The streets of New York City are all but deserted at 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning, yet there is an isolated chaos. Shoes are kicked off. Elbows bump elbows as hands rip shirts over heads. Pants fall to the ground and a stampede of over 100 naked bodies in all shapes and sizes pours into Times Square. At the intersection of 46th and Broadway, a small group of police officers, orange cones, and nearly a block of bare flesh obstruct oncoming traffic.
Without touching, the bodies lie in orderly fashion, feet to the east and heads to the west, as the last participants rush to fill empty spaces on the street's cold, hard asphalt. Artist-photographer Spencer Tunick, notorious for staging and recording these events, impatiently shouts instructions to his assistant, quickly sculpting the bodies into a formation of his liking. No one looks toward the voice; they've been instructed not to. Instead, eyes are directed up toward billboards and buildings seen at previously unknown angles, or they glance at the person next to them, or they simply close and defer to the ears. With motors and horns all but silenced, the wind's whistling is audible, challenged only by the whispered rumors of potential arrest spreading through the crowd. The image of naked bodies packed into a holding cell isn't unthinkable.
"Okay!" Tunick shouts, his camera confiscated before he's gotten a shot, and it's chaos once again a rush of cheers and laughter as the subjects dash back to piles of clothes left lying on the sidewalk. It's over in minutes. The models are dressed, the artist is in handcuffs, and the few early-rising onlookers are left to wonder what makes 150 people want to get naked in a public place.
Anticipating Tunick's next nude event in a week or two, three of the participants in his Times Square shoot told us why they did it, and why they'll do it again.
"There might be some people who would see this and comment that we have 150 perverts out there who couldn't find their trench coats that morning," offers Dr. Stephen Franzoi, a Wisconsin social psychologist whose research focuses on body image and self-esteem. "But that isn't really what's going on here, as far as I can see."
In a city like New York, it could be anything: a protest, an orgy, a live performance, a scene in a new movie. In this case, it's art, self-discovery, kicks, boredom, and liberation rolled into one. It's even a little political, as if to say, "Hey Giuliani, check out the 'quality' of my bare ass on Broadway!" For everyone, the motivation is excitement, but for each participant, it's an individual decision.
"If you asked 150 people, you would probably get a lot of different answers," Dr. Franzoi says, citing an "antinormative" or "nonnormative" desire to feel unique as a possible reason one might pose and, contrarily, a need for conformity to a nondominant norm as another. "There might be some people who are convinced to do it because all their friends are doing it."
Mat Tonti, a 23-year-old Cleveland native who works for a nonprofit Jewish organization in New York, chose to pose with several friends after hearing about the event at an art gallery in the Bronx. His reasoning is straightforward: lying naked in Times Square sounded cool. Others, though, have more complex reasons for participating. Dr. Franzoi suggests one: "They might do this because they do feel somewhat self-conscious about their bodies, but not so much so that they aren't interested in trying to explore and break down some of those barriers that they see."
This was the case for 25-year-old Rebecca Amato, a graduate student at New York University. Amato says that a friend's experience played a large role in her decision to pose for Tunick for the first time last September in front of City Hall. "I'm not comfortable with my body, neither is Kirstin," she explains. "Posing helped her become more comfortable in her skin. I wanted to capture the same feeling for myself." Having participated several times now, once in an individual shoot, Amato has nothing but good things to say about the experience, describing a giddy feeling of exhilaration from breaking the rules.
Dr. Rick Frieden, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, explains, "We have this funny kind of ambivalence in our society about 'forbidden fruit.' It's socially prohibited. We want to be part of the culture that respects the reasons for that, but we're also drawn to it in a way. That is some of the energy of this art, I think. People are not saying to themselves, 'I'm gonna be weird today. I'm gonna do something abnormal. I'm gonna be kinky.' They're saying, 'I am participating in art.' "
Joel Shapiro, 35, was compelled to pose for Tunick in order to improve his own art. Walking through Soho one afternoon, a stranger handed him a flier for the Times Square event. Finding it "intriguing," he knew immediately that he wanted to take part. As a filmmaker, Shapiro's work often includes nude scenes and that played a role in his decision. "I can feel that my actors get uncomfortable and I wanted to understand what they go through, their vulnerability. It was sort of an experiment." Though he expected the shoot to be about a bunch of individuals, he asserts that it was very much a collective experience.
Clearly, there is safety in numbers, both legally and culturally. The police can't arrest 150 people as easily as they can arrest one or three. But more than that, there is an undeniable group mentality, the feeling that you're a part of something huge, something much bigger than yourself. "There was an immediate bonding," Shapiro says of his experience in Times Square. "I felt like everyone should have gone out for coffee together afterward."
Dr. Frieden attributes this group energy to what he calls a shortcut in thinking: "This is an art form. Others think so as well. They are doing it. It must be okay." After talking to his wife, an artist herself, Dr. Frieden relates, "She said, 'How fun! One can have nakedness in the anonymity of a large group.' So one disperses personal responsibility when one is part of a larger group."
Looking at Tunick's work, Dr. Frieden's response speaks less to the motivations of the participants than to the finished product. "A psychologist wouldn't necessarily be an expert in art, but this is the way it strikes me: it is just such a wonderful contrast the starkness of the urban settings and the vulnerability of the human body. I think that those things together [are] very stirring artistically, which is what artists want, don't they?" The artist, yes. The models, maybe. The law, no. After 18 hours in jail and a new set of charges on his hands, Tunick has applied for another permit and intends to continue his work in New York though he won't divulge exactly where or when. Maybe this time the so-called "Naked City" will have the guts to live up to its name.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.