Katherine Chronis slipped out of her dress one recent afternoon on the corner of Crosby and Division and then strolled eastward, wearing nothing but jelly sandals and a necklace. Within moments, a girl roaming about in front of one of Cabrini-Green's remaining high-rises began spreading the news: "That lady's naked! That lady's naked!" Peals of laughter erupted from some of the people within earshot. Others poked their heads out apartment windows. Cars honked. Chronis held her head high, passing a startled middle-aged man who asked if she'd been dared and another who smiled and said, "All right! I'm feeling better now, I guess."
Since August 2000, Chronis, who's 37, has appeared naked in public approximately 45 times (though never without her shoes--"I don't have that much faith in the garbage of humanity," she says). Often she performs a mundane task, such as pricing a train ticket, shopping for food, or riding the subway. If the mood hits her and she's not menstruating, she's likely to kick up into a headstand.
Chronis documents each excursion with the help of videographers and photographers, without whom, she admits, "It would be really easy to have me psychologically tested." She sells postcards, posters, and homemade books of photos from the audacious outings and is working on putting together a calendar. She doesn't have a day job. She says it's "a miracle" that she gets by.
She's heard of other artists who get naked in public, but they're all men and, from what she understands, they don't have her endurance. "I tend to linger," she says. Each outing is different, depending on "the energy" of the location, the reactions of the people she encounters, and the mood she's in. "Sometimes I'm radiant and very gracious. I'm almost like the Jackie O. of naked people." Other times she can be confrontational. "You got a funny look on your face," she said to a man on the Cabrini walk. "Are you disturbed by me?"
Chronis doesn't have a stock answer for people who ask why she's naked. "I should just start saying, 'I'm from a branch of the government that nobody knows about: I'm a pepper-upper.'" She prefers not to explain what she's doing while it's happening--you get it or you don't--but she appreciates honest inquiries and will usually reward curious onlookers with earnest if simple responses. At various times she has represented her nudity as "an art project," or "a declaration of individuality," or a way of exploring "how people react to the body." She told a newspaper reporter from Texas she wanted to "change people's reality for a moment."
Chronis has some experience at changing her own reality. Born in Chicago to Greek immigrants, she grew up in government-subsidized housing in Uptown. She orchestrated her expulsion from Saint Scholastica by unleashing profanities at a nun, and then attended two other high schools before dropping out at 16, convinced the education being offered was "a sham." She left home that same year and married in her early 20s--she says she can't remember exactly when--and together she and her husband nursed their budding interests in heroin into full-blown addictions. Then in the early 90s she moved out, cleaned up, and relocated to New York. She returned temporarily to Chicago in 1999, to be with her mother while she was dying of a brain tumor, and then moved back again last February, having determined that New York was too "image conscious" and that she needed to live at a slower pace.
One of Chronis's most noticeable features, when she's dressed, is her throaty voice. She is loquacious and voluble, especially when the subject is nudity or something else she's passionate about. Occasionally she breaks into a completely different voice for theatrical effect.
She says she's been a performer her whole life and believes that all performances contain autobiographical elements. Most performances, she says, are "the purest expression a person can muster at that time." On heroin she did "whacked-out cryptic confessions" at clubs and coffeehouses. After she moved to New York, she performed in the streets and subways, urging people to burn their money, playing a character who wore layers of nightgowns, and "promoting the number eight." After she felt blamed by her family for her mother's death, she founded the "conceptual corporation" Scapegoat Unlimited, a phone service through which she offered to take the blame for societal ills or her clients' personal transgressions (that project was written about two years ago in the Reader). She started taking off her clothes when she began performing at indoor venues in New York.
Like most women she knows, Chronis has complicated feelings about her body. "I thought it was ugly for a long time," she says. And for a long time she mistreated it. For about 15 years, she says, "I would eat a candy bar for the day and drink like a pot of coffee." She wasted away further during her addiction. "I shot into my ass, eradicating the muscle, so my ass is deformed, even though it's been almost nine years of regenerating." She also fractured a rib after riding her bike over a treacherous pothole, suffered two tailbone fractures in other accidents, and underwent surgery to remove fibroid tumors around her uterus. (She says a doctor her father knew operated for free and her family paid for the hospital stay.) "So it really bothers me," she says, "when people say, 'It's OK for you to get naked because you have a nice body.' I'm like, 'Hey, fuck you, you're looking at pain on display.'"
At first, appearing naked onstage felt wonderfully liberating. But after a while, she says, "I started to wonder: Why did I not get naked out in public? Why am I segregating my expression?" She concluded that to experience "true liberation"--and not just the "illusion of liberation"--she would have to expose herself on the streets and subways too. The Get Naked Project was born.
"I'm not necessarily pushing nudity," Chronis said one day while naked in her Pilsen apartment. "It's just a metaphor for lack of expression and how we put on so many outfits and so many layers and play so many roles." At the beginning of the project, she had long blond hair and wore clunky cat's-eye glasses. Now she has a cropped, androgynous cut, in her natural shade of brown, and has traded in the cat's-eye glasses for small, subtle ones. To Chronis, getting naked symbolizes confronting--and revealing--a more authentic self by discarding the familiar comforts one hides behind. "It's helped me to realize what's important and what's not, and to act on what's important and shed what isn't."
Though the Get Naked Project is intensely personal, Chronis says she doesn't undress simply to navel gaze or to be provocative. She is, by definition, drawing attention to herself, but she closely studies the reactions of the clothed people she encounters, searching for clues to help her understand the world. She is fully tuned in to--and genuinely fascinated by--whatever dynamic her presence creates.
Being naked in public is a fairly common--and usually mortifying--dream scenario, and Chronis understands that she is acting out what for many people is an essential fear. She says people often tell her they wish they could get naked too, but that they'd never be that brave. "Why is it a fear?" she wonders. "I understand the fear of losing a loved one or not having enough food. But being naked in public? Why are we so removed from ourselves?"
Chronis is also trying to expose a cultural hypocrisy--where on the one hand public nudity is considered taboo and on the other we are constantly bombarded with images of naked bodies by the advertising and entertainment industries. "Tits and ass are systematically used as tools to manipulate us," she says. "But if I want to use my tools how I care to, it's perceived to be against the law." Although her work could be interpreted as a statement about the subjectivity of indecent exposure, Chronis is willing to go only so far to make it. If she senses too much tension around her, or if she spots a cop, she quickly gets dressed. She's been arrested twice. In both cases the charges were dropped, but she doesn't want to push her luck.
In her apartment she's hung two enlarged photos from the Get Naked Project. One shows her standing at a bank of pay phones making a call. People occupy the phones on either side of her, seemingly unaware of her presence. In the other she is nude in a crowded subway car. Most of the other passengers read newspapers or stare blankly in front of themselves.
The pictures are deceiving. While the man on the phone to her left did indeed seem oblivious to her presence--he was worrying about a delivery, she says--moments later the woman to her right started screaming "Oh, my God!" into the receiver. And Chronis says that during the subway ride a woman she tried to stand next to ordered her to "get the fuck away."
The Get Naked Project often elicits heightened emotional responses, both positive and negative, from Chronis's ambushed audiences. Although children tend "to love it," she says, and older people "generally are very cool with it," middle-aged white women often "get very uptight." One went so far as to trail her through Grand Central Station hollering for the police. The woman was offended by what she called a "demonstration of vulgarity" and said she found Chronis "totally obnoxious." When she called Chronis an exhibitionist, Chronis sharply responded, "So are you! You're screaming all over the place." She then turned to her videographer and quipped, "This woman is far more naked than I am." She now says she admires the woman for "stepping out of line" to do what she thought was right. "I don't agree with her viewpoint," she says, "but I agree with her sense of action."
Chronis would seem to be an obvious target for harassment; some people, she says, find it "freaky that a naked woman is not doing sexy stuff." But she doesn't fear for her safety or worry about the possibility of unwelcome sexual attention, since she always has other people in tow and there's nothing lewd or sexually inviting about her behavior. Also, she says that she's discovered a certain power in "letting it all hang out." Ironically, she feels less vulnerable when she's fully exposed. "No man wants to fuck a naked woman," she cracks. "I swear, if I had a maxipad on with a belt--the old style--it would be sexy enough for them."
Though she can be deeply affected by how people respond to her, she claims that she's become better at letting go of the negativity she encounters. "I feel it all, but now I'm getting more like where I don't have to hold on to it, it just kind of goes through me. If I can be the person it goes through and they can let go of it and I can let go of it, it'll just kind of disperse," she says. She's tempted to think of her work as public service. "I think I should get some kind of stipend!"
Chronis says she'll continue getting naked in public for as long as there's a payoff. "I'd like to be really old and naked on the street, but something else will probably be engaging me then."
For now there's still plenty to learn. She says the Cabrini walk really got to her, because it enabled her to "feel the weight and hideous heaviness" of racism. At one point she stopped in front of one of the high-rises and looked up. She'd been naked for only about five minutes but the tension, she later said, was thicker than it had ever been before. As people stared back at her, jeering from behind tiers of screened-in galleries, she was struck by the imagery: The residents looked cooped up, as if caged or imprisoned. Chronis immediately covered herself. "This could really be construed as disrespectful," she said, "because I'm white and I'm free."
As she walked away, a boy who looked around ten called her a dyke, gave her the finger, and told her to get her white ass home. A woman approached her, saying, "You crazy or something?" and then jabbing the air between them with a pen, curtly reminded Chronis that there were children around. Chronis tried to explain that she didn't think nudity was dirty and said something about gratuitous displays of women's bodies on billboards and magazine covers, but the woman angrily tramped away.
"It hurts," Chronis said wearily. "It does."
Her mood shifted when a gangly man standing in front of one of the buildings whistled to get her attention and then ran to a gate, waving her over. "I was gonna join you," he said, smiling, "but it got kinda chilly." Chronis's dress was long but the sleeves were short. The man offered her his shirt, which she declined. Then he offered her a sweater and a jacket, which she also declined, saying, "You're so beautiful for offering." Then he said "God bless you," and she said "God bless you too!" and they learned each other's names and discovered they were the same age and told each other their star signs. Then they said good-bye and hugged each other as if they really meant it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Donna Ferrato, Maurice Narcis, courtesy Katherine Chronis.