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William C. Altreuter
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Sunday, August 15, 2004

What could be sexier than standing in Buffalo’s abandoned Central Terminal with hundreds of other people, all naked? I couldn’t think of anything, so when I read in the paper that Spencer Tunick was looking for volunteers for one of his installations I signed up that day.

Tunick has been photographing large groups of nudes all over the world, and I have found his work fascinating for as long as I have known about it. The buzz that surrounded his coming to Buffalo was closer to a low roar all summer: it seemed like everywhere I went, anytime people were standing around holding drinks there was talk about it. Naked being what it is, whenever my wife volunteered that I had signed up there were always jokes, but a surprising number of people would then confide that they’d thought about going themselves. Buffalo being Buffalo, I knew I’d know other people there-- I just wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. Did I want to be naked in front of people I know? Did I want to see them naked?

Because so many people were talking about it, I found that I was thinking about it more than I might have if this was just something I was doing on a whim. The whole idea of mass public nudity in the context of what Tunick does is powerful and complex. As I looked at the photographs of previous installations I was struck by the fact that they were erotic, but also more. Nude white bodies lying on the street, or on plazas in front of iconic buildings evoked nuclear holocaust in my mind; and the idea of hundreds of naked people in the ruins of the Central Terminal-- in the heart of the Polish East Side, drew my thoughts to the trains that brought the European Jews to their deaths.

Beyond that there were the technical details. What do you wear to something like this? Where do you put your keys? The e-mail instructions we received were not particularly helpful: “You will only be nude for a short period of time during the actual installation. The event will be finished by approximately 2:00 pm. While posing do not wear any clothing. No hats, no sunglasses, no jewelry, no socks. Completely nude. Also, it may be easier to undress and dress in a more timely manner if you do not wear any underwear, so you may want to
forgo wearing any that day.”

I figured parking might be a problem so after I showered and pulled on a tee shirt and a pair of running shorts I rode my bicycle to the Terminal. I’d guessed right: traffic was streaming off the 33 onto Filmore at a steady rate. You could fire a cannon down Filmore most times of day, most days of the week, but on this Sunday morning it was like rush hour on one of the main arteries into the city. I noticed a few out of state plates, and passed a woman walking with her baby. “Everybody’s got to see the naked people,” she said, shaking her head. Cars were backed up for several blocks-- more people than I have ever seen on the East Side, Easter Week included.

The Terminal sits in a neighborhood that was always residential, far from downtown, or anything else, in the middle of a crumbling parking lot. The lot was full, and police were directing traffic. People were streaming in. I locked my bike, presented my Model Release to one of the volunteers, and joined the crowd at the back of the Terminal. It was a warm morning. I started wandering around, trying to get a feel for who was there. Some couples, some people on their own, but mostly what seemed to be same sex groups of two or three or four, there on a lark. Some mothers with their daughters, and I saw one father and son; a fair number of what I would classify as old hippies-- of both sexes, with long gray ponytails. Some people who pretty obviously arrived on their Harleys. A fair number of college age people. I didn’t see anyone I knew, until I did, two of my cool neighbors. It was the first and only time I blushed throughout the whole adventure, bright red, but I got over it.

Tunick’s program director got up on top of a stepladder and made some announcements. People were still pouring in. The atmosphere seemed to be becoming more relaxed as more and more people arrived, saw that they weren’t the only ones that thought this was something good to do. For the rest of the event I continued to see people I knew, or people I recognized-- in the end, the waiting area looked pretty much like any gathering of about 2000 people from around here. The scene started to remind me of the start of a road race, like the Shamrock, or the Turkey Trot, only more lightly attired, and with the mild subcutaneous electric thrill that comes from the thought that we were all doing something a little different, a little bit sexually charged. We were all about to be in a big group of naked people.

Tunick mounted the stepladder, and started giving instructions. He thanked the people who helped put the installation together, thanked us. The crowd was enthusiastic, ready to applaud and cheer anything. Tunick had us separate into two groups, men and women. The men booed, good-humoredly, and we shifted positions. I thought about what it all meant, taking direction from a man with a bullhorn talking to us from the top of a ladder, trying to discern if this was part of some sort of dark, totalitarian vibe, but it didn't feel like that. It was more like a day at the beach. Tunick told us that the first “set up” would be with just the women, then he would do something with everyone, and then he’d “do some other things”. He was charming throughout, with a higher voice than you’d think, dressed in black jeans and a black tee shirt to identify him as the Artist. Everyone in the crowd seemed to immediately like him. He made light little jokes, and seemed to be trying to get everyone to relax. It worked. Whatever tension or anxiety that had been out there before dissipated as we separated. The women were on the inside of the crowd now, closer to the entrance of the Terminal. After about ten minutes the call came for the women to disrobe, leaving their clothes where they stood.

Through the crowd of men they could be seen. Suddenly a lot more tattoos were in evidence, but something else was immediately noticeable: these women looked great. There was applause and cheering from the appreciative men, and there were hoots and cheers from the excited women, who proceeded to walk into the Terminal, each looking like a figure in a Renaissance painting. The men waited outside.

With the women gone (we could hear the occassional cheer from inside) the men were at loose ends. Anxious to disrobe, a lot took off their shirts; others of us looked around for a good place to leave our clothes. At least one guy decided that he was there to be naked, and just undressed; he sat on his clothes in the lotus position looking more naked than you would think a naked guy could. The man next to me took a yellow plastic grocery bag out of his pocket, sat down and put his sneakers in it.

No one bothered to climb a ladder to tell the men to disrobe. The call came, and everyone was naked. There was less hooting and cheering as we entered the Terminal-- from the men. The women cheered, and as my eyes adjusted to the light I saw that the same thing I've seen outside was true inside. The soft gray light, filtered though the dirty windows of the Terminal made the bodies of everyone standing there glow with warmth. We’d really only seen the women from the back, like so many Botticellis -- they owned the space we were entering now, and saw us as we marched in, tender footed, shoulders back.

If we were all naked all the time we would all have better posture. If we were all naked all the time, we would all feel more beautiful, I think. Everyone in there looked great.

The Terminal space is vast, and Tunick’s first concern, standing on top of the shopping end of the concourse, was to have us fill it in. I would estimate that the ratio of men to women among the models was about two to one; this meant that there were now quite a few more bodies to fill the area. There was ample personal space, although we were all pretty much within arm’s length of the nearest person in each direction. When he was satisfied that the models were properly disbursed, he told us that he was going to photograph our faces first. He had us close our eyes, then open them on a count of three. We did this several times. We’d been instructed to take off our glasses, so the mass of naked humanity in the room during this was really just that for me-- undifferentiated people colored shapes. Now that we were in it, whatever anxiety there had been outside was completely gone. Everyone was excited, buzzing, and hearing Tunick’s directions was sometime difficult.

He had us turn around, backs to the camera, then kneel, and hold ourselves in a ball. At this point the experience became more like modeling, as we held the position we were in for a minute or two several times. Standing in between shoots I was aware of the people around me. Curled in a ball on the floor I was aware of the Terminal’s dust from the floor on the soles of the feet of the person in front of me, the pattern of the terrazzo floor, the stiffness in my knees and back.

He then had us kneel, with the left side of the room leaning left and the right side of the room leaning right, and then dismissed everyone there older than 30 and younger than 50-- just about exactly the way I describe my age, about half of the entire group. I filed out with the others, again struck by how simply beautiful the people around me were, and sorry that the whole thing was over so quickly. We emerged into the early afternoon, butterflies turning back into caterpillars, no one looking as wonderful as we had a moment before.

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