Saturday, 9 July 2016

Tunick Memories

Today, in the news, I see that artist Spencer Tunick has been at it again, this time in Hull.   I took part in his  Installations in Newcastle, back in 2005, and seeing this latest event brought back the memories of a rather interesting experience...and almost longing to do it again!
At the time, I wrote an account of the day, but no Blog back then so, for the record, here it is.

Naked In Newcastle

A normal Sunday for me, as with many others, I suspect, involves a bit of a lie in followed by a leisurely day at home, visiting family or maybe going for a walk. Sunday 17 July, 2005 was a bit different.

It all started a couple of months before when a friend sent me a link to page on the internet; it was all about American artist Spencer Tunick.  Using mostly urban settings, he changes the landscape by arranging large numbers of naked people into various forms and documents it all with photographs and video.  I had long been a fan of his work, fascinated by the images themselves and by the technical and logistical skills needed to make such a thing happen.

The web page was announcing that Tunick had been commissioned to work in Newcastle, and that they were calling for volunteers to take part.  An insane resolve took hold of me.  I found myself filling in the online form and clicking 'send'.  It was easy.

Time flew by.  Having never been to Newcastle before, the drive alone was a bit of an adventure.  I got lost and spent almost an hour going round the city in circles as I tried to find the hotel.  By the time I fell into bed it was 10 pm.  I set the alarm for 2 am.  The information I had received stated that we were to meet, no later than 3.30 am, in Mill Road car park near the Baltic Centre - an early start is essential, so as to minimise disruption and to catch the dawn light.  As I had very little idea about how to get to this location, I thought I'd better get going in plenty of time

I confidently drove into the darkness, and was almost instantly lost.  I knew I was in roughly the right area, as I could see the Tyne, awash with the rippling reflections of the lights that illuminate the Quayside.  The fear grew in me that I might not make it.  To come all this way and not get there was unthinkable, and yet the geography of the place seemed to conspire against me.  By now it was approaching 3 am.  Finally, I decided that the only thing left to do was to try approaching one of the many people staggering around the streets.  This could be a bad idea, but I just pulled the car into the first space I saw and got out.  As I looked around, trying to decide which one the somewhat drunk locals I was going to approach, a car pulled up a little way from me.  Two women in their fifties got out.  One was quite tall, very thin, as in 'as a beanpole', the other was much shorter and rounder.  Seeing as they seemed sober, I thought they might be able to help me. 
"Uh, excuse me...." I ventured, " I wonder if you can help me, I'm...."
"Going to the Spencer Tunick shoot?" interjected the tall, thin woman.
"Err, yes. Do you know how to get there?"
" Oh yes, no problem," said the shorter one," You come with us."

We proceeded to introduce ourselves and, as we walked briskly along, chatted about where we were all from and how we'd come to be there.  It turned out they lived locally, though neither of them had the local accent.  The tall one spoke with a diluted American accent, and the other more of Southern England.  At one point, the smaller woman fell behind a little and complained that people with long legs are always bounding off ahead of her.  We slowed the pace just a little.

Suddenly, as we rounded a corner, there were people everywhere.  A young couple ran in front of us and were ushered by two policemen toward the long queue forming up ahead.  Soon, the queue stretched behind us by at least another hundred people.  It looked like there had been quite a turnout.  Mr. Tunick might well have got the numbers he was hoping for, somewhere in the region of 2,000. 

In front of me was a group of people all in their late teens or early twenties.  There was lively chatter and joking about what we'd be expected to do.  There were two men, both in dressing gowns, seemingly unaffected by the chilly, pre-dawn temperature.  Most people had come dressed warmly in loose, easy-to-remove clothing.  One of the three girls in the group, a dark haired, plump girl was wearing a fairly skimpy top and was already complaining that she was a bit cold.  Another, slumped on the grassy bank nearby, muttering that she was really tired and couldn't she just have a nap!

The queue started to move quite steadily along.  We all had to fill out model release forms.  I, like most others, had done this in advance by getting the forms from the internet.  It made things a lot quicker.   We all handed over our forms at the entrance to the car park and were given bags in which to put our clothes when the time came.  There were security personnel all over the place so everything would be safe.  It was still quite dark at this point and it wasn't really possible to see how many people there were altogether.  The two I had walked there with disappeared in the chaos and I wondered if I'd be able to find my way back to the car later.  But that would be later, and it was soon out of my mind as I watched the crowd grow and grow around me.

I was chatting with some people from Leeds when an amplified American voice cut across the loud mumble of the crowd.  One of the artist's assistants bid us all good morning and introduced the man himself, Spencer Tunick.  The New Yorker welcomed us and thanked us profusely for making the effort to be there.  He explained that we'd be doing four different pieces.  A slightly nervous laugh rippled through the crowd as we were told that after we'd undressed we'd be leaving the car park and crossing the Millennium Bridge for the first set up.  There would be another set up in Dean Street and then back across the river, do a shot by the Sage Centre (an amazing domed building of steel and glass) and then one final shot in the car park.   He was going to be shooting the first shot from the Tyne Bridge and he'd be about ready in 10 minutes or so.  The time for us all to shed our clothes was almost upon us.

As I waited, I looked around at the waiting crowd.  People from all walks of life, all shapes and sizes, from the petite to the enormous.  The youngest were probably the minimum age of 18, and the oldest I saw must have been in their 70s!   I heard local accents, there were some speaking French, and I chatted for a while with a German chap.  It was truly cosmopolitan.
"OK, " the assistant announced, " I'm being told that Spencer is just about ready......So..." 
There was a brief moment of silence.
"As I'm now quite fond of saying," he continued, " Get your kit off!! "

There was instant activity all around.  For a few brief seconds, as garments came off, I felt a trace of panic.  People started chatting and laughing in those nervous first moments of nakedness.  There were cries of "What AM I doing?!?", as the cold morning air made its presence felt and the goose-bumps rose.  The panic went, swept aside by a light headed elation.  I, like many, just stood for a few seconds to take in the sudden transformation, looking around at each other with sheer, child-like joy.  There seemed to be an instant familiarity with those I spoke to around me.  Intense eye contact and smiles said it all.  I joined several others in a jubilant cheer as we started to move en mass.  We were each now ready to become a brush stroke in a surreal artwork. 

The crowd burst from the car park - poured, in a glorious stream, no, a torrent, of varied flesh tones down the steps, over the grassy banks and converged on the magnificent Millennium Bridge. As the procession reached the other side, the turbulent stream formed into an ordered line, three people wide, as we had been instructed to do, and moved slowly toward the Tyne Bridge.  It was an amazing sight.  I found myself nodding my head and smiling.  I seem to recall uttering the words "Wow", "Amazing" and "I can't believe this!", just like so many around me.

When I got to the end of the Bridge, I tried to fit in to the 3 across pattern and walked along the line until I found a spot. 
"Oh, hello!" said the dark haired man in his twenties as I stood in line next to him.  We shook hands and he introduced himself and his girlfriend, a slim dark haired, dark eyed girl. 
"Hi!" she said, and reaching across to shake hands, she added, with a beaming smile, "This is mad isn't it?!"
They were just telling me that they'd come down from Scotland, when the loudspeaker system crackled into life and the voice of Spencer Tunick echoed along the Quayside.
"OK, you're looking good!", he enthused, " Now, arms at your sides, look straight ahead.  Don't smile!  I'm going to take some shots now, stay as you are, you look beautiful!"
It was almost silent for a minute or so.
"OK, great!  Now I want you to lie down.  Heads towards the river...heads back looking straight up.  Knees down, you have to be totally flat!"
With a sharp intake of breath and a slight groan I lay down on the cool paving stones.  There was some giggling as we tried to fit together in the required pattern.  Somewhere, a clock chimed four o'clock. 
"I don't believe it!', chuckled the Scot next to me," It's four in the morning and I'm lying, stark naked with hundreds of complete strangers, in the middle of Newcastle!!"
My sentiments exactly! 
We were told that we looked great and that the shot was about to be taken.  The crowd fell silent once more.  One thing about lying down was that at least I was out of the wind, and I lay there, staring at the vaguely blue sky streaked with thin cloud feeling surprisingly relaxed.  It seemed quite a while before we got the OK, and there was cheering and clapping as we rose.  Using the dark, plate glass of a building nearby, a group of women in their thirties were trying to see the lines and dimples they'd acquired from the texture of the pavement.  Others just laughed as they caught a glimpse of their own reflections in the glass as we slowly moved forward and on to our next location.  I noticed a figure moving against the flow; it was the young plump girl who had been standing in front of me in the queue earlier.  She seemed very cold and headed back across the Millennium Bridge.  It was a strange image in itself; that lone, naked figure, separated from the rest of us, on that huge structure. 

We made our way along the Quayside.  There were police scattered along the route with bewildered expressions. A woman in front of me pointed out there was someone in the doorway of a closed cafe, taking a photograph with his mobile phone. 
"Quick, get him! " someone said jokingly.
"Yeah," came another voice, "He'll never forget being attacked by hundreds of naked people!"
The crowd ahead was disappearing around a corner near to where the impressive span of the Tyne Bridge meets the ground.  A few moments after rounding the bend I was confronted by an awesome sight.  The shop-lined road curved sharply upward, under and beyond a massive brick arch.  People filled the road as far as I could see, and they were all facing down at us, I was among the last few hundred to arrive.  It was as though the whole street had been draped in a massive, flesh-toned patchwork quilt!  Stunning. 

Looking back down the street, I could see, just above the rooftops, a section of the Bridge, and it was from here that Spencer Tunick addressed us.  His slightly distorted voice echoed up and down, bouncing off the tall stone buildings.  We were to stand in rows across the street, about an arm's length apart.  We dutifully shuffled into position.  It was cold here.  Every now and then the wind picked up causing a wave of low moans to issue from the crowd.  As if in defiance of this, several people near the front started slapping their backsides and thighs.  This was soon repeated, and a ripple of slapping sounds travelled up the street.  I've never heard anything quite like it, and I've certainly never seen so many rosy, red cheeks.

 We were instructed to take about ten steps forward, only I don't think the message got through to the whole crowd and some disorder ensued.  This is obviously one of the problems with managing such large numbers of people.  The equal distances between us broke down and took a while to re-establish.  Back and forth, from side to side, slight giggles as people bumped into one another.  Eventually we were told to turn to our right, kneel down and put our heads right down, making ourselves into human boulders.  The pavement was very cold and, where I was, it was also wet, having not long been washed down.  It was a bit frustrating not knowing how this was going to look.  Though now, I think it may well be my favourite shot.  Another wave of shivering attacked me and I was glad to get moving again.

Down the road a little there were assistants handing out water and white plastic poncho-like things.  We had to cross back over the river again, and the organisers had thought it best if we had a bit of a warm up.  We all struggled into the thin plastic garments, and they did indeed offer a little warmth.  Though they were not flattering in any way. 
"Oh, sexy," said a local lass sarcastically, " I'd rather stay naked!"  But she put one on anyway.  Further down the street there were boxes and boxes of flip-flops and sandals.  I rummaged around until I found a pair that fitted and carried on towards the other side of the river.

The plastic ponchos and sandals were removed and left in a big pile on the pavement near to the Sage building, and we were told to wait in the road there.  During our quite chilly wait, some of the staff of The Sage who were watching from above sang a rendition of “You’re too Sexy” which we applauded enthusiastically!  Finally, a couple of shots were taken of us standing in the road.  Then there was a pause and I couldn't hear what was being said up at the front. The next thing I know everyone is suddenly climbing the steep, stepped embankment, on top of which is the Sage building.  Another magnificent sight!  The contrast of all those bodies against the green of the bank was marvellous.  We did two shots here.  One where we all turned our backs to the camera, and another where we faced the front but turned our heads towards the Baltic Centre.  It was about now that the sun came out. Oh joy! Never have I been so pleased to feel that warmth.  All around, I could hear relieved sighs.

Our work wasn't quite finished.  One more set-up to go, so it was back to the car park where we had started.  Unfortunately, this location was hidden from the sun and I began to feel colder than ever.  The sun peeped around the edge of a building, creating a pool of warmth in the middle of the car park and people huddled in that one spot, determined to stay warm.  We waited for our instructions.  And we waited.  Nearby there was a truck with a lift on the back.  Assistants jumped to the commands of the artist, but were unable to get a satisfactory position for the truck and, in the end, they were told to forget it.  He'd use his trusty ladder instead.  Anyone with large tattoos or tan lines was removed from the front rows for this one, so too were the two girls who had dyed their hair very bright colours.  We were then herded between two ropes, held by more assistants, to form a triangle.  After this had been documented, we were told to split down the middle and each half was to lie half on the person next to us, with our heads to the outside.  This must have looked good from the camera's viewpoint.  That was it.  We cheered and clapped as we were thanked profusely once more.  There was a call for volunteers to do one more special installation later that night, live on TV.  It sounded great, but I really had to get back that day.

So, with a mixture of relief and a little sadness that it was all over, I joined the long queue down the steps to where our clothes had been left some three and a half hours earlier.  As I searched the piles of plastic bags, a tall stocky man with ebony black skin and short dreadlocks joined me in the search. 
"Unbelievable!" he said shaking his head and smiling, "Cannot believe I just did that! No one's ever going to believe me!"
"Not something we're going to forget in a hurry!" I said with a smile as I found my bag of clothes.
"Unbelievable!",  he uttered again, pulling on a t-shirt, "Unbelievable..."

Despite the cold, most people didn't seem in as much of hurry to dress as they were to strip.  Slowly, all around, the extraordinary crowd became a 'normal' crowd again.  Dressed, I felt odd for a while.  The clothing seemed restrictive, but oh, SO warm!  I walked down the slope from the car park and onto the road I'd arrived on.  I turned, walking backwards for a moment, to take a last look at the scene.  People were still coming down the steps naked, and as they disappeared more people left the site clothed.  It looked like a big machine taking in nudes at one end, and delivering dressed people at the other!

I turned back to concentrate on my route back to the car.  To my surprise, I saw, a little way ahead of me, the two ladies I had met on the way in.  I'd be able to find my car again now.  I ran a little to catch up with them and, after a brief 'hello' not much was said for most of the short walk.  We were all tired, stunned into silence, but very, very happy!

It had been a surreal, bewildering experience.  I hadn't once felt embarrassed, or self-conscious about being without clothes.  For those few hours, reality had been pushed fairly and squarely to one side.  It was extremely sensuous, liberating, slightly erotic, but somehow never overtly sexual.  Once the markers of social status had been discarded, we were simply Human Beings.  All basically the same, just in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, and there was a feeling that, as a group, we had helped achieve something out of the ordinary.

Why?  Well, as far as I could tell, there were many, varied reasons for being there.  Some were extremely serious about Art, some used it as a way to boost self-confidence: "If I can do this, I can do anything" mentality.  Some were there for the sheer joy of new experience, and some had come for a laugh.  I think with me, it's a mixture of all these things.  There are some who've just smiled at me, in a patronising way, and muttered something about a "mid-life crisis".  It may be some 'mid-life thing', but 'crisis'?  How can it be a crisis when I'm having so much fun?!   Whatever the reasons, everyone will take something special away with them.  The images created will live on to be loved or hated, discussed or dismissed, but for those who took part, the images will hold the reminder of a unique and wonderful experience.