The Accidental Activist
Is not nakedness the indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent. Perhaps indeed he or she to whom the free exhilarating ecstasy of nakedness in Nature has never been eligible (and how many thousands there are!) has not really known what purity is—nor what faith or art or health really is.
—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (1897)
August 1, 2011
6:59 AM: Text to Aram Jibilian, boyfriend and fellow performer: “Nervous as fuck. Cop car right in front of me.” No response. Alone with fear. Time to move.
7 AM: I am standing outside the Wall Street 2/3 station, dressed in a hideous ill-fitting suit (all the better, I think), sucking down a cigarette, jittery with anxiety and excitement, reading a copy of Metro NY. In character. Banker, banker, banker. The article: “Money Talks.” Perfect. I decide I’ll just spend the five minutes reading parts of the article out loud on an obnoxiously conceited business call to—somewhere, someone, it doesn’t matter. Maybe China. Not so important. I’ll just bark quotes from the article (how to negotiate a higher salary!), and get naked. My only mission: don’t get arrested.
7:06 AM: I am sitting, nearly dressed again, on a curb (there is a bench immediately behind us, but there’s something about power and having people sit on the street at the lowest possible point beneath you that makes them really feel their insignificance), staring up at the gigantic United States flag that decorates the front entrance of the New York Stock Exchange, handcuffed and flabbergasted.
How did I get here?
I never thought I’d be in a position to defend and explain my choice to participate in Ocularpation: Wall Street, Zefrey Throwell’s performance piece, especially not to the harsh art critics of the NYPD morning shift. Just a few days prior, I was certain I was going to back out, afraid that I would be arrested, and not really sure what the work meant to me. Sensationalist stunt? Daring but not exactly the kind of thing I do? But in the end, having done a ton of training this summer, all of which seemed centered around the idea of making myself vulnerable (to possibility, to fear, to chance), I dove in. Zefrey called, and I acted like I had done this sort of thing my whole life. Sure, I said. Whatever you need. Banker? Fun. A suit? I look great in a suit. See you there.
Monday morning rolls around. I’ve been up all night arguing: emotional, raw, pretending. Show up at the park, hear Zefrey’s pep talk, eat a banana, walk to place. Just get it over with, I’m thinking, and you’ll be home and in bed in no time. There are two or three still photographers and video people shooting every move I’m making: I’m feeling pretty charged. It’s funny—being surrounded by media, the idea of permanent record and documentation—offers a totally false, heightened sense of security. Nothing’s going to happen with this many people watching. I see Zefrey, and one of the other artists, Eric, start to strip. Holy shit—they’re already naked and the police are yelling stuff at them, but not making any arrests. Looks like all is a go. I strip as fast as I can. I manage about three seconds, on my fake phone call (“Reject it. Bluff. Tell them to add a couple pounds to the paycheck if they want your services.”) before Officer Rodriguez runs over and says “WHOA! Put your clothes back on NOW or you’re gonna get arrested!” And I look over, pausing from making the world spin at my fingertips, and say “OK!” As I’m about to be fully clothed, ready to disappear as the performance dictates (it’s now 7:05 a.m.), Rodriguez shows back up with an open set of handcuffs and grabs my arm. “You’re under arrest for civil disobedience.”
“I don’t understand—you told me if I put my clothes back on I wouldn’t be arrested.”
“I changed my mind.”
He changed his mind. As I am being handcuffed and led away, a passerby says to the officer “You know, there’s about 10 more of them down that way.” Oh thank you, upright citizen and courteous Wall Street employee, for aiding and abetting. And what about the other 40-odd people who were so much more naked (is that even possible? well, naked for so much longer), as evidenced on Gawker and Gothamist and Metro and the Times and the Daily News and the NY Post and—how did this get everywhere so fast? I’ve never been caught up in the media game like I am now. They said I was Andrew. They said I was 22. They quoted the police as saying that the three of us were arrested, unlike the others, because we were “doing more than disrobing” (Pervaiz Shallwani, Wall Street Journal). Really? I know three people who have the entire thing on film. Let’s all watch. Together. But I digress.
So onto the curb, and into the paddy wagon. Handcuffs pressed painfully into my wrists, my arms locked behind me, shoved into the backseat of a tiny car with two people I’ve never met. We make cautious introductions, some “How-do-you-know-Zefrey?” smalltalk. The cops are pretty curious. “What were you protesting?” We all look sheepishly at one another, unsure how to answer. One of us says what we’re all thinking: “Do we have to answer that?” “Nah.”
We drive on in silence, to the station, the biggest burlesque show you can imagine. They have the three of us stand in the center of the intake room—tons of uniforms coming in to finish their shift, a steady set of new arrivals taking their place—and just have a ball with us. “Really, Wall Street? You guys couldn’t have picked somewhere smarter for your little show?” “Oh, let me guess—performance art.” Apparently sarcasm is a 101-level course at the Academy.
They take everything away, including belts and shoelaces.
And, BOOM. I’m sitting in my suit in a locked cell in the 1st Precinct in the City of New York—a city I came to call home 10 years ago because it was broad minded and nothing like Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. New York understood me. New York let it all hang out. I lie down on the long graffiti-etched wooden bench, LCD Soundsystem in my head. “New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”
Ninety minutes later, I’m out. Released. Zefrey and Drea Bernardi, the prime organizer and mobilizer, were there along with a handful of supporters (i.e., my boyfriend. [N.B. Imprisonment is apparently one of the best ways to avoid having to say you’re sorry]). We talked about the tickets (I was issued two summons—“exposure of person” and “disorderly conduct”) and called the lawyer Zefrey had at the ready. I calmed myself down. I was shaken, tired, hungry, and just wanted to be alone. Went home and, in 21st century style, posted a status update on Facebook: “Got arrested this morning. Oh, NYPD. Performance art is not a matter of national security.” It was my best attempt at reconciliation.
And then I watched the story explode. And that’s when it hit me—this is what I hadn’t gotten about the piece before, from my own micro perspective—get naked, make a little scene, go home. Favor to artist friend: done. As a dancer, the show is the big deal, the light at the end of the tunnel, the reason I do what I do. My training, my focus, my everything, goes toward making the moment happen. And it hadn’t been much of a moment, I thought. I felt let down, or, worse, a pawn.
But the world was paying attention. Five minutes of absurdism turned into days of wonder. Whether or not it made any sense to anyone else, whether or not it achieved its goal through the performance, of shining a searchlight into the dark, seemingly unregulated hole of Wall Street, of pointing to the need for exposure, for transparency, for public oversight and corporate responsibility—it didn’t matter. People were talking. People were TALKING! And thinking. And being pretty opinionated. And maybe joining us in hoping for a solution.
America, meanwhile, was debating about, flirting with, and on mere technicality it seems, avoiding debt default, in the process earning itself the first credit downgrade in national history. Amazing. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I still, like a lot of you, don’t entirely understand. We’re told the same stories from the news industry, through individually chosen channels to match our party affiliations. No one is really sure what’s going on, what went on, what so much of this means. Who’s in charge? Who is making us, our money, our security and future as a nation, a priority? After a crash, and a national debt debacle, and now perhaps another recession, equal to or worse than the one we just got through (did we?), it still feels like nihilism down here on the streets—streets that would see non-violent civilians arrested (for reasons of public security!) rather than the corrupt corporate offenders we were protesting.
In the end, I humbly and inadvertently became what you could call an activist. Hours, days, weeks later, I can still connect with a rush of empowerment when I think about everything that happened. What began as willing but disinterested participation turned into something deeply personal and powerful and political. I didn’t start out at all believing in what I was doing, but it turns out I hadn’t needed to—the effect brought out the cause.
AARON MATTOCKS (www.aaronmattocks.com) is a performer, writer, and a founding member of the Collective for Dance Writing and New Media.