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Nude Nudes in Cleveland!! And Other Matter of Cultural Activism

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I don’t talk enough about Thomas Mulready’s Cool Cleveland newsletter and website, which tackles real and difficult matters of culture and activism in a truly local way.

I admit it: I am something of a mercenary. Even though I have lived in the Cleveland area for a total of 22 of my 45 years and have been a regular participant in area media via print, radio, TV and the Internet, I have never really identified with Cleveland, nor deep down, do I feel it has ever really identified with me. I still have people come up to me and say “you’re that guy from California,” while my friends and relatives in California think of me as someone who has long since abandoned them. I guess I’m, psychologically, kind of stateless. I identify with the area sports teams – I love the Indians as much as I ever did the Dodgers, the Browns and Cavs less so – but I personally identify with the truly local – suburban Aurora – much more so than the city of Cleveland, where I have never lived and which is just kind of there.

But Thomas Mulready gets in there and makes things happen – he really seems to care what happens in the area – and he does things about it, unlike say, me, who just sits back and comments on things.

Check out this fascinating interview with “nudity artist” Spencer Tunick, who arrived in town last weekend to choreograph his latest installation of an estimated 1000 nude Clevelanders this Fri 6/26 at dawn “at a carefully guarded location”:

    Spencer Tunick is a contemporary artist who creates installations of live nude figures, captured through arresting photography and video. Over the past 12 years, he’s organized over 65 temporary site related installations throughout the United States and abroad, where his figures are grouped en masse to create visually stirring shapes. His works have grown in appreciation and recently were aquired by the Dakis Joannou Foundation Collection in Athens, Greece.

    ….What were you doing during the culture wars of the 90’s?

    I thought the culture wars were in the 80’s with Andres Serrano. Back then I was more interested in basketball. As of the 90’s, I’m working with the nude outdoors in the public space, feeling that the body is a dignified object that can complement the outside world, not degrade it. My only situation was in trying to work in New York in the 90’s, and at the same time being celebrated in South America and Europe and Australia. And all the arrests were illegal, because in New York State, there’s no law against making an art work nude, so my lawyer filed a federal lawsuit in New York. We won at every stage, so it went to the Supreme Court, and Justice Ginsberg looked at my work and decided that I could make my work on the street, and remanded the case back to the federal courts. So I was upheld and the city had to pay a fine and wasted a lot of the taxpayers’ money. This was the same time that [New York Mayor Rudolph] Guiliani was running against [now Senator] Hillary Clinton, so it was very politicized. Now with so many horrible things coming up against the body: senseless, dumb pornography, killing… so many horrible things in the work, I think it’s a good thing to work with the body.

    You’ve been arrested five times in NYC and the Supreme Court has upheld your free speech rights. Have you ever been arrested outside of New York?

    There’s never a law against working with a nude in the street, and I’ve gotten permits when I was making work with lower numbers of people. So when the numbers went up, that wasn’t the issue.

    Is it just New York that has a problem with your work?

    Each state has different laws regarding nudity. Some are so corrupt, because the pornography industry has so much money, and they are trying to protect the public from pornography and many of the laws are old. But a lot of places like Canada, where the Canadian government has a law against nudity in public, they’ve opened up the law due to the nature of my work. And it was celebrated, and the traffic controllers were there and it was a piece of pride.

    Are other countries are more accepting of your work?

    From Portugal to Melbourne, to Chile and London, all the local governments have celebrated my work and have encouraged it to happen. But in New York in the 90’s, I was pretty much under the threat of arrest every time I made a work of art. I think it’s a great thing. Do you think it’s a great thing?

    You want to know what I think?

    I usually don’t turn it around. What do you think?

    We ran a Performance Art Festival here in Cleveland for many years and presented 1000 performance artists from 24 countries, so I think of your work as performance art.

    I heard that you did that. It’s good that a big thing comes in and forces the issue in a big way and pushes away the red tape.

    It certainly forces the issue one way or the other.

    I’ve done over seventy of these installations, and every time good things come out of it, politicians and social workers and small business owners are all talking about it.

    Your online bio states that the nude bodies in your work “do not underscore sexuality” yet it is an obvious element. What is the role of sexuality in your work?

    Well, obviously, the work is working with the nude, which can be sexual or it can be horrible, like the controversy with the prisoner abuse scandal, with the nude bodies positioned in a totally horrible way. When you look at those pictures you don’t see the sexuality. There can be an aggressive naked body, a tortured naked body, or a beautiful naked body. In my work, the body is used repetitively as a medium to create a living sculpture to deal with the humanity and the vulnerability of the body, juxtaposed to the public space and the concrete world. So it’s not so much sex or sexuality that is involved.

    I have this saying, “Venue is Destiny.” How important is venue to your work?

    It’s part of my final product. I’m not only doing an installation, so the background is like the background of a landscape painting. So for me venue is landscape. It can be a cityscape or a naturescape.

    Do you usually work with permission, or do you ask forgiveness? You know the old saying…

    I always work with permission. There’s nothing romantic for me about being in jail. Maybe five years ago. Now it’s good for me to have breakfast with the participants afterwards. I still do my individual work without permission. I just don’t want to go through all the red tape to do small scale work. But not on a large scale. In Israel, and the Czech Republic to Buenos Aires, we get up early and find an interesting location and work.

    With an artist like Christo, who does large-scale outdoor publc works, his art is all the bureaucratic paperwork and community interaction, the legal maneuvering…

    I think Christo has a more difficult time because his work is not temporary.

    But his work is only up for a couple of weeks, usually.

    Right, but he has to deal with architectural issues, and there’s a lot of red tape and everything is owned by corporations and governments. With me the only issue is how many people can fit in one space and that the people are nude. The nudity is obviously the biggest issue.

    What is the final outcome of your work? Is it a photo, a performance, or the community action?

    It’s an installation that I document with photography and video. So there’s a projected video installation that’s a loop of of images 3-4 minutes long which is projected in a room, along with the photographs, which I take.

    If you are not creating a photo as a photographer would, what role does the resulting photo play in your work? Document, souvenir, evidence, calling card?

    No, I make installations and the final result is a video projection and the photograph. If I didn’t make video projections, then call me one thing, if I didn’t make photos, then call me another. I’m kind of in between an installation artist, video artist and photographer. And when you work with nude bodies, you’re immediately called a pornographer or a fashion photographer.

    Where will this take exhibition of the documentation take place? In Cleveland?

    I’m not quite sure. Maybe in front of the [MOCA Cleveland] gallery at some time. Everyone who poses gets a photograph for posing. But I’m not sure it will be the same photo I will chose to blow up big; I make these things regardless of whether there will be an exhibition or not…..

There is quite a bit more, click over and check it out, and check out the site on a regular basis and/or subscribe to the newsletter to see some real local cultural/political activism in action.

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