Nude in Utrecht: essay by philosopher Floris van den Berg
SPRING festival 2022
Nude in Utrecht
Dronude Utrecht / Centraal Museum by Durden/Van Herk/Van den Berg
To be naked is to be without disguises. John Berger
A clear blue sky, no leaves on the trees, the grass covered with a layer of frost. The garden of the Central Museum, Utrecht. A Saturday morning in March. I am stretched out on the grass next to the winding path. I hear the twittering birds. Voices around me. A deep calm. The cold that turns out to be less intense than expected, but that still slowly penetrates my body. I look at the clear sky. I breathe deeply. I am relaxed. I am not alone. I am part of a whole. I am a link in a chain of naked bodies. I'm part of a SPRING performance. I am a dancer, albeit a still and chilled one.
Thirty people are part of this happening. Without alcohol, without drugs, without gurus and without clothes. It turns out that it is possible to move outside of your comfort zone whilst being sober and not infatuated by an ideology or leader. I made myself part of a performance. I am no longer a passive spectator who considers himself very progressive in accepting the nude on stage at SPRING, but I participate in a performance, of which I myself am co-organiser: the Dronude Utrecht Project of creative collective Durden/Van Herk/Van den Berg. In this project, drone photographer and nude model painter Tom Durden takes aerial shots of groups of naked people at iconic locations in Utrecht – this time the serene courtyard of the Centraal Museum. This is just the beginning; there will be several sessions, two of which with about a hundred models. All models are volunteers and I am one of them.
At half past eight in the morning the group gathers at the sculpture of a large red chair, which is located near the Centraal Museum. A long blue-yellow ribbon flutters on the facade as a sign of support for Ukraine. The war is far away, yet close at the same time. Here life goes on for the time being, a life in freedom. The news makes one realize how fragile and fragile is freedom. Peace is a necessary condition for a cultural life, and a state that guarantees freedom of expression too.
Thirty models were willing to pose nude for this art project - there were more volunteers, but not everyone could make it on the set date, and Covid-19 still circulating made it impossible for some to come. There is no audience, just photographers and assistants. The public can see the photos later, on the internet, but in particular at the exhibition that will be shown during SPRING in the Hekman Foyer of the Stadsschouwburg Utrecht. The photo session is a theatre performance by dancers with a delay between the performance and the audience. There is also no applause. Except perhaps at the opening of the exhibition, where the public can look at the exhibited photos. But we are not there yet.
Durden is the pivot: he has arranged the assistants, including several drone pilots, a GoPro videographer and two ground photographers. There is coffee and tea. The models' signature forms are being distributed. Durden welcomes everyone. There are some models who have worked with him before, but for most of us this is the first time. For me too.
Together with Lieke van Herk and Tom I am organising the Dronude Utrecht Project, which is part of SPRING this year. I know Tom through my book “The Cheerful Naturist.” A photo of a circle of naked people, taken by Tom, adorns the cover. Tom told me that he, together with Lieke, had come up with the plan to organise a photo session in Utrecht. That's why I lie naked in the museum garden on a Saturday morning. The weird thing is, it doesn't feel weird. It feels weird talking about it to other people, but the experience itself isn't weird. One of the assistants notes that he actually feels uncomfortable being dressed as one of the few. After all, normal is defined as what the vast majority do. No matter how far away public nudity is hidden, it turns out to be that simple to break through. This group of volunteer models does not find it difficult to undress and walk around naked.
We do three photo sessions. First a winding line along the winding path. We first lie on our backs with hands around the feet of the person above us. This way one feels safely wedged between two others. Barely connected with the outside, with the earth, with the city, with the others, this feels intense and pleasant. Touching makes me feel included in the whole. The Covid-19 measures have just been lifted after two years and touching has become even more taboo than it already was. On top of that comes the ‘Me Too’ of inappropriate touching. And that's how touching has become special. This photo session performance is a safe space. Everyone is relaxed, there is a multiplicity of bodies, people talk to each other. After each session there is an opportunity to warm up again in the Garden Room of the museum and to drink coffee/tea. The atmosphere is exuberant. Funnily enough, during this intermission there are various forms of dressing ranging from people getting dressed completely, bathrobes, onesies, through the naturist outfit of outerwear only, to hardened naturists who remain naked while the majority disguise themselves as textile people again.
The second session is on the trapezoidal lawn framed by museum walls. We are criss-cross in the trapezoid. It looks like a group of pink piglets in a field, unflattering indeed. The sun has now reached the grass and we lie close together in the sun for quite some time. The pacemakers tell jokes. We feel like a group again.
As a free-thinking individualist I am wary of groups, wary of going into groups. But this time I feel right at home and at my place, pleasant. Nudity is an important part of that. The group is dressed much more diversely than when naked. The nudity is binding. Of course, the naked bodies are different, but much less different than with clothes. You can see that clearly in the photos: from a distance people are hardly distinguishable from each other. It's nice to have a wide variety of bodies. You know you are somewhere on a scale. Nice to see real people and not the idealized bodies that can be seen on the screen. I thought it would be difficult or uncomfortable to talk with naked people, but it's not that bad. The group atmosphere was friendly. We had a shared adventure. A shared social transgression of the norm, of the normal.
The third session is a people circle. This is not placed on the grass, but on the square wooden decking of the terrace. I lay shivering on my back. When someone remarks, 'Cold is just an emotion', I have a cognitive short circuit. If it means, 'you can partly overcome the cold by taking a deep breath and relaxing' then that is fine, but cold is not an emotion, not any more than blue is a circle. Cold guru Wim Hof is extremely popular, his name is mentioned several times. We sit down with our arms around each other's shoulders. That feels to me to be the highlight of the photo session. Being together. The feeling of a shared project. The fact that we are models feels like an afterthought. We see the drones high in the sky and we hear them buzzing like wasps in summer, but we are in the now and with each other. We laugh and most of all we are busy. Everyone is equal, arms around each other's shoulders, vulnerable and open in our nakedness. People may have different political and moral views, but here we are as a unit.
On Durden's blog I read that technically things didn't go as smoothly as it seemed: 'The assistant drone pilots came up to me and I could see from the expression on their faces that something was terribly wrong. Indeed, the displays of the drone controllers showed a pop-up: "Unlock No Fly Zone" and the option "Cancel" did not work... DJI drones use GPS to know their location, and when this location is near to a dangerous point such as an airport, they simply do not take off. Without a flying drone, all the efforts of all the people would be in vain.
" But, as in a thrilling boy's book, the hero just managed to solve the problem: "The problem was solved by my first guess, by pairing the iPads that controlled the drones to my iPhone hotspot and cancelling the proposed unlocking of nearby No Fly zones. And indeed, the drones started immediately after this fix.'
I do realize that this form of being together is a cultural-historical niche: that society tolerates this naked gathering, that there are people who want this, that everyone behaves appropriately. I feel in paradise. And Utrecht is of course also a paradise. A paradise of beauty, freedom, art, culture, study, science and wealth.
I wrote myself into this situation. Although I have written a book on naturism, I am mainly a theoretical naturist who occasionally goes to the sauna and visits a nudist beach when it suits. A naturist site, the ne plus ultra of naturism, is, until now, beyond my imaginative horizon. Nakedness in the city is reserved for the many naked statues. The Dronude Utrecht Project brings nudism back to the city in an aesthetic way. It's interesting to wonder if it is a city that comes to mind when such a project can be undertaken in that place. There are cities where it is unthinkable. In many countries public nudity is absolutely not tolerated. But there are also groups in the Netherlands that are nudophobic. Think of the Refos and Muslims. When last year the Dutch TV programme "Gewoon Bloot" appeared on television – where adults showed themselves naked to children and children were allowed to comment, with the idea of normalizing nakedness – the SGP filed a petition with the House of Representatives in an attempt to ban the programme.
The Dronude Project has common ground with SPRING and other performances. In 2021, for example, there was the performance ‘Ensaio para uma cartografio’ by Monica Calle, featuring naked women who were not professional actors or dancers and in which empowerment was central. Dronude also reminds me of a performance I was at last year: the impressive performance ‘Habitat/Amsterdam’ by Doris Uhlich in Frascati, Amsterdam. This performance consisted of a choreographed rave dance party with forty naked volunteers moving among the audience. The transgression of what is normal here was considerably more intense than with Dronenude. When I stood there as a spectator, I kept wondering if I would dare, and I hoped that I would. The audience was very enthusiastic and clapped their hands raw during the applause.
It feels beautiful to be part of a work of art. I now experience that freedom even more strongly in a world where freedom is at stake. It is beautiful to play, to make beautiful things together, and to be cheerful and quite naked. And I am not the only one who has experienced this; model Maja writes: 'I felt very welcome and connected. This celebration of beauty was a boost to my self-image. While we lay there in the cold with our noses in the grass, I felt wonderfully back to nature, afterwards it felt as if I had meditated all morning. Also compliments to your team, I can imagine that it can be quite exciting in times of Me
Too and abuse of power, but I never felt uncomfortable for a moment.'