Nudity in the Upspace: An interview with the new coordinators

It’s that time of year again–Nudity in the Upspace time. Coming off a wildly successful 2013 iteration, despite its fair share of controversy and Fox News coverage (are they synonymous?) that included an always welcome visit from Jesse Watters, new Nudity in the Upspace coordinators Cherise Morris ’16 and Sam Keamy-Minor ’16 sat down with Blog to talk changes to the week, staying true to its roots, and expanding Nudity’s presence and types of participants on campus.

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BlogDH: What does Nudity in the Upspace mean to you?

Sam: For me, personally–and I think any one of these answers is going to be incredibly personal–Nudity in the Upspace is a space where people can be radically honest about a lot of the issues that we as Brown students discuss in sometimes frustratingly veiled terms. Things like body positivity, body acceptance, body disability, race, gender expression. These are all conversations that we’re used to as Brown students and I think Nudity in the Upspace provides this new forum to explore them in a much more honest way.

Additionally, being involved in events of public nudity (Naked Donut Run, Nudity in the Upspace) has really helped me come to terms with a lot of the aspects of my identity both connected to the way I look but also connected to other things. My queer identity, my male identity and how I perform my gender.

Cherise: Looking back at myself as an involved member last year, I do think it took me some time to get my feet wet. I was able to take my time. And I think that’s one of the really important missions of the week. We’re not just saying, “Oh, nudity should be normalized and you should be comfortable!” Because that’s a really hard thing to do. The week gives people all these opportunities to take their time and feel out what the experience is going to mean to them. Creating that system of dialogue is something that we often aren’t able to do as students, especially in a classroom setting when we are discussing these issues. We know what we are supposed to get out of it and what we should put into it. Even as coordinators we kind of don’t really know how everything is going to pan out. That spontaneity that accompanies the honesty is really important.

BlogDH: What are some differences in Nudity in the Upspace this year?

Cherise: One new thing we’re doing this year is partnering with Bluestockings to release a Nudity: Bodies in Context zine at the devised piece. We went to Bluestockings with this idea because we wanted to engage different audiences. There is this stigma around the event–you have to be naked and you have to be okay with being naked to have these opinions and to discuss these issues. You don’t have to do that. We wanted to engage people who wouldn’t even be comfortable showing up to the event. Expanding that range of voices is something we’re looking for this year, especially in light of all the controversy last year.

Sam: When you have a week where so much of it is exploring identity–whether it’s the identity we wear in our bodies or the identity that we construct external to our bodies–the fact that Cherise and I have very different identities [is important]. I’m the first male-bodied phe coordinating. Me and Cherise are both queer.

Cherise: We do want to respect the goals that Becca and Camilla set out as the event’s founders but inevitably, it’s taking a different form. This year we did different things with the space physically. We have a whole back wall that we are going to be performing in front of that is [covered] by attendee’s drawings. It’s a huge mural with all these different voices and input on it.

BlogDH: How has the controversy of last year informed the coordinating and creation of Nudity in the Upspace this year?

Sam: When me and Cherise starting talking in June about this week, we realized that part of what was frustrating about the Fox News coverage last year is that there were a lot of voices projected about what this week was before any of the coordinators, any of the people involved in the week, had a chance to set the record straight. We just wanted to from the onset correct a lot of those misconceptions and give people a way to engage with the week that allowed them to explore their own misconceptions.

Cherise: This year, we gave the week an overarching theme, and the theme is bodies in context. We just talked about making sure you couldn’t brand it as just college kids getting naked. No, this is college kids getting naked with the goal of exploring this concrete theme.

Sam: I think that’s reflected in the mission statement we released this year, which starts off by saying that the goals are education and dialogue, but also we want to create a space where people who want to can experience being naked with other people. I think what the media latched onto last year is the fact that we were creating those spaces. And then they came and realized, “Oh, they’re doing that because they’re trying to take down these systems that make us hate our bodies.” So we want to make it clear that both of those things are happening.

Sam: There was no reporting on the actual week last year, just its existence.

Cherise: Overall, I think they were looking for a story that they didn’t find.

Sam: Yeah, which is why this year, nobody’s here. They were looking for a sensationalist story and they found nerdy kids exploring isms, which is much less fun.

BlogDH: Can you speak a little more to this year’s theme, bodies in context?

Sam: One of the things we started thinking about last year was body positivity, body negativity and how a lot of the people coming to the week have strong feelings of both. And those feelings can be tied to any number of things. One of the hypothetical examples we always talk about is the locker room. There are times you can be in a locker room and feel really inadequate but then you can go home that night, change into a beautiful outfit, maybe meet someone for a date and be told you’re beautiful. And suddenly, you’re filled with positive feelings about your body. So really realizing that when we’re talking about things like body positivity and negativity, all of those things exist in the body but they also exist within that body’s situation and context.

Cherise: Certain things are amplified when you are in different contexts. So, like, as a black woman, I would be so much more conscious of the fact that my body is black if I’m surrounded by only white people. If I’m surrounded by people of all different colors, I’m less likely to constantly think about how my body differs from another person’s body in that room. It’s all really fluid and I think that’s a theme that was touched on in last year’s devised piece and that we really wanted to work with.

Sam: The overarching goal is that by making people aware of these contexts, with that awareness, they can work to correct them. So if they don’t want to feel a certain way, they can build from the education of the week to not feel that way.

BlogDH: How do you see Nudity in the Upspace moving forward?

Cherise: One really great part about the event is that it’s completely student-organized and independent. I think that gives it a certain honesty that some other things at Brown that try to open up these conversations shy away from, just because of the nature of institutional control. That’s something that really excites me about the event going forward; knowing that when we graduate, we are going to give this to someone else and it’s going to be their thing and it’s only going to sustain itself from interest on the personal level.

Sam: I think the other thing that is super interesting is that the central connecting thread between these three weeks [in three respective years] is that there is nudity involved. But past that–you look at something like the devised piece, where we build a piece of theater out of nothing–that’s something that can never be the same. Even if you put all six of us in a room again next year, it can’t ever be the same. So much of this year is about those experiences that you can’t write down or script out or communicate in other mediums. The other thing, looking forward–it’s very loose and on the horizon–is trying to bring the week on tour. Taking Nudity in the Upspace out of the Upspace. We think these messages could be really important at [other] schools, schools where we don’t have words like ‘phe’ cycling constantly. We’re always going to be looking to diversify our workshops, to make sure that people feel more comfortable with their own bodies, whether they’re naked or clothed.

Cherise: And there will always be a devised piece. Every devised piece will be different. And every performance of this year’s devised piece will be different. It depends on the audience. It’s very ephemeral.

BlogDH: How do you see Nudity in the Upspace in context with and in relation to other nude events on campus?

Cherise: One of the differences between Nudity in the Upspace and a naked party, for example, is that Nudity in the Upspace is 100 percent sober to maintain that safe space. And in party situations, you know a certain group of people and that’s who comes to your parties because that’s who knows about them. Our goal with this is to engage all of campus. The first two events that we had this week, I knew very few of the attendees personally. And that made me feel really good, that this space was so safe that complete strangers would show up and put something into it. Also, the education component. One of the questions Jesse Watters asked last year was is this just a ruse to see your classmates naked and someone said there are so many other ways to do that. And that’s true. That is not the goal of the week.

Sam: People go to naked parties to celebrate their body and that’s beautiful and amazing and I’m all about celebrating my body but I think Nudity in the Upspace provides a place where we can explore the times when we don’t want to celebrate. A lot of parts of the devised piece dive into moments when it’s hard to feel good about your body. It pairs the happy, liberating vibes of a naked party or the Naked Donut Run with some of these really tough realities that bodies have to go through every day: systemic racism, abuse, to name a few.

BlogDH: Hypothetical situation: a non-Brown student asks you, “What is Nudity in the Upspace?” What would your reader’s digest be?

Cherise: Nudity in the Upspace is a week of events, some clothing-optional, some required nudity and some completely clothed, where the goal of all of the workshops and performances is to create a safe space for the exploration, education and expansion of dialogue around issues directly related to bodies and nudity and indirectly related to bodies and nudity. So an example of something directly related would be body positivity, weight. Something indirectly related? Heterosexism.

Sam: I would point you to the mission statement on our website. But one of the other points of Nudity in the Upspace is to celebrate and acknowledge all the realities of what everybody who is existing has to deal with: which is a body.

Cherise: And this is a real thing we have to deal with. I’ve noticed on the Facebook event, people will check “going” and their friends will comment like “Ooo, what’s this?” “Eww nudity.” “Send pictures.” And it’s all of that shit that we want to get rid of! Let’s desensationalize bodies. And just to quote the Jesse Watters interview again, a student said: “We are totally desensitized to violence, graphic violence in the media. But if you show a nipple, everyone freaks out.” And we all know we have nipples…unless we don’t have nipples! But if we don’t have nipples, let’s talk about not having nipples and what that means for us, how that’s colored our lives.

BlogDH: I think one of the most difficult parts of running an event like this or having the types of dialogue we do at Brown is an inability for students to relay this information once they leave Brown.

Sam: Yeah–I think one of the beauties of Nudity in the Upspace is so much of the learning is experiential. I don’t think the week is anti-intellectual but it’s definitely pro-experiential. Instead of having to go home and translate some theorist’s writing about race theory to your friends from home, you can just translate your experience, which I think is a much more powerful story and a much easier story to try to make people understand.

For more information on the upcoming events, check out the Facebook event.

Image via Elise mortensen and Polina Godz.

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