The notion of identity politics and how we as individuals function within the social and personal spheres has been a consistent theme among artists, gaining traction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The almost obsessive desire to conceptualize, materialize, and solidify one’s identity has paved the path for many artists to establish a niche within which they can express and put forth the manifestation of their own identity. Fast forward a few decades and this same notion of identity manifests itself in a much different context. With the advent of the Internet and, more recently, the rise of social media, the definition of identity has expanded: social media has given us the means not only to curate our image and how we are perceived, it has also created a heightened awareness of that perception and how other’s identities are perceived. This new identity is far grander than ever before, occupying both material and virtual space.
A common concern among those who are critical of the effects of the Internet and how social media has affected the younger generations of today is based on our lack of “real” connection. As many people are glued to their phones, preoccupied with what is happening in the virtual space, it is fairly easy to get lost in the excess of content that we have available instantaneously. Although I cannot deny this critique, I have wondered to what extent it affects the younger generation of today. We occupy a virtual world in which the virtual identity remains the newest, most complex, and most unexplored. Are we really so disconnected that it is more difficult for us to make “real” connections and achieve intimacy? Has intimacy changed its definitions with the evolution of the new media?
Part of my process to achieve a better understanding of these questions was to begin a project where I explored the lines between physical and emotional intimacy. Intimacy is most immediately associated with the corporal self; how our physical beings communicate in a space, most often in close contact with another physical being. I was interested in the question of the nude body and intimacy among nude subjects. I ultimately arrived at a performance piece of sorts. I knew that in order to understand and embrace the issues that I was confronting, I would need to be a part of the actual action of the project. I decided that I would place myself into intimate situations with multiple people, including close friends, acquaintances, and strangers of all different genders, sexual orientations, races, and backgrounds. The one constant for all of these subjects was their age range; everyone was in university, since I was focusing on how these issues pertain to this specific gene- ration. I briefed each prospective participant on the project so that they fully knew my intentions before deciding to be a part of the project. Most people that I contacted about participating found the project to be very “interesting” and “relevant,” but said they would not be able to participate in something so raw and vulnerable.
I followed the same routine with each individual: we would spend some time talking on my bed and then we would sit in the shower together. No time restraints. No specific tasks or actions to be done. No other rules. All I asked of them when we finished was to write something. Again, no restrictions or requirements. I documented the project on 35mm black and white film and on video. The video camera was always left off to the side and served as a voyeuristic observer. I took photo- graphs on my film camera, but also showed the participants how to use my camera so that it was available to them if they wanted to take photos as well. It was important for me to ensure that the subjects did not feel like specimens, especially since I find that many media platforms, such as MTV and BuzzFeed, attempt to do little projects that address these issues and end up portraying the participants as test subjects rather than people.
After four months of shooting with twelve people, I reached a level of emotional exhaustion that I had never felt before, but also came to realize how in touch my participants were with their intimacy and their awareness of our generation’s take on intimacy. Although I had no expectations in mind for how this whole project would play out, the most surprising aspect of the project was how quickly and easily I was able to become comfortable with all of my partners, and they with me. Over the course of an average of three hours, being naked did not feel taboo nor did we feel the need to cover up. The level of comfort we achieved within a relatively short amount of time can be seen in clear progression when looking through the 36 film images that documented the experience. The “type” of intimacy varied with each person, with some becoming sexual and others remaining platonic.
Although I had my personal interpretations of each participant’s actions as both an agent of the project and the curator of the project, the most objective interpretation on my end came from their writing. From the writing, which took its form in poetry, free-writing, stream of consciousness, and spattered phrases, I observed that the subjects consistently thought that participating in such a project was not shocking, or at least, it should not be perceived as such. Amongst the nerves, the tension, and the thrill of placing oneself into these intimate situations, each participant mentioned that they felt that the taboo of nudity and the vulnerability associated with it is a humanizing factor that we all share.
The Nude Body and the Agentic Self
Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment addresses the impact that performative experience may have on the agentic self. She examines the gesture of the body and its power to communicate not just wi- thin a space, but with itself. Noland also addresses where the agency in the intensified sensitivity of the “gestural self ” manifests in relation to the body. Due to the technological conditions of our age, the gendered conditions of our society, and the growing radical conditions of our cultures, Noland acknowledges that the socially pre-established meanings of our acts can be difficult to dislodge. She reinforces that it is difficult for the gestural self to exist without conditioning from its surroundings, thereby affecting the agentic self. However, she believes that power still lies in the corporal self. Noland believes that motility and kinesthetic sensitivity offer individuals agency to resist, reinvent, adjust, and refine their own signification. Due to our ability to be fluid within a predefined space, the agency to define ourselves still remains free. Thus, our corporal selves become not limiting, but rather a way to allow us to move, act, feel, and exist within a limiting space. The power to do so is due to said limitation and this is the agentic self.
So how does the nude figure function within a specific space? In reality, it is not the nude that is perceived to be the agent, rather the act of being nude. Due to the taboo associated with the nude body, the act of being nude is considered more significant than the being. The action and the body do function differently because the act is temporal and the nude being is not. Rarely do we see the isolation of the nude from these contexts or temporalities. It is then, when the nude is taken away from its temporality, that the agentic self is able to function fully within the new space, one that is not predefined. The ability for the gesture of the body to express, to feel, and to interact wi- thin this space is the “freeing” that Noland references, “that we are only ‘free’ because we are capable of being enchained,” and that “to exercise a kinesthetic sense constitutes one of the richest resources of the habitus itself ” (53).
In terms of the project, temporality is challenged in both directions. The setting and the action of the project suspend, if only momentarily, the limiting space that Noland discusses. The subjects are purposely placed in a new context and the agentic self follows. However, the act of photography introduces a new element to this discussion. Photography is the most temporal artistic medium that exists. The birth of photography came during a time when society was picking up pace and many people felt that the world was moving too quickly. Photography served as a means to preserve and protect that which is temporal and fleeting. With each subject, I had 36 photos to temporalize the act of fighting said temporality. Was photography the best way to document this experience? Photography is arguably the most accessible art form, especially with the advent of digital imaging. It is an effective way to communicate without text. Yet in this case, photography places a layer of temporality where it was intentionally removed. The photos exist as means to communicate the goals, intentions, actions, and results of the project in, what I would argue, is the most relatable way possible. I find no issue with the temporality of the photos, rather the subjective agency of me and my subjects. Photography is inherently subjective because someone has to choose where to point the camera and when to press the shutter. This live editing does take away from the assumed authenticity of the agentic self that is represented in the work. It is an already curated form of the experience and no matter how authentic or objective the images seem, the individual’s experience is being placed onto the final form.
Thus, it would appear that the agentic self can only be accurately and authentically represented by itself—it is not a shared experience in terms of representation. Although the project was successful in “freeing” the agentic self and created a space that fought against temporality, there is no manner to effectively communicate the exact experience of the agentic self that is represented due to the very nature of the agentic self. In order for a gestural or corporal self to fully escape temporality, the individual experience necessary is too rooted in that corporal self to become objective. The experience of the corporal self can be shared with another body in the same space and the “freeing” can come from that interaction, but those two bodies will react to and interpret that interaction in their own ways. In essence, the body and its potential to reach a completely free agentic self lies completely in its voluntary ability to free itself from the temporality by which it is constantly surrounded. The power to do so lies within the body, within the corporal self, and it is within everybody’s capability to reach this point. The body has and always will possess the ability to counteract the temporality that is faces. And that is unequivocally beautiful.
Noland, Carrie. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2009.