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The Controversial Performance Art Class Where the Students and Professor Get Naked

Ricardo Dominguez's class is all about pushing boundaries – but one student's mother would rather those boundaries stay right where they are.
14 maj 2015, 5:00am

Illustration by Flickr user Rob van Roon

Ricardo Dominguez is not shy about nudity. For over a decade, he's been teaching performance art classes at the University of California, San Diego, including some sessions where he and his students collectively take off their clothes in order to metaphorically reveal themselves to one another. This Thursday, there will be another such class, where students will bare it all in a candlelit circle—but this semester is not like other semesters, because one student's mother has accused Dominguez of being a pervert.

This mother—unnamed at her request in local news reports—claims that her daughter is being forced to strip for class, and told ABC's 10News that she felt "sick to her stomach" about the assignment. "I'm not sending her to school for this," she told the TV station this week, echoing the sentiments of many, many parents who pack their kids off for an arts education.

Dominguez has been teaching Performing the Self, an upper-level performance art class, at UCSD for the past 11 years, and he says this is the first time anyone has ever complained. Importantly, his course isn't a requirement—meaning that anyone who took it would likely be looking to explore the boundary-testing, often-clothes-optional world of performance art. The mother alleges that her daughter wasn't aware of the class's nudity requirement, but Dominguez and other students have pointed out in news stories about the controversy that the expectations are clearly laid out during the first week of class, and students who aren't comfortable taking their clothes off can opt for an alternate assignment on exposing "emotional nakedness," which means keeping your clothes on while displaying emotional vulnerability. (Dominguez said almost no one chooses this option.)

If Dominguez's teaching methods are unorthodox, they're in keeping with a new tradition of college courses that color outside the lines. When I was in school, there was a course on living the monastic lifestyle, which required students to, at various points throughout the semester, give up technology (including laptops and alarm clocks), strictly limit their diet to raw vegetables, practice celibacy, and spend an entire month in silence. Really, it's amazing what you can get college students to try.

There are lots of classes like this, which either force students to really explore their beliefs or exploit their eagerness to try new things, depending on who you ask—classes on the " art of walking," classes where you spend hours analyzing daytime soap operas, classes about playing Scrabble. One of my former professors began teaching a course last year called "Wasting Time on the Internet," which is exactly what it sounds like. For course credit. For a diploma.

Related: Watch our interview with Richard Prince

"Education is about shifting the considerations of what we understand as knowledge and research," Dominquez told me. "If one looks at the etymology of what the term 'education' means, it means to be turned inside out. Our job as a research university, and as a visual art program, is to educate our students—that is, to turn them inside out, and allow them to be at the forefront of not only post-contemporary art, but art in the future."

The syllabus for Performing the Self involves a series of "gestures"—artistic performances relating to self-expression, using the body as a canvas. "The core prompt for the nude gesture is to create a work that reflects on the question: that which is more you than you are," Dominguez told me. "In the past, some students have focused on their hair; other artists have focused on their toes, or their stretch marks, or the question of their lips, their mouth, their tongue, their eyes."

All of Dominguez's classes begin with his students seated in a circle in the studio, and the day of the "nude gestures" is no different. "They're only allowed to have very intimate lighting, a small candle, in order to create the gesture," Dominguez said. I asked Dominguez if he was nude too. The short answer is yes.

"It is important that the students feel that I, as the professor, also risk this space of performance. I did not feel in discussions in the past with students that it would be conducive to them being open, to creating the work, if I sat there completely clothed, judging them," he said.

Most of Dominquez's seem to like him—he has good marks on, with even a student who ranked him "average" saying, "I couldn't make heads or tails of this class when I got there, but in the end I'm so glad I took it." Lisa Korpos, a senior at UCSD and one of Dominguez's current students, wrote via email that the class environment was "supportive, open, and safe."

"There's a lot of media focus on the 'nude' gesture, but nobody has slowed down for even a moment to consider what else we have been doing," Korpos wrote. "For instance, our second gesture was a confession piece in which we were prompted to share the worst thing we'd ever done, or the worst thing we had ever thought about doing.

"All 15 of us willingly blindfolded ourselves, and we sat huddled together, sharing these hauntingly honest tidbits of our respective histories," she went on. "Each confession was more stirring or powerful than the one before: I learned that theres' a compulsive kleptomaniac in my class, a girl who's been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for more than a decade, and another who remained in a romantic relationship for years because she feared nobody else would ever love her. Every single student came out of that class with a deep sense of empathy, understanding, and care for their fellow classmates—a sense of connectedness that simply didn't exist prior to that session."

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