I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
By the time the Sacred Naked Nature Girls brought their all nude show to Highways in Santa Monica, they were wrapped in wild stories about how, in other locales, irate feminists and horny fellows had joined forces to recast their work as pornography. The gals wanted to censure them—the guys wanted to jack off in front of them as applause. I went to see what all the ruckus was about and witnessed a rare instance of decidedly female energies melded together in a serenely powerful force. New Age neo-primitivists scoot over—here’s another spin on the body and the sacred. Their nudity wasn’t there to shock or offend, it was symbolic of their collective will to break down the barriers of the social and turn emotional vulnerability and personal memory into poetry.
Sacred Naked Nature Girls’ performance piece grew out of improvisational techniques they developed to explore what they call “flesh memory.” An intentionally sketchy script gives free reign to their intuitive and spontaneous method. They work through their views of how women’s bodies are codified in our society, and their use of fantasy to respond to and subvert such strictures. Skits are thematically organized around the pleasures and dangers associated with women’s bodies; they deal with exhibitionism and camp, erotica and violence, interracial sex, and female centered reverence for the body. Their idea, as they themselves put it, is “to create dreamscapes, juxtaposing reality, sensory elements, fantasies, body journeys and unexpressed consciousness.”
For the most part from theatrical backgrounds, the group consists of: Laura Meyers, Danielle Brazell, Denise Uyehara, and Akilah Oliver.
Coco Fusco Had you ever performed naked before working with each other?
Akilah Oliver One of the techniques we developed was working from flesh memory.
Danielle Brazell When I started working with Akilah, I was able to find a magic and a spontaneity on stage that I had not felt in any other situation I had been in in the past.
CF How did you decide to work together?
DB Besides sleeping with each other? (laughter)
Denise Uyehara We had worked a couple of times in the studio and then decided to work out in nature. We went to Azuma Beach.
Laura Meyers We went over to an isolated area and spontaneously disrobed and went into the waves and started doing mirror exercises in pairs and then in a group in a circle. And it was very magical because it happened so spontaneously, suddenly we were nude and you couldn’t tell what year it was, what century. That was our first performance. When we turned around there was a smattering of people.
AO And a guy kayaking.
DB The men came up over the hill, appeared out of nowhere.
CF Let me get to the male reaction to your show that came out of these “flesh memories” because those reactions have, to an extent, transformed the work, or at least the original intent. What did you make of the reactions of some men, for instance the ones who wanted to masturbate in front of you, responding to you as if you weren’t there, as if the performance were a porn movie?
LM The development of the piece has been influenced by both male and female reactions.
DU Our experience in discussion is that we’re always drawn straight to the men’s reaction. I’d actually like to talk about what we do before we even thought about the male reaction, because so often when people see the end product they say, “How did you deal with those masturbators?”
LM Over the course of the performance we have learned how to take care of ourselves and how to deal with our audience.
DU One man came up to me after the first series of performances we did at Highways and said, “I’ve never seen a woman move before, I’ve never seen a woman squat or sweat.” He said, “I’ve made love to them, but I’ve made love to them in the dark. They’ve always been an object, this thing. For the first time in my life I’ve been able to see five women move in very beautiful ways, in very harsh ways … when you slap your body your body swells. Your body is an organism, you’re alive.”
CF Certain theories of performance maintain that there is a transformative process when a performance takes place in front of an audience. What about the women’s response to your work?
DU It has been very positive. Our piece has some pretty intense moments. We do a piece dealing with rape and rape fantasies. In the second set of performances we did a scene in total darkness. We wanted to create a safe place to empower the women in the audience to speak, to howl, scream, cry out if they wanted to. And the men would not let the women speak. We said we wanted to wait ‘til a woman spoke and there was some silence, and finally some women did.
LM The women were saying that it was not a safe place. And so we said, well come down on stage with us. There were 130 people crowded into a space seated for a hundred and it was 12:30 at night. The men started to get enraged. Four or five of the women came down to the stage. In Boulder there were a couple of women who left very upset after the rape/rape fantasy piece. We were coming in and opening wounds.
CF There are certain schools of feminism that say: Look, there’s no way to deal with sexuality and violent sexuality and violation that isn’t to a certain extent catering to the desire to see women be violated. Therefore, women who are feminists should not represent rape in their work. There are other positions which assert that sexuality is about acting out, it’s better for these things to happen in the realm of the imagination than for them to be suppressed which creates even more desire for them to happen in real life.
DU The rape story evolved out of group improvisations and the associations we each made listening to one another. Danielle was talking about a scenario—going to the beach on a beautiful day and her fear about being raped. And when she did act out the fear as an exercise—she’s talking and telling the story, I was amazed that certain key words she was saying brought up erotic pangs in me. That was very, very scary and made me feel guilty. And I said, let me try to do a simultaneous monologue with you about an erotic situation with similar key things going on. It’s a beautiful day, I go to the beach, and then a man takes me by surprise and instead of rape it’s more like a fuck and we have mad erotic passion. There’s this standard thing that rape is a violation and erotica is when you’re in control and you can do whatever the fuck you want because it’s your fantasy. Danielle was working on a place of fear in rape, while I went into heavy erotica and then pulled myself back and thought wait a minute, what am I doing? If I were raped, how would I ever be able to feel erotic again?
CF At one point I noticed that your bodies seemed synchronized as if to illustrate how fine the line is between pain and pleasure.
DB We both had to go to a place of fear to do that piece. As a performer I want to raise questions for you as an audience member. I want you to take a look inside yourself and find out what comes up for you, where you go, what incites anger, rage inside you, what memories do you have, where is your shame and where do you want to take that.
CF What do you mean by flesh memory? The concept appears to be crucial to this piece.
AO There is a text, a language, a mythology, a truth, a reality, an invented reality as well as a literal translation of everything that we’ve ever experienced and known, whether we know it directly or know it through some type of genetic memory, whether through osmosis or our environment. Our body holds its own truth and its own reality that may or may not correspond directly with what actually transpired in any given situation. We are trying to tap into the multiplicity of languages and realities that our flesh holds. Flesh memory is more than just memory, it’s the way we re-invent scenarios and worlds and languages and images to transcribe what we see, what we feel, what we think. It’s a language that’s activated in our bodies. Through the process of working improvisationally, that text can be gotten to, at least parts of it, and transcribed into a performance language.
CF So it’s not rooted in actual experiences?
AO Flesh memory holds actual experiences, it holds imaginary experiences, it holds memory that may or may not be a direct result of what we’ve lived.
CF What are your memories of your first reactions to having people masturbate as a response to the work?
DB Something that Akilah brought up is that in Sacred Naked Nature Girls we are in fact sex workers.
LM A friend who used to be a stripper was completely shocked that someone masturbated in our performances. At the Hollywood Tropicana club there are referees who tell the men to keep their hands off the girls. We were very naïve. I did go into denial about its impact on me, but after a while I realized that I was really pissed off.
DU Once someone tried to take our picture during the performance and I stopped the show and grabbed the camera. We were playing with how do you see, how do you see us, how do you see yourselves watching us, how do you see your next door neighbor watching us watching you. Our nudity was another way to express a naked reality.
CF We should talk about the sacred, and then about nudity and nakedness. I have a hard time with the New Age concept of the sacred. I hear the term used and experience a typical New Yorker reaction—aargh!
DU What is your idea of the New Age concept of sacred?
CF An animist kind of spirituality. There are moments in the piece when you’re treating each other’s bodies like totems, like fetishes, pouring things on them and finger painting on each other where I sensed you were moving in that direction.
DU When we say that we are all sacred.
CF Shades of neo-tribalism, right? But without scarification and body piercing.
AO I like to try to marry the sacred and the profane. What I call the profane is life with its ugliness, scars, all of that. There is a sacredness in the profane, a spirit in material, and they intermarry, they don’t separate from one another.
CF Why does that get represented in the piece as marking each other’s bodies?
LM It’s a scarification ritual. It’s a metaphor for what we’ve gone through in the performance. We’ve undertaken a journey, we’ve shown all of our wounds. Then we mark them because they are physically, absolutely beautiful. I have an intense attraction to scars, a physical scar on the face like that little mark you have is sexy, there’s something about life being lived.
CF Why are the sacred and the naked and the natural critical?
LM We instinctively know what’s important in our lives spiritually, but it takes time to sit and listen. Our process is that we sit and listen to each other and learn to trust, that’s where our magic comes from and that’s what’s most sacred. We go on stage as four very strong women, naked, all coming from very different experiences. What happens is not scripted and it will never happen exactly that way again.
CF It seems that the concept of the sacred is about looking for unity, looking for ties. There’s also a stress on difference in the work. As a group you represent four different ethnicities: Anglo, Jewish, Asian, and Black. You all make jokes about and deal with the racialized sexualization of women in the piece and talk about interracial relations between women and among women. One of you comments about not wanting to have a relationship with a white woman.
DU That was me. I’m serious about it but I also need to get some perspective and so my comment is supposed to be funny. I say, “Well I don’t date white women.” I’m playing tug-of-war with Laura …
LM And I ask you, “What’s more important, your political agenda or fucking?”
DU And I say, “Well, fucking, of course. And who was that Asian chick you were with?” While that’s happening Akilah and I are having another dialogue about wanting to touch and to kiss.
AO And to kiss again.
CF Akilah’s monologue was a moment in the piece when the exploration of racial mores was most apparent. Her experience of being a black woman on stage was being dealt with; more specifically what it means for a black woman to allow herself to be whipped on stage. It’s historical flesh memory and it’s a reference to slavery. It’s particularly dangerous territory for a black person to take on in performance. The violence of the history Akilah refers to is somewhat tempered by the fact that an Asian woman does the whipping.
AO This is what I call genetic memory, or cultural memory. I feel it really intensely. I feel slavery very intensely.
CF In your monologue you ask something about Harriet Tubman.
AO I ask, “Did Harriet Tubman ever fuck anybody or was she too busy?”
CF To me, that was the ultimate transgression. (laughter) It did stir an enormous emotional response, making me realize how I’ve been socialized to have a very limited idea of Harriet Tubman as a human being.
AO Often black women are not looked at as human beings, we’re mothers, martyrs, caretakers, sluts, we’re Harriet Tubmans, but we’re not human beings. That scene, like the rape/rape fantasy scene, crosses a lot of lines inside people’s heads.
CF What about the campy element of the piece?
DB Girls just want to have fun, Coco.
CF In the early ’80s that phrase stood for a reaction against a puritanical sort of feminism. It meant let’s stop rejecting our bodies. Let’s be sexual again. But to me the camp isn’t about you just wanting to have fun. It’s more about self consciousness, about ironic embarrassment about being naked on stage and feeling the inclination to act girly.
LM It’s part of my intent to open up and get away from these labels we put on ourselves. Each of us introduces ourselves as different people every night.
DU At first we called that section, “True Lies”. Originally it was an exercise in which we had to be someone who we were not. And then afterwards, we realized that we were inadvertently revealing things about ourselves. We do very eccentric things in that section. Though I’m naked on stage throughout the performance, I’ve managed to find a way to feel in control of how I’m presenting myself. There are times when I’m very conscious that I want people to look at me in a certain way and I hold my hands out and I stand there. Camp is about playing with all that.
CF Comments about your work often refer to the piece as an allusion to ’70s feminism, particularly because of your use of nudity. How do you respond to being interpreted as a return to the ’70s?
LM I’m ecstatic that this work would be seen in a political, historical performance context. I have studied what happened in the ’60s and ’70s with actions and happenings and performance art and I do feel like we evolve from that history. However, we have a different sense of the body.
DU We have the ability and privilege to do the work that we are doing today because of the ground breakers who came before us. In terms of our work, we didn’t sit down and study the ’70s and then come up with this group. There are cultural influences and experiences that have affected our art. I get tired of people who were performance artists in the ’70s coming up to me and saying, your work is what we were doing before. Recently I went to a performance art discussion in which the big names from the ’70s were speaking and it was all white people. That for me is somewhat alienating culturally. I went to an exhibition about the history of performance art which started with the French artists who had made a puppet show with shadow puppets that they got from the Javanese. (laughter)
CF The introduction of the non-Western through the concept of performance in art helped European artists to break rationalism and realism in theatre and the visual arts at the beginning of this century. As for the originators of these practices, according to many Europeans they, “didn’t know what they were doing.”
DU But they did. Every culture knows what’s sacred. We know. So I get really angry when people try to plant a little American flag and say, “But that was done before … “
CF The concern and fear of the loss of the body’s physicality is a ’90s thing. It has to do with our relationship to new technology. Performers are poking holes in themselves and sticking things into their bodies as ways to remind themselves that they’re physically alive. And another thing is the importance of the search for the sacred. Testing the body in the ’70s was largely done as a critique of the artist as a maker of objects for sale. Much of performance art now is about finding sacredness in a totally mechanistic and hyper-industrialized, hyper-technological world.
DB A world in which we don’t feel we have a lot of connection, a lot of culture, or a lot of history.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee