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Everyone Together: Spencer Tunick in London

23 Sep 2020

BOOM!! A surprise call-out arrived by email on Monday 17 August 2020.

Come Together, London – Spencer Tunick Installation 2020
A communal, social distancing, mask wearing, human artwork. Participate for Spencer Tunick in a group, nude, photographic installation [which] is intended to be a creative outlet for participants to come together to make art in these trying times. It’s an artistic exploration of the possibilities of human connection. A visual statement with a message to stay strong, safe and united while making art together.
Date: Saturday, 12th September, 2020
Time: To be determined.
This artwork has been made possible by the generous support of Sky Arts.

After six months of locked-down, doom-laden, isolated existence – during which time the arts and social-living had been sacrificed on the altar of coronavirus safety – this was a much-needed breath of renewed life for enthusiasts.

The email also said: “sign up sooner rather than later as there are space limitations.

Ninety-nine minutes later, my application was in.

Getting in

Applying was the easy part. Getting accepted proved harder. My own experience was a reverse hokey-cokey: out, in, out, in. By the end of the following week, successful applicants started getting emails saying: “Congratulations, you have been selected to participate in Spencer Tunick’s latest installation“. Esther got one; I didn’t. Esther was in; clearly I was not. After a few days of inconsolable moping, I decided – in the words of Peter Cook – that “I wasn’t taking ‘no reply’ for an answer.”

On 1 September, I sent the most humiliating, cringing, hand-wringing, begging email I’ve ever sent to anybody in my life. I wasn’t proud, I was just desperate. This will be wholly unrelatable for the overwhelming majority of sentient lifeforms but, for reasons I can’t explain, participation in body-positive art installations has become my passion. Opportunities are so rare these days, even without a pandemic, that this one could not be missed. Somehow it worked; next day the answer came: “OK: YOU’RE IN!

And then five days later I got another email saying: “Due to the current pandemic, we have had to limit the number of people we can have on site at once, and unfortunately we are now at maximum capacity with participants so on this occasion, we won’t be inviting you to take part in the installation this weekend.” Ah, fate is a cruel trickster. I responded immediately, expressing my grave disappointment but adding: “I’ll go along anyway as you’ve still included my girlfriend.

None of us applicants knew it at the time, but one of Spencer’s installation concepts would be focusing on couples. Two days later – just three days before the photo shoot itself – I received a reply telling me I could take part after all. Jubilation! This time for real! Rather than being valued on my own merit, it was likely I’d been selected solely because my partner would be involved, but hey, these are wretched times. Pride is a luxury of little use at the end of the world.

The venue was revealed to be Alexandra Palace, and we were to register on site at 4:10am. These things inevitably require mustering before sunrise. After weighing-up numerous public transport options – none which were viable – I booked us a room in the salubrious setting of Travelodge London Wood Green. That evening we found a nearby Italian restaurant, ordered a light repast with wine, and thereon entirely failed to get the early night we’d intended.


Sign o’ the times, heading into town.

Checking in

The alarm went off around 3am. We splashed ourselves, quit our room, dropped the keycard at reception, then set off into the black of night. It was a brisk half-hour walk to Alexandra Palace and, whilst the capital never truly sleeps, it was noticeable that traffic intensified as we neared our destination. The car park was filling with Spencer’s volunteers, in dozens rather than hundreds. Even so, I was surprised how quickly we found our friends Cy and Paula in the pale yellow electric gloom.


3:59am, Alexandra Palace car park.

We had been chatting for little more than a couple of minutes when the call came for everyone to line-up in two queues. These directed us to adjacent desks immediately outside the entrance of the main hall. We joined the right-side queue and – needless to say – then seemed barely to dawdle forward while the other queue cantered along. At least the uneven pacing brought more friends alongside us: first Camila, then Ian. Eventually our own speed picked up and delivered us for processing.


Two queues for the check-in desks.


We’re in the slow lane so there’s time for a selfie.

At the outside check-in desk, we were first required to show our passports. We then cleansed our hands with sanitiser gel and were invited to take white face masks from what I assumed must be equally-clean proffered hands. Entering the building, our next pause was to have a temperature gun pointed at our foreheads. This found us in rude health, or at least not aflame, so we proceeded to a final desk where we were issued colour-coded seat numbers. Red 18 for me; Red 19 for Esther. It was now 4:30am.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – checks outside.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – checks inside.

We wait

Chairs inside the halls were arranged as a socially-distanced grid, 9 feet away from each other. At a rough count, it seemed to me there were 200 chairs set-out in four blocks of fifty, 5 chairs wide and 10 rows deep. Our red zone was the back-left block. We found our chairs, sat down and waited patiently as remaining empty chairs in the hushed hall were filled and a few more were brought out. Every five minutes, a dude with a microphone at the centre of the hall read the same strict safety instructions…


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – social distancing.

Welcome to Ally Pally this morning. First I’d like to ask everyone not to post anything on social media until after September 17th. After September 17th. Please ensure the safety of yourself and those around you by wearing the provided face masks at all times, indoors and outdoors. Make use of the hand sanitisers at designated stations throughout the building.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – one chair, one bag.

Remain seated at your designated seat unless you need a toilet break or require assistance. You’ll find hand sanitiser stations are designated at each individual area. There’s also a member of staff who will answer any questions you may have. If you do need to leave your designated seat, please ensure you maintain a minimum of 2m distance from others at all times. Take notice of the floor markings and directional signage throughout the venue.


Grid of chairs.

Please remain clothed until prompted. Please do not take any pictures throughout the installation. If you do take pictures, you’ll be asked to delete them and may be asked to leave the event. Please pay attention to the floor markings and directional arrows to the toilet facilities and seating areas. Gents’ toilets, front venue to the left; ladies’ toilets, front venue to the right.


The view from Red 18.

This installation was commissioned by Sky Arts to mark their move from subscription channel to free-to-air on 17 September, hence the embargo till after that date. Around 5:15am a Sky Arts chap offered a few words, then Spencer spoke for 10 minutes. He shared his vision and said he’d planned a group mass installation when the pandemic first hit, but when he realised there were shortages of PPE, N95 masks and surgical masks, he thought it would be insensitive. Now we were lucky: we could make art!


Listening intently.

Understandably, before Spencer appeared the atmosphere had been more sombre than at his previous installations. Now the mood was lifted but our temperatures were sinking with every passing moment. I pulled my coat tighter around me, knowing that far worse was to come, and getting nearer. Sunrise was due at 6:31am, with the first twilight glimmer of dawn at 5:57am. Accordingly, some time between those markers the call came for us all to undress and take a socially-distanced walk outside.


On go our art installation masks!

We emerge

After waiting so long, you might think the moment of undressing would be a sudden exhilarating rush of excitement, but more often it’s simply a rush. One wishes to be stripped immediately and outside making group art, but first there are clothes to be removed and folded, valuables tucked away, and everything bagged. It becomes a rapid fumble followed by a swift scuttle to catch-up the line of bare bottoms already disappearing out the door. I never feel graceful.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – out the door…


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – …down the steps.

We left the main hall and turned right, descended a first set of steps, crossed South Terrace road, descended more steps followed by a patch of lawn and a footpath, then began spreading out on the grassy slope below. Spencer and his assistants awaited on an industrial elevating platform positioned on the footpath, so for the opening shot we would be situated between the artist and a sliver of crimson daybreak beyond an otherwise overcast London skyline.


Into the park.

There were two hundred and twenty of us. Two hundred and twenty bodies, entirely naked except for thin white masks, jogging on the spot to keep warm whilst twirling with arms outstretched to maintain a two metre distance from those closest. As well as his assistants on the platform, Spencer had two or three more foot soldiers on the ground to keep us corralled in the area of each shot, and to correct various positional infractions that individuals would inevitably make.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – Spencer prepares.

Location 1 – London skyline backdrop

And so to work, creating sets of simple coordinated poses. These installations could never be described as choreographed, but Spencer clearly has an eye for details and spends a great deal of time using his megaphone to steer individuals into the perfect positions, or getting his helpers to manoeuvre us as required. When first experienced, this can all seem a little stressful, but for veterans it’s recognised as a key part of his modus operandi and, to some extent, the charm.

Pose 1: standing, body and face forwards, arms down.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – positioning.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

As the first shot was captured, so the cold permeated deeper. For the next set-up we stayed on the same spot but rotated 90 degrees. Spencer asked us to turn our heads so our faces were towards him yet without looking at him. Instead, our gaze was to be directed at the old Alexandra Palace transmission mast. Of all my discomforts, the aching neck from this pose lasted longest. Afterwards we all walked a little to the right and mirrored the previous neck-aching stance.

Pose 2: standing, body facing right, face turned left to Spencer, eyes away.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – eyes left.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – eyes still left.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

Pose 3: standing, body facing left, face turned right to Spencer, eyes away.


© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Now the moment everybody must have anticipated with trepidation: the instruction to lay flat on our backs upon the damp grass. Curiously it didn’t feel too bad, but by this point I may have already achieved maximum coldness. The next request was that we raise both arms. I did so, and watched my hands shaking uncontrollably; I really was unable to stop the shivers. But then we were asked to lower our right arms and keep only our left arms vertical, so the shaking then only looked half as bad.

Pose 4: laying parallel with the path, head to Spencer’s left, arms down.
Pose 5: laying as before but with both arms raised straight up.
Pose 6: laying as before but with just the left arm raised straight up.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – flat out.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – arms up.


© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Location 2 – Alexandra Palace backdrop

Upon returning to our feet, we were asked to go back up the grassy slope, across the footpath and assemble on the patch of lawn between Spencer and Alexandra Palace. This was a much smaller area, however, so those that couldn’t fit (socially-distanced) were directed to the terrace above, or even onto the balcony of the palace itself. Here we stood with bodies, faces and palms forward – the magnificent palace façade at our backs – for what would be my favourite artwork from the shoot.

Pose 7: standing, body and face forwards, arms down but angled outwards.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – on higher ground.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – multi-level.


© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick – my favourite artwork.

As the early hours advanced, so did an increasing succession of accidental intruders. Vehicles passed along South Terrace with greater frequency, ranging from cars to red double-decker buses. Even a police car stopped to investigate. A photographer had to be moved along and we waited patiently whilst a jogger loped through. Somehow the unexpected always breaks the ice, in every sense. When able to continue, we turned and reached out to our nearest, then went onto our knees – arms down, arms up.

Pose 8: standing, turning, reaching out one arm to the person nearest.
Pose 9: kneeling on both knees, body and face forwards, arms down.
Pose 10: kneeling as before, arms down but angled outwards.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – reaching out.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

Location 3 – couples on steps

The final set-ups were for couples only. This accounted for 50 participants in total, so almost a quarter of the group stayed on whilst the rest retreated rapidly to their warm clothes. Spencer’s inspiration was ‘The Lovers II‘ by René Magritte. We moved to the steps immediately below South Terrace and embraced our loved ones. To refine the composition, Spencer asked Esther to stand one step higher than me; oh, we’ve done it many times before! We kissed, swapped sides, and kissed again.

Pose 11: couples standing in a close embrace, kissing through masks.
Pose 12: couples as before, swapped sides, kissing through masks.


© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.


© with kind permission – couples pair-up.


© with kind permission – artist and crew.


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – masked intimacy.


© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick (with media censorship).


From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – we’re done!

Got it!

All right, got it! Thank you so much!” With these words Spencer brought the shoot to its conclusion. We all cheered and clapped, not because it was over and we could get warm again, but because we’d made it through an extraordinarily harsh six months of human existence, culminating in an unexpected opportunity to make art, and had now completed the journey. The very fact that this sort of thing could still happen – to us or to anyone, anywhere – was uplifting. Existence could still be living.


© with kind permission – holding-up the traffic.


© with kind permission – back to the palace.


Smiling eyes.

Everyone together again

A call-out to ‘Come Together‘ became an installation of ‘Everyone Together‘. Except it wasn’t. We know many people who applied but, for reasons never explained, were not selected. Special mention goes to Emma, Karen, Les and Natasha – I know how sad I’d felt when I thought I’d been left out, so you have my complete sympathy. I hope all those for whom this is a passion get another chance, and soon. You were missed, as were other friends who chose not to travel because of the risks or difficulties.


7:37pm, a room is empty without friends.

In our clothes, outside, we found familiar faces in the car park. Camila, Cy and Paula had lingered, as had John, Niv and, of course, Gil. We talked a while, took photos (a final flash from Paula) and caught up with all the things that hadn’t been possible for months before. As delightful as this was, I think we were all feeling the want of sleep and a need for rest. After saying our farewells, Esther and I headed towards Finsbury Park, pausing only for pastries at Velasquez and Van Wezel before going home.


Reliving the magic.


One last flash.

Publicity

We waited patiently in silence until the embargo date of 17 September, then rejoiced as images and press coverage started to emerge. We too were free to speak openly about our experiences. Apparently it was a Hope and Glory PR ‘naked success’!

…to link but a few.

Images were shared widely across news websites and social media. Still these days, however, censorship looms large; often insidious, occasionally comical. Full marks to the censors in Taiwan and Vietnam for their dedication and creativity, below.


Media censorship – Taiwan (top) and Vietnam (bottom).

On 17 September, participants eagerly tuned in to Sky Arts hoping to see coverage of our art-making but there was none, and none had been promised. For Sky Arts, it had been about publicity. For Spencer, it was about realising a vision he’d harboured since the pandemic began. For the rest of us, it was a fleeting liberation from the grim reality of recent months, and – even for those unable to take part – a beacon of hope that art, life, creativity and unity can still happen and will happen in our futures, together.

From → Art

One Comment
  1. John Bearcroft permalink

    Great recap of the day (and the in/out lead up to it) – great to have been a part of this.

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