Stripping for society’s sake
Written & © by: Mei Qi Tan
The image of walking the streets while wearing a set of plastic horns and a tiny G-string might suit the Mardi Gras parade more than a protest on animal cruelty, but Marte Kinder is a man on a mission to challenge public contexts. As the main Australian organiser of the World Naked Bike Ride [WNBR], peace and environmental activist Marte Kinder is spearheading the global movement that promotes cycling as an alternative and environmentally-friendly form of transport.
The “Newcastle nudist-for-peace”, as he was once dubbed, participated not in Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade, but in PETA’s annual ‘Running of the Nudes’ protest against bull-fighting in the city of Pamplona, Spain earlier this year. The recent APEC 2007 meetings in Sydney also enjoyed a ‘Bums for Bush’ campaign, in which 50 protestors flashed their bare bottoms in disapproval of the American leader.
Unfortunately, the local government was not as accepting of the event and cracked down on protestors who were forced to enact some semblance of social decency. Though there were some, says Kinder, who left practicality out of the equation. “Some blokes wore a scarf that they just had knotted around their waist, and by the time it was swinging in the breeze, it didn’t leave anything to the imagination.” Pamplona’s local authorities mirror the mixed sentiments of modern Western society surrounding nudity and its acceptance in public contexts.
Social nudity has existed for thousands of years, but the practice of using nudity as a form of political expression is enriched with a multitude of paradoxes and meanings, and has only recently evolved as a powerful media tool.
Nude activism marches to the tune of generating controversy and media attention for greater causes; however, that tune is now increasingly pitched towards anti-war and environmental angles in this day and age.
Climate change and the Iraq war are the two most popular issues that have seen a dramatic spike in the number of nude protests staged around the globe.
The Anti-War demos in 2003 saw hundreds of people stripped down across the globe to protest the possibility of a US-based invasion of Iraq.
However, apart from creating a media spectacle, nude protests for environmental causes create insightful meanings between its audiences and participants.
Such nude protests generate powerful messages that are based on and resonate from a shared humanity, and to Marte, they prove more effective than any other media tactic in influencing global public perceptions of climate issues. “For the size of the event you get a great amount of media attention, so you’re getting newspapers, you’re getting TV, radio interviews and more than just this audience who are there on the street who happen to see you, you have those tens of hundreds of thousands of people who watch the news or read the newspapers so its very good publicity tool.”
The link between the naked human body and its relation to the environment parallels human vulnerability in the face of climate change.
Dr. Ruth Barcan, a Sydney University academic who specialises in nudism, talks about how the naked body in its natural environment affirms the link between environmental-conservation and humanity.
“It’s a very different physical experience to be naked in public, and just to feel air around your body in different kinds of ways, and to feel sunlight and warmth on your body, or cold on your body.”, she says.
A recent protest on global warming conducted by US photographer Spencer Tunick captured world-wide attention, through its starkly portrayed image of a group of individuals standing naked on a Swiss glacier.
According to Barcan, the image proved striking not only because its visual detail, but hammered home the intensity of the actual bodily experience of those participating in the shot.
For some, the naked human form represents truth, innocence and purity and that in itself, is symbolic of shared humanity and vulnerability.
Nudity can also pose as a more dangerous form of deviance, playing on aspects of sex and criminality, that fall under the traditional religious concepts of body-shame.
It is precisely these ambiguous qualities of the naked human body that amplifies the effects of nudity in the mass media.
This movement is situated within the increasingly precarious state of climate-change that the world faces today.
With the conclusion of the APEC 2007 summit in Sydney, climate change was acknowledged as the most pressing issue on the agenda of the meetings.
Despite the signing of the ‘Sydney Declaration’ on climate change as a replacement of the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012, experts believe that the setting of such ‘aspirational goals’ in reducing greenhouse emissions are unrealistic in tackling the very real and devastating effects of advancing climate change.
Without direct actions and foreseeable goals to reduce global warming, there is an increasing need to shock people out of their comfort zones into sitting up and taking heed of the potential environmental crisis.
Just as Barcan believes that nudity traditionally signifies the need of protection in the face of danger, Kinder also sees how exposing vulnerability can be turned into a message about truth and understanding.
Against the aggression of on-road motorists, cyclists face a multitude of problems with acceptance on the roads and not to mention, apparent physical danger from vehicles.
To Kinder, cycling naked in the WNBR demonstrates the vulnerable position of both humans and the environment when subject to motorised vehicles.
He says of cyclists, “They might as well be naked in the face of aggression by a motorised vehicle. The nakedness shows your vulnerability, and it also is emblematic of the naturalness of cycling.”
Social nudity has always been a paradoxical concept says Barcan.
“We’ve got one kind of condition of positive needs, in which we see it as natural and authentic and truthful and innocent, but in the Christian tradition, it’s been seen as associated with sin, and also with vulnerability and wretchedness and being destitute and so on”, she says, on the image of the naked human body is bursting with ambiguities of religious and traditional symbolisms.
The power of nudity in the context of protest cannot be denied – it encourages collectivism amongst individuals, yet celebrates the spirit of social deviancy in its defiance of societal rules and the limits regarding decency.
Kinder agrees that nudity is not only a powerful tool of protest, but socially enriching as well. Nude protests, according to Kinder, are successful in not only generating meaning for audiences, but also in inducing a sense of community and an understanding of a shared humanity amongst participants. “They laugh, and they smile and you know, a lot of people say that they’re uplifted and that they feel liberated and they have a sense of freedom and joy”, he says, of nude participants.
And it is not just the participants who are enjoying themselves; Kinder recalls one particular WNBR event:
“I’ve got so many pictures of people in Europe, and there’s just footpaths aligned six deep with people laughing and smiling, and everyone’s just having a really good time, and its refreshing to see a protest that lifts everyone’s spirits.”
Such liberation of audiences and spectators from negative associations of public nudity is sparked through the context of protest.
But the public’s general bemusement with such spectacles reveals both an element of fascination and quiet disbelief over the blatant exposure of the naked human body, which in turn, cements the power of nudity as a communicative tool through the media.
For many, liberation is often central to the idea of protest.
The connotations of nudity in the context of activism set out different forms and levels of liberation that appeal to ideals of truth and resistance.
And who could resist such a rupture from the everyday? As an entertaining, yet potent form of protest, it is highly unlikely that activists who protest in the nude for a variety of causes like Kinder will cover up any time soon. And a G-string doesn’t count.
- BARCAN, R. (2002) ‘Female Exposure and the Protesting Woman’, Cultural Studies Review, vol.8, iss.2, (Nov. 2002), pp.62-82.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Sep 2007, ‘Climate tops APEC Agenda’.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Aug 2007, ‘Getting Cold to Spread Global Warming Message’.
Return to Australia page