them join the 1% so they will be able to pay off their infinite debt by creating more of it. It is hard to imagine that so many of the important individuals who are considered the “innovators” of the new economy in California received a free education based on the UC Master Plan and now refuse to offer the same to the next generations of “innovators” to come! So yes, I can understand the conservative pressures that students and parents feel when it comes to a university education — it’s what neoliberal policies have produced; it is the general state of affairs with rare exception.

AW: In response to the media’s reportage on the nudity component of your class, many have been outraged at the idea that “taxpayers’ dollars” are going toward education they don’t agree with. What are self-identified taxpayers’ roles in academia? Do these “taxpayers” have the right to control content in universities? It made me think of the NEA 4 (The National Endowment for the Arts ending individual support for artists after pressure from Congress to veto grants supposed to go to Holly Hughes, John Fleck, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller).

RD: The cultural war never ended. Notice that the artists mentioned above are all performance artists/body artists dealing with transgressive or taboo social subjects — especially the “taboo” of non-heteronormative desires and states of being nude/naked. Taxes are often used as tool for blocking anything that might hint at work that does not easily fit into the imagined standard frame of art (the imagined frame of what art should be: sculpture, painting, drawing, film, and, over recent years, video). And the “taxpayer” is a key figure, especially in the media, who gets to decide what type of art or education should be and how it should be taught. Yet so little of the taxpayer’s money actually goes to public education in comparison to the amount that goes into the military-entertainment-banking complex.

This does not mean that “taxpayers” do not influence the social reading of what art or education is and the idea of the “taxpayers’ dollars” has been frequently used to support the elimination of public arts funding and public education. Also, as many have pointed out, we have been seeing the use of the imagined incensed “taxpayer” as a way to shift support against art and education in contexts where the people enrolling in university were increasingly non-white, non-normative, or were researching and making work that did not fit the institution’s neoliberal concern for trickle-up profits. So the culture wars never ended and the same issues of controlling what education and art via the imagined “taxpayer” boogeyman continue today.

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Ricardo Dominguez instructing at [email protected], La Jolla, California (courtesy of [email protected])

AW: Why is art a realm in which everyone thinks they are experts? I would not feel qualified to question the content of structural engineering courses or claim to know what constitutes proper criteria for learning in that field! For some reason so many people feel qualified to evaluate what good art should consist of. I am all for accessible work, but what can be done to acknowledge that it too is a diverse field with its own sets of tools, histories, trajectories, etc?

RD: Yes, the social field of art, perhaps because of the construction of “accessibility,” has created a reader-response sense of knowledge (a democracy of access that is not a bad thing at all). I think as artists, many of us want our work to be available to as many people as possible and to have them engage with the work in an accessible context, and to consider the work critically. The problem is that this positive, democratic sense of encountering art has transferred into a sensibility around or desire to determine how artists are trained, what methods and research artists must engage with to become artists, and what conversations artists should have with each other and with society at large. Art itself should be accessible to all, but the training of artists at a university or art school should be predominately based on what a student artist needs to learn, from theory to practice.

AW: How are your students responding to all of this media attention around the class? I’ve seen some testimonies from your students in the news, but have there been discussions in class? Has it changed how the students view the class?

RD: The students in my “Performing the Self” class this Spring Quarter have been really amazing and fully involved …. It has been an honor to see them navigate the media spasm surrounding the class. We have discussed the issues that have been brought up by the media about the nature of the nude/naked gesture, about whether or not they wanted to go forth with the gesture, if I should be “nude” with them, or if they just wanted to stop the whole process and do something else.

Many of them decided to come forward and speak to the media about the class. I feel that their desire to come forward represents the general sense of class support for the nude/naked gesture. We voted on it, etc. All of the students except for one did a “nude” (not clothed) gesture — the one student who decided to do a “naked” requested that only the women in the class watch it and give feedback while the men in the class were asked to wait outside. From what I understand, her gesture was semi-nude and dealt with dislike and fears about the quality of her knees aesthetically and physically. Also the student informed me that she was originally going to do the “nude” gesture with everyone in the class, but that she had a conversation with her boyfriend the night before and he did not feel comfortable with her being “nude” in the dark with other men in the room. According to her, he said that it would be alright with him if she did her gesture in a semi-nude manner (topless with shorts) but with exclusively women in the room. Also, the women art students in the room during her gesture were fully dressed, in the dark, with the only light being the votive candle showing her knees. At the end of her gesture the student dressed and then left the performance studio.

Afterward everyone outside went inside and we all undressed and started our “nude” gestures. (No one was hurt or died or seemed traumatized by the gestures — but they all created very moving, funny, mutating, scary, and beautiful work). After all the gestures were performed, we all sat in a circle, nude in the dark, and commented on the gestures, the overall experience of creating work in the environment we had created together, and what the students gained from it, and how they might use the “nude” gesture in future work.

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